(1925 – 1991)
KENMUIR’S UP AN AWA’
by Norman Y. Williams
In addition to being the title of a Scottish Country Dance, the above well known jig was also the signature tune of one of the greats of the Scottish Dance Music world. The cliché ‘a legend in his own lifetime’ is fully justified when describing this player who passed away on the morning of Saturday, January 26th 1991.
For the large crowd of mourners gathered on the top of a wind and rain-swept hill overlooking Tobermory Bay on the following Tuesday, the sound of the pipes fading into the distance was poignant enough in itself, but made even more so because the tune being player by the one and only Pipe Major John D. Burgess viz. ‘Happy we’ve been a’ thegither’ was often used as a finale by the man to whom so many were paying their last respects, and in fact it was at his own express wish.
A man, the mention of whose name over the past 40 or more years, has always quickened the pulse and evoked such an enthusiastic reaction from Scottish Dance and Dance Music devotees the world over. Christened Alasdair Robert Campbell MacLeod, he was affectionately known by all as Bobby MacLeod.
At the service held in the packed-to-overflowing Parish Church, the Rev. Alan Taylor concluded his tribute to Bobby saying that he had given so much enjoyment to so many people, and the organist, Mr Walter Dick played haunting Gaelic airs with a sensitivity and feeling which befitted the occasion and prompted very favourable comment from several of the musicians present.
His selection included two of Bobby’s favourites, “An Ataireachd Ard” and “Caol Muile” (Iona Boat Song), the latter being played a second time as the cortege left the church. The presence of several members of the R.N.L.I. acting as ushers and bearers was testimony to Bobby’s long association with this august body, and taking into consideration Tobermory’s location, the large number of Scottish Dance musicians and show business personalities and enthusiasts present – including several highly respected senior representatives – reflected his great standing and popularity.
Yes, he will be sadly missed by so many, but his contribution to the Scottish Dance music scene has been immense. Many of the harmony and rhythm patterns and techniques used today are thanks to Bobby’s innovative talents, not to mention the use of the pipe marches and Gaelic airs in a far wider context than previously, and of course, the so-called “West Coast Sound” of which more later.
MY FIRST CONTACT
The quickening of the pulse referred to above may sound a bit dramatic, but it is a fact that the very name Bobby MacLeod itself always had a special ring to it which produced a twinge of excitement and anticipation, such was the addictive impact of his music. You just had to hear it if humanly possible as witness the following :-
The Cairn o’ Mount road between Banchory and Fettercairn which peaks at 1,488 feet above sea level, is not the most hospitable of places in the small hours of the morning and even less so in a thick mist. But, at 3am on a June morning in 1951, there was “yours truly” heading for home and peching over the top on a bike in a “pea-souper” with the dynamo-powered front light glowing like a wet fag end when going uphill, and throwing up a glaring white disc and weird patterns on the fog on the down grades. The hair on the back of my neck fairly bristled with the spookiness of the whole thing, especially when confronted with the shadows of sheep which loomed the size of Highland bulls. It was very scary stuff right enough.
So why was I putting myself through all this at such an early hour. Simple – about three weeks previously there had been an advert in the “Farming News” for the annual Tarland (4 miles N.W. of Aboyne) Show and the customary après-show marquee dance. Nothing world-shattering about that maybe, but three worlds in the last line of the dance notice certainly were – “BOBBY MacLEOD’S BAND”.
That was it, a chance that could not be missed under any circumstances, because although an ardent fan, and unashamedly hooked on B.M’s music and style, I had up till then never managed to hear him live. Hence this two-wheeled mountain safari in the middle of the night and my goodness, it had been more than worth every ounce of the effort and despite being slightly on edge, I was a happy and contented soul because at long last I has seen and heard at first hand both the player and the accordion which produced the glorious sound on a record I had bought several months previously, viz. the “Beltona 78” BL2511. Side A – “The Dunoon Barn Dance”.
The instrument in question a white pre-war “Cooperativa Stradella de-luxe” piano accordion, which incidentally, is still going strong, the present owner being none other than Margaret Holmes, wife of the Dumfries maestro.
Thanks to the fine tone of this accordion and the MacLeod style. I had for quite some time thought that Bobby played a 3 row British Chromatic, in fact till just before the Tarland excursion, when the manager of Largs music shop in Montrose put me right.
I was not the only one with this impression, because on the correspondence page of the September 1953 issue of the “Accordion Times” appeared the following query from a Morpeth reader – “Am I correct in assuming that Bobby MacLeod uses a British Chromatic accordion?”
Reply – “As far as we know Bobby MacLeod plays a Shand Morino instrument made by Hohner in British Chromatic tuning (3 row) with 80 basses tuned like piano accordion basses”. Mmmm!?
Mind you, I don’t feel so bad now about having been wrong about the instrument, because in a recent chat Bobby said – “I played the Cooperativa with the button key influence”. More of that later.
Now, to jump back to that Beltona recording of the “Dunoon Barn Dance”. As only one tune “The Balmoral Highlanders” (6 parts) was used, the unploughed centre disc of the record is abnormally large, but to my way of thinking this is the definitive barn dance track, against which all others are judged.
Those first 8 bars have never been surpassed, for sound, tempo, swing or interpretation. It’s the way the band launches in there as one man, with that solid on-beat bass section and the wee individual touches on fiddle and accordion which can change even in the repeat of the measure. It all adds up to something special – a unique style and quality. Others have tried and got close, but no further.
This particular recording was made at Decca’s Uxbridge studios ‘round about 1950/51 and was one of ten sides which the band put on in a single morning session with no retakes.
Just for the record – if you’ll pardon the expression – the band members on this occasion were Bobby, ‘Pibroch’ MacKenzie (fiddle), Davie Whitehead (piano), Fenwick MacDougall (double bass) and Johnny Fellows (drums). We will enlarge on these players a bit later.
In 1953 there was a second session for the same label, this time at their Willesden studios. The senior recording technician and his team, who had been doing the celebrated Ted Heath Band with Lita Rosa only 24 hours earlier and had spent the entire day trying to get one good take, were amazed at the casual laid-back approach of this 5 piece group from Scotland which came in and set up, no fuss, no hassle and probably no music, and as before did 10 sides before lunch, again with no retakes! The only problem seems to have been in getting across London to the studios, because the coaches on the London Underground were not very big, but Fenwick’s bass was!
However, to get back on track – what was it about the man Bobby MacLeod and his music which engendered such enthusiasm and such a following almost akin to the pop idol craze of today. This tremendous appeal cannot be attributed to one single factor, but to several, which when combined resulted in an end product which went to the heart as well as to the feet. The tempo, the emphasis, the melodious sound and relaxed style, the choice of tunes and so on. They’re all there, but, for 99 out of 100 MacLeod fans, one thing sticks out above all else, Bobby’s interpretation of the pipe idiom on the accordion – in this he had no peers.
