The sporting journey of the Cromore Baker

There are some people whose career paths you keep crossing – and that of course cuts both ways. Kenny MacLeod, who has developed a highly successful alter ego as The Hebridean Baker, is a case in point.

Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 3:53 pm
The Hebridean Baker Pic: Euan Anderson

I first knew Kenny when he was business development manager for Celtic Football Club – probably our first signing from Cromore. Kenny’s job was to expand the global reach of the Celtic brand, helped by the presence of players like Shunsuke Nakamura and Artur Boruc.

Job well done, Kenny became commercial director of the Scottish Football Association and carried through on a personal commitment to get team and officials kitted out in Harris Tweed. The SFA Harris Tweed jackets and accessories continue to sell well!

Then he became Global Commercial Director of the International Tennis Federation, which runs the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, before returning to my email trail in January of this year. “Nothing to do with football…”, the message began.

“About six months ago”, he wrote, “I started posting recipe, Gaelic and lifestyle videos under the name the Hebridean Baker. Since then, these videos have been viewed over nine million times! And last month, I signed a publishing deal to release a Hebridean Baker cookbook.

“They are planning a first edition release of 20,000 copies internationally in October this year. Each chapter will lead on one aspect of the Hebrides and I have spoken to them about a chapter focusing on Harris Tweed and they have agreed. So, I wanted to see if this is something you would like to collaborate on?” To which there could only be one answer.

That was in January. Since then, the number of followers has increased from 118,000 – which seemed pretty good at the time – to 250,000 (80 per cent in the US) and nine million video views has gone up to a staggering 15 million. What’s more, the beautifully produced book has hit the bookshops slightly ahead of schedule.

With this kind of exposure, Kenny may well be the world’s currently best-known Hebridean, and doing no harm at all to global awareness of his native archipelago. Take this article in the American edition of Elle magazine at the time when a ban of TikTok for its subversive Chinese connections was being considered.

As you've probably heard, TikTok is teetering on the brink of a ban. Of all the dizzying crises happening in our country right now — from devastating natural disasters to social unrest to, duh, a global pandemic — the loss of a video app ranks low on my this-causes-me-crippling-anxiety scale. Still I'll be sad if we'll truly have to see it go.

“The app's retro roller skaters and creepy cosplayers will be missed, but what I'll mourn most is the Hebridean Baker. He first popped up on my FYP a few months ago, spouting helpful tips for shaping biscuits in a voice as syrupy sweet as his signature sticky plum crumble cake. I had no idea then what a Hebridean was, but I was hooked.

(For the similarly uninitiated, a quick Google search reveals that the Hebrides are an island chain off the west coast of mainland Scotland. This checks out, given his recent kilt tutorial and very thick accent.)

The Hebridean Baker has a scruffy Paul Bunyan beard, a knack for kneading, and that ASMR voice that sounds how I imagine a warm shortbread cookie might talk if it came to life. The effect is very Scottish-sexy, very Outlander. Plus he's got a cute Westie that accompanies him to pick blackberries for his homemade jelly. As it turns out, watching a dog-loving hot Scot bake bread is the ultimate antidote to these dark times. Please Mr. Hebridean Baker, if you're reading this, consider moving over to Triller if TikTok goes down.”

That really tells you all you need to know about The Hebridean Baker, as opposed to Coinneach MacLeod from Cromore. As for the recipes, I will leave it to our distinguished culinary correspondent to review the book and give his verdict.

The real Kenny, though he took time off to do a book signing tour last week (unfortunately, the books did not reach Stornoway or Tarbert in time to be signed, but there was plenty of interest anyway), still has a day job. In fact, it is a very interesting one which has taken him back into the world of football, quite literally.

Kenny explains: “I work at UEFA (Europe’s governing football body) within a programme called UEFA Assist which contributes to the global development of football. It shares the experience and know-how of UEFA and its member associations outside Europe by funding a broad range of projects which are implemented in close collaboration with UEFA’s five sister confederations around the world and their member associations.

