Built by DIY le Donnie. And inspired by inmates of country’s toughest jail
How host carved out career with help of lags
November 22, 1963, is a day Gaelic star Donnie Macleod will never forget.
As news of the assassination of US president John F Kennedy was being broadcast on the TV in his home, he was surrounded by prisoners from Scotland’ s toughest jail, Peterhead.
They were angry, expletives rang out and officers had to calm the situation.
This wasn’t an escape or a protest, however, but frustration after a job well done had just been ruined by Donnie’s dog, Lewis.
BBC Alba’s DIY expert grew up within the grounds of Peterhead as his father Kenny was an officer there. During the 50s and 60s, lowrisk prisoners were put to work to utilise their skills and provide maintenance for the homes of the guards and their families.
On the Friday when Kennedy was killed, a group had been laying the foundations for an extension to Donnie’s home and Lewis had just ran all over it.
He said: “The concreteoncrete scree had just been laid. Itt was a Friday, so it was a job which had to be finished before the weekendkend and the dog came running through the wet cement. I remembermber one of the prisoners saying,, ‘Get that f*****g dog out of there.’ ’
“Of course, thehe dog heard the shouting but it didn’t retreat the same way it came,me, it just created a whole new mess.s. Meanwhile, we had this little blackck and white telly and my mum wasas watching as news came throughough about Kennedy being shot.”
Donnie movedd to Peterhead in 1957,7, when he was seven, and stayed for 13 years. He credits s growing up there with g iv ing him the inspiration for the DIY skills.
The y are being put to good use in a special edition of his shshow, DIY le Donnie, which airs ovover four days beginning tomorrow.tomo In it, he enlists local tradesmentrad to renovate the LewisLew Retirement Centre in Sto Stornoway over five days.
It’sI a sense of community reminiscentreminis of what he experienced growinggrowin up, when officers and their fafamilies lived side by side.
As fofor the prison itself, while Peterhead’sPeterh reputat ion as Scotland’sScotlan toughest jail was well earned and conditions were notoriously harsh for the prisoners, it didn’t sseem that way for a child.
DonnieDon had a paper round which took him through the
Admiralty Yard, where convicts worked alongside a civilian labour force. They would offer advice on his rounds and a little bit more.
He said: “Some of them used to pay me with the racing pigeons that would land on the cell windows. When I was keeping rabbits and building my hutch, they would sneak me lettuce and wire from the workshops.
“All the prison officers and their families stayed on the site so there was a real community spirit and the prisoners would be put to work doing things around the houses.
“The prison officers would pay for all the materials but they could get the prisoners to upholster a chair or do some building work if that was their trade.
“They weren’t dangerous, they had made mistakes but they were allowed to get on with their job. It was a reminder they were just people.
“I would be walking through Admiralty Hall, going to see my dad or deliver the papers, and you could see guards high in their lookout towers, armed with rifles.
“I had a motorised go-kart then a motorbike and the prisoners doing work around the houses would see what I was tinkering with and offer advice. They were a big influence. I saw them working, making things and it rubbed off. I loved working with my hands.”
There were also adventures. He saw serial killer Peter Manuel’s gun when his uncle, who worked in police forensics, was taking it to trial. The safecracker “Gentle” Johnny Ramensky hid in the rooff of his primary school on one of five escape bids from Peterhead.
Donnie said: “Johnny ’ s nickname was Gentle Johnny y as he never hurt anybody.
“He was released from prison to be trained as a commando during World War II and fought behind enemy lines, breaking safes. After the war he couldn’t stop and was back in jail.” Donnie has, of course enjoyed his own adventures. Having initially worked as an engineer, he formed the successful folk group Na h- Oganaich, meaning “the young ones”, with his sister Margaret in the 70s. When that ended, he was approached by BBC Scotland about a new Gaelic show, aimed at preschoolscoo cchildren, which was to go out on BBC2 daytime.day DotamanD – or spinningspi top in GaelicGae – featured music,mus learning and puppets and a hundred different hats worn by Donnie who become knownknow to viewers as simply Dotaman.Dota He said: “I don’t only have mothmothers and children who recognrecognise me, I have grandmmothemothers.” DonnDonnie, who is a TV producer in Glasgow,Glas where he works witwithth ththe BBC, also hosts DIY le DoDonnie.onnie He’s del ighted his handhandymandyma skills are being put to good use in Stornoway. He said: “The Lewis Retirement CentCentre is used by more than 1500 islanislanders every week as a meeting placplace and recreational space but it wwas badly in need of updating and improvement. “WWe had people coming out of the rafters to give up their time and materials for free. It was a gregreat community service and wiwill now be long lasting.” DIY lle Donnie – An Dubhlan, BBC Alba, Monday to Thursday, 8.30pm
FAME Donny on TV’s Dotaman
HATS OFF Donnie is the host of BBC Alba DIY show CLOSE LINKS SUPPORT The Gaelic TV star grew up in the grounds of Peterhead jail Donnie and his team at Lewis Retirement Centre NEWS JFK’s death. Top, safecracker Ramensky ON GUARD Donnie’s dad Kenny at Peterhead prison