The Hebridean Baker has become one of Scotland’s influencer sensations over the last year. Inadvertently becoming an ambassador of the Hebrides in particular, but Scotland’s impressive food and drink produce in general, Coinneach has become one of the beloved faces and voices of Scotland.
Coinneach’s accent is a wonderful treat to hear, and his delicious cakes, drinks and dishes are even more delightful. A growing star on TikTok, The Hebridean Baker has continued to captivate viewers with his incredible bakes and his wholesome content showcasing the best of the Scottish isles alongside his beautiful dog Seòras and his partner Peter.
Coinneach has recently had his book tour celebrating his brand-new cookbook ‘The Hebridean Baker: Recipes and Wee Stories from the Scottish Islands’. Taste Magazine Scotland was able to catch him for an interview on the last stop in Edinburgh to discuss his success and his heavenly bakes.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Coinneach MacLeod. I am from the Isle of Lewis, which is the furthest North of the Outer Hebrides, born and raised in a small village called Cromore. Cromore is the old Gaelic word for Big Cow and the village only has about 30 houses. To us, that was the life that everybody had. I spent many hours and days just peering over stoves and kitchens of aunties and my mum’s. Always very traditional recipes. Everybody had five recipes they were very good at and stuck to those. [I am] very proud of where I am from and that is probably as much my goal in this as the baking is just promoting the islands.
Where do you get the inspiration for your different types of recipes?
I think more than anything else I can say local produce, but it might just be Scottish produce. I really love, even taking a classic recipe, a classic bake and thinking ‘how can I make that Scottish?’. There are a few tick boxes. Oats, marmalade, whisky, rhubarb, brambles; just give it that extra twist. And it has been amazing working with different partners in that way. Isle of Harris, Dura whisky, lots of Hebridean brands and I think that is what I really enjoy is just looking and going, okay I have my traditional ones, I have my family recipes and then just taking those classic ones and giving them that wee twist. So that is what I have enjoyed.
What is your favourite recipe that you have put your own twist on?
I love profiteroles, that is one of my favourite desserts. In fact if I ever see it on a menu, that’s it. So, I was just making a Hot Toddy one night for myself and then I thought I wonder how the flavours of Hot Toddy would work in the crème pâtissière in the choux buns. And so [I have] a Hot Toddy choux buns with the flavours of honey and whisky. And if you get the crème pâtissière right, they are spectacular. Really spectacular, so I think of my new bakes, that might be one of my favourites.
So you source everything locally, tell me about the places.
We do not have any mills in the Hebrides for flour but there is one in Golspie which is our nearest mill up on the mainland, right on the top which is five hours away. I get my flour from there; same with oats. I work with Hamlin’s oats. So if it is not Hebridean, it is familiar Scottish brands as well. But even out with the food side, what I love with the book is Harris tweed. They gave me beautiful yards of Harris tweed so when you see the recipes, you can look at the layers underneath. All those things I think add to the identity of the book you know. So even the non-food ones I think still have an element of the Hebrides in them as well.
What are your top favourite three things to bake?
Because this was predominantly through lockdown, when I started TikTok, what I saw was a lot of people making extravagant cakes. It was about the biggest, the most cream and I was thinking, this is amazing and it gets you 500,000 likes but would anyone bake it?
And because it was in lockdown, I was thinking, well it is only me and Peter or, most situations it will be a small family or a person by themselves or a couple, so I actually did a series that everything was just in a one-pound loaf tin. I thought you know, a one-pound loaf tin is perfect for two, or for us one, evening of pudding or cake. I said anything I can put in a one-pound loaf tin, for sure.
Oats. I love using oats in my recipes and I think probably the one — it was not intentional that it was going to be a thing but it has turned out to be one of the recipes that people have talked about — on TikTok you can duet videos and the amount of people who have dueted this particular one themselves was making savoury oats. So, it is a bit like having a breakfast risotto: instead of your risotto rice, you can just replace it with the oats. It is oats cooked in vegetable stock, and turmeric and then you have got a pan of pancetta and tomatoes, and then goats cheese and a poached egg on top. Spectacular. I know I did not make it, I know this is not an original thing, but you know when you think you have made something and everybody is like ‘wow I have never heard of it’, because savoury oats are a very recognised south-east Asian way of making breakfast. So I took that inspiration but made it still very Scottish.
So love the oats and there is unintentionally again quite a lot of alcohol in the bakes. One of my favourite cookbooks is from 1929. It is F Marion McNeill, from ‘The Scots Kitchen’. At the time, it was the first Scottish cookbook. It really was heralded in that way, and she has amazing recipes in there. I would say there is one which is called ‘Atholl Brose’ which is a 15th century baileys. You soak the oats for two days in whisky and then you add a little cream. Basically, it is like an original baileys. I love doing the drinks as well. That has been really fun. So same as the oats, they are my favourite three styles.
