Stories of the Tunes – Helen Black of Inveran

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Many readers will be familiar with the 2/4 march, Helen Black of Inveran. The pipe score can be found in Bruce Campbell’s Caledonian Collection Of Highland Bagpipe 2/4 Competition Pipe Marches and in Iain MacCrimmon’s Music For The Great Highland Bagpipe (Book 1).

Jimmy Ritchie, a well-known fiddler of the 1950s and 60s, composed the tune. Jimmy was one of many fascinating characters whom Niall Graham-Campbell met when he lived and worked for many years at Rosehall near Lairg in Sutherland, Scotland. Niall, who is a member of the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society and who lives near Loch Tummel in Perthshire, tells us about the tune – he also includes a tune Jimmy wrote for him.

By Niall Graham-Campbell

I was talking to a fellow piper recently about the 2/4 march, Helen Black of Inveran and he suggested that I should write down the story. I remembered seeing notes about it in Bob Dunsire’s Bagpipe Forum, but I also thought at the time, “There’s more to it than that”.

For those interested, it is possible to read the composer, Jimmy Ritchie’s obituary in the Box and Fiddle archive. My comments are more specific to the tune. Jimmy was one of the leading fiddle players of his time and played with Bobby MacLeod and Jimmy Shand up to 1962. His obituary suggests he “came under the influence of Angus MacPherson” but that I doubt, as Angus was by then 90 and did not go out much.

Jimmy was a lovely guy and highly entertaining. He was also something of a rogue with ‘Robin Hood’ tendencies. He worked for a few years in Bonar Bridge at George Clark’s hotel, The Dunroamin. My office was a short distance along the street and when I was working in Bonar, which was not every day, I used to walk along to The Dunroamin and have a pint with my ‘piece’ at lunchtime.

Jimmy Ritchie.

I always put the money on the counter but it was never accepted. I was given a pint and Jimmy threw a bag of crisps at my dog as it amused him watching her trying to tear the bag open. Eventually, she got very good at that, putting a foot on one end and ripping it.

Jimmy’s method in the bar was to overcharge the tourists and give the locals free drinks, (at least some of the time). Whenever a tourist gave him £20 as payment for a round of drinks, he gave change for £10 – and when given £10 he gave change for £5, always apologising profusely if queried.

About this time, Jimmy started to learn the pipes. I do not think he had played earlier but, being such a good musician, he progressed rapidly. Black Will – Willie McDonald, composer of Wadi Akarit or The Highland Division at Akarit to give it the full title – taught him for the most part. Black Will also lived at Inveran and had received tuition from Angus MacPherson before the war. Will, as well as being a piper was an excellent fiddle player so he and Jimmy had much in common.

The Dunroamin Hotel, Bonar Bridge.

The Dunroamin and The Invershin were two places where you could hear good music, during those years (even at lunchtime!). Walter and Helen Black lived at Inveran where Walter was one of the control engineers, later becoming Maintenance Engineer for the Shin Group of Power Stations. They were great friends of Jimmy. Jimmy wrote the tune for Helen.

At the time, probably about 1973, he was working in the pub. I was working in Bonar when the tune was being composed and discussed it with Jimmy as it progressed. My version is a little different from some, but Jimmy was not great at writing things down.

Unfortunately, Helen died in 1978, quite young.

Jimmy also made a tune for me [pictured; click to enlarge] at about the same time, which I got from him on tape, played on the fiddle.

He wanted to call it by my name but I said that was too long, so he called it The Factor. I don’t think it’s as good as Helen Black.

• Listen to Inveraray & District Pipe Band play the tune as part of a medley played during the band’s show at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in 2013.

* First published in the February 2020 Piping Times.