A PERSONAL REMEMBRANCE OF ACCORDIONIST ALI BEAG MACLEOD OF ACHNAHAIRD
By Kevin Macleod, 14th January 2021
The great Gaelic poet of the Highlands, Sorley MacLean would, on meeting someone new to him, ask “who are your people?” Thus do family connections run deep in the Gael, and they ran deep with accordionist Ali ‘Beag’ Macleod and myself. I have played tradition Scottish music for dance for most of my life, and so too has Ali Beag. It clicked completely when we played together, and was always a wonderful feeling. In piecing together the story of my father’s Polbain Macleod family, I discovered that my grandfather Hector Macleod of “Springwell”, Polbain, in Coigach had ventured from the Broomielaw in Glasgow to New York in 1911 to work in Montana as a shepherd. His passage to America was noted in some detail in the Ellis Island log of all emigrants passing into America at that time. Excited by this, I once showed it to Ali Beag, and we were amazed to see that the next man on the ships manifest was Ali Beag’s father! They had travelled together! Ali’s father played the melodeon and Hector was a piper. Traditional music has thus been rooted in the family for a long time.
Ali Beag, who died early yesterday at his home at 255 Achnahaird, aged 80, has been an integral part of our family life in Coigach. My father Roddie and Ali Beag were virtually that last indigenous Gaelic speakers there, and they would often relax and converse in Gaelic outside “Springwell” in the summer months, gently reminiscing of the old ways and old days in their soft, lyrical tongue, and catching up on the local news of boats and fishing. Our respective Macleod family trees were intertwined far back in time, with my father’s granny hailing from Achnahaird too. There was a deep personal connection between with Ali Beag and my father that was quite special.
It’s a truism to say that you’ve known someone forever, but it feels like that with my recollections of Ali Beag. There were 20 years between us, and when I was younger, Ali was often away down south with work, at the great hydro-electric power scheme at Loch Awe, and the massive power station at Longannet. He had absolutely no interest in sheep and crofting, indeed, I once spotted an old paint tin full of winkle shells by his gate, which he informed me were ammo for his catapult in his back pocket to deter marauding sheep from his garden! He much preferred the sea, but in the 1960’s, the fishing was in decline and work scarce.
Our paths crossed properly many moons ago in the early 1980s, when we four Aberdeen University student wanderers, Andrew Barbour, Alastair Stephen and Donald MacNeill and me would head for our old house for fishing and mountaineering trips. One of my earliest recollections from then is of going down to the new pub ‘Am Fuaran’ with Andrew Barbour to get a pint and see what it was like. When we entered it was absolutely jumping, a riot of noise and fun, with a huge scrum of well oiled locals. In the middle of it all was Ali Beag, singing “Away Up in Clachan” with enormous gusto, seated on his accordion case with his arms and legs flying about as he delivered his memorable version! I was pretty impressed by this, and pretty soon after we began to play music together, and thus began a long musical association, and deep lifelong friendship.
The local musicians at that time, piper and schoolmaster Alasdair Fraser, fiddler Peter Drake, Northumbrian piper Ron Raine, moothie player Charlie Mackay and others often played in the Summer Isles Hotel bar and ‘Am Fuaran’, and would play at local ceilidh dances in the old TA Drill Hall, coalescing round Ali Beag as the Coigach Ceilidh Band. They were memorably recorded on one occasion in 1996 and the cassette tape “Single Tracking” was a great record of the music at that time. A fair few drams were partaken during the recording, and it became a lively day’s work! The recording engineer, Andy Thorburn, at one point become increasingly frustrated during the process, as Ali Beag would utter “Thank **** for that” when they staggered to the end of a set, with Andy rushing through declaiming “Would you not do that at the end, your making the editing really difficult for me!”
It was at this time that the famous classical percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie passed through Coigach on board a large yacht the “Valhalla”, with a BBC film crew aboard, making a series of short travel documentaries with various celebrities of the day. The Coigach Ceilidh Band were asked on board for a freezing cold session with Evelyn accompanying on a bodhran. It makes memorable viewing, and was the first of a few big screen appearances from the ever photogenic Ali Beag!
