There’s a pleasurable irony in the fact that Dougie MacLean’s ode to his Scottish homeland – a song that today is sung by football crowds, late-night revellers and school choirs all over the nation – was written some 900 miles away from Scotland on a beach in Brittany, France.
Composed in under ten minutes in 1977, the folk ballad has gone on to capture the heart’s of the Scottish people in a way that few other modern folk songs have. Indeed, it’s proved so popular that, today, it is regarded as something of an unofficial national anthem. So let’s take a look back at the origin story of a true Scottish classic, Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’.
“I was genuinely homesick and it was just a little song I wrote,” MacLean said back in 2018, a whole 40 years after it was released. In the second half of the 1970s, the musician took himself off to Europe to busk around the continent, pitching up outside restaurants and bars in the hope that he might be able to gather enough change to buy a train ticket to the next destination. He was in his early 20s in 1977 and had been growing homesick for some time. He’d managed to find some friends, a group of Irish lads with whom he’d been was busking around Britanny, but despite his efforts to concentrate on the excitement of the present moment, MacLean couldn’t keep his mind from wandering back to the low hills of his Perthshire home.
The song arrived as if from nowhere. The chords seemed to arrive in MacLean’s brain and trickle down to his fingertips in the same moment. Ten minutes later, he found he’d written the entirety of the lyrics on a scrap of paper. He went back to the hostel where he was staying to play the song to his friends, who, it transpired, were all missing home as much as he was. As Maclean came to the final verse and sang: “For if I should become a stranger/ You know that/ it would make me more than sad/ Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had,” it seemed as though something unspoken had finally been made manifest. The next day, the boys all decided to return home.
Today, ‘Caledonia’ is known by practically every pub singer, pipe band, and street-side busker in Scotland. With his lyrics, MacLean managed to capture a sentiment that ‘Flower Of Scotland’ simply doesn’t. At the end of the day, ‘Caledonia’is about more than patriotism; it’s about the things that Maclean felt anchored him to his homeland – things like family, home, and heritage. Perhaps that’s why it has endured for so long, coming to form part of Scotland’s common culture, detached from political allegiances. Like all great songs, the beauty of ‘Caledonia’ lies in its simple universality.