I was going to use the word “unique” but when I did so in conversation with the man himself, he responded in a very forthright manner…. “It’s not unique, it’s just that I’m playing it the right b….y way!” What could be plainer than that?
Bobby had always said that to play pipe properly, one had to use the pipes – the complex groups of notes such as birls, grips, taorluaths etc., could only be “faked” on the accordion. But that is where this player had got it, he could adapt the music to the keyboard and could interpret and express it so that it sounded authentic, in fact even more pipish than the pipes, if that makes sense.
So how was this authenticity achieved? Well, it should come as no surprise to learn that Bobby was a trained piper but let’s start right at the beginning.
Bobby was born into a musical family in Tobermory in 1925, his mother being very interested in Gaelic culture, music and singing, and his father dedicated to the pipes, having taken up the instrument while recuperating in Mellon Udrigle from wounds received during the First World War, when serving with the Cameron Highlanders.
Mellon Udrigle is a tiny settlement overlooking Gruinard Bay in Ross and Cromarty and it was here that Mr MacLeod Snr met his wife to be, as she was teaching at the local school and living at Poolewe, her father being a professional gardener who had been involved in planting out the famous Inverewe Gardens.
In such a home environment where Bobby could hear piping almost literally from day one, it is little wonder that he started to learn the chanter at the age of 5.
Under his father’s tuition he practiced half an hour every day to such good effect that at eight years old he won his class on chanter at the Mull Highland Games playing the 6/8 “Leaving Port Askaig”.
The adjudicator was the great pibroch instructor, John MacDonald of Inverness and the prize, a chanter, suitably inscribed, was presented by Greta Lauder, niece of the late Sir Harry Lauder.
Progress continued apace with Bobby graduating to the pipes and quoting from his book “Pas-de-Bas” …..”having attained the technique to finger the complexities of pibroch by the time I was twelve years old. My father was my teacher, refinements being constantly added over the years by Pipe Major William MacLean (P/M of the Cameron Highlanders), a most authoritative tutor. In the summers just before the war, I attended the piping school at Kinlochewe in Ross-shire, coming all too briefly under the guidance of Pipe Major William Ross, of whom I remain a disciple”.
During this period, Bobby had also started to compete on the pipes, but the war put paid to that part of the scene. However, his prowess on the instrument had not gone unnoticed and as early as 1937 he was invited to play alongside his father at the Tobermory Celebrations and in the same year he did his very first broadcast playing (solo) the march, “Balmoral Highlanders”, would you believe. It was a live transmission by landline from Tobermory to Glasgow and was for a “Children’s Hour” programme produced by Howard Lockhart. Bobby also did a second spot in that session as a member of a junior mouth organ quartet, which included a certain Willie Lowe.
Incidentally, while learning the pipes he also became a proficient Highland and Scottish Country Dancer under the tutorship of a Miss McKenzie, who hailed from Ayr. This certainly paid off, as witness the exemplary MacLeod tempo which pleases listener and dancer alike.
Bobby was always most emphatic about this, that in the dance situation those on the floor came first. This may seem very obvious, but it is a fact that quite a number of bands today do not give adequate consideration to their patrons and tend to play for themselves.
Taking just a couple of examples, say waltz and strathspey. Bobby’s rhythm for these was absolutely tailor-made for the job in hand – thanks to his “hands-on” experience.
But to back-track to the mid ‘30’s with Bobby about 9 or 10. At that time one member of the “Mishnish Hotel” staff played the melodeon and this was to have a very significant influence on Bobby’s career – “I was frustrated with the pipes, could only get 8 notes on the chanter and there were songs I couldn’t play, so I thought if I can get a melodeon I’ll be able to get this note and that note. There was a chap in a shop directly below us who had a 10 key “Excelsior” melodeon with pan-handle basses, price 12/6d, so I got that and there was a wee woman “Teeny” MacArthur who worker there, a bright sparkly body who could play the melodeon She showed me how, and said to try and master “The Hills of Glenorchy”, pretty hard to play”.
Many years later of course, Bobby was to feature the three part version of this very tune on that outstanding Philip’s 78, “After the Games”, of which mint condition copies have been changing hands for between two and three hundred pounds in recent years.
From the 10 key melodeon, the next step was to a 21 key Hohner “Black Dot Double Ray” instrument which gave greater scope and filled the bill until 1942, by which time Bobby was working as a telegraph messenger with the Post Office (hoping to join the engineering department), and playing at the odd dance here and there.
Now, he had a great ear for harmony and found the 8 button bass end of the “Double Ray” very restrictive, so when a full size second-hand piano accordion, a “Geraldo” became available from a Mr Gilhooley, he jumped at the chance and bought it.
In that same year, he volunteered for the Air Force, but being only 17 was asked to wait another 12 months or so. He duly joined the R.A.F.V.R. in 1943, taking his accordion with him.
While stationed in Aberdeen shortly afterwards, he sold it, but in 1944 when in Scarborough, he bought a “Hohner Verdi III” which he kept until he was demobbed in 1946, prematurely as it happened, due to an ear problem. This also necessitated a transfer from aircrew training to transport while serving with the R.A.F.
But to pursue Bobby’s sequence of instruments – the “Verdi III” was followed by that great sounding aforementioned “Cooperativa” which in turn was replaced after 3 or 4 years by a brand new, grey, mother-of-pearl Hohner “Morino IV” with double octave tuning. Sound-wise, this accordion didn’t do Bobby any favours when playing Scottish, so it was quickly disposed of (to Tony Reid of Balnakilly) in favour of a hand-made Morino VN with all “mod cons”.
Round about 1958, for reasons which will be given later, a switch was made for a time to a 5 row Continental Chromatic , a Hohner Morino “Artiste” IV, the piano-keyed box meanwhile going to Andrew Rankine, then via Jim Johnstone, John Crawford I believe, and Jimmy Shand Jnr, to Bruce Lindsay Snr. Then after a comparatively short interval a brand new Morino V piano accordion was acquired, and because of Bobby’s Continental quest for an instrument which would sound like a “Shand Morino”, was specially modified so that in the 3 voice mode, all reeds “spoke” out instead of one set going through the cassotto chamber.
In 1983, a 5 row “Artiste” came to the fore once again, to be superseded by a “Pigini” which was soon to make way for Bobby’s last acquisition and the ultimate in accordions as far as he was concerned – a “Morino Artiste IV N” with a built-in bass pick-up system.
THE BANDS AND THE PLAYERS
So how was all this fine machinery put to use. You will recall that, prior to joining up, Bobby had been doing the odd bit of dance playing, initially on 2 row and latterly on his “Geraldo” piano key. This continued during his spell in the R.A.F. where he played a bit for entertainment and dancing (including modern) and back again in civvy street he took up where he had left off.
Then a year later, in 1947, ten years after his first solo broadcast (pipes) things began to happen. Unknown to Bobby, his mother had contacted the B.B.C. and he was called for an audition, passed, and did a solo spot on accordion this time playing the 2/4 March “Portree Men” (aka “Skye Crofters”).
