The Wallochmor Ceilidh Band filled dance floors all over Scotland in a ten year ‘tear’ that produced high quality music, countless gigs, five big selling albums and a whole lot of fun for both the band and their enthusiastic audiences.
Part of their attraction, accordionist Freeland Barbour believes, was that the band looked like five ordinary blokes. They didn’t wear tartan or formal dress, although on their first engagement drummer Gus Miller turned up with his dinner suit in its hanger while the others were much more scruffily attired, and they didn’t stand on ceremony. Their style was a vigorous blend that appealed across on the folk, Scottish Country Dance and Strathspey & Reel Society scenes and their sound was very much their own.
The seeds of the band were sown in 1976 when Freeland was still enjoying working with Silly Wizard but considering a less hectic lifestyle. He knew Sandy Coghill from the Wick Scottish Dance Band and thought their playing, Freeland on piano accordion and Sandy on 3-row button box, would combine well. They began to get bookings as a duo and in 1977, having been booked to play at Kinross Folk Festival, they decided spontaneously to enter the Ceilidh Band Competition. Not only did they surprise themselves by winning with an ad hoc line-up, legend has it that by the time the results were announced they’d forgotten who had played with them. So the band that appeared at the prize winners’ concert had a different line-up to the band that won the competition.
Soon afterwards Freeland and Sandy began to get dance bookings. Sandy knew a bassist, Neil McMillan, and a fiddler, Jim Barrie. Neil knew a drummer, Gus Miller, and despite the fact that none of them knew all of the others, their first gig at the Linburn Centre in West Lothian went really well. Within a year they were playing every weekend, and sometimes up to four or five times a week, and had released their first LP, Looking for a Partner, on their own label, Lapwing.
Their fast, rugged style, with Freeland and Sandy playing in unison proved especially popular in the north-west Highlands and Islands but they were also made welcome in London, Northumberland and Cumbria and as far afield as Denmark, where they appeared at the Tønder Festival, and in Lagos, where Freeland distinguished himself by learning the Nigerian national anthem in a matter of seconds following a tape recorder breakdown.
A typical Wallochmor night would feature a concert – Archie Fisher, piper John Burgess, Flora MacNeil, Alastair MacDonald, and Alasdair Gillies were among their guests – followed by a dance and this formula, which suited Highland village halls particularly, transferred with spectacular success to venues such as Eden Court in Inverness and the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. The band’s policy of only taking a booking if all five musicians were available – with the exception of a spell when Ally McIntyre substituted for Gus after a serious accident at work – meant that audiences and television and radio producers knew to expect the same high quality performance every time.
In 1985 Sandy moved to Skye and with the others based variously in Edinburgh, Alloa and Loch Lomond where they worked in jobs ranging from engineer to orthodontist to radio producer, it became difficult to keep the band going. They went out on a high with a packed gig at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh in 1988. Jim Barrie sadly died in 2016 but the Wallochmor sound lives on through recordings and in the memories of those who accepted the Wallochmor invitation to “take the floor”.