In conversation with Ian Holmes
By Billy Wortley
I enjoyed a magical afternoon in the company of Ian Holmes at his home in Dumfries and was enthralled with his conversation as he spoke of his experiences in the world of accordion music.
Ian began to play the piano accordion when he was around eleven or twelve years of age, on an instrument left at the family home by his elder brother Archie’s pal. Having given it a try on this accordion, he then borrowed one from the local butcher. The first tune that he mastered was The Auld Hoose, played on the black notes (one brick at a time) and although self taught, he made progress. The progress was such that he was soon asked to provide the music at parties and small dances and was enrolled into the YW(M)CA concert party.
Around 1948 he decided that he should learn to read music and he enrolled for lessons from local teacher, Alex Carter. At that time Alex did not like Scottish dance music and actually taught Ian light classics. When questioned, Ian said that he felt it was the correct decision with him having to teach himself the rudiments of traditional music. He added that it cannot be a coincidence that the “big four” Shand, MacLeod, Fitchet and Powrie were virtually self-taught, they had nothing to learn and were the inspiration to Ian and many of his generation. Having made progress, Alex Carter suggested to Ian that he purchase a reconditioned 120 bass Scandalli Vibrante Four. He was thereafter asked to play solo in concerts by the local RAFA Orchestra, of which Alex was the conductor.
When he was fourteen Ian started to play as a member of a local band that had engagements most Fridays and Saturdays.
When he was around fifteen Ian met Bobby MacLeod and his Band at a dance in the neighbouring village of Moniaive. Ian was allowed to play Bobby’s Co-operativa accordion at half time and thereby started a friendship, which would last for over fifty years. The Band line-up was Bobby and Alisdair Downie (accordions), Alex “Pibroch” Mackenzie (fiddle), David Whitehead (piano), Willie Lowe (double bass) and Johnny Fellows (drums). Ian told me that Johnny was the first drummer to use brushes in a Scottish Dance Band, thereby starting a trend. Willie Lowe and Ian Holmes remain friends and often talk on the phone. Bobby told Ian that that although Willie preferred playing modern music, he nevertheless asked him to join him on piano. Apparently many of the clever harmonies used today were Willie’s ideas and he was the first second accordionist to play a chordal accompaniment.
Ian Holmes and Bobby MacLeod shared a close friendship and in his book “Pas De Bas” Bobby wrote, “One of my best friends, Ian Holmes, the ‘Musician’s Musician’, delights with his flair for arrangements of the highest taste, combining always a subtlety of thought in his work. Ian also innovates in himself, outside the field of arranging by playing professionally, all three types of accordion.”
In 1953, Ian purchased Bobby’s Co-oparativa accordion from Andy Tosh of The Hawthorn Accordion Band.
In 1953 also, Angus Fitchet’s Band was playing at a dance at Penpont. As usual, the music was exceptional and Ian was part of the crowd gathered around the stage listening. Angus bent down and remarked to Ian and the girl standing next to him, “I haven’t seen you pair dancing yet.” They did have a dance, which eventually led to marriage. I learned that Ian and Margaret have now been married for fifty-two years. By coincidence Margaret also plays the accordion.
Around this time, whilst walking in Dumfries, Ian and Margaret met Jimmy Shand and his fiddler, Syd Chambers, and so started another long friendship.
In 1956 Ian attended a local dance at which the music was provided by The Bobby MacLeod Band. On this occasion it was a five-piece only, because second accordionist, Hugh Mularky, was ill. Much to Ian’s delight, however, Bobby asked him to sit in. Ian explained that the band stayed in Dumfries overnight. He added, with a smile that, having decided that they should try to get some sleep, pianist Davie Whitehead started whistling. Drummer, Lawrence Brotherhood, eventually asked him to stop, to which Davie replied, “Aye, okay then, but let me finish the set first, twice each tune and back to the original.”