Sharing the bill on the programme, which was appropriately entitled “Accordion” were two variety scene players Maisie Leyton and Betty Bowers and the producer once again was Howard Lockhart.
A few months later, in the November to be precise, an ex-school mate and contemporary of Bobby’s, the aforementioned Willie Lowe of the “moothie” foursome was demobbed from the Royal Engineers and that started a chain of events which was to add a new dimension to the Scottish Dance Music scene.
Bobby and Willie got together for a tune, then teamed up with a drummer – either local man, George Purvis or Englishman, Tommy Benson from Oban, depending on availability, and started playing for dances. “we had a wee ‘Grampian’ amplifier, sufficient for small village halls. Folded into about 18 inches square – wish I’d kept it”.
Willie, a self-taught pianist was basically a modern and jazz player and when he started vamping to Bobby, he would put in two “pom-poms” in the bar with the right hand – “Shows you how much I knew about Scottish Dance Music” – but he quickly got the message and they made it swing, coping happily with 50-50 dance programmes.
1948, and Bobby decided he would have a crack at getting a band broadcast – always a man of ideas, an innovator if ever there was one, he wanted to do it his way, not slavishly copy Jimmy Shand or any of the other top line bands. Mind you, he always had the utmost respect and admiration for Jimmy (it was mutual) “….because he really established the whole thing in spite of the B.B.C. They were the governors, if you didn’t do it their way, you were out”.
For a broadcast, Bobby needed a fiddle player. This however, was a rather rare species on Mull, but through various contacts he managed to locate one in Glasgow, a piano tuner with Cuthbertson’s of Sauchiehall Street – Tommy Scott.
The music was sent through to Tommy 2 or 3 weeks in advance and it was arranged that they would meet up at the top of Glasgow’s North Street, then to quote Bobby “I parked opposite the old ‘Grand Hotel’ and I’m looking for this fiddle player whom I’d never met, when all of a sudden I could see fiddle players by the dozen, everywhere, there had been an orchestra rehearsal at the St Andrew’s Halls!” However, eventually they met up, rehearsed in a private hotel and then proceeded to a private studio where they put six sets down on disc (no tapes then). These were accepted by the B.B.C. in lieu of a live audition because of the remoteness of the band’s home bases, and despite having “warts and all”, they passed.
The quartet subsequently did their first live broadcast from Queen Margaret Drive, kicking off with the jig, “Teviot Brig”, followed by “Jenny’s Bawbee” and they came out feeling quite pleased with themselves. In fact, Bobby admitted that he was so naïve that he thought that when he left the B.B.C. folk would be clapping in the streets. Incidentally, the drummer on that occasion was Tommy Benson.
Such was the impact made by the group, with its fresh sound and approach that during the next 18 months further broadcasts followed at frequent intervals albeit with occasional personnel changes. Bobby and Willie remained as the common denominator throughout, but the fiddle and drum seats saw a change of occupancy from time to time.
Charlie Hunter, father of bandleader, Alastair Hunter was a radio operator on MacBrayne’s Oban-Barra run for 33 years and founder and conductor of the Oban Strathspey and Reel Society.
Bobby frequently travelled on the boat between Oban and Tobermory – “Charlie was in the radio cabin, and of course, it was accordion and fiddle out, along with Kerr’s book and he taught me more than I realised about how to interpret the strathspey and other fiddle music. He did a couple of broadcasts with us and so did Duncan Chisholm, who succeeded Charlie as conductor of the Oban Society”.
And there was yet another fiddle player who did several broadcasts during the period 1948/49. As the popularity of the trio or augmented trio spread like wildfire, they were having to travel further and further afield and stay away for longer periods which posed problems for some players because of work commitments.
On one occasion, when they had three jobs booked for three consecutive nights in Nairn, Forres and Elgin. Bobby was desperately searching for a fiddle player, so he contacted Jimmy Shand to see if one could be picked up in the Dundee area on the way north.
Jimmy immediately recommended a player who was a joiner to trade and lived in Inverness – “He’ll suit your life style”.
This particular fiddler was also to figure prominently in the annals of the Scottish Dance music world. His name – Alastair (‘Pibroch’) MacKenzie. He was not on the phone, so his whereabouts were traced through Clachnacuddin Football Club, of which he was an ardent supporter.
The trio turned upon his doorstep, he appeared in pink dungarees, Bobby popped the question and he said “Aye, I’ll come”. At the Nairn dance in the evening, he and Bobby “went bang just like that” from the very first note, and the blend of the two styles was so perfect it was “no’ real” as they say.
Although he could read music, Pibroch preferred not to, and “lugged” his way through with incredible success. At the end of the dance Willie Lowe just happened to play a few bars of jazz and Pibroch was in full flight once again. The MacLeod/MacKenzie combination had an indefinable quality (magic, for want of a better word) which was to be the “icing on the cake” for several years.
The drummer on this occasion was 16 year old Billy Ford from Oban. Billy also did a broadcast with Bobby around about this time and recounts how one summer’s evening he was sitting with some mates on a park bench looking out to Kerrera when Bobby – with whom he had previously done the odd dance – approached and said – “How would you like to come up to Glasgow next week and do a broadcast with me?” Can you just imagine the thrill for a teenager, to be invited to join his Scottish Dance Band on a live transmission!
This gesture was typical of Bobby, to recognise other folk’s talents, young or not so young, to have faith in them and to get the best out of them.
By mid 1949, the band was in such demand that the decision was made to go full time. It was then a case of who was prepared to take the big step.
Willie Lowe had just been offered a job with the Ordinance Survey, south of the border, so he opted out, but both Pibroch and Billy Ford (who was an apprentice plumber) said yes. In those days, £15 a week and all expenses paid was an attractive proposition.
PIANO AND DOUBLE BASS
So that left the piano and double bass slots to be filled and that is where the Musician’s Union came to the rescue, but let Bobby take up the story…. “I got two fellows, drums and piano from the Union and they arrived at Tobermory for a gig in the Aros Hall – they had no idea what to expect. Started to play and Pibroch, a great man for the sticks, was very critical of the drummer, one Johnny Fellows, who was using brushes. You see, Pibroch was a trained pipe band drummer, a marvellous drummer, he was leading tip with the Lovat Scout’s Band and had some beatings which were completely unusual especially in 6/8’s. The fiddle was just a second instrument to him. Anyhow, Pibroch turned and said “That lad canna’ play the drums” – and then all of a sudden in the middle of “The Mason’s Apron”, the foot pedal came in “de-dum” and I could feel the wee jump. He was a jazz drummer. I looked at Pibroch, Pibroch looked at me and I got the seal of approval.
The other guy was Davie Whitehead from Glasgow, on piano, a brilliant musician also well versed in swing and jazz – all of a sudden it just went bang”.
It most certainly did, because this combination of a jazz harmony and rhythm section with a Scottish traditional front line gave the whole thing a terrific swing which lifted it onto a new plain and which was to become a blueprint for the majority of today’s bands – it was ahead of its time.
