Remembering Norman Maclean
5th September 2017
I knew Norman Maclean for the last seven years of his storied life. I first met him – a dapper, remarkably erudite elderly gentleman – sitting on the sofa in Mike and Peigi Townsend’s house in Grimsay in the late summer of 2010. It was the first of many pilgrimages I’d make as part of one of the most rewarding, inspiring creative collaborations and friendships of my life. Since that first meeting in 2010 I’ve completed two films with Norman, and have two more in the pipeline (an original screenplay myself and Norman co-wrote together, and a feature documentary about storytelling) which Norman completed his contributions for late last year.
In writing here, I don’t intend to provide an overview of Norman’s eventful and very resonant lifeor his significance for Scottish culture (those can be found in Peter Ross’ obituary in the Times – Norman’s own writings in Eavesdropping on Myself and The Leper’s Bell, and the section dedicated to Norman in Timothy Neat’s Voice of the Bard), but rather pay personal tribute to a friend that I loved.
One of the overriding feelings I’ve had since I heard the news we had lost Norman last Tuesday afternoon, is that of a deep, excoriating dullness; as if the existing spectrum of possible colours has somehow been narrowed. Part of me, like the young protagonist in the film I made with Norman in 2013 also has a sense of anger, frustration and of something unfinished: a need to rage, no matter how uselessly, against the overwhelming nothingness that follows in the wake of losing someone as intensely valuable as Norman.
Brilliance is a word I think about when I think about Norman: brilliance both in the sense of greatness and of illumination. I doubt if there was anyone who encountered Norman that didn’t come away with the impression he was stone-cold brilliant in the rarest of ways – ‘a man you don’t meet every day’ as Sheila Stewart used to sing. Norman wasn’t ‘bright’ in the sense he was always happy or that he was always an emotionally easy man, but he had a luminosity, a brightness that comes as close to a truly universal quality as I’ve seen in my lifetime: something that communicated to *everyone*. Watching Norman interact over the years with folk from all over Scotland and the rest of the world, I have yet to meet anyone who he couldn’t make laugh, who wasn’t captured by his charm and wasn’t hanging on his every word minutes after meeting him.
Something I’ve read a lot about in accounts of Norman’s life is that he didn’t reach his full potential, that somehow he ‘didn’t quite make it’. Whilst it’s true Norman never broke Hollywood, or appeared in Lord of the Rings as a CGI dwarf, or that he ended up with a stable seat in a particular institution doing one particular thing, I do wonder whether, in considering the enormous impact Norman has had upon Scottish culture, we should reevaluate what it looks like to be ‘successful’. There are large parts of Scotland where almost everyone you meet has a story about Norman Maclean: travelling from Lochaber to Mallaig, from Inverness to Assynt, from Oban to Lochboisdale to Lochmaddy to Stornoway – I’d wager there are very few people who would not only be able to tell you exactly who Norman Maclean was, but also share a ‘Norman story’ of their own.
The same goes for many parts of Glasgow, and no doubt many of the other parts of the world upon which Norman left his considerable mark. I’ve been told stories about Norman in pubs, in aeroplanes, on boats and in the back of ambulances. It therefore amuses me that someone who achieved such ubiquity and widespread adoration would be considered someone who *almost* made it. In an institutionalised history of Scotland, Norman may be an ‘almost’ – the ‘Gaelic Billy Connolly’ – but in a people’s history of Scotland, Norman Maclean is a contemporary folk hero, a giant.
To hear Norman talk was to get a sense of an immeasurable depth of consideration – a depth both of his own imagination, intellect and wit, and of the considerable, divergent traditions he drew upon. Norman liked to cite John Lorne Campbell’s notion of the ‘vertical consciousness’ of the Gaels (the sense of a depth of historical context), and when he spoke I heard both the vertical, the horizontal, and something else still beyond that. When Norman presented something it came to you gleaming, like a treasure, from the vast expanse of his combined memory, intelligence and imagination. In Norman’s words there was both the sense of ‘the Niagara’ (as Hamish Henderson liked to say) that accompanied densely ‘peopled’ discourses passed hand to hand over the centuries, but also that spark of individual genius that folk must have heard in Burns, Calvino, or Hampate Ba – the ability to somehow reconcile an exceptional individual identity with a profound engagement with wider commonality and collectivity.