In 1956 Ian was “called up” for National Service in the Royal Air Force. Having been stationed in several different Air Stations he was eventually posted to West Freugh, Near Stranraer where he stayed until he was demobbed in 1958. Around this time he composed his first tunes, a 6/8 bagpipe march Miss Margaret Bell and The Queen of the South Polka. The latter was subsequently recorded by the famous “Hamefarers” Shetland Band.
In 1957 he was granted sufficient leave in order to practise and compete at a major accordion event in The City Hall, Perth. From an entry of around thirty-five, he won the All Scotland Senior Traditional March, Strathspey and Reel section and was presented with The Jimmy Shand Shield. The adjudicator, incidentally, was Lindsay Ross.
Early in 1958 he went on leave with pal Ted Hayes to his home in Dublin. At a dance in the Irish Club he met Pat McGarr and his Gallowglass Ceili Band. On learning that Ian was soon to be demobbed, Pat offered Ian a job playing with the Band. After giving the matter much thought, Ian declined Pat’s offer and after he was demobbed he returned to his job as a coachbuilder in Dumfries, where his workmates nicknamed him “the long distance melodeon player”.
He and Margaret were married on 6th November that year and they spent their honeymoon at The Mishnish Hotel at Tobermory with Bobby and Jean MacLeod. They all went to the Golf Dance, where music was played by Pibroch Mackenzie and Calum MacLean. Ian and Calum have been firm friends from that time. It was in 1958 that Ian did his first solo broadcast in a show called “Almost Brand New” on the BBC Scottish Home Service.
In 1959 Ian was asked by Andrew Rankine to “guest” with his band at dances at Preston and Nelson and several months later, he and Margaret moved residence to Stenhousemuir. On moving, Ian joined The Andrew Rankine Scottish Dance Band. At the time the line-up was Andrew and Ian (accordions), Bobby Christie (violin), Robert “Brush” Campbell (piano), Tom McTague (bass) and Billy Thom on drums. This was one of the most popular bands of the time, playing across Scotland and England. Most weekends they performed in English cities such as London, Newcastle, Liverpool etc. They also broadcast frequently on BBC Radio.
In 1961 The Andrew Rankine Band played at a concert with Andy Stewart in The Festival Hall, London.
Around 1961 Ian was asked by Bobby MacLeod to join his Band for the TV Show “The White Heather Club”. The compere and star was Andy Stewart and Ian recollects that amongst others that he met and befriended were Dixie Ingram, Moira Anderson, Robin Hall, Jimmie McGregor, the Brand Sisters and Jimmy Urquhart and Peter Malan. With shows starring The Corrie Folk Trio and Paddy Bell, the company travelled to and recorded two shows in Germany. These were done before an audience of troops from the Scots Greys in the Roundhouse, which had been the German Officers’ Quarters for the notorious Belsen Concentration Camp. By this time Belsen village had been renamed Hohne. Ian and several others were taken to the immaculately kept cemetery, located on the actual site of the camp. The fiddler, Alex “Pibroch” McKenzie had been one of the first of the British troops to enter and liberate the horror camp at the end of the War. Ian said, “A very moving and unforgettable experience.”
In 1961 Ian and Margaret’s daughter Rhona was born and in 1963 their second daughter Mhorag was born.
The Rankine Band made several recordings for EMI with producer George Martin, who later gained great fame with The Beatles. One of the tracks was Ian’s Scottish Waltz, which was one of the several sets arranged for the band by Ian.
In 1962 Ian started his own Band and their first (live) broadcast was on 7th May from Edinburgh. A five-piece, the line up was: Ian (accordion), Kenny Wilson (fiddle) Davie Whitehead (piano), Stan Saunders (bass) and Bert Leishman (drums). After the rehearsal the Band retired to the lounge to be greeted by none other than Jimmy Shand, who was playing at Waverley Market and who had dropped in to wish them good luck. Stan Saunders was a regular member of Jimmy’s Band but he’d kindly insisted that Stan should play in Ian’s broadcast.
In 1963 the Band’s first LP, Let’s have a Party, was issued. This was the first Scottish Dance Band to record a Quickstep and there was also another first, for Ian insisted that the names of the band members should be listed on the sleeve.