As a result of that first session with Davie Whitehead and Johnny Fellows, it was brushes for Bobby from then on whenever possible … “OK., sticks for a big band, but for 6 piece or below, brushes create from the back, and if one listens to the drummer, one can forget the lead, and if the lead listens to the drummer, he can forget the rest. Does that sound logical? Yes, it lifts it for the listener”.
So that was Davie Whitehead in, Johnny Fellows did not join the band till a year later when Billy Ford went for National Service.
That just left the double bass post vacant, and again with the help of the Union, a very talented classically trained bass player, John Noble, was enlisted.
He had tremendous technique, and instead of playing the strings as did most players, he did most of his work arco, i.e. he produced a pizzicato effect, but using the bow. He could play the shortest note with the fullest tone.
On one occasion at a two-band dance up north, Bobby’s boys relieved the Stuart Kay 15 piece Modern Dance Orchestra who hastily made off, having no interest in Scottish Dance music, but they only got the length of the door when the band broke into “My Love She’s but a Lassie Yet”, and they were stopped in their tracks by the most amazing bowing demonstration they had ever heard – they stayed on, mesmerised by John’s performance.
After a comparatively short spell, this virtuoso bass player moved on, to be followed by a 17 year old lad from Bute, Fenwick MacDougall.
Over to Bobby again…”He thought he was joining a crowd of mountain goats, because he was jazz mad and had no idea of the Scottish ‘teuchter’ scene, and then suddenly we got this tremendous swing”.
It was this combination, MacLeod, MacKenzie, MacDougall, Whitehead and Fellows, which produced that inimitable sound on the A side of Beltona BL 2511.
No apologies for this repeat plug. This swinging style was to be further enhanced at a later date by the addition of a second accordion, playing a sequence of on and off chords, again a pioneering exercise, devised jointly by Bobby and Willie Lowe, who had by then rejoined the band. This harmony chording technique was a complete breakaway from the normal unison playing and again was to be one of the major influences on the format and style of current Scottish Dance Bands.
The band remained full time until 1958, there being a number of personnel changes along the route. National Service temporarily removed both Billy Ford and Fenwick MacDougall, who were replaced by Johnny Fellows and Willie Lowe respectively.
Then round about 1954, Bobby went on a Canadian tour with amongst others a Pipe Major from the Seaforth Highlanders’ “Big” Donald MacLean of Lewis. There had been a misunderstanding and what had been taken as a band booking turned out to be a solo turn, so minus its leader, the band stayed at home and soldiered on with limited bookings for a period, during which time Alasdair Downie deputised for Bobby.
During this lean spell, Willie Lowe got a job in Glasgow, left the band and was replaced by Hugh Malarky of Rothesay.
Hugh, an organist, choirmaster and a very talented arranger stayed with the full time band until it wound up and during this time introduced a number of novel harmony and bass progressions, one such being in a ‘Hebridean Waltz’ on the Philips Label. Bobby described this particular arrangement as – “a new world, one of the best records we ever made”.
Round about 1955 or ’56, Pibroch wanted a change of occupation and left the band to take up a forestry job I believe, his seat being taken over by the ex-Hawthorn Band fiddler, Jimmy Ritchie of Blairgowrie, who after a couple of years or so handed on the position to Derek Auld (ex-Glendaruel) of Perth, who was to be the last of the fiddlers with the full time band.
It is not feasible to enlarge on all the personnel changes which took place over the years in the semi-professional and full-time bands, but a list of players who joined with Bobby, at one time or another, has been added at the end of this write up. It is by no means exhaustive, and I must apologise, in advance, for any omissions.
For a considerable period, the full time band was based in the old Highlander’s Institute (now the Volunteer’s Centre) in Glasgow’s Elmbank Street, as suitable living quarters and other facilities were available on the premises. They played there for dancing on a regular basis on Monday evenings to capacity crowds of enthusiastic followers, both musicians and dancers.
Another group which did the regular Saturday night “hops” at the Institute was the Cairngorm Band, led by Lex Keith on accordion.
Lex has always been an ardent Bobby MacLeod fan and he was one of the musicians who religiously attended the Monday sessions just to listen, but he soon got to know Bobby by virtue of his “Cairngorm” involvement and was invited to sit in with him on second accordion from time to time.
If for any reason the MacLeod band was not available, the “Cairngorm” would stand in and when the full time band wound up around 1958 it took over the Monday slot.
Part 2 in April 1991 issue
Following its successful debut on the air in 1948, the still semi-professional band did fairly frequent Scottish Dance Music broadcasts and this pattern was to continue with the full time group, the live transmission being roughly on a monthly basis.
In addition to the S.D.M. programmes, other radio spots cropped up from time to time, including “Down at the Mains”, which turned out to be a rather short lived contract. On one occasion, Bobby turned up with only half a band because Pibroch’s wife was in hospital having their first child (Anne Fraser MacKenzie) and understandably he wanted to be with her. In addition, the booked pianist had got delayed, however they managed to get a substitute, Ken Dockens, at the last minute and did the job, but the B.B.C. was not amused and they lost the contract to Jim MacLeod.
In the late ‘50s, the band also did quite a batch of programmes in the ubiquitous “On Tour” radio series and at a later date Bobby teamed up with Ian Powrie, Andy Stewart, Alex MacAvoy and Harry Carmichael on piano to do a six programme run of the couthie “Bide a Wee”.
As already mentioned, full time status ceased in 1958, but the band (albeit with frequent permutations) continued to ride high in the popularity stakes. In the early sixties it took television in its stride (in fact the first S.D.B. on the box), doing a fair number of the “White Heather Club” programmes, using 3 accordions, 2 in unison and 1 on harmony, Ian Holmes being the unison man on many of these tele-recordings.
The fiddle players for the series were Bob Christie from Stirling (home based programmes) and Pibroch (Germany).
In the mid-50s, the band became involved in several theatre productions including the Robert Wilson Show with which it travelled for the best part of 18 months.
Other ploys were pantomime in the Glasgow Empire with Dave Willis and his son Denny, the “Logan Show” in the old “Metropole” in Glasgow with Pa (Jack Short) and Ma Logan, parents of Jimmy Logan.
The experience was to stand Bobby in good stead when he later toured with Neil Kirk’s “White Heather Club” show in Canada along with artists such as Kenneth McKellar, soprano Ivy Carey, Jimmy Neal, Jimmy Warren and Duncan MacRae.
Incidentally, the band also accompanied the “Jimmy Logan Show” to “Her Majesty’s Theatre” in Aberdeen and on the bill was a young unknown who did impersonations – Andy Stewart!
Bobby also had a show of his own on the road for a time which featured, amongst others, Calum Kennedy and his wife Anne, comedian Walter Jackson and singer Ivy Carey.
In 1957, the band had a very successful trip to Russia with Calum, the fiddler on that occasion being Angus Cameron of Kirriemuir.
