FOR more than five decades, accordionist, dance band leader and composer Iain MacPhail has made his distinctive mark in the world of Scottish traditional dance music, combining the essential swing with harmonic sophistication.
He has composed some 350 tunes, and it’s a rare Scottish dance band that doesn’t have a few MacPhail compositions in its repertoire. His reputation as an innovator, in terms of his arrangements and band sound, has seen Iain and his band constantly in demand for dances, theatre, broadcasting and cabaret as far apart as Shetland and Brazil. His passion for playing, promoting and teaching Scottish traditional music internationally is fuelled by the simple maxim that “music comes from the heart and pride in our culture”.
Iain grew up in Kilberry, Argyllshire – a place generally more associated with piping than with accordion playing – and indeed learned the pipes while in the Scouts, but he became hooked on accordion at the tender age of four when, the story goes, he hauled his father’s button row accordion out of its case and was found playing The Rowan Tree. Iain’s father, Dugald, was also a bandleader so apart from his father’s playing, Iain grew up listening on the radio to such renowned accordionists as Bobby Macleod (playing pipe music and Gaelic waltzes), Andrew Rankine and Ian Holmes (with their imaginative and accomplished rhythm sections).
At the age of 16, having missed some years of his education through ill health, Iain received an educational bursary to Broughton High School in Edinburgh, where his music teacher was the composer Ronald Stevenson, who introduced him to the possibilities of exploring harmonic structures on the accordion (the pipes by this time were taking a back seat, although Iain has maintained his interest in pipe music all his life – indeed, he is a proud member of the Royal Scottish Pipers Society and of the Glasgow Highland Club which has its own pipe band and Gaelic choir).
In Edinburgh he received classical tuition on the piano accordion initially from a Mr McCann, then from the widely influential Chrissie Leatham, who passed on to Iain her love of flat keys and also introduced him to playing parts and writing arrangements in her accordion orchestra. This, combined with the input from Ronald Stevenson, enabled Iain to appreciate orchestrations for multiple accordions and other instruments.
Another important influence was the school secretary, Dorothy Leurs, a significant figure in Scottish country dancing, who encouraged him to play for Royal Scottish Country Dance Society demonstrations, occasionally in the formidable presence of Jean Milligan, co-founder of the RSCDS. He found the strict tempo involved a contrast to what he was used to in Highland playing, but Dorothy proved a patient mentor whose encouragement helped him establish his lifelong association with music for Scottish country dancing.
While still at school, through drummer Gordon Young, the young Iain was invited to play in Jim Nicholson’s dance band, and went on to play with other bands, including touring widely during the Seventies with the renowned Andrew Rankine, who gave him unfettered opportunity for further harmony writing.
When Jim Nicholson retired, the band became the Strathedin Dance Band, led by fiddler Roy Dick until his early death. Eventually Iain became leader of the band, then formed a band under his own name with Gordon Young on drums, plus three former members of the famous Jim Johnstone band – Allan Johnston on fiddle, David Flockhart on piano and Robin Brock on bass.
Iain very much values the loyalty of long-term associations with his band members, where a strong bond of shared experience helps the band sound thrive and remain tight-knit, underlined by their individual contributions in developing Iain’s ideas on counter melody, jazz harmony and syncopation. His band has therefore sustained remarkably few changes of personnel over the years, and only arose from changes in personal circumstances such as illness or moving away.
Iain has enjoyed great collaborations with Brian Griffin and David Hume (harmony accordion), Ron Kerr, Ron Gonnella and latterly Judith Smith (fiddle), George Darling, Drew Dalgleish and Graham Jamieson (drums), Stan Saunders, Neil MacMillan and Alasdair Macleod (bass), John Gibson, Dorothy Lawson and Isobelle Hodgson (keyboards), Bill Clement (clarinet and vocals), Iain Watt and Alex Hodgson (guitar and vocals) – all of whom have contributed to the many memorable episodes of a band on the road and an instinctive rapport on stage and in studio. The quality of band members combined with the distinctive musical arrangements ensure that the band performance seldom varies for the listener.
As he developed a band sound (and sartorial flair, with long hair and satin shirts reflecting the flamboyant Seventies) Iain and the band made their first broadcast in 1972 – passing their BBC audition with a warning to eschew any “non-traditional” harmonies! Their first “LP” appeared three years later.
These were the early years of the box and fiddle club movement which Iain and the band have wholeheartedly supported to this day, now playing at clubs’ 40th anniversary celebrations. Over the ensuing decades, Iain and his band have played for dances throughout the UK as well as undertaking numerous visits to Europe, Canada, Africa and not least to Latin America, where they have played for Caledonian and St Andrew’s societies and other gatherings in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Chile, and Iain has frequently played for St Andrews nights in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Clearly, Scottish dancing travels well – Iain comments that, “watching free-spirited Latinos perform a Duke of Perth is a sight to behold but, I fear, would have elicited a somewhat mild frown from Miss Milligan.”
Another regular destination has been Shetland, where for some 40 years Iain has undertaken the gruelling 9pm-9am challenge of playing for the Up Helly Aa festivities each January with the Da Fustra Dance Band. At the same time, Iain has been the resident musician for over 50 years for the Tuesday night Atholl Country Dance Club in Edinburgh, where he encourages many young musicians to join him in playing the strict tempo required for country dancing. Iain continues to work with RSCDS and has recorded for specific dance books.
Always keen to promote the cause of Scottish music, Iain is as happy to play for a school hop as for the Queen at Balmoral. He also chairs a charity, the National Music and Festival Trust, which raises funds to pay for accordions and music tuition for disadvantaged youngsters, helping them to develop self-esteem and enjoy the satisfaction of playing music with others.
A long involvement with the theatre and cabaret circuit has seen him work as producer and musical director for Larry Marshall, as well as musician with the likes of Bruce Forsyth, Calum Kennedy, the Alexander Brothers, The Tartan Lads, Anne Lorne Gillies, Joe Chisholm (song and dance-man from USA) and many other well-known names in British show business. Such engagements can sometimes be at worrying short notice, such as the time he was received an urgent call from the BBC to play at a session at the Freemason’s Hall in Edinburgh: “On arrival I was handed a sheaf of music which certainly was not traditional Scottish music but in fact was a modern classical solo accordion score to be performed, live, with an 80-piece orchestra on Radio 3. I had ten minutes to scrutinise my parts before sitting in front of the microphone. The session was a success but my worry lines increased perceptibly.”
For a number of years now, Iain has been a consultant and visiting examiner at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Scottish on the traditional music degree course, having helped define the syllabus from Grade 1 upwards.
This often hectic musical life was carried on while Iain also maintained a Civil Service job as Chief Welfare Officer of the Scottish Prison Service, from which he took early retirement some years ago in order to complete a master’s degree in psychotherapy at Edinburgh University.
Iain has always loved music composition and arrangement and now has some 350 compositions to his credit (including the theme music for the Edinburgh Science Festival). He composes, he says, very much with the dancer in mind: “I feel that music and dance, as creative cultures, are expressions of joy to be savoured, and if the band and dancers have a rapport it makes for enormous fun, dynamism and enjoyment for all.”
“The challenge of playing original music for country dances is one I relish, especially many of my older tunes, which demonstrate my love of fiddle and pipe music. I hope to have many more years of performing, composing and offering encouragement to all who share my love of traditional music as it continues to evolve.”