Coinneach MacLeod could never have imagined when he was growing up in the Western Isles that, one day, he would become an international sensation.
During his formative years, in the village of Cromore on the south-east coast of Lewis, he grew to love the Gaelic word “cianalas” – what he describes as “the feeling of longing for somewhere, of a sense of place. And, no matter how long you’ve been away, no matter where you live, you know the islands are your home.”
In recent times, MacLeod has earned the nickname “The Hebridean Baker”, travelled the world, both cooking and chewing the fat about his recipes and myriad stories of his background, and audiences everywhere have been enraptured by his natural rapport.
What you see is what you get
Indeed, he seems every bit as at ease with a spatula in his hand as he is on the summit of a mountain, whether lifting up a microphone or a computer mouse, to weave magic for his aficionados – and dispelling the myth that the Western Isles are a backwater refuge from the last millennium, where everything grinds to a halt on the Sabbath.
And, just like the Stornoway-based band Peat & Diesel, what you see is what you get with MacLeod – except, in his case, he is cooking with gas.
As a natural-born raconteur, with the attitude that you only live once, so you might as well tackle every challenge with a mustard-keen relish, he has an abundance of memories of his childhood and the various sights, sounds and culinary experiences which shaped his philosophy. Not that he would use the latter word, because it’s rather pretentious; a description which could never be applied to this mercurial character.
As he told me: “My father was a fisherman and my mother was a Harris Tweed weaver and my upbringing influenced every bit of my personality and life.
It has resonated round the world
“It means a lot to me that I can still see the blackhouse my granny was born in, the bakery, Buth Iain Sheonaidh, that was the centre of life in the village over 100 years ago, and walk on the road my grandfather helped lay.
“I never imagined when I began sharing stories and the secret recipe to my Aunt Bellag’s Clootie Dumpling that I would become an international bestselling author, selling out book tours across the United States.
“It feels very special that the traditions, tales and recipes of the Hebrides have resonated around the world. Life is a whirlwind of experiences and, only recently, I was filming with actors Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd – two of the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings – for their new TV show. And that, if I have any spare time, I am learning my song which I have entered for the Royal National Mod in Paisley.”
‘The pull of home is always there’
He’s not simply steeped in the history and heritage of the Isle of Lewis; it permeates every fibre of his being and, regardless of the overseas assignments which crop up on his busy schedule, this redoubtable individual never really leaves his roots behind.
He explained: “No matter how long you have been away, no matter where you live, you know the islands are your home. Even when I ventured off the island and lived overseas, the pull of home is always there.
“There is that anticipation as you stand on the deck of the CalMac ferry crossing the Minch, the views of the snow-topped hills as you drive over the Clisham, that perfect summer’s day on Mangersta beach when you think the blue skies will last forever or the wild autumn storms when you realise they won’t.
“There’s a saying ‘Bi cianalas air Leodhasach ann an Neamh’ which means: ‘A Lewisman would be homesick in Heaven’. Amen to that.”
As somebody whose first book was reviewed in such august publications as the Wall Street Journal, MacLeod is clearly excited about his latest work, The Hebridean Baker at Home, which is released next week, and his diary in the coming months suggests he will be spending a lot of time in airport terminals and foreign hotels. Not that the prospect bothers him, since wanderlust is in his DNA.
He told me: “I have absolutely loved writing this book, it’s my favourite so far. I was lucky to travel from Islay, via Barra, Uist, Berneray and Harris before arriving home to the Isle of Lewis, meeting friends and family along the way and learning what home means to them and what they love to bake in their kitchen.
It’s a ceilidh and cookbook combined
“I have guest appearances from such Scottish greats as Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stewart, singers Julie Fowlis and Karen Matheson and presenters Calum MacLean and Anne McAlpine who share their favourite spots on the island.
“And it is filled with comforting bakes from a Double Dram Cake to Marmalade Shortbread, Drunken Crumble to a Lemon Curd Tiramisu. With delicious, hearty savoury dishes, including Whisky Fondue and Salmon Wellington, which are served up with chapters full of Celtic recipes, cocktails and signature Christmas bakes.
“It is a warm hug of a book, one you can have in your kitchen and your bedside table.”
If the hours are packed, his calendar is never too busy that he misses his morning strolls with his Westie, Seoras, who has become a bit of an internet sensation in his own right.
And, as you might expect, MacLeod doesn’t have any sort of strict routine beyond the recognition that opportunities are all around to continue his magical mystery tour.
He’s coming to a place near you
He said: “Every day is a new adventure for me, though it always starts with taking Seoras the Westie for a walk. At the moment, I am busy scheduling another UK and North American media and book tour.
“I will be travelling from Stornoway all the way to London, and many stops along the way this month and in November. I’m in Inverness on October 31 and on November 24, I’m in Forres on the latter date as well, and at McLeod House in Aberdeen on November 25.
“And I have already booked 30 cities in the US and Canada that I will be visiting in 2024. Maybe, sometime soon, I will get a day off.”
That might come soon enough. But it’s not looking likely. Having grabbed the globe’s attention en route to wonderland, the Hebridean Baker is enjoying his Lewis carol.
The new book is published by Black & White and is on sale from October 12. For more information go to hebrideanbaker.com/tour
Five questions for Coinneach MacLeod
- What book are you reading? I am a huge fan of Audible and I’m currently listening to Michael Sheen narrate La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman.
- Who’s your hero/heroine? Nicola Sturgeon, I would love to meet her one day.
- Do you speak any foreign languages? Well, as Gaelic is my first language I would say English (and German and Russian).
- What is your favourite music/band? I love Julie Fowlis, Karen Matheson, the MacDonald Sisters and Calum Kennedy, they are usually on repeat in the car.
- What’s your most treasured possession? A sculpture that my partner Peter made for me out of silver and wood.