To harp back to the radio broadcasts, the last Scottish Dance music programme by Bobby and his band was 4 or 5 years ago, if my memory serves me correctly, and was recorded in Oban’s Corran Halls. Another was scheduled for a couple of years back to celebrate Tobermory’s Bi-centenary, and was to go out from the town’s Aros Hall, but was cancelled as a mark of respect to a local man whose son had been tragically killed in a road accident.
In preparation for this broadcast, Hamish Johnston, conductor of the Mull Fiddlers, had been putting local dancers through their paces in the Scout Hall every Monday evening, the music being supplied by Bobby, Sandy MacAulay (also on accordion) and local butcher Richard Hughes, composer of the ‘Tobermory Two-Step’. Bobby really enjoyed these wee sessions and continued to participate as often as his by now indifferent heath would allow.
Reference was made earlier to the two batches of band records (20 sides in all) on the Beltona Label. For the second set, the band had become a six piece with the addition of Willie Lowe on second accordion (having just done 2 years on bass – what a versatile cratur!). and with Billy Ford back on drums, having completed his National Service.
The first indications of Bobby’s humour and inventiveness surfaced on this second set of releases in two of the titles – “The Burning of Paddy’s Breeches” and “The Gatherings” – simple yes, but effective and needless to say, many of the tunes were real crackers, new to the majority.
Then, round about 1953/54, a few 78s emerged on the “Parlophone” Label, one of these viz. “Peter MacLeod” (again, notice the originality of the title) being particularly noteworthy. We were on holiday in the Peak District when it came out and on a day’s visit to Manchester, we stood with king-size goose pimples in the middle of a large department store as “The Conundrum” had all the shoppers jigging about to its syncopated beat. This particular store had no individual listening booths, so the “world and his wife” had to listen to every punters requests. On this occasion, of course, the punter was N.Y.W. and no-one seemed to object – you can’t beat education! This reaction of the masses was testimony to the great MacLeod swing.
Also about this time, Bobby did some solo recordings (78s) for Arthur Bell of Bell Accordions, Surbiton in Surrey and although in exile, we were able to hear them on Radio Luxembourg. But, to my lasting regret, I didn’t try to get ahold of any until it was too late.
Next in line for a “bite at the cherry” was the Philips Record Company, which had for some time been ‘mustard’ keen to get Bobby because he was ‘hot property’ in the Scottish music popularity stakes. The band recorded quite a number of 78 singles for this label, one including vocals by the late Roddy MacMillan and one, if not two, with Bobby playing solo, and in addition one E.P. 45 with the “Eightsome Reel” and “The Duke of Perth”. More about the material on these a bit later.
From the mid-‘60s through to the mid-‘80s, LPs were the order of the day on various labels, including Emerald Gem (Decca), Lismor and International (R.C.A.). In keeping with Bobby’s outlook and originality, and also dependent to some extent on availability of players, the band line-up on these recording varied considerably, as did the make of lead accordion and the couplers used, but throughout every track, whatever the permutations, the MacLeod message came through load and clear.
Then in 1988, 41 years on from his first solo accordion broadcast , Bobby went solo once again on what was to be his last recording, a cassette produced by “Mull Recordings” and entitled, not surprisingly “Strictly Solo” and as Bobby wrote in the sleeve notes …”That’s me, warts and all”. Okay there are one or two slight blemishes, but these are completely obliterated by the interpretation, the light and shade, the bass and the treble harmonies, the very melodious selections and the fine sound of the 5 row chromatic.
In the first track the strathspey “Soonachan MacPhee” from Bobby’s own pen is something else – it could make a stone dance. This tape is certainly a fitting tribute to the man’s style and versatility.
THE MAN AND HIS MUSIC
The 5th of January 1951, and the presenter of the Scottish Dance Music on the Scottish Home Service was giving out the tunes out the next dance, the strathspey “The Braes o’ Busby” (R.S.C.D.S. Book 9) – “Captain Carswell”, “The Cowal Gathering”, “Lady Lever Park” and “The Pap of Glencoe”. Four heavy 2/4s for an ordinary strathspey, my goodness – but the band just happened to be that of Bobby MacLeod and the dance instructions in Book 9 just happened to say , “Bars 9 – 12 and 17 – 20, set three and three with Highland Schottische Step”.
Enough said. Interesting, though in the light of Bobby’s views expressed many years later….”The Highland Schottische really does demand a ‘four in the bar’ rhythm to properly generate the dancers. A 2/4 is absolutely not on”. When I tackled him comparatively recently about this apparent contradiction and quoted the “Braes of Busby” tunes, his reply with more than a hint of amused surprise was “Did I really, I wonder why I did that?” One thing for certain, we’re all glad he did.
And just look at the heady stuff Bobby used to give us for the Gay Gordons in 1951, “Arthur Bignold of Lochrosque”, “Braes of Castle Grant”, “Dugald McColl’s Farewell to France” and “The 74th Farewell to Edinburgh” – all that in one set! They don’t make them like that any more and just think of the length of the dance time-wise – oh happy days!
Mind you, talking of time, fiddle player Derek Auld recalls how on evening in 1957 when playing with Bobby for a ball at Duart Castle, one Gay Gordons lasted for a total of 35 minutes! …..”It was swinging like nothing I’ve ever played. When Bobby was on song you could feel the hair rising on the back of your neck.”
Interspersed with these 2/4 delicacies (and 6/8s of course) were the odd pipe reel, jig or strathspey. However, in these rhythms Bobby tended to stick to well tried traditional, material, but played in his own inimitable style. Although this differed radically from that of Jimmy Shand, Bobby “,,, took lots of his repertoire, lots of his tunes, and played them without any shame…..”. Bobby always had the knack of taking the simplest, often hackneyed tune and making it sound great, this was especially true of the popular Scottish songs like “Loch Lomond” or “Granny’s Hielan’ Hame”. Interpretation and expression were always the name of the game.
Both his parents had the Gaelic, although he himself did not, but he could give an authentic pronunciation of the Gaelic names of many of the waltz tunes. This was another rhythm in which he excelled and set standards for others to strive after. The 2nd and 3rd beat in the bar were only just suggested – none of your “1 pom-pom, 2 pom-pom”, and so on.
It would take reams to do justice to this man’s music, his versatility and inventiveness, but to cite one or two examples. Firstly, that already-mentioned incomparable B side on the Philips label “After the Games”. This was a total trend setter if ever there was one, an inspired arrangement, and yet it was done “… off the top of my head, virtually on the spot – we were short of a side.”
The opening slow air/waltz rendering of (Mist Covered Mountains) on solo accordion (single reed), represents the deserted Games Field, with the sound of the pipes still in the air, then the 6/8 march with its innovative instrument build-up is the sojourn to the after-games Ceilidh and the exciting arrangement of the reel, “John Morrison of Assynt House” emulating the pipe band with drum corps breaks, is the Ceilidh in full swing. This unique track will never be surpassed.
