Born an islander at the wind-whipped edge of the Atlantic, Colin Macleod takes changing rhythms in his stride. Through peaks and troughs, rising swell and glassy calm; between the LA late shows and long haul flights, and fresh from nights sharing stages with Robert Plant and Van Morrison; there are still days for overlooking the salmon run and lambs to tend on the croft. Inspired by a ferocious love for the land that simmers beneath every chord, Colin’s a troubadour for the old ways. In the wake of his album Bloodlines, we talked surf, superstitions and story-collecting.
What was it like growing up on the Isle of Lewis?
It was incredibly rural, completely dictated by the weather and the seasons. I grew up on a croft; helping my dad with the sheep and fishing, doing everything I could to be outside as much possible.
So when did music become a part of your life?
I started playing with friends in school. On Saturdays we’d go to my friend’s barn and play punk and Metallica songs. And then we started playing in the pubs in Stornoway. We played for our drinking money, for years. I got a record deal around 21, and spent three years in London. Supported by my record company, I went and spent every day for a year going into studios and learning how to write, produce and record an album.
It was fantastic. I really enjoyed the city, but it was a culture shock. It was never really going to stick. I love coming to London now, but I enjoy it because I know I’m leaving at the end. I have always had one foot back home.
I’ve found a nice balance now. I like to travel, and I’m getting to do the most incredible things. Last week we played on TV in LA on Wednesday night, then Thursday morning we went and surfed Malibu for a few hours. I’ve definitely learnt over the years not to take it for granted, to enjoy it all for what it is. But some of these things are so surreal you just think, ‘Is this really happening? Is this me?’ It’s just bonkers.
“The light and dark, the wild and the calm. In the sea, when you’re surfing, you get these moments of ferocity followed by calm. These things have always influenced me, and my style of playing music.”
Was that connection to Lewis always explicit in your songwriting, or did it creep in later?
It came along later. But it’s a connection that’s under the skin, in my subconscious. There’s an elemental influence; the weather is a big thing for me. The light and dark, the wild and the calm. In the sea, when you’re surfing, you get these moments of ferocity followed by calm. These things have always influenced me, and my style of playing music. I think everything influences what you do, really.
Have you always surfed? As an island boy, what’s your relationship to the sea?
Everyone in Cornwall seems to grow up on the beach, but the older generation back in Lewis were very wary of the sea, you weren’t encouraged to go in. The houses on the island aren’t right on the coast, because it’s so wild they could get destroyed. We lived on the side without much surf, so didn’t get into it until we were older and had cars – it was around the same time we started playing music as well.
I used to ‘ghillie’ – take people out salmon fishing on the estates in the summer. I’d row them around in the boats and show them where the fish were. There’s a big green bus parked on the coastline, beside two well-known surf breaks in Lewis. That’s where I was this summer, watching the salmon run, making sure no one was poaching the fish. That was going to be my job – a fisherman forever, and music on the side. I’ve always been connected to the sea in that way.
There are lots of little quirky things in the islands that stem from this fear of the sea. People here can be very religious and it’s similar to the way they talk about the fear of god. The sea’s a loving thing, that gives life. It gives you your fish to eat, provides the income. It was the lifeblood of the island for so long. But, there’s always been this sense you have to be respectful and wary. You don’t go in, you don’t look at it the wrong way, you don’t turn your back on the sea.
All the old boys loved telling stories about ships being sunk. So we were all terrified. But, like everything else, a lot of it was superstition. People who worked in trawlers out of the port in Stornoway wouldn’t hire people if they could swim, because being able to swim was unlucky – that kind of sums it up.
“People who worked in trawlers out of the port in Stornoway wouldn’t hire people if they could swim, because being able to swim was unlucky”
So what does it mean to you, getting out there?
Surfing for me is an escape. It always has been. When you’re on tour it gets hectic. Always, as soon as I get home, the first thing to do is drop everything and go and have a surf, sit in the water. It washes away all the dirt of the road.