What are your top three tips for baking?
My first one is definitely to buy the one pound loaf tin. I do not know what it is, whatever I put in it, the tin goes in the oven for 30 minutes. Just comes out perfectly. So that is my first thing.
The second one is to make it your own. I get so many questions on TikTok. Do you think it would be okay if I put walnuts in this? Or could I replace this with this? Go for it. You know, I do not know anyone who actually rigidly follows a recipe. I look in my cupboard and go. Well I do not have this so it will be made with golden syrup instead of this or that. I think do not be afraid to try, and add something that you like if you enjoy other things.
I think the third one is use local produce. Enjoy what you have around you. It is a big foraging season at the moment. Me and Peter love foraging; last weekend was our bramble jelly making weekend. Just remember that there is lovely produce at so many times of the year. Be it rhubarb, brambles or wild garlic. Take advantage of what we have in Scotland.
When did you start baking?
I have always baked since I was a kid, I loved it but again I fell into that path a little like my mum and aunts who had five things that they made. If you came to my house the sixth time, you got what you had the first time.
So it is probably maybe four or five years ago I started to really explore different types of recipes and particularly for the book, when you have a book of 75 recipes, you cannot just do 75 because some things might not photograph well or they might not fit into the chapters.
I love making a Burnt Basque cheesecake. It is one of my favourite cheesecakes to make, it is gorgeous. However, at the point we were looking at the storyline of the recipes, it just did not fit anywhere. One of my favourite things, I have always got leftover egg whites, there is a great recipe called ‘Forgotten cookies’ where you just get the egg whites, whisk it into a meringue and then put in cranberries, dark chocolate chips. Put it in the oven, switch off the oven straight away, and then just get up in the morning and you would just have these delicious, chewy little bits of dark chocolate, cranberries. So they are amazing. But do not photograph very well. Even the photographer said ‘I do not think we are going to be able to do this’. So even with 75, you probably make 100 recipes.
It has really expanded my experience and repertoire. Since things have opened up a bit more, I have been visiting other bakers – there is a really nice place down in Peebles, a chocolatier, and so I went down to learn how to make macarons with her. It has been fun just learning new skills.
You are quite famous on TikTok, when did you start that?
I think it would have been August last year. Really simply a couple of Peter’s friends liked my ginger loaf. They were asking for the recipe, and I thought do you know what? If I make a video, I can just post it and I can send them the link. Thinking like two people would watch it. And you know maybe six or seven thousand people watched it. In the grand scheme of things, not much but exciting when people are saying ‘my goodness, that is a lovely recipe, I want to try that’. And so, I started to do other ones.
I had always in my head had the idea of wanting to promote the islands. That is something I am very passionate about and the language, our culture and the identity and I just think baking is a good conduit to make that happen. Because my favourite videos to make is when I am baking something but maybe I am telling a story in or about the islands or sometimes I do the whole recipe in Gaelic but write it in English so people are hearing something they have not heard before. Those are my favourite ones to do.
Well incidentally I did not know why but there was one night, and I woke up in the morning and I was like ‘what has happened’. I put a carrot cake up and the next day I had 30,000 new followers and I thought ‘okay the carrot cake is good but I don’t think it is that good’. Unbeknownst to me, that day when I had suddenly went up in numbers was when US ELLE magazine had written an article. The article was something like ‘the only thing I’ll miss on TikTok is the Hebridean Baker”.
They started talking about my accent and that is when things changed because 80% of my followers are in the US. She [the writer] said something like ‘he is what I think a piece of shortbread would sound like coming out of the oven’ and I thought that is quite cool. It was only about 3 weeks later that a friend of Peter’s said; ‘did you know you were in Elle magazine?’ I said ‘what are you talking about?’ And so from that, things started to move. And now I have had nearly 15 million people watch my videos.
And it has been a year. It has been a really special experience. From the start, I have been able to use my own tone of voice doing it. I can manage the music, the voice over, the video content so that was really good for me.
When Black and White got in touch, the publishers, just before Christmas, they said; ‘have you thought about a book?’ and you know when people say something like that, and you are [internally thinking] ‘this is so ridiculous but I have got to pretend this is a completely normal conversation’ [but you say] ‘yes, I have thought about it’. They have been amazing. They really let me influence the style of the book and the photography and stories. And that has been great.
What is some of your favourite content to do besides baking?
