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Scotland in music

Review by Edward Scott Pearlman

There's an elephant in the room when we speak of Scotland's national instruments. The usual suspects are the harp, fiddle and bagpipes. But there's a newcomer lurking, well, just about everywhere: the accordion.

Accordions are enjoyed throughout Scotland and beyond -- at dances, festivals, sessions, on radio and at monthly meetings of more than 70 accordion and fiddle clubs throughout the country. The instrument has had a colorful history during its relatively short life and seems due for a vibrant future, if listening to today's fine players is any indication.

Perhaps, in time, the accordion will be considered the fourth national instrument of Scotland. The first known appearance in Scotland of each of these four instruments has taken place three to four centuries apart: the harp is seen in 8th-century Pictish carvings and the fiddle in an image from 1140; the bagpipes are written about in 1509; and the accordion was first imported into Scotland about ten years after it received a patent in 1829.

One possible reason the accordion has not been accorded the same honors as the other three is that there has never been a native accordion-making industry in Scotland. Another reason might be that it simply hasn't had time to develop a proud historical tradition in association with clan chieftains, the aristocracy or in battle.

An early form of the accordion was the melodeon, with one or two rows of buttons for melody playing. Limited to a few musical keys, the melodeon was relatively inexpensive and considered suitable to both men and women because of its modest size and playing position.

A CD called Melodeon Greats allows us to hear some of the top Scottish players between 1909 and 1920. Two notable inclusions on the CD are tracks by Willie Hannah, whose playing inspired that of a younger melodeon player named Jimmy Shand, later to become the great dance band accordionist; and several tracks by Peter Leatham, whose daughter, Chrissie, was pivotal in the development of the accordion in Scotland.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Piping Hot Glasgow by Jim Gilchrist.

Click here to preview our feature article on Strathpeffer, A Victorian Spa Town by Philip Paris.

Click here to preview our column on the Highland Bagpipe by Gary West.

Click here to preview our reviews of Scottish Books.