As life went on, and I was able to spend much more time up at our old family house in Polbain, I played more and more with Ali Beag and the band, and their band practices were really great occasions with much laughter, tall tales, local gossip, new tunes learnt and plenty of beer, whisky and rum to celebrate life in general! We ventured to each others houses; guitarist Stuart Edwards in Inverpolly, fiddler Peter Drake in West Polbain, piper Al Fraser in the old Schoolhouse, and of course Ali Beag’s home at 255 Achnahaird, which he had built himself. They were memorable times indeed!
I became increasingly aware that Ali Beag’s music was unique and very special, rooted in his love of his Gaelic Highland culture, landscape and language, and was continually amazed at the depth of his knowledge and recollections. It made sense to get him recorded properly, and when fiddler Fraser MacNaughton undertook in 2005 the first of the three CD recordings that have been made of Ali Beag, I helped out with the CD cover art for “The Sands of Achnahaird” and recorded some bits on a few of Ali Beag’s tracks. It was well received and enjoyed, especially by visitors to that area taking home an authentic memento. And tracks were played on BBC Radio nan Gael and this continues to this day, in particular Ali Beag’s great jig set “Willie ‘Stalker’ Mathieson’s Jig”, a personal favourite of mine.
I had published a booklet containing the last vestiges of the verses of a certain local man, Neil MacLeod, ‘The Polbain Bard’ that my father had collected, saved from oblivion, transcribed and archived. I also recorded my father reciting these verses in his local Polbain Gaelic. I then used some of these recordings on the next CD that Ali Beag and I did, “The Braes of Badentarbat”, something that I am immensely proud of creating. It was a reflection of Coigach through Ali Beag’s rooted tune selections and sound, and that was complimented by the Coigach Gaelic verses given by my father. Remarkably, Ali Beag contributed a fine self penned poem in powerful Gaelic, pouring scorn on the Badentarbat clearances of the early 19th century. I had no idea he also wrote verse! My esteemed cousin Will Maclean, the artist of the Highlands contributed wonderful visual artworks to complete the CD, and the whole thing was engineered and recorded brilliantly by Luke Plumb, mandolinist with Shooglenifty. Local friend Sandy ‘Boots’ MacLeod gave a great poem of his about the Badentarbat bag net salmon fishing, something dear to his, Ali Beag’s, father’s and Will Maclean’s hearts. We had a wonderful time creating it in “Springwell”, and later that summer launched it locally with a gathering in the Coigach Hall. It still stands up well, I hope.
Al Beag had also composed some fine tunes over time, and we gathered those into a collection “Tunes of Coigach” and that sold well locally, and has been enjoyed by many musicians. It was fascinating interviewing Ali about his early recollections and influences in music, and we included these delightful memories in the book.
The final recording we did was a short CD with retired local schoolmaster and fine piper Alasdair Fraser, Ali Beag, Will Maclean on the tromb (or jew’s harp) and myself on various stringed instruments. The Rhu Beag CD was, I gather, Ali Beag’s favourite, and there’s real blas on it, spirit and fun all throughout. Ali Beag brought a set of Gaelic song tunes from Culkein, new to me, that he recollected being sung in Coigach when he was a boy. That fascinated me and we had to do that justice. I love the sound of that track. It’s so old, rooted deep in our Gaelic heritage, which Ali Beag was so in tune with.
Ali Beag was a very creative fellow. He had a wonderful eye and pair of hands, and over the years he restored many old croft houses in the area, and did magnificent work in our old family pile “Springwell”. His woodworking skills were superb, and he completely understood these old 19th century buildings, and the work was appropriate, beautiful and considered. At home, he would occupy himself making the most exquisite ships models in bottles, boats in dioramas, boats in lifebelts and a multitude of magnificent recreations of the many sailing boats that he had owned and loved. Some are behind the bar in ‘Am Fuaran’, and he gave many away. This art was such a key part of the old fishing ways of Scotland, and his models were perfect, made from all sorts of bits and pieces that he gleaned and gathered towards the final model.