Norman was a deeply complex man, and I was sometimes left wondering how much of Norman I knew, and how much of himself he wanted us to know. A ‘chameleon’, a ‘cultural schizophrenic’, an ‘archipelago’ – this sense of multifacetedness and plurality is always there in accounts of Norman and in his own accounts of himself. I was always aware, in the 7 years I knew him, of the moments when the bravura performance ended, and Norman would slip away quietly out of the door. I remember sitting with him, still in his tux, quietly at the bus-stop outside Edinburgh Filmhouse where, moments earlier, he had completely upstaged my film with his bombastic appearance afterwards at the Q+A. I loved both those people – the immaculate, irreverent, incendiary performer on stage, and the quiet, awkward man at the bus stop.
Like many aspects of Norman, as I knew him, these two people were conflicted and yet inseparable. In a candid moment (not a rare occasion for Norman), he once mused to me that perhaps the reason he felt so drawn to performance, was that it allowed him an immediate degree of intimacy and connection with people he sometimes found difficult in other circumstances. ‘I like them to love me, and then I like to leave’, he said. Well Norman, you’ve left, and here we are – so very many people who love you, left wanting more.
Those of us who feel deeply invested in the notion of a ‘folk culture’ here in Scotland, whatever that might be, are continually faced with how best to understand an ongoing experience of loss. It would seem an occupational hazard if you place a high value on traditional culture that you must continually face the fresh loss of a beloved ‘tradition bearer’. Folk like Norman (and Sheila Stewart before him) had, for me and so many others, a towering cultural significance, standing as they did at the prow of such considerable memory and experience. Faced with the inevitable loss of such icons and figureheads, it would seem easy to fall into an elegaic or plangent way of seeing, as I have regrettably done myself at times; to resign oneself to the sense that an ‘authentic’ culture and the authentic folk like Norman who carry and embody it are constantly being lost.
John Caughie, among others, has provided a necessary counter to this preoccupation with Celtic twilights, calling for a ‘straightforward anger at the continued romance with loss and lost pasts’ in Scottish consciousness. Whilst I agree with Caughie, it’s difficult at a moment like this to think beyond such an elegiac structure of feeling, when someone of such demonstrable value has been so completely and conclusively lost to us all. And yet, we must – both for Norman and for ourselves – for it would seem essential to think beyond conceptions of Scottish culture premised entirely upon the ‘backwards glance’, as Raymond Williams put it. For whilst Norman had a deep engagement with tradition and the past, he was simultaneously a deeply cosmopolitain, contemporary citizen of the world.
In this respect he continues to represent many of the qualities I feel a 21st century Scotland should be aspiring to. Norman was both local and worldly, and engaged both with tradition and modernity at the expense of neither. He may have had a deeply resonant relationship with the past, but he was also intensely invested in the future. His perspective straddled different classes, different languages
and different lives, at once divided and unified. Norman’s Scotland, and Norman himself were not homogenous or ‘pure’, but open and welcoming to the dizzying unruliness of contemporary life.
During his last 5 years or so, I was constantly struck by the investment Norman seemed to be making in the future, in terms of how much of himself he gave to others, particularly to the younger generations like myself who came on pilgrimages from Balivanich, from the Scottish mainland, from the Central Belt, from London, and even further afield to sit at Norman’s knee, students at the table of the great bard. Young pipers, gaelic scholars and poets, upcoming producers, and filmmakers were all granted an audience with the Bodach, and I have no doubt each and every one came away with the same new gust of wind in their sails that I did. Thinking of the generosity with which I saw Norman give away his insights and energies makes me think of a story Jess Smith told me of Sheila Stewart, accosting a heckler who challenged her approach to sharing culture: ‘”Lassie, see when I die… it’s going to be an empty coffin because every bit about me I’m going to share with the world, because the world should have it.
So many of us who knew Norman have been gifted with an earful of his brilliance, his brightness – be it an idea, a word of advice, a story, a song, or something else. We all carry small pieces of that brightness with us now, like torches to be passed on, and continually re-lit. We have simply enormous shoes to fill, and whilst none of us will ever be Norman Maclean (noone will ever be Norman Maclean except Norman Maclean), it is up to each one of us to decide how we can best carry that brilliance forward into new futures, new Scotlands.
My father-in-law recently told me that in Judaism, it is considered that people die twice – once when their physical body dies, and once when they are forgotten. If all of us who loved Norman continue to pass on some degree of that immeasurable brilliance that he in turn passed to us, then Norman Maclean can never die. We should see that it is so.