Iain MacInnes reviews ‘The Woodilee Collection of Traditional Music’

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By Iain MacInnes
(from the April 2019 Piping Times)

Simon McKerrell presents 71 tunes, all self-penned and original other than four traditional tunes which he has arranged for pipes, including Atholl Cummers (in jig time) and a wonderful setting of The Manchester Hornpipe.

To have accrued such a mass of material is impressive, and doubly-so given the consistently high quality of the compositions. These are tunes which fall easily under the fingers. They’re not hard to play, and they’re melodically strong. There’s a certain playfulness to the collection, with humorous and often self-deprecating notes to explain tune titles, and some surprising twists to the melodic lines.

A couple of things should be mentioned: not all the tunes are suitable for highland pipes (although the majority are), reflecting McKerrell’s own mastery of a range of instruments including uilleann pipes and whistle; and some have previously appeared in print, in the McKerrell-MacDonald Collection of 2007.

That said, the Woodilee Collection represents a significant addition to the modern corpus of pipe tunes. It includes one tune which is already a session standard (Lauren McCowan’s Reel, dating back to McKerrell’s days with the group, Back of the Moon), and several more which could soon become so.

The collection is arranged by tune type, the strongest sections for me being an opening group of slow airs and waltzes, and a section of 18 jigs. The first tune in the collection sets the tone. It’s a slow air, White Heather Cottage, beautifully uncluttered, simple to play. The melody is strong, and in fact it’s one of a group of six tunes I noted as potentially ideal for Grade 3 and 4 pipe bands. Pipe Majors wanting to create straightforward, tuneful medleys might want to look at the slow reel The Shades of Woodilee, a strathspey Niamh McKerrell, the reel Lauren McCowan’s and a swinging hornpipe Tommy Elder’s. There’s also a 3/4 march called Iain MacDonald’s 60th Birthday March. On the page it doesn’t look like much, but under the fingers … it comes to life!

McKerrell’s tunes have already graced Glasgow Green. His jig, Hoss Colquhoun’s Favourite was part of the Spirit of Scotland medley in 2008. (McKerrell was a member of the band). It’s a powerful tune, and I was interested to see the gracenoting, which is quite different to how I imagined it. As with some G.S. McLennan and Gordon Duncan compositions, the gracenotes make all the difference to the internal rhythms, and it pays to pay attention to them. Overall, this jig section has some real gems and I would particularly commend The Grand Central Jig and the rather mischievous three-parted Fast Jig.

Elsewhere, sections of 6/8 and 2/4 marches don’t appear to be quite as strong although the 2/4 march, Dr Mike Paterson will be at home on any competition platform (this includes a characteristic McKerrell taorluath movement from F to B, highly effective if not necessarily easy to play), and of a large section of reels my eye was drawn to Jenna Reid’s and the Breton-inflected Margaret Dunn’s New Arrival. McKerrell is generous with his tune titles – friends, colleagues and family are amply rewarded, and some may be destined for immortality! (Move over Mrs MacPherson).

The rest of the collection comprises a short section of strathspeys, some very effective hornpipes (I would recommend Double Dose of Bowes), and a group of 20 tunes which lie outwith the highland pipe scale. These are certainly worth exploring, and will appeal to the wider musical community. Of these, the tune which has stuck in my mind is a lovely slow air, Miss Florence Bowers.

This is a courageous endeavour. To publish a whole collection of your own material takes confidence, and in this case the effort is well-justified. The tunes are attractive and accessible, there is a good cross-section of material, and all levels of playing ability are catered for. We would certainly be the poorer without it.

The Woodilee Collection of Traditional Music by Simon McKerrell (Woodille Music, 2019). Available from Amazon, priced £9.99.

• Iain MacInnes is a former member of the Tannahill Weavers and Ossian. He has worked on BBC Radio Scotland’s Pipeline programme since 1990 and has also worked on the station’s Travelling Folk programme.