HIS innate musicality and innovative approach have made Ian Holmes a widely respected name, not just in the world of Scottish country dance music, but in the flourishing accordion scenes of Switzerland and Scandinavia, whose music and instruments he has adopted with characteristic enthusiasm.
Expanding his accordion skills from the mainstream Scottish dance band instruments – piano accordion, five-row continental chromatic and Hohner “Shand” Morino – to master Swiss and Scandinavian models, Holmes was described early on in his career as “a muscians’ musician” by no less than Bobby MacLeod, while the great Sir Jimmy Shand would tell him, “You’re a one-off son.” Inspirations for the young Holmes, both men would become friends. To date he has composed some 450 tunes, from Scottish pipe marches to Scandinavian and Swiss waltzes and polkas.
Ian Holmes was born at his grandparents’ home, Riddance Cottage, in Irongray, Kirkcudbrightshire, in 1935. His father, at that time a chauffeur and gardener at Mabie House, was a melodeon player, although there was never one in the house as times were hard. The family eventually settled in Dumfries where, at the age of 11, Ian tentatively started playing a piano accordion left at their home by a friend of his elder brother’s.
Although self-taught, he was soon being asked to play at the local YWCA. This was during the late 1940s, around the time that he first heard the music of Jimmy Shand. He bought his first accordion, a 48-bass Puratone, from a local man and met the great Will Starr, who was playing locally and who gave him advice on left-hand chording. He then took formal lessons from Alex Carter in Lincluden, who taught him light classical music which Ian later regarded as standing him in good stead for playing any repertoire.
Playing with local bands and concert parties, Ian was 15 when he met the renowned Bobby MacLeod and his band, including the great Alex “Pibroch” Mackenzie on fiddle, at a dance in Monaive. He had a play of Bobby’s Cooperativa accordion (which he would later purchase) and established a friendship that would last 50 years. During the 1950s, Ian met both fiddler Angus Fitchet – who introduced him at a dance hall to the girl who would become his wife, Margaret Bell – and Jimmy Shand.
Ian would guest with MacLeod and with Andrew Rankine’s Scottish Dance Band, with whom he frequently broadcast on BBC radio and appeared with Andy Stewart in London’s festival Hall. In 1957 he was granted leave from his National Service with the RAF to compete at a major accordion event in Perth City Hall, winning the All-Scotland Senior Traditional March, Strathspey and Reel class – the Jimmy Shand Shield. Around this time, he started composing his first tunes and also played with Bobby MacLeod for the popular White Heather Club on TV.
Ian formed his own Scottish dance band in 1962 and was soon broadcasting and recording with it, as well as performing in the touring White Heather Show.
Paid off from his job with the coachbuilders A C Penman in 1971, he became briefly a partner in a music business and in 1973 he and Margaret opened their own shop, Ian Holmes Music, in Dumfries’s Glasgow Street, which became a popular musicians’ haunt until the couple retired in 2000.
While Ian’s playing career carried on apace, a holiday in Switzerland in 1978 sparked an interest in Swiss Landler (rural dance) music which resulted in many more visits and friendships with Swiss musicians and the acquisition of a Schwyzerörgeli button accordion. At the same time an interest in Scandinavian music developed, with Ian again acquiring the first of several appropriate instruments, on which he recorded his album Sounds Scandinavian. He has frequently attended the world’s largest accordion festival, at Ransater, near Karlstad, learning many new tunes, while several of his own in Scandinavian style are now in circulation there. In 1987 he was made an honorary member of one of Sweden’s most popular bands, the Bromolla Accordion Orchestra.
During the Nineties he broadcast two programmes on Radio Scotland, paying tribute to fiddler Angus Fitchet and Jimmy Shand respectively, the second featuring Ian Powrie, who subsequently played and recorded with the Holmes band.
One memorable occasion was at Perth Town Hall in 1999, in honour of local accordionist and impresario Bill Wilkie. Ian took his Swiss musician friends Dolfi Rogenmoser, Willi Zayner and Ernst Ehrler, who played a set, Ian joining them for their final schottische, and earning a standing ovation. It was a resonant occasion for Ian, returning to the stage on which he had been presented with the Jimmy Shand Shield back in 1957 and where he had often played with MacLeod and Rankine as well as with his own band.
In January of this year (2014), Ian Holmes and his Scottish Dance Band made what was officially their final public appearance, at Islesteps Accordion and Fiddle Club in Locharbriggs. Although not advertised as such, the gig attracted a huge turnout of fans and fellow- musicians.
Over the years, the band has recorded 18 albums and ,at the time of writing, Ian, at 79, was as busy as ever, recording tunes for his latest album, Ian in Switzerland Vol 2, and planning a DVD featuring him playing all eight of his accordions.
Looking back, he declares: “I’ve had a wonderful life, for through my music I have visited so many places in Scotland and abroad and have met so many interesting and kindly people. For years I was happy at my work and this work was also my hobby. How many people can say that?”