In 1970, the world of pipe bands was brightened by the appearance of a four-parted 4/4 march called “The Hills of Alva.” Four-parted 4/4s are rare. It was a sweet and melodic piece brought to light by the great Shotts & Dykehead band of the day, who used it to open their competition medley at the World Championships in Aberdeen that year. The tune was followed shortly thereafter by “Peter MacKenzie Warren,” another in a similar vein, which the band played at the World’s at Ayr in 1973. The tunes caught on quickly and have been favourites among pipers ever since. Most know them as compositions of ‘T. Muirhead,’ but few know that ‘T. Muirhead,’ was not a piper at all, but a dance-band accordion player discovered by the famous McAllister family in Shotts.
Tom Muirhead – usually known as ‘Tam’ – was born at Meadowfield Row, Longriggend, Lanarkshire on October 27, 1900. His parents were William Muirhead (b.1868), a coal miner, and Mary Whitelaw (b.1869). They had married 28th Dec, 1889 at Easter Glentore, Airdrie. Born 11 years later, Tom shared a birthday with his brother James, who was 12 years his senior. As was common in the day, two other siblings died in infancy. Tom married Jessie King in July 1924, and they had three daughters, Mary, Ella, and Jessie.
Artistic interests featured from an early age in Tom’s life. By age six he was being encouraged to go to his bedroom and practice the accordion. His older brother James played, so there was already an accordion in the house. He never had lessons from a teacher. He learned everything by ear and only later came to read music. As a teenager he would play at dances and weddings all over the district, and by the age of seventeen had bought a motorbike so he could get to outlying village halls. Special straps held the accordion on his back while he rode the motorbike to gigs.
Tom left school by age 13 to work in the coal pits. Years later, in the 1930s, he would nearly lose a hand in a mining accident, and this steered him back toward surface work as chief plate layer on the Southfield Colliery railway, where he remained for the rest of his working life. During the miners’ strike of 1926, he was keen to do what he could for the relief effort, playing accordion on the sands in Ayr and Troon, sharing his earnings amongst the miners. At this time, he was also part of a travelling group performing in halls in Glasgow. The troupe included singer J.M. Hamilton and Nellie Wallace, another acclaimed singer of the day.
During the war years, he often went around the town on flatbed lorries, playing with groups who were collecting for charity, as charity work was a particular passion. He also played for the Highland Dancers at Gala days in the area.
He played the four-row Italian style accordion over the usual three- or five-row style usually favoured in Scotland at the time, believing it to have much more versatility in fingering than the more popular models. In 1924 he bought a Ranco Guglielmo four-row, button-keyed accordion direct from Italy. He looked at instruments in an Italian catalogue, and, with translating help from Freddie Valerio, the local Italian ice-cream seller, he ordered what he wanted from the Italian music dealer.
He did not play in isolation. The instrument was popular in his youth, and he fostered friendships with a group of local ‘boys’ who would often gather at various places in the 1920s to play and exchange tunes.
He had heard pipes from earliest times, as he had some cousins who played. One of them, Eileen Wilson (pronounced Eelen), was a fine player and won many prizes but was rather frowned upon by men pipers of the time who felt women shouldn’t be competing. Two other male cousins were also pipers.
In the 1940s, Tom started up a band with Jock Conner on second accordion and Benny Cartie on drums. The band lasted for some years, and Tom’s business card at the time read Tommy Muirhead, Ace Accordionist, 5 Stane Place, Shotts. Posters promoted Tommy as a premier accordionist.
Of course, musical pursuits, had to fit in with the ongoing grind of daily working life. On a typical day, Tom would return from work at 4.30 pm, wash, and if playing that night, would have a couple of hours sleep, get up, dress and head off to the evening engagement. He would routinely play dance music on the accordion for three hours at a stretch, having worked all day.
He had a close association with the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band, and especially with the McAllister family, who lead the band for several generations through the mid-1900s. Tom McAllister, Jr. lived just round the corner from the Muirhead house and Tom was a frequent visitor to the McAllister household to play and listen to music. His ties to this band continued throughout his life.
It was through the McAllisters that the tunes of ‘T. Muirhead’ found their way into bagpipe music books and pipe bands. Ewan McAllister, son of the late Tom McAllister, Jr., recalls:
Tommy lived round the corner from us in Shotts. He would often come over for coffee and cakes. He would bring his box and he and my dad would sit in the kitchen and play. My dad used to love that. I can remember one night, after playing many of his old favourite tunes, Tom started to play “The Hills of Alva.” I was only a youngster at the time, but even I could see my dad’s ears perk up. You could see right away that he had plans for this tune! He and Tommy disappeared out of the living room onto the stairs, where they would sometimes sit and go through tunes.The two of them were out there for an hour or so and when they re-appeared in the living room, “Hills of Alva” as we now know it had been born. “Peter Mackenzie Warren” followed some time afterwards in a very similar manner. Tommy really was a terrific composer. He was also a relative of one of my pals at the time who lived across the street, John Inglis. John became a piper in the Shotts in the 70’s and 80’s along with me.
