Liz Hands: Scottish Connections

Songs of Scotland, a tartan skirt and memories of the ballet

Liz facing the camera wearing her Modern McDonald tartan sash dancing Midsummer Common at the Johnsonville & Capital City Annual Dance in 2019

When Liz Hands started Scottish Country Dancing, it brought back a lot of memories of sitting at the piano playing tunes from her grandmother’s Scottish song book.

When Liz was a child, her grandmother came to live with them, and Liz would play the piano in her grandmother’s lounge room. Playing her way through the book, she remembers old favourites like Annie Laurie, Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon and Green Grow the Rashes, O.

Liz’s grandmother Jeannie (Jane Madeleine) McDonald was born in 1876, the 13th of 14 children of parents Lauchlan and Christina Macqueen. (Jeannie was a McDonald by marriage, but also by descent – her mother’s maiden name was McDonald.)

Both Christina and Lauchlan came from Portree on the Isle of Skye, but were married after emigrating to Melbourne. And on Christmas day 1890, 14 year old Jeannie was given a copy of the 1877 edition of The Songs of Scotland (Royal Edition), a collection of 190 Scottish songs with music and lyrics. What a treasure.

The fly leaf of The Songs of Scotland was signed by Liz’s grandmother Jeannie McDonald after her marriage, but dated for when she received it when she was 14 years old and still Jeannie Macqueen

This book then passed through the hands of Liz’s mother Marjorie Dawkins (nee McDonald) to Liz, and she brought it with her when she emigrated to New Zealand with her kiwi husband Brian Hands in 1961.

Liz hadn’t looked at the book in years, and then in 2016 she joined Johnsonville Scottish Country Dance Club as a beginner. Going back to the book, she expected to find a lot of recognisable tunes but found only Muirland Willie initially.

Download the tune and words for Muirland Willie from The Songs of Scotland below.

Hunting further there are traditional tunes for dances like The Lea Rig and less familiar ones such as The Deuks dang ow’re my daddie. As time went on, Liz came to realise just how much Scottish Country Dance repertoire existed that she had been unaware of­, as a professional musician playing show music and symphonic music. But her childhood prepared her well to explore Scottish dance music in later life.

The Songs of Scotland wasn’t the only Scottish influence in her early life. Liz’s mother was also responsible for her choice of tartan sash.

As told to Kristin Downey

The tartan

From earliest memories my mother always wore a skirt of the Modern McDonald tartan. I too always had a skirt to fit and then in my early 20s I bought material from Buckley and Nunn, Bourke St in Melbourne next to Myers, and made a two-piece tailored suit.

In 1955 a school friend returned from a trip to Scotland, and gifted me a woollen Dress Modern Macdonald scarf. Until then I had not thought about any other versions of McDonald tartans. But when the time came to choose a sash for Scottish Country Dancing, I naturally chose the tartan I had worn through my youth, Modern McDonald.

Looking for a photo of my two-piece suit, I came across a black and white newspaper picture of me wearing it at a reception on the 1959-1960 Borovansky Ballet Company tour of Australia and NZ. (This is the company that evolved into the Australian Ballet Company.)

Liz (Miss Elizabeth Dawkins) wearing her two-piece tartan suit in 1960

Download the full newspaper article Ballet goes to dinner below.

Sadly the photo doesn’t show up the tartan very well, but it brought back memories of playing flute in the orchestra and travelling with the company. It was a momentous time, as Borovansky died around December 1959.

The ballet tour

When the Sydney season finished early 1960, and the tour arrangements were in place Dame Peggy van Praagh was brought out from the Royal Ballet and joined the company on our first stop in Brisbane.

From Brisbane we travelled back to Sydney to board the Wanganella bound for our first New Zealand season in Auckland. This would have been mid to late April as I remember my flatmates giving me an Aunt Daisy cookbook for Mothers’ Day.

Our itinerary which lasted three months went first to New Plymouth by bus, train to Wellington to catch the Lyttleton Ferry to Christchurch. Next Timaru, followed by Dunedin and Invercargill. Train back to Lyttleton, overnight to Wellington and straight onto rail car for Palmerston North. Last stop Wellington season before the tour went to Adelaide and Perth.

There were two main programmes from memory so only a few nights in smaller venues and 3 – 4 weeks in main centres. After the tour ended in Perth the company went to Melbourne Her Majesty’s Theatre where the orchestra was permanent as was the one in Sydney.

My plans changed and I moved to Sydney, where I was registered with the NSW Musicians’ Union. Meeting up with a musician friend at the Sadlers Wells production of The Merry Widow, I chanced to hear that the double bass player had just quit.

The next morning I was straight down to the Musicians’ Union office, and was offered the job of bass player for the rest of the season. My double bass was still in Melbourne, but the Union arranged the hire of a bass and I was set.

Amongst the young bass players I met at the time was my husband-to-be Brian Hands. We met at a birthday party at the Musicians Club, which professional female musicians had only just been allowed to join. Prior to that membership was only open to men.

Fifteen weeks later we were married, and the next year we moved to New Zealand, bringing The Songs of Scotland with us.

from Liz Hands
14 May 2020

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