Donnie Macleod is a Scottish legend for many reasons – for his musical talents in Gaelic pop band Na h-Òganaich, for his handiwork on BBC Alba show DIY le Donnie, but mostly for his great big smile and silly hats on Scotland’s very first Gaelic children’s TV programme Dotaman (Gaelic for “spinning top”), which celebrated its 30th year last year.
Are you a naturally positive person?
I like to think so, absolutely! The glass is always half full. I don’t sleep very well because I am always thinking about what I am doing the following day, and I get all excited about it! I’m up before 6am and I do an hour of my guitar in the morning, and then I go into the garage for an hour, because I am into DIY in a big way, and then I have a shower before I come in here [BBC Scotland]. I love my start to the day.
How did your involvement with the Gaelic scene start?
I’ve always been involved with Gaelic. You think you couldn’t make a living out of Gaelic but my goodness, I have had a fantastic career out of it. My upbringing was of Lewis parents but my father was in the prison service so myself and my sister were born in Edinburgh. He was transferred to Peterhead when I was five so we lived up there for 13 years. There was no Gaelic there and that’s when my parents spoke it all the time in the house, so we were brought up with that.
I have always enjoyed working with my hands – I built my own bike and things for the house when I was young, and back then I thought I would be a deep sea engineer. I took one trip and I bought a guitar in Singapore, and I took it back with me and played it all the time and that’s when I really got hooked on to the music side of things, and the whole Gaelic thing started.
Way back in the ’70s, we had the first Gaelic pop band Na h-Òganaich. We were pre-Runrig – they still admit to this day that that’s what influenced them. We had a crofter writing our songs but in such a contemporary, new feel for Gaelic, we kind of introduced electric guitars and the band kind of thing to a Gaelic scene. We toured through every state in America, France, Germany, and all over the UK.
You were a legend back in the day, with Gaelic kids TV programme Dotaman. What was the most enjoyable part of the job?
Gee wizz, the whole experience of Dotaman…it was the first Gaelic pre-school programme so the whole thing was relatively new at that time for television and the fact it was in Gaelic made no difference to the audience. Kids of that age don’t need to know the language – they know exactly what’s going on.
That was the same as what I did at home, it was through my parents speaking Gaelic that myself and my sister picked it up in the house. With even non-Gaelic speaking kids – and that was the great buzz – they didn’t need to know the language to watch the programme. We did live shows as well, and you can’t get better than that – on the road performing to kids live. The feedback we got… if I ever went to the shops or anything, meeting these kids and seeing their faces, you can’t ask for better than that. That went on for many years, even until last year, for the 30th year when we did a special programme. We had a great year.
Why did you enjoy doing the anniversary show?
Because you don’t realise, until you do something like that, of the content you had made throughout all these years. Some shows had dated but this hadn’t. And the feedback we got from that – there is an age group that grew up with it. We brought out a block of Dotaman shows last Christmas and the Christmas before, and the amazing thing about the anniversary show is that the kids of the early Dotaman shows are parents now and have kids of their own who have got into it. So that’s three generations I have been performing to, it’s pretty amazing.
Were there any pressures and how did you combat them?
I suppose…during that time there were certain things that happen in your life that affect you. During that time both my mother and my father died, but they loved the programme so much. You can’t be on that kind of television show, in front of kids, and not be on top of your game, you just can’t. So no matter what was wrong, you just got over it and carried on. Dotaman was the kind of show that you couldn’t do if you were not enjoying it, you couldn’t cheat that. You had to really enjoy it. The standard was so good, out of everything everyone put in, that I got a buzz out of that. It was a great time of my life. I think I could do it all over again.
Were you ready for it to end?
It came to a gradual end… so maybe. When you are that length of time at one thing, you are up there every day and it’s got that buzz about it, you know it can’t go on forever, you can’t keep putting silly hats on [laughs]! Although I’ve got all the hats and the gear in the loft and I get them out at weekends [laughs].
What are you up to now?
When I finished Dotaman, telly production really took over, the Gaelic channel came about and I started working on kids programmes. On BBC Alba, I now have DIY le Donnie, a Gaelic DIY show which came about when I was approached a few years ago and asked if I wanted to do a show based on my pastimes. I just love working with my hands – I built my house in Glasgow and I built my house on Barra with my wife who is from Barra, right on the beach at the Atlantic Ocean.
It is in a beautiful spot – and having built it all, you get so much out of it, and there is nothing more rewarding than that. I was going to redo the house, and the idea came to make a television show out of that. I wasn’t sure at first, I didn’t know if I should combine my work and my hobby, but we did and it has worked a treat. It has been very popular.
Again, even if it is in Gaelic it doesn’t matter because it is very visual. I do all the jobs myself, whether it’s plumbing, electrical, joinery or plastering. You are actually seeing the work being done. Most DIY shows have someone fronting it, and then there is stuff going on behind the scenes.
The past couple of years the show has progressed to working with community projects on the islands, and there is one series going out just now that we did in Barra and Glasgow.
This year we have just been filming in Lewis with special needs kids, and homes for pensioners. and that’s a big winner, working with community projects. The buzz I’m getting working with these kids and with the elderly is giving me the same as I probably got with Dotaman, but in a different way.
Are you still involved in the folk music scene?
We still get together but we are not as available as we used to be – we did several years of lots of folk stuff, in the folk scene of the ’70s, which was so vibrant, it was exceptional, but it’s different now, although there is a lot happening. There were no grants in those days, you had to do it by your own talents and put your names up on telegraph poles and Post Office windows and make it that way…it was a tough time, especially with a Gaelic band because that was relatively new, but it took just a wee twist and non-Gaelic audiences liked it. We were very fortunate to hit that at the right time. I used to do my own solo stuff and that’s why I get up and play my guitar. I still get that buzz from playing guitar and singing.
What song instantly puts you in a good mood?
There is one kid’s song that everyone seems to ask for that has stuck with me for many years… I did the Postman Pat song in Gaelic. But I don’t get up at six in the morning and play Postman Pat to cheer myself up [laughs], can you imagine! I like good music… I’m into anything that’s good. It could be an Adele song, or I was into First Aid Kit a couple of years ago. It just depends on the time.
What are the top three joys in life that make your day?
I’m into cars, and I work on cars in my garage – my garage is my sanctuary. I always have a project or a challenge. Most days, I am doing something, whether it is in a dubbing suite or an editing suite, or a perfomance of some kind or in front of a camera, I get a buzz out of all of these things. And I enjoy people – people asking me questions and talking. There’s nothing specific, it’s just life.
Do you have a favourite, most peaceful spot in Scotland?
It has got to be Barra. That’s our bolthole. We built our home on Barra over the last 10 years or so, and it’s in a lovely spot. We get the stove on, with peat or with logs and you can see out to sea. The idea was for us to go up there and relax, but I can’t relax, I just do not sit down. If I ever walk along the beach there, it’s great. Why would you want to be anywhere else. Barra is such a unique kind of place.
Do you have any top tips for people to maintain a positive mental mindframe?
There is always a way round things – no matter what the challenge is, there is always a way round it, or there is always an answer to it. You always look back and say that was a problem but you also look back and say, “that was resolved”. If there is anything wrong with the house or the car or anything broken, I fix it and I get a buzz out of that.
I know people think that’s a hassle, but you can calculate things out and the problem is eradicated by following a process of elimination. I suppose that comes into life as well. However, do not ask me about technology – that is something I cannot work out! It has a mind of its own and I cannot see the logic to it! It’s great for the youngsters but but don’t depend on me to fix it [laughs].
The new series of DIY le Donnie is on BBC Alba on Thursdays at 9pm.