Nicol McLaren is a stalwart of the Scottish Dance Band Scene: Leader of the Glencraig Scottish Dance Band, chair of the National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs, as well as working as a tutor, composer and broadcaster.
McLaren took up the accordion at age nine, when his father brought home an old one picked up in a junk shop in Stirling. He took to the instrument, and soon went on to take lessons with Marion Campbell of Larbert. He was surrounded by music as a child – his uncle was the great Alex MacArthur of Biggar, and Ian McCallum of The Grace MacCleaver Band worked on his fathers’ farm at Dunmore.
One night at the Biggar Accordion Club, he got his first taste for leading bands when his uncle Alex persuaded him to do a turn on stage. From others attending the night, his uncle pulled together a band to play with him, with Ian Powrie on Fiddle, Jim Johnstone on second accordion, Bobby Brown on piano, Robin Brock on bass, and Bobby Colgan on drums. That night inspired McLaren with the goal of one day leading his own band.
His progress towards that goal was delayed by a few years after moving to Edinburgh to study agriculture. Though while living in the city he did discover that if you played in the pubs, free beer was readily available!
The Glencraig Scottish Dance Band, for which McLaren is probably best known, began in 1983, after he completed his university studies. While working as a salesman for S.A.I. in Blairgowrie, he was asked to put a band together for a church social. For this, he brought together the band’s original lineup: Dave Bell, Lorna Webster, Suzanne Gray, Gordon Howe and Graham Berry on piano. That original lineup went on to record the band’s first album in 1989, the same year as the first of their eleven Take the Floor broadcasts.
After this the band, named after his two collie dogs – Glen and Craig, took off, performing at box and fiddle clubs around the country, as well as dances and events internationally: Through Europe, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Russia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Australia, New Zealand, Martinique and Canada.
The band’s lineup has changed over the years. The regular fiddle player now Gordon Howe, with Patsy Reid, and Judith Linton standing in on occasion. After ten years with the band, pianist Maureen Rutherford stepped down, with Isobelle Hodgson taking her place. Davie Bell fills the drummer’s seat, Suzanne Croy plays double bass, and Neil Caul, Hamish Smith or James Leask are often seen playing second accordion.
The lineup may have changed, but their trademark sound has remained constant and well loved, the band winning Guest Artiste of the Year at the 2004 Box And Fiddle Fellowship Input Awards, and CD of the Year in 2007. In 2009, the band were for a second time nominated for Scottish Dance Band of the Year at the Scots Trad Music Awards.
The band’s last four albums have been released by Greentrax Recordings. Each of the series focused on a different style of Scottish dance: Ceilidh, Reeling, Scottish Country Dance and Old Time. The music for each has different requirements, to be expert in them all is no mean feat.
No mean feat but perhaps not surprising, given that McLaren is also a keen dancer. Having learned at a very young age, he’s currently a committee member of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society Stirling Branch.
Outwith the band, McLaren is an active broadcaster, having presented a weekly show Sporrans a Burlin’ on Heartland FM for many years, as well as filling in for Robbie Shepherd on Take the Floor on a number of occasions. He’s an active tutor too, having led workshops across Scotland England, Europe and New Zealand.