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Addie Harper, by Andy Ross

This article was originally published in The Box & Fiddle issue of February 1992 and was reprinted in November 2001 following Addie's honour by the National Association of Accordion & Fidde Clubs.  Click here for a printable rtf file.

For more years than he cares to remember, Addie Harper has been deeply involved in the Scottish music scene, not only in his native Caithness, but throughout Scotland and even further afield. 

Born at Stirkoke near Wick, there was music in the Harper house from his earliest days.   Man of the house "Robbie the Sheep Shearer" played a single row melodeon, performing many West Coast melodies picked up from Lewis and Harris men who had worked alongside him in the Argentine.

Being the youngest of a family of four, Addie often found great difficulty getting a "shottie" of the melodeon - the only musical instrument in the house.  This was to change, however, with the arrival of a fiddle when Addie was about five years of age.  This instrument came from Evangelist, Jock Troup, a local man who had travelled all over the world to preach, always returning to spend an annual holiday near to the Harper family home.

For some time Addie struggled to pick up and play music by ear, gleaning tunes from borrowed records of such greats as William Powrie, David Hutchinson, Peter Wyper and, of course, Jimmy Shand.

In those days fiddles were strung with gut strings, which were very liable to break and difficult to obtain.  Occasionally, repairs had to be made by knotting the broken string behind the bridge or down at the peg box - if this course of action failed then there was nothing for it but to keep on going on three strings!  Eventually another instrument appeared - Addies brother had purchased a mandolin banjo for the princely sum of five shillings.  Addie took to it "like a duck to water" and could soon play all the tunes he already played on the fiddle, coping easily with the eight strings in pairs.

Everything was to change for Addie when he was about twelve.  A Mrs Murray of Greystones Farm, who had often listened to the young musician, insisted on arranging and paying for violin lessons with Margaret Henderson of Wick.  Being very apprehensive about going for lessons and not wanting to be seen carrying a fiddle case, he took to all the back streets, casting furtive glances in all directions as he made his way to Margaret's house for the first lesson.

Upon reaching the house, he had decided to tap gently on the door, then beat a hasty retreat before it could be answered.  Fortunately for him, Margaret had seen him approaching and flung open the door with a warm welcome.  For Four years he regularly attended lessons, and in ensuing years Margaret also taught such prominent players as Isobel and Hamish Old, Addie Harper Jnr and Gordon Gunn.

For some time Addie had fostered a desire to play for dancing, so quickly grasped the opportunity when a local farm worker indicated that he intended forming a band.  This band comprised an accordion, two fiddles and drums.

After a few weeks of intensive practice, the first engagement was arranged in The Bilbster Hall, and so The Bilbster Band was born.  With no amplification and many sets of tunes being played three or four times during the evening. the band got through their first public appearance, picking up another three bookings on the night.  Later , with several bands being formed in Caithness, Addie decided it was time to form his own group.

Billy dowler, an Australian now living in Wick, played accordion and, fortunately, possessed records of all the popular Scottish Musicians of the period.  He teamed up with Addie, along with Sandy Meiklejohn on piano and drummer Jimmy Bain to form the original Wick Scottish Dance band.

Amplification was borrowed, and the band played its first big engagement - Dunbeath Highland Games Night Dance. This was around 1950 and the band quickly built up a big following, sometimes as many as three busloads of dancers accompanying them to gigs in the village halls, joining up with locals to dance the night away.  This line-up remained for some time until Billy decided to return to Australia.

It was then that Eann Nicolson and Addie came together, and after lots of hard practice and reshuffles a "new" Wick Scottish Dance Band emerged.  The year was 1953, and the other band members were David Smith on piano, Jimmy Bain (double bass) and Chris Duncan on drums.  This line-up auditioned in Aberdeen for a BBC broadcast, passing with flying colours and taking to the airwaves for the first of their many broadcasts about one month later.

