UNARGUABLY Shetland’s best-known pianist, Violet Tulloch has long been regarded as the accompanist par excellence for some of the most celebrated musicians from the Northern Isles and further afield. She has provided considerate and intuitively musical accompaniment for late great musicians such as Tom Anderson (who wrote Violet Tulloch’s Hornpipe in her honour), Peerie Willie Johnson, Willie Hunter and Jim Halcrow, and more recently for Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham – the latter paying tribute to her with his beautiful air Violet Tulloch, Queen of Lerwick.
In an interview with the Shetland Times earlier this year, Violet said that she was delighted that the vital art of arranging and accompanying had been recognised by the Scots Trad Music Hall of Fame – “not only for myself but for all musicians who provide support for the front line.”
She added: “There’s a big difference between playing melody and providing the accompaniment, where you are listening all the time to the instrument out front and thinking about harmony.”
Violet’s style of accompaniment has been described as “impeccable, unobtrusive, and supportive, ideally matched to the moods and styles of the fiddle tunes”. Not that she is purely a piano accompanist, being also an accomplished accordionist. She still plays box to this day with Jimmy Burgess’s dance band (formerly known as the Milk Shakes as Jimmy owned the local dairy), and indeed first established her musical credentials playing accordion in the renowned Islesburgh Dance Band alongside the likes of Tom Anderson, Peerie Willie, Alice Nicolson, Frank Sinclair and Drew Robertson.
Growing up in Lerwick, there was plenty of music about the house. Violet initially learned accordion from her father, who died aged just 32, soon after returning from wartime naval service, having been injured at Dunkirk. Her mother played piano and fiddle, her stepfather was also a fiddle player, while her grandfather and uncle were also musical. Guests such as Ronnie Cooper and Willie Hunter were forever playing at the house.
An important influence was the great Dr Tom Anderson, in whose famous Islesburgh Dance Band she started playing accordion in her early teens, after gaining dispensation to join them – but only at weekends – from her headmaster. At 17 she further expanded her instrumental abilities by joining the Lerwick Brass Band, playing second cornet.
A formative introduction to the importance of good accompaniment had already taken place, when her mother took the young Violet to Lerwick’s Garrison Theatre, where she saw the legendary Pam Wilkie playing piano with the Ian Powrie dance band. Violet decided there and then that she wanted to be “like that lady“. As well as her enthusiasm over the Powrie band, she was naturally interested in chords and harmonies, and although she continued to play the accordion, she decided early on that the fiddle wasn’t for her. Many years later, she would have the pleasure of accompanying Ian Powrie when he was on a solo tour of Shetland.
Her musical career was put to the side for a decade or so after she married her husband Drew and raised their two sons, Stewart and Andrew, but an invitation to accompany Shetland fiddle playing for an overseas broadcast got her back on the piano stool. In demand for many years, she has played on such significant recordings as The Silver Bow with Tom Anderson, Peerie Willie, Aly Bain and others, first recorded in 1978 and which has become a standard collection of Shetland fiddle music, and which she reckons helped establish her reputation among a wider audience. She has also recorded with Bain and Phil Cunningham, and accompanied the great Willie Hunter in his two influential albums, Leaving Lerwick Harbour and The Willie Hunter Sessions.
Recent years have also seen her in frequent partnership with Bryan Gear, regarded as one of Shetland’s finest young fiddlers on the contemporary scene, and she has also made numerous radio and television appearances, including Aly Bain’s Down Home and Aly Bain and Friends TV series, while on radio she was the subject of a Take the Floor special, hosted by Robbie Shepherd and recorded in Shetland.
Violet has been passing on her expertise for decades, since Tom Anderson first invited her to teach at the pioneering traditional music summer school at Stirling University during the early 1980s (during her time there she enjoyed the opportunity to accompany the great Jimmy Shand). She also gave night classes at Lerwick’s Anderson High School for many years, still teaches privately and has given a master class at the Royal Conservatoire of Music in Glasgow. When teaching, she gets her piano students to accompany her as she plays accordion.
She is reluctant to make any claims about what she does, but is diligent about her music, spending a lot of time ensuring that her chords, harmonies and timings are correct. She is intolerant of sloppy and ill-prepared work, enabling players to feel confident she will help them sound at their best. Having devoted her life to her music, she intends to continue playing and teaching for as long as she can.
Written by Jim Gilchrist 2015