It’s an amazing thing. There’s a lot going on in your mind all the time when you’re writing songs. I do most of my writing at home in a little studio in the house, and I can disappear so far into my own head when I’m writing. But as soon as I’m in the water the only thing I’m thinking about is catching the waves. It’s like a mental reset.
Between touring, surfing and fishing you live and work on a croft, what’s that like?
Crofting is a type of subsistence farming. It’s ancient, going right back to the Iron Age, when people had their own little plot of land to raise food to feed their family. You might sell the excess to make money, but the primary focus is providing food. Each house on the island or the West Coast would have an apportionment of land, not quite as big as a farm – between five and nine acres – and people would have cows, sheep or chickens. They’d grow some food and do a bit of fishing if they lived by the sea, a bit of weaving – anything to get by. Back in the day men would work their jobs 9 to 5, and then in the evening they’d be crofting. The job might not pay well, but would be supplemented by the food and the little bit of revenue from their croft.
I try to do it now by that same ethos – I’ve a small number of sheep, and I’m trying to be a bit self-sufficient. To have our own food is the main thing. You don’t get much more locally sourced than your back garden.
And, as you travel back and forth from the island, does crofting keep you connected to the land? Does it show up in your music?
Absolutely. Although, I didn’t think about it like that until this last album. I always thought the two were too disparate to be connected. When I was a younger musician I was, like, ‘Don’t tell people you’re a crofter. That’d be so uncool.’ But as you get older, you realise everything you do fuels the passions in your life. It took me a long time to realise that the place I’m from, the people I know, working the land, living this life: this old-fashioned rural way of living is what inspires me. It’s what moves me to want to create music.
I did always know that there was nowhere else in the world for me than this little island in the middle of nowhere. Everyone gets homesick, but people from the islands and the West Coast have a different word- a gaelic word, cianalas. It means ‘homesick’ – but on another level. People here are ferociously in love with their homeland. It’s like an addiction, something under your skin.
Bloodlines is an open love letter to Lewis and your way of life; how did you gather inspiration for the album?
I started collecting stories. I remember going to my old next-door neighbour and saying, ‘I want to collect stories and I don’t want them to be from-a-book stories, I want them to be from-your-mouth stories; right or wrong, true or not.’ He told me some beauties. There’s one about a ship wrecked not far from where we live. The boat ran aground and the crew were all fine, but then it couldn’t be fixed, so it went to sea salvage laws. All the men of the village went out with saws and cut up the hull of the boat. They divvied up the chunks of greenheart oak and used them for fence posts that are still in the village now. This is 150 years ago, and the posts are still standing, because it’s the kind of wood that’s never meant to be used for fences. It’s the hardest, strongest oak you can get. But these guys never had much money and would just use everything, you can walk down past at least two crofts in the village with tatty fenceposts that came from a shipwrecked boat 150 years ago. The album is full of little stories like that.
“People here are ferociously in love with their homeland. It’s like an addiction, something under your skin.”
There’s definitely a bit of one-upmanship with these stories though, it gets a bit silly. Everyone reckons they’ve got the best story. I had books filled with them – enough for about ten albums.
There are areas in the world, and in the UK, where these stories really resonate and Cornwall’s definitely a part of that tradition. It’s so tied into seafaring. You can see links between Lewis and the west coast of Ireland and Cornwall and a lot of these stories must’ve been shared all along that coast. I was recently telling some friends in Cornwall some of the tales I’d heard, and they had really similar ones. It makes you wonder how many of these things just happened once, and have been warped as the tales travel around the country.
“There’s the road, off you go, go for your life.”
Where would you take us to show Lewis off? Let us in on some secret corners?
If I was going to invite anybody up to the island I’d just tell them to come up in a van. I’d meet them at the ferry and say, ‘There’s the road, off you go, go for your life.’ You can camp and park up all over, there are beautiful spots and fishing and surfing and hills and water everywhere. You can’t go wrong. All the best parts of the country are there in the islands. But then I would say that. I’m pretty biased.