And then there is the track on the LP “Maestro MacLeod” – solo accordion + drums – ‘New Hebridean Waltz’. The tune is a 4 part slow air by P/M Donald MacLeod (“Wee Donald”) played in waltz time. For me, this sums up the man’s ability to express a tune as no-one else. Each measure is repeated but never twice the same and there is this very effective ‘borrow now, pay back later’ modulation in the tempo.
‘The King of the Marches’ is the title of a 2/4 march composed for Bobby by fellow musician and close personal friend, Ian Holmes. It is a great compliment and a richly reserved tribute, but Bobby had a very wide ranging musical taste which encompassed Continental, Latin-American and Modern, as well as Scottish and Irish traditional. He worked very hard at mastering the respective idioms, with great success, and although flattered by the abovementioned regal accolade, he was not always over the moon about being filed exclusively in the ‘pipe march’ dooket.
On the “Simply Solo” tape, there are two excellent examples of his prowess in other directions, which demonstrate his great sense of harmony and use of the left hand – the musette – “Birds at Dawn” and “Valse Bleue” – again interpretation and expression, the most telling points.
Not only did Bobby work hard at building up a cosmopolitan repertoire. He also didn’t spare himself in trying to improve his playing technique. Because he was self taught, he wasn’t too happy with his fingering, so in the late ‘50’s he switched to 5 row Continental Chromatic, but once again he was picking it up by himself. It is also possible that the probing, unblinking eye of the television camera, which could home-in on the keyboard, was partly responsible for this changeover.
After a few years “experimenting” (as he put it) with the Continental Chromatic, he reverted to the piano key instrument in a serious attempt to achieve a better technique and “brought the house down” in a Radio Forth “Accordion ‘76” Concert in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. This concert was by way of a comeback for Bobby after a period of ill health which had kept him off the circuit for a while.
A veritable spate of bookings followed for Accordion and Fiddle Clubs, dances, concerts, you name it, Bobby MacLeod was right back up there.
The about 1982/83, still not satisfied with his performance, he reverted to 5 row, this time seeking help to get things right, one of his mentors being Owen Murray.
His perseverance reaped rewards and as close friend, Jim Johnstone commented, “He really did finish up a much more competent musician – very competent indeed.” And what’s more, Bobby really enjoyed relearning the Chromatic ….”Great fun, the challenge and scope is most rewarding…..the instrument has terrific potential and flexibility”.
COMPOSITIONS & PUBLICATIONS
In the mid ‘50’s, Mozart Allan published a book with a yellow MacLeod of Lewis tartan cover ‘Bobby MacLeod’s Selection of Country Dance Tunes’, 22 pieces in all, of which 9 were Bobby’s own compositions and the rest his arrangements of pipe marches (yes, “Balmoral Highlanders” is on page 1), traditional reels and three Irish hornpipes. Bobby was a fairly prolific composer and invariably his tunes were good, some exceptionally good – “To Dance To”, “Jimmy McHugh”, “Seumas MacNeill”, “Findlay J. MacDonald” and the minor 6/8 which Jimmy Shand “diddled” on that excellent “Shepherd’s Fancy” tribute to Bobby – “Murdo MacKenzie of Torridon”.
His 6/8 marches have great originality and P/M Donald MacLeod once confided in a well known bandleader that “Murdo MacKenzie” gave him the inspiration for many of his own dance tunes, e.g. ‘Mrs MacDonald of Uig’ – a compliment indeed. And Bobby apparently wrote the tune as he waited to go in to play at a wedding reception. He worked it out on a piano in the lobby.
The word ‘innovative’ and its various derivatives just cannot be avoided when dealing with any ploy in which Bobby MacLeod had a hand, whether it had a musical connection or not. He had a very active and fertile mind, always probing for a better understanding of things in which he was interested and always thinking deeply about possible improvements or a different approach to things which were just generally accepted by all and sundry as inevitable.
For example, take the written music, the staff notation for a 2/4 pipe march. In the case of the quickstep type say, ‘Highland Laddie’ or ‘The Barren Rocks of Aden’, the majority of bars contain only 4 or 5 notes. These are predominantly quavers with single lines joining the note stems. However, where a competition 2/4 is concerned, here is what Bobby had to say on the subject “You’ve got a bar with 8 notes in it. If it’s a 2/4, it’s got to have 2 lines below each one, and if you dot a note, then 3 wee lines on the bottom, and it becomes a complicated bit of machinery. You can halve the complication by making it 2/2 and making it minims instead of crotchets. It’s so simple.” Simple indeed, so why didn’t anyone think of that before? – which is precisely what George MacIlwham said when consulted about it.
Seamus MacNeill at the College of Piping sent a very favourable response to the “Piping Times” regarding Bobby’s idea, saying that he intended to include a march in 2/2 time in his next book.
The late World Champion Drummer, Alex Duthart, sent an enthusiastic reply to a letter from Bobby on the subject. “What a great idea, you’re literally halving the thing on paper, but we’re used to reading the complicated thing.”
There was always a wee touch of originality and flair with Bobby. Again, back to the track titles on his records, “Jiggery”, “Reelography”, “Melodeonsticks”, “The Tullymet”, “Cascade” and so on, all guaranteed to raise a smile.
And take the cup presented by Bobby for the best overall Scottish Accordion performance at the Musselburgh Festival – it is not the “Bobby MacLeod cup” or Trophy, it is The Bobby MacLeod. Just that wee extra touch.
But, back to the music and the ‘West Coast’ sound or style. Bobby had great powers of perception and understanding and he thought deeply about many things. On this east versus west issue his views were that “Environment has a real influence on everybody. This influence does affect artistic creation.”
He pointed out that to the west of the Grampians there is a vast tract of country dominated by mountains and lochs which runs down to the western seaboard via tiny crofts with precious little in the way of arable land. A crop failure here means farm the sea, a very chancy business. By contrast, the east and north-east are, on the whole, rich agricultural country, which will grow virtually anything, so that the failure of one crop doesn’t spell disaster.
Bobby felt that territorial differences alone could account for the difference in character, which would be amplified by the fact that the more apparent and start presence of mother nature in mountain country would perhaps have a difference influence on the artistic side of the inhabitants.
He then went on to comment on the influence of the Gaelic language (with its musical and poetic qualities), the fiddle and the great Highland bagpipe. The sounds of all three would be going through the ears of the Highlander from birth.
And then there is “caintearachd” the sophisticated diddling of the piper, which can portray the “pointing” or phrasing of a tune to the layman, making it possible to play an interpretation of pipe music on other instruments.
Bobby, incidentally, was a master of “caintearachd” and frequently broke into it when illustrating a point. What a lift, it had even more than his box playing and that’s saying something.
These thoughts from Bobby on west versus east are pointing to why and not how. To get how, one has to use one’s ears and even then some of the “message” gets past un-noticed.
Following the tribute broadcast to Bobby, someone who shall be nameless, but who knows I don’t have a G sharp on my accordion, phoned up to ask why I insist on using G natural, when Bobby MacLeod used G sharp several times in “Bonawe Highlanders.” The answer is that, not only was Bobby a piper, he had a tremendous musical ear and a great love of the melodious, so if he felt the sharp gave a more pleasing sound, he would use it.
