Life outside wine: Duncan McLean

ArticlesLife outside wine

An occasional series looking at the pastimes and sidelines of independent wine merchants.

This month: Writing and performing in a band with Duncan McLean of Kirkness & Gorie, Kirkwall, Orkney


When I was 10 my mother said I should learn to play an instrument and asked what I’d like to try. I said the stupidest thing I could think of because I wasn’t really taking it seriously, which was “the bagpipes”. I didn’t know that her grandfather had been a pipe major in the Gordon Highlanders and that she came from a long line of pipers. A week later I woke up and it was like a reverse Christmas – there was a set of bagpipes at the foot of my bed. I got to be competent but I never wanted to play them. It was a joke that went wrong.


When I was a teenager I fell in love with pop and rock so I learned to play the guitar. I roped my brother and some friends into forming a band when I was about 16 and that is when the bagpipes stopped.


I was part of that wave of Scottish writers like Irvine Welsh, A L Kennedy and Alan Warner. They are all friends of mine, we all came up together.

I don’t suppose any of my books have been popular in a Stephen King sense, but they have all been published in the States as well as Britain and several have been translated. I think the most successful literary thing I’ve done combines writing and music. It’s a play called Long Gone Lonesome. It was staged by the National Theatre of Scotland. I wrote it and my band performed in it. We took it all over Britain, Ireland and America. That was great fun. If I’d been in my 20s I might have been tempted to go down the road of rock ‘n’roll excess – but by that time I was in my 40s so it was more like, “can I see the wine list please and show me your nearest art gallery?” We really got to explore big cities like Chicago and Austin, Texas as well as some lovely little towns and it was a fantastic opportunity to soak up the culture of all these different places.


Thank goodness we all got through the pandemic without any health problems. But I was meant to have quite a big play in production this year with the National Theatre of Scotland: His Bloody Project [based on the book by Graeme Macrae Burnet]. I’d finished the script and we had a good director and great staging ideas, but it’s been put on the backburner.


In the 1990s I ran a small press called the Clocktower Press that published bits of Trainspotting for the first time. It published people like Ali Smith and Alan Warner, writers who went on to achieve great success.

In the past four or five years there has been a tremendous explosion of writing that I can only compare to what was going on in Scotland 30 years ago so I decided to create another small press called the Abersee Press.

I wanted to draw on my experience as a small press publisher and as a writer to encourage this new wave, so I have started to publish fiction, essays and poetry by Orkney writers.


Our standard rehearsal room is the shop. Tuesday nights we meet, learn a new tune, write something, come up with set lists for our gigs. The bottles rattling on the wine shelves add some extra percussion.

Autumn and winter is not the ideal time for outdoor music in Orkney. We have the folk festival in May next year so I hope by that time we’ll be pretty much back to normal and there will be a rebirth of music.


I’ve done the music since I was a teenager and I’ve been writing quite seriously since I was in my 20s. So these are both constant strands in my life that just carry on in the background. Sometimes, say when we are touring Scotland or America, that becomes my main occupation for a few months and I rely on my very capable staff to keep things running when I’m not there. But most of the time the music takes a back seat, and the shop takes most of my attention. I weave these different strands in and around each other.

You could say you’ll never get rich doing any of these things if you don’t concentrate on one of them, and I think that is true financially. But in terms of the richness of experience, I feel I’ve been phenomenally lucky.

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