The band's second broadcast will never be forgotten by Addie.  Nearly all broadcasts then were live and this one was scheduled for a 6.30pm start from The Town Hall, Wick.  Rehearsals should have started at 5.30 but because of technical difficulties the first note wasn't struck until about 6pm - when it was discovered that the piano was so badly out of tune that it could not be used!  Panic set in - where could a replacement instrument be found in so short a time?  An urgent phone call was made to the Head Steward of The British Legion Club, Bill Henderson, who quickly arranged for a bunch of strong men to load the Club's piano onto a lorry kindly provided by local haulage contractor D. Steven.

Upon arrival at The Town Hall, the men struggled to get the piano onto the stage, finally succeeding with five minutes to spare!  There was no time for a rehearsal or balance before the programme was relayed to Scottish dance music fans the length and breadth of the country.

During the broadcast the streets of Wick were deserted, as everyone stayed indoors glued to their wireless sets.  The band members felt like local heroes as they strolled through the streets after the transmission to be complimented on their performance - if only the listeners knew the problems there had been just a short time previously!

More and more broadcasts followed, also offers to play at dances in many far away places.  Strangely, none of the band held driving licences at the time, so transport duties were undertaken by Humber taxis hired from the local Co-op garage.  With an ever-growing demand for their music over a large geographical area, some band members found it more difficult to get time of work to fulfil these engagements.  The front line of Eann and Addie remained, joined by Isobel Auld (piano), her brother Hamish on double bass and John Gunn on drums.

With a chuckle in his voice, Addie recalls the first memorable trip undertaken by the band to the Western Isles to play at Lochmaddy and Balivanish.

Having now passed their driving tests, the band purchased an old Austin Shooting Brake (AJS 274) and so at 6am they set off from Wick to catch the midday flight at Inverness for Stornaway.  Upon arrival at Lewis a van was on hand to transport them to their appointed place for collection by boat.

This place was a small island reached when the van drove through an expanse of water around a foot deep.  The driver hurriedly offloaded players and instruments and hastily beat a hasty retreat as the tide was coming in very fast.  The rain began to fall, there was no shelter, the island got smaller and smaller as the sea waters encroached, hunger pangs beginning to strike, when after a considerable time a small open boat arrived.  With much relief, all piled on board an with barely enough room for players and instruments they set sail for Lochmaddy.  Still more delays - the time was now around 8pm and they had been travelling for fourteen hours and still not at their final destination.  Transport eventually arrived and upon reaching a big building where they were to spend the nigh, all felt like a stiff dram.  Enquiries revealed that the nearest bar was several miles away and, instead of being in a hotel, they were in the Lochmaddy mental hospital!  Fortunately a good meal was soon served, then it was off to the Lochmaddy Hall for a midnight start - no electricity and a badly out of tune piano!  Despite these problems a great night was enjoyed by all and then it was back to bed in the hospital for a few hours' sleep.  However a good night's rest was out of the question as the residents kept popping in for a peep at the strangers.

Before leaving, the band played for an hour as the patients and staff danced and sang to the music, and there was much disappointment when it was discovered that the band members were on their way again and all were sad to say farewell.

Another memorable trip, recalled by Addie, was a trip to play for the Glasgow-Caithness Association.  The band had been presented with a set of deer antlers to decorate their vehicle by local AA patrolman, Rex Watt.

At 5.30am the shooting brake was loaded, with the double bass strapped on the roof rack - scroll facing backwards and the antlers to the front.  About 20 miles from Glasgow and inquisitive police patrol pulled in the band car for an inspection, thinking they had caught a load of deer poachers.  However after untying the ropes and looking under the covers to discover only a double bass, the were waved on their way to the Highlanders' Institute!

There were many good Scottish dance bands around at this time, each with their own individual styles, but still the offers of broadcasts poured in from the BBC.