A quote from Roderick Connon’s book, “The Highland Bagpipe and its Music” is apt at this point – “It is noticeable that when a piper sings or whistles a pipe tune, he usually sharpens the High G when necessary. I repeat Bobby was a piper, I am not.
THE MAN AND HIS BOATS
Looking down from the windswept churchyard on that last January Tuesday, one could see a lifeboat moored in Tobermory Bay. This was the “City of Bradford IV” which had arrived only a couple of days previously. The fact that it was there at all, was thanks in large part to the efforts of the man to whom that large crowd were paying their last respects.
Bobby had fought hard over a considerable period to have a boat reinstated at Tobermory after a long absence and was justifiably proud of the successful outcome of his campaign.
50 years previously, at the age of 15, he was a crewman on the local lifeboat – the youngest crewman in the country. The sea was in his blood and he started young, learning to row in a tethered boat when he was only 5.
In later years, as a member of both the Highland and Royal Yacht Clubs, he went into the competition scene with considerable success, one notable win being the “Dragon” class in a West Highland Club event.
During that period, he had been the proud owner of several boats, including Dragons, an 8 metre cruiser, and a launch and for the last few years his pride and joy had been the Miller-Fifer auxiliary ketch, “Kilmory”.
Thanks to Bobby, Jim Johnstone caught the sailing bug, learned the skills of the sport from the man himself, and then crewed for him on several occasions. Because of his encyclopaedic knowledge, Bobby was affectionately known as the “Ancient Mariner” by the sailing fraternity among whom he commanded great respect and affection.
Referring back to the lifeboat, the family connection is being maintained, because Bobby’s second son, Robert, is engineer on the “City of Bradford” and enthusiasm in the town is running high with a live-wire ladies committee, who are promoting fund-raising activities, and I believe that two of the crew members are girls.
THE MAN HIMSELF
One of the first things that struck one on speaking to Bobby, either in person or on the telephone, was the pleasant quality of his voice. It was slightly husky and had a warmth about it which had a soothing effect which reflected the kindness of the man himself. He always made you feel he was genuinely pleased to see you and interested in what you had to say and he was an excellent conversationalist. Even on a first meeting, it was obvious that there was a very knowledgeable, intelligent person with a very active brain.
As mentioned above, Bobby was a kind and generous man. This manifested itself in many ways. For instance, to quote Jim Johnstone once again, “Kids and dugs loved him, it was amazing just how much that man was respected and loved outside the music business – folk who had worked at the hotel in the summer, students for instance….”
When the band was full time, the other band members enjoyed the same standard of accommodation and meals as Bobby – if things were rough, as some of the places were, they were all in it together.
On one occasion, when a couple of lads were heading for the Mishnish, they couldn’t get their cars on the last ferry from Lochaline to Fishnish, so they phoned the hotel to say they wouldn’t be over till the morning, but Bobby told them to drive about 8 miles from Lochaline to some specified point and wait there. It wasn’t long before the “Kilmory” came bobbing into sight and all was well.
Bobby was unstinting in his praise of others and very self-effacing concerning his own achievements. He did a fair bit of adjudicating at accordion and fiddle festivals and many competitors have remarked on the pleasing tone of his comments. Any criticism was always wholly constructive and worth heeding, but he also picked on the good points of the player’s performance and made moral boosting observations.
To digress slightly while on the subject of adjudication, Bobby had his own ideas as to what was acceptable and what was not. For example, he did not like a tune in a major key to be followed by a minor one – the reverse was okay. I learned this the hard way when I sandwiched the strathspey “Highland Harry” between “Mrs John MacColl” and “The Rejected Suitor”, but despite having heard champion pipers do this on occasion, I took Bobby’s advice and have stuck to it.
He loved young folk and was never happier than when sitting playing at an Accordion and Fiddle Club surrounded by ‘supporting’ players in the lower age bracket.
In addition to all the encouragement and help that Bobby gave to fellow musicians, he was also tireless in his efforts for the community. He was Provost of Tobermory for 12 years and when his term of office ceased in 1975 with the re-organisation of local government, he was made a Freeman of the Burgh. But his efforts didn’t end there, in addition to the lifeboat, he fought for and succeeded in getting a High School for the town to save the secondary pupils having to trek to Oban.
He was also a founder member of one of the main driving forces behind the very successful Mull Music Festival which annually attracts hundreds of folk to Tobermory in the early spring.
This particular Festival has Bobby’s stamp all over it - with a liberal sprinkling of well organised ceilidhs, concerts and dances interspersed with traditional music competitions – it has an atmosphere of its own.
In 1982 Bobby was Guest of Honour at a lunch in the Dunblane Hydro, when he was presented with a portrait by the N.A.A.F.C. to mark his tremendous contribution to the Scottish music and dance scene. In his thank-you speech two of his statements were particularly significant. “Communication to the people is the most fundamental thing that we (i.e. the musicians) can achieve” and “the future is in the hands of the younger generation, it’s up to them to get the people dancing again.” On this last point, Bobby often expressed concern that people didn’t seem to need to dance these days and therefore the young bands hadn’t got the audience (either dancing or listening) whereby to gain experience.
Immediately prior to his R.A.F. service, he did a spell as a “boots” and “barman” in the Mishnish and became acutely aware of class distinction (something for which he had little time)…..”The like of your bankers and so and so, they went to the smoke room with the fire on, whereas your labourers came into the public bar, it hasn’t changed all that much.”
In Bobby’s philosophy all were equal, and he could fraternise comfortably at all levels. For instance, while over in Germany recording the “White Heather Club”, the band were attending a reception and as Ian Holmes walked by Bobby called him over and introduced the gentlemen sitting next to him, “Ian, I’d like you to meet the Duke of Kent…………..may I introduce Ian Holmes.” No fuss, no fluff, everything normal and straightforward.
This rapport with his fellow man was again demonstrated when “Pibroch”, who was a self taught fiddle player mastered “the shift” (up to second position). He had always worried about it, but one day Bobby was outside the door, heard a fiddle and suddenly “Pibroch” came rushing out shouting, “I’ve got it”. He’s worked it out for himself. Bobby was so pleased for his sake he could have hugged him.
The Mishnish Hotel, situated on Tobermory’s attractive water front, has been in the MacLeod family for well over 100 years – some sources give it as 130 years.
It started with Bobby’s great, great uncle and has passed down via the MacLeods who were on Mr MacLeod senior’s maternal side.
So the Mishnish was home for Bobby from the start. It was here that he learned to play both the chanter and accordion, and literally, health permitting , he was still instructing at least one local chap in the intricacies of the chanter.
In 1946/7 when he took up dance playing again, he had fairly regular bookings for a Mrs McCulloch in Oban. Through these he met her daughter, “a very keen dancer, a lovely dancer” (Bobby’s words). The daughter’s name, Jean. Things just went from there and in October, 1948, Jean and Bobby were married.
