My musical life started when I was five years old, desperate to learn piano. I remember sitting on the stairs (when I should be in bed) listening to all the music and party happening in the living room – and wanting to play too. This happened often as my Dad played in a band and I was surrounded by people playing music.
My family had frequent musical gatherings – my grandpa was ace on a 5-string banjo and I had two music teacher aunts. Playing something was the norm and seemed great fun! I was always given spoons or something percussive to keep me occupied, but by five years old it just wasn’t enough.
I was taken to a piano teacher, but as I was small (still am!), my first practice routine was stretching my hands and fingers so I could reach note spans. I went through the classical music system of grades and exams, sitting grade 8 when I was 13 years old.
Meanwhile, at primary school, we had Scottish Country Dancing lessons every Tuesday afternoon all through winter. Mrs MacGeachy taught us steps then played the piano while we danced – I loved this.
Tunes such as Petronella, Corn Rigs, Flowers of Edinburgh, Duke of Perth and Waltz Country Dance bring me right back to being eight years old in our school gym hall. My favourite was a dance where we were trains weaving in and out through the boys’ side and chasing back to our own side – it was called Waverley (after the Edinburgh train station).
When I was 15 years old, we moved From St Andrews to Inverness for two years. This was good and bad. I had no piano there and really missed playing, however my social life suddenly ramped up with parties and dances galore. Dances were family affairs, sometimes at a farm in a big barn, sometimes a church hall. The latter was more comfortable, but the dances had to stop by midnight if you were in church facilities – so barn dances were more popular.
The bands and music were fantastic and I became interested in playing this kind of music. A guitar was the only instrument to hand, so I played along on this and thus learned rhythms and chord progressions while enjoying myself. I also like singing and joined a folk band.
After Uni and child bearing stuff, we lived near Dundee and my daughter took up Highland dancing. She needed me to play for her, so this was my next stage – the tunes, tempo and rhythms had to be very precise – I did this on the piano.Meanwhile, my Dad had picked up an old accordion from somewhere and was playing along with Robbie Shepherd on Take the Floor broadcasts on radio, so I learned the geography of the instrument and started to try it out.
I had also started hill walking and climbing in a big way – often staying in bothies (mountain huts) where we all spent the evenings singing and dancing. I started to take a small accordion in my rucksack and this went down very well on overnighters.
When I did my last Munro (284 hills over 3000 feet in Scotland), we had an Orcadian Strip the Willow on the top! My brother was especially memorable playing his fiddle like a demented demon and dancing at the same time.
I joined the SFO – not the Fraud Office – but the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. This was a big band which did quite a bit of touring (came to New Zealand in 2006 I think). Mostly fiddles, but there were cellos, two double basses, a piano and six accordions.
In this SFO You Tube Scottish Fiddle Orchestra Eightsome Reel you’ll hear us play at Borthwick Castle and see the dance (and speed) as I know it. The arrangements and tunes were excellent under John Mason and I learned a lot about putting sets together.
By this time, I was playing in three bands as well – one was a ceilidh/wedding band, one was a Strathspey and Reel society group playing for Scottish Country Dancing and the last was a local village band playing for our local community events. My children played six instruments between them – and we still had big family musical gatherings with my Dad on piano, me on accordion, all my siblings on fiddles/guitars/banjo, my children on bass, clarinet, sax, whistle. Lots of singing and dancing – Highland, step, ceilidh, country.
Within days of arriving in New Zealand in 2009, I received an email from Peter Elmes. A Scottish Fiddle Orchestra contact from the New Zealand visit had kept in touch with Peter and had told him an accordionist was arriving in Wellington shortly! I was truly gob-smacked and delighted. My accordion was still in a container somewhere on its three-month journey to New Zealand. I had sold off all my band equipment before emigrating – not expecting much opportunity to use it here. Little did I know!
Peter encouraged me to join in his gigs here and I began to learn the New Zealand Scottish Country Dancing preferences. I saw myself as his apprentice for many years – sometimes on accordion, sometimes piano. In Scotland, accordionists are ten a penny, but not so here…
Sadly, as you’ll know, Peter became unwell and retired from playing in 2018. He wrote some great sets over a 40-year playing career and it’s my privilege and pleasure to be able to keep them going. When I’m asked to play at a dance, I ask the tutor for musical preferences – and Peter’s sets are requested time and time again – they are gold.
I retired from work last year, and the urge to start Scottish Country Dancing again took root. I now go to the Tuesday afternoon dancing group and really enjoy this – I’m a bit rusty on the formations, but am picking it up again. It really does help with knowing which dance needs what in terms of the music – and I like hearing what tutors choose to dance to … and picking up ideas. The dancing community has been very welcoming/forgiving to a stray musician in their midst!
I play with violinist Hilary Ferral as a duo The Cranberry Tarts. Hilary’s precision and musicianship is wonderful and so enjoyable to play with. We sometimes expand to include a piano (Jason) and/or drummer (Terry) as required by the occasion/club.
The Wellington Scottish Country Dancing musician scene isn’t large, so it involves some mixing and matching to make things work to the satisfaction of individual clubs/dates … hence you might see the same face in different band line ups!
It’s absolutely great Johnsonville Club supports live music – we all enjoy these nights, whether a club night or an annual dance. Keeps us all on our tapping toes!
Sláinte and thank you Rod and Kristin.
16 July 2020