During one phone conversation with the Producer at that time - James Hunter - Addie timidly suggested that perhaps he could play one set on his banjo in a forthcoming broadcast.  "We'll see how it sounds," replied James, but after hearing the rehearsal gave the "thumbs up" and so The Wick Scottish Dance Band sound became even more distinctive, especially with the arrival of the Hawaiian guitar at a later date.

Eann Nicolson, without a doubt one of Scotland's finest accordionists of the era, practised many hours with Addie to keep up the standard and increase the Band's repertoire.  Not only was Eann an accomplished played, but he also had the ability to tune an accordion to suit his own personal taste, which always shone through in the Wick Scottish sound.

Because of their increasing popularity it was inevitable that the Band would be offered an opportunity to appear on record, and this happened in 1964 when they recorded an EP called Pentland Airs marketed on the Thistle record label.  This disc was recorded in a small studio in Bank row, Wick by Jim Johnstone, who is now the driving force behind the internationally known Grampian Records of Wick.

Unfortunately this first recording was not a resounding success, but very soon the good times arrived with the recording of Heather and Shamrock, quickly followed by By the Peat Fire Flame, both on the Grampian label.

The Band's fame was soon recognised by Bryce Lain who offered them a recording contract with EMI.  they could hardly believe their luck, but soon their first record on this prestigious label was issued.  The year was 1970 and after even more hard practise The Sound of the North was recorded at Craighall Studios in Edinburgh.

In the ensuing eight years a further twelve records were made for EMI including Curtain Up with guest singers Argo Cameron and the late John Mearns who took the opportunity to record for the first time the extremely popular Auld Meal Mill.

Time marches on, and in 1978 came the first major change for over twenty years.   Eann continued recording with his new Wick Scottish Dance Band, while Addie, Isobel and Hamish were joined by Addie Jnr and Bobby Coghill on accordions to form a new band.

It was back to EMI where the new group recorded Head North (this LP gained a SCOTS star award), then Pride of the North.  These recordings heralded an extremely busy time for the new line-up, with many engagements in the South West of Scotland and North of England - meaning lots of travel and ever increasing costs for fuel, accommodation etc.  Eventually, because of these spiralling costs, Addie decided to reduce his playing compliment to a trio.  With modern electronic technology, the trio could produce a "big" sound, with Addie continuing to play fiddle/banjo/Hawaiian guitar, Isobel Harper (nee Auld) on piano/bass and Addie Jnr or Alastair MacDonald on accordion.  If a drummer was required, the services of Chris Duncan (of the original Wick SDB) could be called upon.

*Although the trio keeps Addie and Isobel very busy, they still find time to rehearse and ply with the Wick Fiddlers - a group formed around 16 years ago and currently comprising eight fiddles, accordion, piano/bass and drums.  Both are also pleased to tutor a group of young players, "the Young Traditionals" who continue to play music a la Harper - five fiddlers, four accordionists, one guitar and Isobel on piano/bass.

*Addie is also actively involved with the Wick Accordion and Fiddle Club where he has been chairman for the past four seasons.  Also, over a six month period he made a video record of all club meetings until three months ago when his video recorded was damaged by a huge wave which engulfed his van when filming a particularly severe storm near Wick.

Over the years, may great compositions have flowed from his fingers, possibly the best know and most often performed by other musicians being The Barrowburn Reel, John Keith Laing, Walking on the Moon and Pipe Major Jim Christie of Wick.

In 1986, he formed his own recording company - Harp Records - and through this medium has produced, among others, Down That Road Again, with his trio, On the Fiddle, with Gordon Gunn, A Change from the Box, with Addie Jnr, and Ceilidh Night at Mackay's, a self explanatory title featuring many local artistes.

Addie once said, "As long as the fowk are prepared to dance to is or listen to the music we produce, I'll keep on playing."  I hope this will be for many years to come.

Andy Ross, 1992

The paragraphs marked * were in the original February 1992 article but not in the November 2001 reprint.