“As part of the programme, I work in developing countries to help professionalise the football federations and enable them to work more closely with government and other stakeholders. In recent months I have been in Zambia, Ghana and Mozambique, and soon I leave for Ethiopia and Jamaica.”

As well as making Hebridean Baker videos in his downtime, this longstanding member of the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir has another immovable date in his October diary. “I still try and fit in time to learn my songs for the Mod and will be singing in the Duet competition in Inverness.” So if you happen to be in the streets of Addis Ababa or Kingston and hear a Gaelic song being rehearsed, the chances are it will be Kenny from Cromore.

So how did he make his way into these multiple career routes, each of them interesting in its own right? Much of the book, intertwined with the recipes and explaining his interest in food, is about Kenny’s Lewis background, including the rigours of the Sabbath.

“My father, who was a trawler fisherman, was allowed to switch on BBC Radio 4 for a few minutes at three minutes past one every Sunday to listen to the Shipping Forecast after church. I loved listening, and would wait eagerly to hear what conditions my father’s fishing boat, the Ripple, would face that week. By the time I was nine I’d learned the 31 sea areas from Viking to Southeast Iceland off by heart and would whisper their names along with the radio presenter every week, the memory almost instinctive.

“For five days a week he would head out in the north Atlantic with his crew to fish for prawns. But even after he got home on a Friday, he would take his wee rowing boat out to check his creels for lobsters and crabs. Fishing and the seas around the island of Lewis were his life, a life that meant my mam had plenty of fresh fish to put on the table for dinner in the evenings.”

Kenny went through Gravir School and the Nicolson Institute. The closest he came to football greatness as a player was a single game for Lochs under-16s, but generally he kept his head down at school, endured hostel life for six years and went on to Glasgow University where he obtained an Honours degree in Scottish History and English.

By then, he had taken a gap year to travel in Russia which in 1994 was in the midst of post-Soviet transition. “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he recalls. “I was teaching English and was offered a job as sports editor of the English language newspaper, The Moscow Times. They were looking for someone with knowledge of sport, more than experience. The fact Scotland were in the same qualifying group as Russia for Euro 96 helped too.”

After completing his degree, he took off with a friend for a year of back-packing round the world. His jobs along the way ranged from helping missionaries in Zimbabwe to working for a newspaper in Australia. It was a formative experience and his taste for travel led him in the direction of his first real job as regional manager for an Australian company called Flight Centre.

“Like most Australian companies, it was a very positive place to work. I opened 25 stores for them and it really cemented my business skills, looking after Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England. Latterly we had 100 offices in the UK.” After eight happy years with Flight Centre, he moved onto the Australian national airline, Qantas: “A real quality business and an excellent brand to work for.”

Then the Celtic job came up and Kenny was impressed with the fact, when interviewed, nobody asked him who he supported. As it happened, he had been following Celtic (as well as Lochs) since arriving in Glasgow as a student. There, he found himself working closely with the players and Gordon Strachan as manager “who understood that running a successful club meant not only the football side – we had to generate the revenue that ultimately allowed him to go out and sign players”.

Since our first encounter, Kenny’s career trajectory has continued to go in interesting directions. In the Hebridean Baker, however, he has found a means of linking his well-proven professional talent as a marketeer with a deep knowledge of, and love for, his home island. Without impinging on the territory of the reviewer, I can safely say it is a great combination and, once the books arrive, they will sell like … well, hotcakes.

And the Harris Tweed connection? That too goes back to his roots. Like many other island women, Kenny’s mother, Ciorstaidh Anna, went to Glasgow for work but missed home so much, she wanted to return.

Beyond crofting and the subsistence it provided in return for endless hard work, there were few career opportunities on Lewis in the 1950s and ’60s, particularly for women. There was, though, one extraordinary exception to this rule. It involved a product with a name that resonated around the world. And so Ciorstaidh Anna and her older brother Kenny would get up every morning, walk the few steps from the house across their croft to a shed. In there stood two Hattersley looms where they would spend their days weaving Harris Tweed.”

If Kenny had paid more attention, his next global hit could have been The Hebridean Weaver!