I think talking about the islands more than anything else, but I think there is one thing that people seem to love and we love doing. We have got a wee hut, people call it a cabin but in Scotland we say ‘hutting’ as a lifestyle. And it is just by the Isle of Seil which is by Oban. I think people have really loved the lifestyle we have created there. We are very self-sustainable when we are there: we are out in the canoe, we can go round to Mull or around the islands and we often do. You can do TikTok live, I often do live sunsets coming down over Mull and I love that kind of thing. So I think the lifestyle element to it, it was not intentional but I think people have enjoyed the break from being in four walls over lockdown and everybody has a different story of lockdown. Some people have just really struggled with it, so I think there is a lot of escapism in my content for people and I get, honestly every day, beautiful messages from people about my accent or my video or my bake or Seòras or even myself and Peter and it is nice.
There are stories in your cookbook, tell me a little about them.
There are eight chapters, and each chapter starts with a story, they are a real mix.
Many of them are family stories. There is a story about Seòras and how I met Peter. There is a chapter on myths and legends in the Hebrides and somebody does an archive in the Hebrides for old stories, and I went to him. We have a lot of monsters basically on the island and lots of giants, I do not know why we have so many giants, we also have something called an ‘each-uisge’ which is a shapeshifter who lives in lochs. And they turn into something or somebody that they think you will trust but they are not good people. The problem with the story that I did not expect them to put in, my father was quite a character, and well put it this way, the last line in the story is ‘And that was the day my father gave the Queen crabs.’
So it is lots of fun stories and ones that hopefully give a real picture of the Hebrides.
How has the book tour been so far?
So this is the last leg of the Scottish book tour. It has been unbelievable. It is quite a unique start because I am working with Caledonian Macbrayne and they are the ferries and so the first date of the tour was actually on a ferry. And I realised that they have not got much else to do so there is a captive audience and the captain kept putting messages out and saying ‘go down and see the Hebridean Baker on level 3’. I sold books out in a second.
Then we were in Stornoway and Tarbert which was just amazing to see old friends and family and newcomers to the island. So supportive and proud of what I have done, it was amazing. And then yesterday was Inverness, it was hilarious because I did not think anyone would turn up so my mum’s best friend arrived early so I am talking to her and having a lovely time and I am thinking ‘well I cannot see anybody so I will just keep talking’ and then the manager walks in and goes ‘do you mind starting?’. I turned around and there was this huge queue all around the shop! The difficulty is they all had a reason to be there. They were either connected to the islands or connected to someone in my family, so everybody wanted a chat, which I love. They were telling me what village they were from or island or where their aunt lived or how my auntie knew their cousin, it was all a bit like that.
Then we had Glasgow today which again was fantastic. And tonight, I mean there are 75 or 80 people who have bought tickets for tonight. It is amazing, it really has blown my mind, so I am so excited and then we are off to London as well to continue the route.
How do you feel about promoting Scotland’s food and drink now you are inadvertently an ambassador for the produce?
So proud. Unbelievably proud. I think there has been quite a few ‘pinch me’ moments during this whole experience but most of them have centred around activities about promoting the country or the food and drink. I have done some Visit Scotland campaigns, I have another one coming up for Autumnal food for Visit Scotland. I think probably one of my favourite experiences when I was on the ferry maybe a month ago, this lady tapped me on the shoulder and she says ‘are you the Hebridean Baker?’ And to be fair, she recognised Seòras before me but there you go. She said; ‘you are the reason I am on this ferry, I have watched your videos for the past year. I dreamed every day during lockdown of coming to the Hebrides and I cannot believe you are on the ferry as I sail into the island.’ And I thought that is everything I have dreamed of. That somebody has watched my content and thought ‘I did not know anything about the Hebrides, I did not know anything about Gaelic, I did not know anything about our Scottish tastes but I want to try them because of the Hebridean Baker’.
I am so proud of being Scottish but being Hebridean and being Scottish. I did the BBC travel show a couple of months ago with Ade Adepitan and he asked me that question ‘Are you Hebridean first or Scottish first?’ I said ‘well I am Scottish, but Hebrideans, we are a little different. We do have a bit of a different identity, culture, obviously the language makes us a bit different as well. So I am very proud and Scottish but I think the fact that the Hebrides now are being recognised for its uniqueness, yeah it makes me feel pretty fantastic’.
Photos of Coinneach provided by Euan Anderson.
Coinneach, aka The Hebridean Baker, has become one of Scotland's most beloved champions of Scottish produce and continues to create wonderfully delicious bakes and other Scottish dishes for everyone to enjoy from the comfort of their own home.