It’s not very often you can say your first heard a song when it was advertising bad beer and it ends up being something that reaches deep into your soul and touches you every time you hear it.
Yet that’s exactly the case with Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia, a song that evokes so much feeling that I went for half a decade without listening to it because it caused me to break down. More on that in a bit.
The first version I ever heard wasn’t sung my Scottish folk legend MacLean, but by Frankie Miller during an advert for Tennents Lager.
Miller’s version is rockier than MacLean’s original version and there’s a growl that suits the advert – but ultimately not the song. It was probably a couple of years later – remember this is pre-internet days where you couldn’t find an answer in just a couple of seconds – when I found out who wrote the song and heard the original version.
And while it’s great it’s still not quite there. MacLean was quite young – just 24 – when he recorded it. He was overseas and yearning for Scotland again. But his voice in 1978 still had a ways to go. It was when the song was sung live that it came… well, no pun intended, alive.
That first happened, if my poor memory doesn’t fail me, on Hogmanay 1991. I had gathered with friends in Fochabers for some not-quite-traditional new years drinks (I was only 17 and a good boy!) and Dougie appeared on one of the shows around midnight. His voice was better than in the original by quite a bit but it’s still not quite the ultimate version. I can’t remember if it was the last thing I heard in 1991 or the first thing in 1992, but that version was what stuck with me for two decades.
The reason the song means so much is because it never fails to make me think about Scotland. It’s true that you probably never appreciate what you have until it’s gone and that’s certainly true of my homeland. I didn’t think about the pristine beaches, the purple heather hills, the postcard perfect scenery until it wasn’t going to be outside my door anymore. In fact I couldn’t be further away on the face of this earth than in New Zealand.
I first cried hearing this song shortly before I moved here. It was at a gathering of friends and I had the song on a CD. It started playing and I just couldn’t keep it in. Knowing I was going to miss these amazing people, that Scotland was no longer going to be my home left me bereft. It was too late to do anything but for those five minutes I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. It hurt. And it hurt for a long time after.
When some of those same friends visited Auckland a few years later we sat around, guitars in hand and I heard the start of the song being plucked. And that was enough to set me off again. Having them there, knowing that it was only temporary? My heart was crushed. And so began my self-imposed exile, until I happened upon, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest version of the song.
I’m sure there will be some who disagree with me, someone who prefers the integrity of a younger Dougie MacLean, or the wistful, more mature sound of a live performance in the 1990s. But nothing captures the feel of the song like the version sung on the occasion of his lifetime achievement at theRadio 2 Folk Awards in 2013.
The crowd on the stage is a who’s who of folk music, Scottish and further afield. MacLean doesn’t sing all of the words, ego free he hands over the best of his greatest creation to others. Karine Polwart and Kris Drever (I think) are the first to break out from MacLean’s lyrics but it’s, unsurprisingly, Eddi Reader who makes it her own. But what really gives this the power is the fiddles – and then the haunting sound of the whistle shortly before three minute mark.
If I’ve composed myself to that point then as soon as that low Gaelic wind starts I’m in tears. Just writing this now and I’m having to wipe my eyes.
I dare you to watch it. And I double fucking dare you to not feel that stirring in your heart.
If I had to listen to just one version of one song every day for the rest of my life then this is it. Every time I listen to it I fall in love with it just a little bit more. There’s something new, a nuance that wasn’t clear first time. It’s everything a song should be and more. And… well, that’s enough from me actually. Because there’s only one appropriate set of words to close this article and that’s from Dougie and guests – so turn up the volume and bathe in its celtic glory.