DOUGIE MacLean pauses to glance at the stone doorway that leads to the place where he makes his music. “Look,” he says suddenly, “you can still see the names of the kids carved into it.” You look closely, and then you see them, worked deeply into the stone.

The carvings are many decades old. For this room was once the schoolhouse that served the rural community of Butterstone, near Dunkeld. It was where MacLean, and before him his father, were taught. “It’s a wee bit uncanny that my dad went to school here, and I went to school here,” MacLean continues. “This was my first school.”

Twenty yards away stands the schoolteacher’s house. It, too, forms part of the striking home and business setting that MacLean has painstakingly put together over the decades with his wife, Jenny.

MacLean writes all his songs here and records them in his studio with the aid of his son, Jamie. It’s here that he records the high-definition videos that are posted onto his popular Butterstone TV site for fans. Jenny, an artist who specialises in watercolours and weavings, has her own studio; it’s her watercolours that grace the covers of MacLean’s CDs. The CDs are also sent out to the world from here.

Throughout the house, guitars line the walls or are arrayed on stands. There are gold discs, for The Gael (more of which shortly) and for a MacLean song, Ready For The Storm, which was used on an album by the Grammy award-winning country singer, Kathy Mattea. It’s the perfect place for making music.

MacLean is best-known globally for a couple of songs: Caledonia, which has been recorded by more than 200 artists (Ronan Keating and Amy Macdonald among them), and The Gael, which was arranged and adapted by Trevor Jones for the main theme of the stirring orchestral score of Michael Mann’s film, The Last Of The Mohicans. But he has written, sung and recorded some 300 other songs, scattered across his self-released solo albums. You can hear some of them three nights from now, when he returns to Celtic Connections. No band, he says. Just him and his guitars.

Our conversation, round the table in the spacious kitchen, begins with MacLean’s most recent album, last year’s New Tomorrow. “That was basically me and Jamie,” he says. “I would love to have credited it on the cover to ‘Dougie MacLean and Jamie MacLean’, because he plays a lot of instruments and arranged a lot of the songs, but he wouldn’t let me. Yet it’s half his record and half mine. You can tell that by listening to it: all the wee, tricky, interesting, contemporary arrangements are from Jamie. He’s got a palate of music that I don’t have: I’m just an old folkie who plays acoustic guitar and some piano.”

How does he compose his songs? “I think the guitar figure probably comes first. A lot of times the melody can be inspired by a little line on the guitar, and once you hit something like that, it almost suggests the rest of the song to you, you automatically know its shape. It’s a bit magical: I don’t like to talk about it too much, or intellectualise it too much. It’s innate in your melodic ear, that you tumble into these melodies. But I love the magic of it.” He laughs. “I remember something my daughter Julia said once, when she was wee. Her teacher asked her what her dad did, and she said, ‘My daddy’s a magician!’ I love that.”

MacLean, 63, has played all over the world: he’s hugely popular in the USA, Canada and Australia, and elsewhere: he has played New York’s famed Carnegie Hall and Sydney’s Opera House; and he has won numerous awards, including an OBE, and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards, presented by Alex Salmond, who described him as a “celebrated artist, nationally and internationally”.

His career began back in the 1970s. He played with the Tannahill Weavers, recorded an album, Caledonia, in 1978, with Alan Roberts, toured with Silly Wizard and eventually released his first solo record, Snaigow. In 1981 he and Jenny (they’d met at a concert at Norwich Arts Centre) took the far-sighted decision to set up a record label, Dunkeld Records. The first solo record on Dunkeld, Craigie Dhu (with a new version of Caledonia), came out in 1983. Later still came the recording studio and retail outlet.

He has never regretted setting up Dunkeld. “Nobody was doing it at that time. It was a total unknown. We set up the label, and our own publishing, and everybody said you couldn’t do it, living in Butterstone – they said, you’ve got to move to Glasgow, or London … But we were pretty dogged about it all.

“I bought some basic recording equipment and we made the first couple of records on it. There were no vinyl-cutting rooms [for manufacturing LPs] in Scotland then, so you had to go to London. For Craigie Dhu, I remembered getting an old Stagecoach bus down to London. Halfway down, the driver would get out and come back with a Thermos of tea and a tin of biscuits for the passengers. I went to Soho to cut the master-tape cut onto vinyl. And eventually we got the finished vinyl LPs.” There being no Arts Council funding for young musicians back then, he remembers having to borrow money to pay for that first pressing.

“Had I not made that decision back then,” he says of the setting up of Dunkeld, “I don’t know if I’d have had the career that I have. It has allowed me to have my creative integrity: nobody’s telling me what to do or record. It’s allowed me to have longevity, as a musician. It’s been totally under my control for the last 30-odd years. And now, of course, being an indie is fashionable. It wasn’t, back then.”

