Iain Bell is a piper, composer, tune book publisher and the creator of the Donald Drone cartoon series that was a well-loved feature of the Piping Times magazine.
His tune writing emerged at the age 13, after he had experienced a few years in a pipe band, but his serious composing began in the 1990s when he had returned to the band scene after taking a 20 year break due to work.
Iain’s composing achieved recognition after winning a competition by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission/RSPBA (NI) for a slow air titled Private Richard Maybin and won, with the tune being played at the National Aboretum for the Somme centenary on Pte. Maybin’s actual restored WW1 bagpipe.
And Iain’s cartoon creation, Donald Drone, has received recognition with a 6/8 march named after him, which is due to appear in the new tune book that The National Piping Centre is releasing to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Bagpipe.news caught up with Iain over the summer to find out more about his compositional talents and about his Ulster Scots connections that inspired his tune book, From Scots Borderer to Ulster Scot & Frontiers Beyond – which was reviewed for bagpipe.news by Jenny Hazzard. (P.S. Iain is the first to say he does not consider himself to be any kind of great piper, but just an everyday enthusiastic player and competing bandsman, who has an ear for a tune.)
Q. What inspires you to write tunes?
Cultural tradition, wildlife, our landscape, waters and people, together with my life experiences. We live in a rapidly changing world. I suppose I’m happiest “in the middle of nowhere”, as city dwellers might call it. I’m a “Qualified Welly Pilot”, you might say. I’m inspired by a breed of people who are fast disappearing. Folk that knew how to survive off the land and sea. Hill shepherds, farmers, fishers, boatmen, dry stane dykers, keepers, ghillies (as I was once myself). I think subsistence skills and a need for food will be back in fashion in years to come.
My music is sometimes about people who have made an impact on my life, those who have served us or known conflict, or indeed other musicians. My 12/8 march Lindsay Weir of Culbokie was played on BBC Radio Scotland at the end of July this year. Many of the auld hill folk I’ve known inspire me and I’ve learned much from them. A generation that often kept a set of pipes, a fiddle or a squeeze box under the bed. I like music to have roots!
I live in remote countryside and enjoy the wildlife around me. I once saw my terrier disturb a stoat in a wooded glen and chase it in and out of a tangle of tree roots for several minutes. Stoats are not daft, and the ‘hide and seek, peek-a-boo’ high speed antics before it made its escape led me to write a hornpipe called The Stoat and the Terrier. It’s in my book, but was also recorded by the great Canadian piper, Jack Lee, for download on his Bagpipemusic.com site together with about half a dozen more of my tunes.
Speaking of Canada, I’m informed that three of the compositions from my book are to be included in the 2023 Royal Canadian Mounted Police Collection, for which I feel privileged.
I’ve recently had tune commissions. One was for for the £3.8million public community land buy out of the Langholm Moor in Dumfriesshire. It is a 6/8 march and is called The Back O’ Tarras. (Tarras is a wee river glen within the moor and where I once worked with the salmon that spawn there.) Last year I was asked to write a tune called The Queen’s Nurse. A handful of nurses and midwives are awarded the title Queen’s Nurse each year and received a parchment scroll signed personally by H.M. Queen Elizabeth. A lively 4/4 march resulted to be piped at the annual ceremony.
Q. What are your musical influences?
I actually like true rock and roll – the likes of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent etc. I fell out with popular music after about 1966. I’m quite retro. Country & Western Hillbilly (that’s a real Ulster Scots/American term) such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, both of whom created superb lyrics. Traditional Scottish and Irish music, especially ballads or slow airs float my boat for style, as do Gaelic waltzes.
Piping wise, it’s the 2/4 marches. I really rate John MacLellan DCM of Dunoon as a composer together with Donald MacLeod and John MacColl – retro again I suppose! I’m also a lover of accordion marching bands and accordion and fiddle traditional dance bands.
My auld workmate and fellow ghillie on the river, Billy Bell, was a great fiddler with the Eric Goodfellow Dance band. He taught me much. His best advice ever was: “Write a few bars doon and leave it for a day or sae. Then come back for anither wee look at it.” He wrote the lovely slow air Liddesdale which I was privileged to publish in my book. Other influences were some of my former Pipe Majors, Jock Cairns, Winston Pinkerton and Willie Bell.
Q. What’s your opinion of modern composers and who impresses you?
Not so many modern piping composers hit the spot for me. I’m very traditional. Pipe Major Iain Lowther wrote a bonny tune for the Argyllshire Gathering. Terry Tully has an interesting slant on things. Inveraray’s John Dew has a guest strathspey in my book and The Crags of Tumbledown Mountain (by P/M Riddell) is really descriptive of the Scots Guards’ uphill struggle during the Falklands war. Similarly, The Sands of Kuwait is evocative of the Gulf War.
Not strictly piping, but Blair Douglas the Skye box player seems to come up with different, yet still traditional sounding stuff, as does Gordon Shand and Alan Crookston. The fiddlers, Duncan Chisholm and Roddy Matthews are quite inspirational composers, and one or two of Phil Cunningham’s slow airs have great feeling too. Some modern piping concert and contest medleys may be technical, but are boring to me and almost percussive. I like to hear one note sound before the next one falls. A lot of piping was really dance music, yet nowadays is played too fast to swing a leg to. I also prefer music that is not contrived with electronic wizardry.
Q. How do you mould a tune from concept to completion?
It’s usually just a wee phrase that comes to me. I will jump out of bed at night and trot to the bathroom for a piece of ‘bog roll’ just to scribble the notes onto, otherwise I can’t get back to sleep for fear of forgetting it. I will work it up from just that wee bit of inspiration. Getting a good ending to a part is often the most difficult.
Q. How did you come to write the tunes published in this article?
With the 2/4 march, The Lowland Wedding, I wished to have a six-parted tune that countered The Highland Wedding and had got to thinking that more Scottish weddings are held at Gretna Green than anywhere else. There is a family connection to the history of wedding pipers at Gretna too. The full story and photos are in my book.
My 6/8 jig, Jack McGowan, was just something I wrote for young Jack on leaving us at Dumfries Pipe Band to further his piping with Chris Armstrong’s ScottishPower. I’d wanted something with breathing space early in the tune, but building crescendo and technical movement toward the end. Jack has a bright future in piping I think.
Q. The title of your tune book is intriguing. Can you tell us the story behind it?
In past generations, the Brennan side of my family came from Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland to settle the Solway Firth in south west Scotland, the other side were local Bells, which is a noted Scots Border name. My grandmother had 13 children at Gretna, yet my father left for Northern Ireland and I was reared in Crumlin, Co. Antrim myself. Eventually after some wandering, I ended up back in Dumfriesshire again.
Between both sides of the sea, there is little distance and little to distinguish between Co. Antrim folk and those in Dumfries & Galloway. The people are the same, the surnames are the same, the culture and music so similar. Indeed, way back, the ancient kingdom of Dalriada had us all as the one nation. In addition to the forced Lowland clearances and plantation, there has for ever been a constant to and fro relationship. In many ways we still are the one people. Just listen to a Stranraer accent and a Ballycastle one. We are the one breed.
I just wanted to acknowledge the common links and culture of The Ulster Scot together with the endeavours of the many who emigrated to ‘Frontiers New’ like Canada, the Appalachian region of USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
As a wee lad growing up on the shores of Lough Neagh, Co. Antrim, I joined Ballydonaghy Pipe Band and was often reminded that there were more pipe bands per square mile in Ulster than any other part of the world. So, hence the book!