Comedian, singer, poet and piper

Born: December 26, 1936;

Died: August 31, 2017

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NORMAN MacLean, who has died aged 80, was a Glaswegian who moved to the Highlands and Islands as a child, quickly picked up the Gaelic and became a popular stand-up comedian often dubbed "the Gaelic Billy Connolly."

When he did his gigs in English rather than the Gaelic, he even sounded like the Big Yin. Those who worked with him believed he could have been up there with Connolly nationally, even internationally, but for a drinking problem that dogged his career. Connolly was one of MacLean's biggest fans, as was Sir Sean Connery.

MacLean became a living legend in the Gaelic world and a key supporter and promoter of the language. He wrote and starred in his own TV show Tormod air Telly for BBC Scotland, its sketches more recently repeated on BBC Alba. The programme was so popular in the Highlands and Islands that weddings were interrupted so that guests could watch the show during the

reception.

His voice was also used in many a Gaelic re-dubbing of children's programmes, including Donnie Murdo, the Gaelic version of Danger Mouse, and as the lead character Miller in the 1998 BBC Alba programme Baile Mhuilinn.

An avid reader and listener, he also became multi-lingual and something of a polymath. He composed many pipe tunes, including A Scarce o'Tatties, and wrote novels and poems in Gaelic such as Maol Donn, a poem translated into English as MacCrimmon's Sweetheart which won him the Bardic Crown in 1967 at the Royal National Mod in Glasgow, where he also won a gold medal for singing. His novels in Gaelic included Cumhnantan (1997), Keino (1999), Dacha

Mo Ghaoil (2005), and Slaightearan (2007).

Being drunk or hopelessly hungover lost MacLean many gigs, including a role in the 1984 Bill Forsyth film Comfort and Joy. He wrote about his alcoholism in his 2009 book The Leper's Bell: Autobiography of a Changeling, a frank, erudite, moving, tragic but still often typically-humorous description of the crippling horrors of alcoholism, not least to the loved ones it affects.

In the book, he describes the time, in 1957, when Brigitte Bardot hired him as her personal piper at her villa in St Tropez. MacLean did not last long. He emptied her whisky cabinet and her husband, Roger Vadim was unimpressed by the way his wife was flirting with the Scot, a serial playboy. Vadim and Bardot divorced later that year.

Many years later, in 1991, a drunken MacLean left Scotland with the caprice of visiting Sean Connery who was working in Mexico, but found himself stripped naked and held at gunpoint by a singer of a Mariachi band who had found MacLean in bed with the Mexican's lover. His charm got him out.

Norman Hector MacKinnon MacLean (known in Gaelic as Tormod MacGill Eain) was born in Glasgow on Boxing Day 1936 to Niall and Peigi MacLean, originally from the Highlands. Soon after war broke out, and with the Luftwaffe threatening Clydeside, he was evacuated from the city in 1940 at the age of four to live with his great-uncle Seamas, a Gaelic-speaking shepherd in

Strachan, at the head of Loch Aird. Aged seven, he moved to be with other relatives on the Isles of Uist, where he was said to have gazed out to the Atlantic every day at Stinky Bay, Benbecula, waiting for his father to come home from the Merchant Navy.

Once the allies had Hitler on the run, he returned to Glasgow to attend Bellahouston Academy, during which his father died suddenly when Norman was 14. He then went to Glasgow University and studied to become a teacher, all the while singing and piping in Glasgow pubs as well as in the Hebrides when he visited relatives in Benbecula.

Like Connolly, who started off more as a singer and guitarist, MacLean found he got the best reactions from his banter and jokes rather than the music. After university, he taught for a while in the city and in Oban but soon found he was happier as a full-time entertainer.

While singing and playing at a hotel in Oban in 1975, realising that the tourist audience, mainly English, did not have a clue what he was talking about - either in Gaelic or Glaswegian - he spent more times telling jokes between songs, giving him the key to a new career. Like Connolly, his jokes were based on observation of people, irreverent - not least to religion - and what at the time they used to call "smutty."

After returning to Glasgow, MacLean was, as he himself admitted, drinking himself to death when a teacher from Uist, Marion Campbell, found him in the Southern General Hospital in Govan. Ms Campbell was the partner of Robbie Fraser, a big MacLean fan whose father Neil Fraser had produced MacLean's programme Tormod air Telly. Fraser would go on to do a moving documentary about MacLean. Ms Campbell drove MacLean, who was on crutches, to Oban and onto the ferry to Lochboisdale, got him medical attention and local-authority housing. Her own late father had been a friend and piping rival of MacLean on Uist and she could not bear to see him die "in some dingy flat, besieged by empties. People in Uist love him and here we have a huge tolerance for drunks. Every family here has an alcoholic ... so I knew he'd be safe here."

Norman MacLean was twice married. He remained close friends with his second wife Peigi, though separated, and once said in Uist: "In many ways, we have the ideal marriage. She's in Oban and I'm here."

He is thought to be survived by an estranged daughter who lives in Hong Kong.

PHIL DAVISON