The Hebridean Baker and the Orcadian Jeweller
Over the past few years, a quietly-spoken, loudly-dressed home-baker from Lewis has become an international media sensation. Unexpected? No more than a quietly-spoken, always-perjink Orcadian woman becoming an internationally-admired jewellery designer.
And that’s not where the links between Ola Gorie and Coinneach MacLeod, The Hebridean Baker, end. We’ll come back to those.
Coinneach caught our eye in 2021 with his super-tasty reinventions of traditional island cakes, pies, and traybakes, but also with the bold way he accessorized his kilts, jumpers and jackets with Ola Gorie jewellery. Not just kilt pins either, but a whole range of Ola’s brooches – some recent, some vintage, some upside down! We didn't mindat at all: what mattered was the love for the Scottish islands and their culture, whether bannocks or brooches, that leapt off every page of Coinneach’s book. We were proud he was wearing our jewellery in such inventive, creative ways.
That first book, The Hebridean Baker: Recipes and Wee Stories from the Scottish Islands, was followed by another best-seller, My Scottish Island Kitchen, last year. When we caught up for a blether, he was halfway through a Scottish tour to promote his latest and most exciting publication, The Hebridean Baker at Home: Flavours and Folklore from the Scottish Islands.
Why the emphasis, we asked him, on stories and folklore, rather than just recipes?
‘I was born and brought up in the village of Cromore in south-east Lewis. Gaelic was my first language, and still is the language of our home. Like many islanders over the generations, I felt the desire, the need, to leave the island and travel. I worked and lived in Australia and Russia amongst other places. But always I felt the pull of home.
‘There’s a Gaelic word, cianalas, that has no exact equivalent in English. Roughly it means a longing for home, for where you came from, for the people you left behind. Wherever I went – and no matter how much I loved the places I went to – I always felt that cianalas.'
I’m sure a lot of Orcadians can identify with that…
‘You’re still an islander wherever you are in the world!’
So eventually you came back?
‘I did. I came with a renewed passion for my island and its culture. I wanted to share that passion. But how? One inspiration was the Isle of Harris Distillery. They’re completely committed to the people, the language, the history of their community – but what they make is entirely modern. Their gin sits beautifully in the most fashionable bars in New York or Paris. Modern Hebridean, you might call it.'
‘Another inspiration was an Orcadian one: the food writer and folklorist F. Marian McNeill. Her book, The Scots Kitchen, published in 1929, is full of the most amazing recipes and food-lore from all over the country. She recorded a lot of traditions that would otherwise have been lost and forgotten.’
But by writing it down in an engaging way she preserved it forever?
‘Exactly. It struck me that food is very relatable. Around it you can weave all kinds of stories, and the storylines ensure our heritage and language will not be forgotten.’
More than that, Coinneach: your stories are carrying that heritage and language far and wide.
‘It fills me with joy that some of my stories have resonated around the world. Next year I’ll be going on a 31-city tour of the US and Canada to launch this new book – which is full, by the way, of great folk and great stories from all the western isles. And at every one of those events there will be more than me talking about duff: there will be songs, and stories, and Gaelic. And at all those events I’ll be wearing Ola Gorie jewellery.’
Ah ha! Let’s talk about that! Are folk interested in the jewellery?
‘Everyone asks me about it! Lots think I made it, but I always give the credit to Ola. Actually, my partner Peter has started making jewellery lately, and has given me a few beautiful pieces. He is certainly inspired by Ola’s example.’
Why do you think Ola’s designs resonate with you so much?
‘I think it’s because of the Norse heritage of the western isles. About 30 to 40% of Gaelic is of Old West Norse origin – many folk don’t realise that – which is very different from Irish Gaelic. And 99 out of 113 villages in Lewis and Harris have names of Norse origin.’
Very similar to Orkney! I didn’t know that.
‘Ah well, I studied Old Icelandic at university, so I have always found these things fascinating. Someone told me once that Lewis is closer to the south of Iceland than the south of England, and it certainly feels that way. Maybe that’s another reason I’m drawn to Ola’s designs, specially her brooches and pins featuring longships and other Viking imagery.’
Here in Orkney we see ourselves as having a traditional culture that’s a unique blend of Scots and Norse elements.
‘And in the western isles we have a unique culture based on a blend of Gaelic and Norse. I’m more passionate than ever about the Norse part of our heritage, and I’m planning to research it further. Always with a little bit of Ola on my kilt!’
. . .
Coinneach MacLeod’s latest book, The Hebridean Baker at Home: Flavours and Folklore from the Scottish Islands, is published by Black & White Publishing, and is available in all good bookshops, as are his two earlier books. Watch out too for Peter MacQueen’s The Art of Hutting: Living Off-Grid with the Highland Hutter, also published by Black & White.
If you get the chance to attend one of Coinneach’s events, whether in Scotland or on a book tour or at a transatlantic Highland Games, don’t hesitate. Not only is he wonderfully warm and entertaining, but he’s also a genuinely thoughtful individual, with a deep and passionate knowledge of many aspects of island life, way beyond baking. And he has very good taste in jewellery…