Other Tom Muirhead tunes written specifically for accordion are “Muldron Brae” (a place outside Shotts), “The Dandie,” “Captain Walker of Moss-side,” “James Macfarlane” (another grandson who was given this tune to encourage him with learning the accordion), “John Kane” (son-in-law), “Jessie Muirhead” (daughter), “Jessie Ralston King” (wife) “Little John’s Favourite” (John Kane, his grandson), “Captain Willie Fraser” (piper at Embo), “The Crescent” (named after his home at 15 Lansdowne Crescent, Shotts) and “Kilspindie.”
“Duncan MacLean” (Secretary of the Shotts Pipe Band), and “Carradale Bay” have both translated beautifully to pipes.
The tune “Captain Walker of Moss-side” was named after a gamekeeper from Banchory who Tom visited often. Captain Walker was originally from Shotts.
Despite his love of the continental sounds of the Italian style accordion, and his love of music from all over the world, Tom never travelled outside of the British Isles. The Ranco Guglielmo accordion he bought in 1962, is played still today, by his grandson Jim Macfarlane, who delights his congregation by playing it at the Christmas Eve service in Lochgoilhead every year.
Tom’s repertoire included tunes from the classics: “William Tell,” “The Barber of Seville,” “Carmen.” He had sheet music sent monthly from London Music publishers Chappel and Matthews. Such pieces as ‘In a Persian Market’ would arrive in the post and Tom would waste no time in trying out these new pieces and asking the family what they thought. He had a trunk full of music, much of it pipe music. He would play away for hours in his room, and it was common to see a group of miners making their way along the road stop near Tom’s window to listen to the strains of his accordion. He took his accordion with him whenever he travelled. One such occasion was a trip from the Broomielaw in Glasgow, to Dublin, when he played on the boat, as the sun set. He often played pipe-like embellishments. His daughter Jessie remembers that he kept a chanter in his drawer in the house and on occasion used to rig up a connection with his accordion, so he could finger while the accordion acted as a bellows. He had a great fondness as well for the Northumbrian smallpipes and tried to imitate their sweet sound on his accordion.
He was good with his hands in ways other than musicianship. At various points in his life he turned his hand to activities such as French polishing, Fair Isle knitting, mending shoes, baking Cherry or Sultana cakes, and fixing accordions, amongst others. He saw reading music much like reading knitting patterns.
Later in life, Tom somehow found the time to repair accordions from near and far. He would remove the side and the dust strip to reveal rows of reeds set in beeswax. He would put new leathers on the reeds and tune them in.
Anyone listening to Tom Muirhead, would be struck by his versatility and musicianship. He was clearly totally at one with his instrument. Whether playing the old Scottish songs, “Jock o’ Hazeldean,” “Dark Lochnagar,” “Bonnie Galloway,” “The Massacre of Glencoe” or countless others, or whirling his way through the exotic “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” this was a man who lived, breathed, and loved his music. He was as fluent in “The Bonnie Lass o’ Fyvie” as he was in “The Invitation to the Waltz” or “The Lark in the Clear Air.” One can hear the way in which he added a flourish here, an embellished turn there, an improvisation or a tiny musical effect, he strove to draw every last ounce of music from his beloved instrument.
Tom Muirhead died on 6th January, 1979, and was buried on January 8th in Stane Cemetery, Shotts. Two pipers from the McAllister family met the cortege at the gates and piped the mourners to the graveside. They played some of his own music, followed by “My Home” and Rossini’s “The Green Hills of Tyrol.”
A man remembered for his courtesy, generosity and kindness, he gave away what he had, to help people in need. One feels that his gentle, generous, giving ways, may also have robbed him of some of the acclaim he might have had during his lifetime. And yet, in the music and memories that survive him, one finds in great measure, his musicality and creative brilliance — evidence of a life in which hard work and tough times were intertwined irrevocably with his great love of the accordion, the pipes, and all things musical.
Janette Montague, April, 2010
-with thanks to Jessie (Muirhead) Kane, Jim and Jean Macfarlane, Rachel Macfarlane, John Finlay, Ewan McAllister, Hector Russell, Johanna Montague-Reilly.