Around 1968 Ian’s Band performed the pilot shows for The White Heather Show at several locations across the country.
In the mid 1960s, Ian was asked by Bobby MacLeod to go to the Decca Studios in London’s West Hampstead to record two LPs. On fiddle, incidentally, was Syd Chambers.
In 1970 Ian and Margaret decided to return to Dumfries. After the hustle and bustle of the 60s Ian had hoped to lead a quieter life, but with Bobby McNeillie now on second accordion, the Band was in even greater demand and busier than ever, with long distances to travel. The line-up in the Halls was: Ian and Bobby (accordionists), Kenny Wilson (fiddle) and Gordon Young on drums. Ian explained, “Sometimes it was hard work, but always enjoyable, for Bobby McNeillie had the ability to memorise and play second accordion arrangements, which added a broad dimension to the music.” For broadcasts and recordings the band was augmented by Bill Henry on piano and Stan Saunders on bass.
In 1971 Ian was made redundant and after six weeks on the dole seeking employment, he accepted a job in a local music shop, later becoming a partner. This continued until 1973 when the owner decided to retire and Ian was asked to remain as manager by the new proprietor. After some deliberation, Ian decided to start his own business and he and Margaret acquired premises. Ian and Margaret remain grateful for the help and support they received from Mickie Ainsworth and Bill Wilkie in the early years. The business continued for twenty-seven years, until he and Margaret retired in 2000.
In 1978, Ian and the Band recorded a programme for BBC Radio in The Salutation Hotel, Perth. For this they were joined by Angus Fitchet, who had been the match-maker who brought Ian and Margaret together in 1953. The following year, Angus again joined the Band to record a programme from Studio One in Glasgow.
Also in 1979, a “dream came true” for Ian and Margaret when they visited Switzerland with a coach tour.
Regrettably, Ian was diagnosed with diabetes in 1979, with the general belief being that this had been brought on by the sudden death of his second accordionist, Bobby McNeillie in 1978.
Over the succeeding years Ian visited Norway, Sweden and Switzerland on numerous occasions; he made friends with many of the great continental players and acquired several Scandinavian and Swiss accordions.
In 1987 Ian was made an honorary member of one of Sweden’s leading orchestras, “tunnbybalgarno”, the Bromollo Accordion Orchestra, with which he had performed on several occasions. It was indeed an honour for, although the orchestra had been formed in 1973, Ian was only the fifth person to be so honoured.
Also in 1987, Ian recorded and released his cassette, Sounds Scandinavian. As no one else had produced anything like it, it was very popular and when he reviewed it, Sweden’s Ove Hahn stated it sounded so authentic he could hardly believe it was played by a Scotsman and awarded it five out of a possible six stars.
In 1989 Ian suffered a “frozen shoulder” and when the pain became worse, he decided to change from the bulky piano accordion to the more compact 5-row instrument and, having used it on his 1990 broadcast from Carlisle, there was a mixed reaction with some folk telling him, “You have lost your sound”. However, during a subsequent visit to Tobermory, Ian was reassured with his friends Bobby MacLeod and Calum MacLean voicing enthusiasm for the “new” sound. Bobby advised Ian not to listen to the critics, as he had received the same treatment when he changed from the Co-operativa to the Hohner Morino; indeed some of his sternest critics had become ardent Morino players themselves.
A wee story to tell concerning Ian playing the button-key. On one occasion, whilst visiting Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Shand at Auchtermuchty, he was invited by Jimmy “to have a go” at playing Jimmy’s 3-row Gola. Having played it, Jimmy said to him, “Son, you’re a one-off, for naebody else can play a’ they accordions and you play them well.”
In 1991 Ian and his Band broadcast a programme on Radio Scotland consisting solely of tunes composed by Angus Fitchet.
In 1993 Ian was asked to appear at the Titano Accordion Festival at Vinstra in Norway. He played selections of Scottish Dance Music and also a Scandinavian style waltz he’d specially written called Hilsen Til Venstra (Greetings to Vinstra). The festival was truly an international affair for there were accordionists from Italy, Germany, Romania, France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, with Ian being the only player from Britain.