One recent memory I have of him is help with a huge fallen stone in the garden. It was as big as a sea chest, and I couldn’t move it at all. Ali asked me to get my sledgehammer, and he considered the rock, pointed at a spot on it and said “Give it a tap there”. Lo and behold, the sandstone cleaved instantly into two manageable pieces! He just had the knack, every time. You could learn so much from him if you took the time to ask and listen.
I was most interested in the stories that both he and my father had of the old bag net salmon fishing, based in Badentarbat, that took place seasonally round the coast of Rubha Coigeach. Both men had worked there, my father in the 1950’s, Ali Beag in the 1960’s. I decided to sit them down one afternoon and began an extensive interview of them. I deliberately asked them leading questions so that the whole thing would be comprehensive, and understandable to anyone, and they gave a magnificent account of the fisheries. And they revelled in the old tales, each one sparking the other, with lots of hilarious anecdotes and memories. It was a special moment for us all, in hindsight, and has provided great source material for a recent Coigach & Assynt Living Landscape research project into these bygone local fisheries.
In 2013, I got us roped into the making of a film, a western entitled “Slow West”, directed by Will Maclean’s talented musician son John Maclean, starring Michael Fassbender. The filmshoot was up in Coigach in a cold December, and our role was to be the ‘band’ in the corner of a croft house interior where the action took place. It was a remarkable recreation of a 19th century interior, dark and smoky, redolent of the crude buildings that our recent ancestors had dwelt in. We had appropriate scruffy clothes, not dissimilar to normal wear, if truth be told, and grew beards and dodgy moustaches for the part. Ali Beag had to suddenly cease playing a certain tune when the irate Laird stormed into the room. It took a few takes to get the timings right, as by then Ali was getting a bit deaf, and continued playing! I had to kick his shin to get him to stop at the right point! From then on, whenever we played that same tune, he would say that he couldn’t get past that point in the set without stopping suddenly for the Laird’s entrance! Of course, he completely charmed the film crew, to the point that the Oscar nominee cinematographer Robbie Ryan insisted on filming him delivering “Am Bata Uaine”, the local song by the Polbain Bard, which ended up on the soundtrack CD and the DVD release as well. Sadly, most of what was filmed was edited out, but we had the funniest and most enjoyable time being “film stars” for a moment! Ali Beag also appeared in the clumsy Hollywood blockbuster “The Eagle”, sections of that lavish film being done at Old Dorney and Fox Point. He had a rare time wrapped in expensive sealskin robes as part of the Seal Tribe, and, with his long hair and rugged good looks, completely looked the part!
Musically, of course, he was completely self taught. He’d wanted to learn the accordion from a very early age, and was enchanted with the music. “Jimmy Shand for breakfast, Jimmy Shand for dinner and Jimmy Shand for tea” as he put it! He once recollected “My father didn’t have a box, but from Gillies MacLennan I got a one row melodeon – I swapped it for a mouthorgan – it didn’t play very well and it lost a lot of air. I think it was a called a Viceroy, very similar to a Hohner. My Father liked playing on it, tunes like the “Keel Row”, “Hey Johnny Cope”, and, with him being in the American Army in the First War, I think they used to play “Hey Johnny Cope” to waken them at reveille in the morning and he used to play it outside my room to waken me in the morning, and I’ve hated these tunes ever since! I still detest the Keel Row!”
“Jim Muir could play the box, I remember him playing a box I had, a tune called The Skye Crofters. Jim once lent a melodeon to the Ministers son, and he went home to the manse with it and the Minister threw it in the fire! When I was working at Cluanie when I was 18, I only had saved £20, and I was walking passed the music shop in the Arcade in Inverness, and I saw this three row box and I thought, oh, I’d love that, and it was £96! This was a lot of money, but I thought, I have to have it, so I went in and I asked him and he said “Have you got the money?” and I said “No, I haven’t, but I’m working with Willie Fraser at Cluanie, and when that’s finished I’m working at the salmon fishing all summer and I’ll have it at the end of the season!” He said, “Well, you come back with your £20 and I’ll give you the box, and give me your name and address.” There was no signatures, nothing, that was it! At the end of the season he sent me the bill, less the £20 and I bought a record player and some records and I had nothing left from the whole year’s work! At that time Jim Muir had bought a house in Polbain, now the Coigach Craft Shop, and he paid £80 for it, and I was telling salmon fisherman Bell Muir, Jim’s father, about the box and I was so proud of it and he said “You’re daft, Jim would have got a house for that!” and I said, “oh, hey, you can’t play a house!”