Nor does he take his fans for granted. “I’m very lucky, I’ve got this real community of people. I learned, very early on, that you can’t please everybody. Not everybody will like what you do. Whether it’s fashionable or unfashionable, the way that some people like certain things is dictated by what’s happening in fashion. But there are other people who like songs and guitar-players. It’s not hyped in any way, you know? It’s authentic. That has been my fan-base for the last 30 years. I’m not trying to be anything more than I am; I’m a songwriter, a folk singer. The records, however, can be quite contemporary, and can be put alongside anything. The people who like lyrics and things with substance, they become really good fans.”

His many concerts, he adds, “are about a whole bunch of people gathered together; I tell stories and I get them to sing choruses. I get so many fantastic letters and emails from people, on whose lives the music has had practical impact in times of sorrow or whatever.

“I once got two letters in one day. A woman said she’d been allowed to choose her own music while giving birth, and she was thanking me for making her childbirth easier. And someone else wrote to say their father had passed away listening to my music; he’d been a big fan of mine, and the letter thanked me for allowing his father to have a peaceful moment at the end of his life.

“If you ever needed two letters to justify your life, to vindicate everything I’ve ever done … But I’m not driven by the performance thing,” he adds. “I’m a musician: the performance is an extra thing that happens with the music.”

One of MacLean’s oldest songs, of course, has taken on a life its own. He wrote Caledonia very quickly, on a beach in Brittany, while in his early 20s. Frankie Miller’s version, heard on a TV lager commercial, topped the Scottish charts in 1992. MacLean’s own performance of the song at the SNP 2014 conference at the SSE Hydro saw him joined by, amongst others, Salmond, and Nicola Sturgeon.

“It’s incredible, but Caledonia has become part of common culture,” says its creator. “It continually amazes me where the song crops up. It has just been played for 35 nights at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo by the massed pipes and drums. It’s just been translated into North Friesian, I think. And it’s a huge song in Ireland as well.

“It’s about the fact that it describes a sense of belonging, and people can relate to it, and not just in Scotland. The very first place I sang it was in west Berlin, with my friend Alan Roberts. We were a duo. I had just written it, and we played it in a place called Quartier Latin. We sang it, and the audience response was big. I remember me and Alan saying, ‘Well, we’ll keep that one in the set!’

“I didn’t realise then that that response was going to be repeated for the rest of its life. It was an unusual response, and I still can’t put my finger on why it has achieved that. Because I think I’ve written better songs, and I’ve written more melodically interesting songs, and maybe in terms of language too.

“The one thing about that song [however] is that I was so young, I was genuinely homesick, in France. I was – well, not naive, but sometimes when you’re young, I think sometimes you don’t use so many words, so you say things very simply and directly. As you get older your language gets a bit more complicated, and your idea of poetry gets a wee bit more complicated, so maybe there’s something in the fact that I was young and homesick, and wrote a lyric that is simple and is easily accessible.

“But I’m very proud of it, and I love singing it still, which is unusual. I don’t get tired of it.” He doesn’t sing Caledonia in every concert he performs, “but I do tend to sing it, because if you’ve got something like that, that is part of the common culture, it’s a wee bit selfish not to share that with the people”.

Between 2005 and 2016 the MacLeans organised the successful Perthshire Amber Festival. It took a break last year, and they say they have yet to decide whether there will be a festival this year. MacLean has just done a CD of Burns songs; he has a handful of gigs over the next few months, and is working on one intriguing project that he yet can’t talk about. He also has in mind a project aimed at children. He’s happy where he is at the moment, and has a lot of interests (among them his shed, his bikes, and fishing) that keep him busy. He keeps getting enquiries to play in America, where he is forever popular.

Just a couple of rooms away from the kitchen, through the old stone doorway, lies the room from where MacLean performs for his subscription-only Butterstone TV project. It now has some 200 hours of archive MacLean footage, and he has further plans for outside broadcasts on it. “On any one night, we’ll have people watching from New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Sweden, California, Florida – we’ve recently had people from Russia, South Korea. It’s just me sitting there, having a chat, playing songs, all shot with four cameras. I also give on-demand guitar lessons on Butterstone TV.

“I mean, it’s mind-boggling, that we can do that from my old school, where my father learned to write with a piece of chalk on a slate. There’s a satellite dish out the back and we broadcast to the whole planet. It’s a real family thing: Jamie runs it, Julia does the vision-mixing, her partner works the camera.” He smiles. “Even my grandson Lewis, who’s six, comes up and helps out on the night.”

• Dougie MacLean is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 24 as part of Celtic Connections. The Sunday Herald is the festival’s media partner. For full programme and ticket details visit