In 1995, Ian fulfilled a long ambition to make a broadcast with the entire programme consisting of tunes composed by Jimmy Shand. Part of the ambition was to have his old friend, Ian Powrie, as guest fiddler. The programme was well received with many people saying it was one of the best ever broadcasts. Jimmy phoned Ian the next morning to say thank you and that he was delighted at the way his tunes had been arranged and played. The Band on that occasion, incidentally, comprised: Ian and Ricky Franci (accordions), Ian Powrie (fiddle), James Clark (piano), Stan Saunders (bass) and Drew Dalgleish on drums.
Ian Powrie recorded a Scottish country dance CD with the Band and he joined them on broadcasts for the next five years until he and his wife, Leila, returned to Australia in 1999. The 1999 recording was in fact Ian Powrie’s last performance in Scotland.
Ian sent Swiss friend Arthur Brugger his new Swiss Polka For My Friend Arthur Brugger and later that year they played it together at a restaurant on the Allmenalp. It was Arthur who persuaded Ian to record his CD Ian in Switzerland in 1998 and he was so pleased with the results that he sent Ian a magnificent cow-bell inscribed “Ian Holmes in Switzerland greetings from Arthur Brugger”, a mark of true Swiss friendship.
Ian and Margaret’s friendship with the great continental players was such that they had frequent visits from Scandinavian friends. In 1999, Dolfi Rogenmoser, Willi Zahner and Ernst Ehrler spent a week in Dumfries. Ian was able to drive them around and show them the Scottish countryside. He also arranged for them to play at Bill Wilkie’s concert in Perth City Hall. The audience loved them and Ian joined in on their final number, a Swiss Schottische called Gluck Gluck. They received a standing ovation and, in an interview for a magazine, Dolfi stated that night was the most memorable of his long career. It was certainly memorable for Ian, for that was the same stage on which he had been presented with The Jimmy Shand Shield after becoming the All Scottish Champion in 1957 and where he had played with Bobby MacLeod, Andrew Rankine and with his own Band.
In 1996, Ian was back in Switzerland and whilst at the Hochst Guesthouse he became aware of a problem with the sight of his left eye. This soon cleared and things returned to normal. In 1997, however, the problem re-occurred but this time it became slowly worse until he became completely blind in his left eye. The problem sometimes affected the right eye and on several occasions he was completely blind for around two weeks. In May 2000, he underwent major surgery to the left eye at Gartnavel Hospital. The next year saw the same operation on his right eye and a second operation was carried out on his left eye in 2004. Since that time things have remained stable. All operations were carried out by Doctor Tom Barrie and Ian dedicated a new 6/8 bagpipe march to him in his broadcast on 14th October, 2006.
When interviewed by Robbie Shepherd in 2006, on BBC Radio Scotland, Ian spoke of the eight types of accordion he played and in 2007 at Windygates Accordion Club he featured all those eight different accordions.
He has composed well over four hundred tunes, has made dozens of recordings and has broadcast regularly on the radio for over half a century. He is without question, one of our most gifted ever players.
He continues to play at Accordion Clubs across Scotland with the Band now comprising Ian on accordion, Gordon Simpson on fiddle and James Clark on keyboard. Although seventy-five years of age, he has no plans to retire.
It was in The Hole in the Wa’ in Dumfries in the early 1960s, that the Accordion Club movement as we know it was born. The Dumfries Club is now titled the Islesteps Club and is located in Locharbriggs Social Club; it remains very popular and vibrant with a procession of talented local players taking the stage at each meeting. Prominent amongst these local players is Ian Holmes. He has willingly played for local organisations and charities over the years and importantly has supported and indeed continues to support his local Accordion Club.
As my conversation with Ian drew to a close he said, “Through our travels here and abroad, Margaret and I have acquired so many friends. Music has given me a wonderful life and I’m grateful for the contribution, support and encouragement of so many of our top musicians, who over the years played in the Band.” He concluded by saying, “With my interest in so many styles of music, there’s never a dull moment.”