There are 4 of a family, two of whom live locally. The eldest, Duncan, who returned from Singapore about a couple of years ago, is now an accountant in Stornoway. For a time he was a professional footballer with Southampton, Dundee United, Dundee, St. Johnstone and Brechin City. He has 2 children.
Next in line is Robert, who has 4 of a family. Robert, a good 5 row accordionist in his own right, is fully occupied in running the hotel along with his mother.
The third son, Alisdair, at present in Port Elizabeth in South Africa, is an H.G.V. Instructor (used to drive Bowman’s Coaches on Mull) and in 1988 he won the “Bus Driver of the Year” award in a manoeuvring competition. He has 2 of a family and is planning to return to his native Mull in March of this year. Although he didn’t take the instrument to South Africa , Alisdair is well known in Scottish music scenes as a most competent bass player.
Rhoda, mother of three and the youngest of the family, is a housewife, and gives her mum support and help whenever possible. Rhoda’s husband, a deep sea fisherman, has his own boat, and Bobby had nothing but the highest praise for him …..”an expert in all things marine.”
So, eleven grandchildren of which Bobby was justly proud. And what about musical aspirations among them?
Robert’s son has taken up the pipes and is apparently doing quite well – only consulted granddad when he had a problem.
Rhoda’s eldest boy, John, is also taking piano lessons. But, and again it is granddad “…. You can’t stick music down kid’s throats.” So it’s a case of wait and see.
Jean (Granny), who was always very athletic, badminton and so on, and dancing daft (as already mentioned) now suffers from arthritic knees which prevent any dabbling in these pursuits. This has been a source of great frustration, especially when Bobby was playing for these wee Monday night sessions in the Scout Hall, she was just raring to go, but couldn’t.
And completing the family is Bobby’s sister, Mrs Isobel Lloyd, who lives locally in Tobermory. Isobel, who was older than Bobby, plays piano a bit, but purely for enjoyment.
One would require a full volume to pay adequate tribute to this man, Bobby MacLeod, but in conclusion, let a few of his friends and fellow musicians speak for themselves. (These are in no particular order).
“A hard task master, but a wonderful boss to work for” – Derek Auld (fiddle)
“I think Bobby MacLeod will be remembered not only as the great guy he was and the musician that he was, but he will be and should be, remembered for his tremendous contribution to the Scottish Country Dance scene – he took Highland music with the West Coast touch into the Scottish Country Dance Band, in fact he took the S.C.D. band from the east to the west coast. A first class piper, who for reasons known only to himself, latterly only played the accordion.” - Pipe Major John D. Burgess
“I was spoiled by playing with Bobby, because no matter how well it’s done nowadays, I feel it should be done like he did it, everything else is downhill. I was hooked on his music and once when I was down south I listened to a whole broadcast standing in a phone box, Jean had placed the handset near the wireless.” - Willie Lowe (bass, piano, second accordion)
“Bobby produced music which the young people of the time found very melodious and relaxing – all types of music. He had a fresh approach. It was like a breath of fresh air – Billy Ford (drums)
“I’ve been proud to know Bobby and Jean and the family. We’ll miss him greatly” – Jimmy Shand Snr
“First and foremost a great friend, then a great musician, a warm hearted man.” – Margaret Smith (Secretary of Newtongrange Accordion and Fiddle Club). Margaret started to dance to Bobby’s music at the age of 14 and became a close friend. Bobby’s greeting to her was always “Hi ya kid!”
“A modern outlook to the music. It was the harmonies and the swing of the music. Bobby was giving you something else.” – Jimmy Shand Jnr
“Late 1948/49, there was this brisk, crisp tone and sound, I thought it was a button key accordion….I enjoyed his company immensely.” – Ian Powrie
“The sheer exuberance of the band, the excitement. Bobby was influential and introduced the modern rhythm section, the band swing.” – Alasdair Downie (2nd accordion)
“Every one of his musicians was an innovator, solid but full of wee tricks…His way of playing Gaelic waltzes was absolutely beautiful. He was a super bandleader. There was always a bit of MacLeod’s “jag” came shining through. A very interesting man, very clever.” And talking about Bobby’s own composition “The Lothian Waltz” ….”Only a man who was very knowledgeable about music could have thought of that. Nobody had ever written a tune in these keys before.” – Ian Holmes
“No-one played pipe marches like Bobby. The piano box players have been copying him for years.” – Jimmy Ritchie (fiddle)
“He was an influence on an awful lot of people – he was the start of a new kind of sound in the music. He made a tremendous contribution to our music and culture.” Tony Reid of Balnakilly
“I remember when we used to play the ‘Canadian Barn Dance’ in Dunoon, it was the old sedate way and then Bobby came along and he started playing the pipe tunes and it was knockout….He started that and opened a new vista. From that day on the dance was known as the ‘Dunoon Barn Dance’ – Bobby didn’t get enough credit for that. One of the greats, he’ll never be forgotten. – Angus Fitchet
“He had innovation, produced a completely new sound by his choice of musicians….He was mainly responsible for introducing the type of rhythm accordion that everyone plays nowadays.” – Lex Keith
“A great guy in so many ways, a great man to know, a great friend – what came out of the friendship was greater than the music.” – Jim Johnstone who was still in “short breeks” when he first met Bobby at a function in Haddington, will never forget that great moment when the man himself came over to speak to him and his mate (Bobby Colgan).
The list of tributes is endless, but to put it in a nutshell :- Bobby MacLeod, the man, the musician, irreplaceable, but unforgettable.
And finally, reflecting on that observation by P/M John Burgess….”A piper who played on accordion.” Bobby’s own comment says it all….”The glorious sound of the great Highland bagpipe, from classical to dance, is the result of a millennium of thought, and to me is one of the few perfections of civilisation.”
Herewith a fairly comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive, list of players who were involved with the Bobby MacLeod band over the years.
Fiddle – Derek Auld, Angus Cameron, Syd Chalmers, Donald Chisholm, Bobby Christie, Angus Fitchet, Charlie Hunter, Alastair (Pibroch) MacKenzie, Ian MacMillan, Jimmy Ritchie, Tommy Scott.
Accordion – John Carmichael, Alasdair Downie, Ian Holmes, Jim Johnstone, Willie Lowe, Hugh Malarky, Bert Shorthouse.
Piano – Tommy Brotherhood, Jimmy Burns, Harry Carmichael, Davie Flockhart, Willie Lowe, Davie Whitehead.
Double Bass – John Noble, Willie Lowe, Fenwick MacDougall, Alasdair MacLeod, Tommy McTague.
Drums – Tommy Benson, Laurence Brotherstone, Johnny Fellows, Billy Ford, Andy Hardie, Richard Hughes, Ian MacDougall, Dickie McGill, Robert MacLeod, George Purvis.
(I apologise for any glaring omissions or any incorrect spelling of names) - NYW
Box and Fiddle
March / April 1991