From Scots Borderer to Ulster Scot … and Frontiers Beyond – New Tunes in the Auld Style by Iain Bell, (Iain Bell, 2018); £16.
By Jenny Hazzard
Iain Bell’s book comprises 42 original tunes, each with a background story. It begins with a concise, conversational account of the links between Ulster and lowland Scotland and follows on with tunes that are melodic, pleasant and accessible. Straightforward, with nothing contrived or overly fancy, these are the kind of tunes you enjoy playing and melodies that stick in your head. Although attractive, none of the tunes are too difficult and Pipe Majors of bands at all levels would be sure to find some great material in these pages.
One rather odd feature of many of the tunes is the absence of gracenotes where, I feel, they really belong. Perhaps Iain would forgive a bit of licence if a player were to add a few gracenotes here and there to remain more in keeping with convention and what the hands naturally produce.
The predominant tune type in the book is the 6/8 march; and there are several very good ones. Examples are Drum Sergeant Lennie Bell BEM (for which a drum score is also provided); P/M Jon Stranix, Irish Guards; The Road Tae Harlaw; and The Pride O’ Glenavy. There are also a number of excellent traditional marches in other time signatures, including a couple of 2/4 marches perfectly suited for country dance, the lovely 3/4, Shores of Lough Neagh and the 4/4 Willens’ Drum.
Among the marches and slow airs are a few reels and jigs, the pick of them in my opinion being: Stuart Letford’s Reel, the jig Powfoot Racers, and The Spring O’ the Deer, which is billed as a march (or hornpipe).
Iain Bell himself composes most of the pieces but there are a few other contributors and these tunes have been well selected, fitting in with the traditional feel. I mentioned the stories accompanying all the tunes. These are a pleasure to read, told without melodrama but with great personal care. An example is the story of Private Richard Maybin, an Antrim boy who immigrated to Canada and fought on the Western Front with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The pretty slow air was selected as the winning entry to a competition staged by the RSPBANI and was presented to the Commonwealth Graves Commission – played publicly for the first time by Pipe Major Ian Burrows on Private Maybin’s own bagpipe.
The slow air. Constable John Davidson (The Riderless Horse) is an excellent tribute to a policeman shot and killed on duty in British Columbia but whose roots were in the Scottish Borders. The story is touching and the tune is suitably lovely – probably my favourite in the book.
Apart from those already mentioned above, highlights for me are The Anzac Warrior (a poignant and melodic slow air), the spirited 2/4 march, Auchenmalg, and Ballycastle, a similar bouncy 2/4 definitely intended to move along. Finally, Iain and Helen Anderson I think should be pleased with their tune, a beautiful 12/8 march – in my view one of the best of the bunch.
The tunes and the words in this book tell of a man in love with both his homelands, the wildlife and nature, the history, of course the music and dance, and maybe more than anything the people – the friendship and camaraderie born of the love of this music and its roots. Every page holds words full of joy and contentment, making the book a genuine pleasure. I would recommend Iain Bell’s book to any piper, with confidence of finding a good few tunes and stories to provide enjoyment for years to come.