He owned a series of accordions, the diatonic button box which is a beast of a thing to master. He could scrape a tune out of a fiddle, and, of course wrote a small selection of catchy tunes, with his “Achnahaird” becoming something of a local anthem for the local musicians. He was a truly traditional musician. The music gave him a great deal of inner pleasure, and he would play with anybody, happy in their company at whatever level they were at. But it was telling that so many of the hugely talented younger Highland musicians adored having tunes with him, and he rose to the occasion when the likes of Glenfinnan fiddler Iain MacFarlane would pass through Achnahaird. To me Ali Beag was the "Real McCoy", a true source musician, and a wellspring of old and memorable tunes. He could play Gaelic waltzes as they were sung and phrased in Gaelic, as he knew the words, or as a dance styled tune. He and Al Fraser had a great empathy for pipe tunes, and Ali Beag would often proclaim that Al had taught him everything he knew about how to play pipe tunes. But that was just typical of Ali Beag, nonsense, and we knew it, as he had such an innate, natural feel for music. It flowed from him into us! And he played the sets he had conceived with great aplomb, on a tricky instrument, almost the same way each time, which is no mean feat for any musician. I think that many people perhaps underestimated his abilities, because he was so self effacing and humorous, but Al Fraser and I were deeply inspired by him, and in awe of his natural abilities. He might not have been technically on the level of a genius like Bobby MacLeod or Sir Jimmy Shand, but, my goodness he had the spirit and passion. Irish musicians like De Danann’s Alec Finn and melodeon player Mary Staunton were rapt at his playing, and were spellbound thereafter from a brilliant session in Sandy Bells!
He oozed charisma and charm, had a twinkle in his eye all the time, was generous and courteous to all, and was loved by so many far and wide. He possessed an impish sense of humour, and could reduce you to tears at some of his hilarious asides, cracks and funny stories. There was never a dull moment in his warm company, and he had the most amazing store of local stories about the history, geography, place-names, ruins, islands, people, and happenings of Coigach and beyond. He knew exactly how to fish lobsters, and was a complete natural at sea. It was a joy to be in a boat with him. He was utterly at one with the sea. And old boats were his biggest passion, and the last one he had, a 104 year old 17’6” Fifie built in Gardenstown, was restored by him to a fantastic condition. He wasn’t particularly comfortable when he discovered that she had originally been named “Fame”, which he hand painted onto her bows, as he really didn’t want anyone to think that he was being pretentious! I had the most wonderful day out round the Summer Isles when Ali Beag and his lifelong sailing buddy Ken Lowndes of Polbain put up the mast and brown sails, and off we went. Sublime!
A lasting, and final recollection is of a session in the Summer Isles Bar with the great man. He had undergone some wrist surgery, sorting out some painful tendons strained by years of hard work. And he hadn’t been able to play the box for some months, but on hearing that I was up, he was mad for a tune. We powered out the 2/4s and reels, until someone remarked worryingly on a regular series of red dots appearing up his wrist, blood oozing from the stitch holes! “Ach, it’s just rum and black” says Ali Beag, licking them clean! And I had just got a shiny 1920’s resonator tenor guitar, which he was most impressed with! He studied it intently, remarking how fine it was, beautiful, then turned it to look at the shiny mirrored back. “Oh” he says “Beautiful! And, look, it’s got a lovely picture on the back too!” as he gazed at his own reflection! Uproar!
So, Coigach will feel very empty from here on. He leaves a huge hole in the cultural landscape of that area, and will be missed greatly by his large family and so many friends and musicians alike. His music is preserved for posterity on various recordings and films, and his presence will be felt for as long as we draw breath. How very much we all laughed, and enjoyed his grand company! He was such a happy fellow, and I will certainly not forget the joyous sound of his uproarious laughter and brilliant accordion playing!
Farewell, fir ‘bhata, you were unique and utterly wonderful!