As a singer, actress, writer, broadcaster and cultural and political campaigner, Dolina Maclennan has worked tirelessly for the enrichment of Scottish culture and particularly of her native Gaelic language and song. From a wartime childhood on Lewis, her eventful life has encompassed becoming one of Edinburgh’s first pub folk singers, performing Gaelic songs in a Scottish Ballet production, friendships with such cultural figureheads as Hamish Henderson, Norman McCaig, Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid, her role in the ground-breaking 7:84 Scotland production, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil and a distinguished career in Gaelic broadcasting.
In recognition of her significant contribution to Scotland’s life and culture, she received the Saltire Society’s Fletcher of Saltoun Award in 2012, while this year (2016) saw her presented with an honorary doctorate by Edinburgh University.
It all started in the village of Marvig, in the Lochs area of Lewis, where “Doli” was born on Ne’erday 1938, the youngest by five years of eight children. Her father, Angus MacLennan, like his father before him, was a Hudson Bay man, while her mother was Mary Bell Mackenzie. Marvig in those days was still a strongly self-contained and essentially communal township, and her brothers all became crofter-fishermen.
Following her primary education at Planasker School, she went to Stornoway’s Nicolson Institute where, contrary to the anti-Gaelic climate in many schools at that time, she had an inspiring teacher who introduced his classes to the great Gaelic bards as well as to the figures of English literature. It was also at the Nicolson that she was introduced to amateur dramatics. Back at home, she recalls her family’s music as mainly psalm singing – her brother, Murdo, became a well-known precentor with the Free Church.
Clearly, however, she was also absorbing Gaelic folk songs: when she left Lewis for Edinburgh in 1958 to study occupational therapy, she quickly created quite a sensation. At a party in Edinburgh she met Stuart MacGregor and Hamish Henderson on the very night they had inaugurated the Edinburgh University Folksong Society. Dolina was asked to sing and was imemdiately declared the Society’s first great “discovery”. Hamish Henderson, who became a lifelong friend, would later recall the wide-eyed island girl arriving in Edinburgh “like a shepherdess, trailing these songs of gold from ancient times”.
He quickly recorded her for the School of Scottish Studies and Dolina soon found herself singing regularly with Robin Gray at the Waverley bar and in the Howff in the High Street, both crucibles of the emerging folk revival, at a time when pub singers were unknown. In the now legendary Howff she was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Archie and Ray Fisher, Owen Hand and a 14-year-old guitar prodigy by the name of Bert Jansch, while Hamish introduced her to the great Jeannie Robertson.
She went to record some albums with Robin, including By Mormond Braes and Bonnie Lassie Come O’er the Burn (the latter with Archie and Ray Fisher and Enoch Kent)
Her performances of authentic Gaelic folk songs were revelatory, although they didn’t always meet with the approval of the local Gaelic establishment, who were used to more formal and choral settings. When she was about to enter for a Mòd competition, one newspaper reporter: “Tipped winner for this year’s gold medal is Dolina Maclennan, who practises by singing songs in and Edinburgh beatnik cellar.”
Through Stuart MacGregor, she became great friends with the poets of the Scottish literary renaissance – notably Norman MacCaig (to whom she introduced Aly Bain), Sorley Maclean and Hugh MacDiarmid, and was a founder member of the Heretics, formed in 1970 to provide a regular informal platform for Scottish music and poetry at a time when there were few outlets for it.
Her home became a famous rendezvous for visiting folk musicians, such as Alex Campbell, Billy Connolly, Aly Bain, the Clancys and Cyril Tawney. It was at one of her parties that producer Joe Boyd was introduced to Robin Williamson and Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band.
The beginning of the 1970s saw Doli featuring in Beagan Gaidhlig, the first ever Gaelic learning series on television and her first TV acting role. She had previously appeared on television as a singer, perhaps most notably in the televising of a1962 Edinburgh Festival concert, “Plain Song and All That Jazz”, which constituted the first presence of folk and jazz on the “official” Festival and saw her performing alongside Rory and Alex McEwan, the Clancys, the Al Fairweather and Sandy Brown All Stars and George Melly, among others.
Through her exposure in Beagan Gaidhlig, however, in 1972 she gained a pivotal role in a Scottish Ballet production, An Clo Mòr – “The Big Cloth”, in which she sang on stage while the dancers swirled around her, enacting a Gaelic legend. If An Clo Mòr broke new ground, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil made an even greater impact. John McGrath’s pioneering agit-prop theatre production with his 7:84 Scotland theatre company saw her touring the Highlands and Islands with co-stars Elizabeth MacLennan, John Bett, Alex Norton and Bill Paterson.
It created a sensation, not least in Ireland, when an enthusiastic veteran employee at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre told her: “There hasn’t been a night like this in here since O’Casey.”
By this time Dolina was regularly presenting and and appearing in Gaelic radio programmes, as well as writing scripts, and in 1976 she came up with a milestone in Gaelic broadcasting, a radio “soap”, Na Moireasdanaich – “The Morrisons”, for which she wrote all 54 episodes.
She went on to act with the likes of Tosg Gaelic Theatre Company and Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop, Traverse and Young Lyceum, as well as on television – particularly in the long-running Gaelic TV soap Machair which ran on STV from 1992 to 1998, and in series such as Hamish Macbeth and Two Thousand Acres of Sky. Her big-screen credits have included the acclaimed Gaelic film Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, The Legend of Barney Thomson and The Queen (in which she played the switchboard operator at Balmoral).
As if this wasn’t enough, she ran a famously hospitable guesthouse, Woodlands, in Blair Athol for twenty years and also, during the late Nineties, made several lecture visits to the United States with her friend David Campbell, storyteller and former BBC radio producer. She has also been an indefatigable campaigner for Scottish independence.
Looking back on her life in her 2014 memoir Dolina: An Island Girl’s Journey (co-edited by Jim Gilchrist and Stuart Eydmann), she quotes her old friend Stuart MacGregor’s lines, “Memory’s a rogue / that jettisons what’s bleak / I’m sure we used to sing / where now we speak,” and adds: “Nevertheless, the singing and the music, the laughter and the love, is what I remember, and I shall sing and dance and laugh and love, especially if I live to see my country free.”