The Scottish “Big Box” Accordion

You could put a pin in a map of any town and village in Scotland and find somewhere a photograph of a 20th century dance band with an accordion – or two – in prime position.  This article highlights the importance of accordion bands to Scottish music, and questions its relative neglect (compared with bagpipes and fiddle) in research on Scottish folk organology.

The photograph heading this post – of Mackay’s Dance Band (fl.1957-2000s) – came via  from the cupboards of Jim (James) Mackay (from Watten, near Wick), and is of a band that this writer remembers well from schooldays.  Like many dance bands, a family formed the core original line-up; this photo features Jim with his brothers Nichol and George. Personnel changed over the decades, as did some of the instruments.  Changing technology (and the declining reliability of pianos in village halls) brought in an electric piano, and the odd electric guitar tagged along, and there was on occasion even singing; but a non-negotiable item was one and sometimes two accordions.   Not content with playing in his own band, Jim also formed (with Catherine his wife) the Thurso Accordion and Fiddle Club in 1981.  When Jim moved to Inverness, he reformed the band as the Jim Mackay Dance Band, and in the early years of the 2000s started the ‘Button Box Gathering’, showcasing accordion bands annually in Inverness’s Eden Court Theatre.  Over the decades, the band in its various incarnations played gigs all over Scotland and northern England.  Beyond gigs, Jim was an influential teacher, bringing on the next generation of players including his own children and grandchildren. Grandson Graeme Mackay is particularly famous in the Scottish scene, having been national accordion champion twice, and currently holding a world title. Graeme plays both with the Jim Mackay band and with his own contemporary dance band ‘Tweed’.  Jim himself sadly died aged 84 in October 2022; thanks to him, the dancing clearly still goes on strongly.

The accordion was probably invented in Germany in the 1820s (credited to Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann) and is popular for accompanying dance music not just throughout Europe but also in Russia, the Americas and as far afield as China (this list is doubtless incomplete; somewhere on the moon a satellite image may one day show a lone accordionist squeezing the bellows and foot-tapping).  Despite, or perhaps because of this ubiquity, the accordion has rarely been at the forefront of writing about Scottish instruments.  However, since it sits at the heart of most Scottish dance bands, its presence and power needs to be acknowledged and probably more frequently studied.  Studies in the early 2000s by Catherine Shoupe, an American anthropologist whose field work looked in particular at Fife, suggested that the importance of accordion dance bands to most people’s lived experience of social ‘Scottish’ music might have been (at that point at least) undervalued by those who were primarily ‘listeners’ rather than dancers.  Success criteria for a dance band are aesthetically rather different from a concert band: what some listeners might label as ‘unmusical’ in an accordionist might be considered, by dancers, an essential part of the sonic experience.  The role of the accordionist is to “lift” the feet and propel bodies (sometimes not entirely sober bodies) around the dance-floor.  A search of current research suggests that there is still work to be done on the contribution of the accordion to the sound-experiences of Scotland.

Readers probably all know that accordion players carry this often large piece of equipment slung from their shoulders, often for many hours, playing it using a combination of fast-finger work on the side keypanels alongside simultaneously applied arm / wrist “squeezebox” action.  The result is a level of strenuous physical engagement that makes this musical instrument behave like a piece of gym equipment.  Accordionists must have powerful pectoral muscles.  If, like Soundyngs, you are not technically expert in accordions, here are a few fun facts.

  • In organology, the accordion is an ‘aerophone’ even though you don’t blow into it.  It combines the technology of the ancient free-reed that was rediscovered in the early 1800s with bellows and keyboards from the organ and piano.  The result is more portable than a piano …  just.
  • The bellows provide the distinctive rhythmic structure; the buttons / keys provide pitched notes.
  • Originally most finger mechanisms were button-activated; then some genius thought to add a vertical piano keyboard to one of the two hands.  Most ‘big box’ accordions, from the 1930s, use buttons on the players left hand side to generate chords, and the keyboard on the right to shape melody.  Some have button keyboards, others have standard piano keyboards (rotatated 90 degrees).  Left handed accordions are rare – but do exist.
  • Some accordion bellows produce the same pitch both ways; others vary between whether you are going in and out (producing diatonic scales – like a mouth organ).  Soundyngs thinks that people who play the latter must also be rocket scientists.
  • The instrument produces variations on the theme of ‘loud’, which makes it ideal for accompanying dancing. It isn’t the most expressive sound in the world (although subtle gradations of volume and note shaping are possible), which is why fiddles and voices might be added into bands (although it is also suggested that accordions displaced fiddles from bands – it can be hard to hear a fiddle over an accordion!)  But if you are sweating through your 40th iteration of a Gay Gordon, the power of the accordion is what is needed to keep your feet moving.
  • Contemporary accordions may also be digitally enhanced by all kinds of sophisticated midi technology which can even result in digital reedless accordions. Soundyngs isn’t sure if these are considered the Reel McCoy.
  • Other names: concertina, squeezebox, melodeon – could imply something that isn’t quite a full-scale “big box” accordion: many such smaller members of the free reed family have also been used in the past and today. Descriptions by non-players aren’t always technically accurate.  Soundyngs is not an expert in this, but it wonders if some of the names are not entirely complimentary.
  • Famous Scottish accordionists include James (Jimmy) Shand of Fife, whose home town of Auchtermuchty is still an important folk music place.

As well as being the centre of any social occasion involving dancing, the accordion also has its own range of specialist player networks and competitions.

  • The National Association of Accordion and Fiddle Clubs (formed 1971) has members both in Scotland and Northern England who share a love of Scottish dance music. Resources on their website include directories of bands and local clubs, an archive of  members’ biographies, articles, photographs, book reviews, NAAFC awards and events, etc; and news and postings about events around Scotland and northern England.  It also runs a newsletter – the Box & Fiddle.
  • Scottish accordionists can meet with enthusiasts from other nations in international competitive events run by organisations such as the Confédération Mondiale de l’Accordéon; Scottish accordion music is thereby well-placed to absorb sounds from all over the world.

Further Reading

  • Stuart Eydmann, ‘As Common as Blackberries: The First Hundred Years of the Accordion in Scotland, 1830-1930’, in Folk Music Journal 7(5), (1999), 595-608.  This is a pioneering, broad historical overview with some nice illustrations from a range of sources.  Future posts in Soundyngs hope to update this with more research from this writer/performer.
  • Catherine A Shoupe, ‘”Our Kind of Music”: Accordion and Fiddle Clubs and the Scottish Dance Tradition’, in Scotlands 2(2), (1995), 86-104
  • Catherine A Shoupe, ‘Scottish Social Dancing and the Formation of Community’, in Western Folklore 60(2/3), (2001), 125-148 – includes an ethnographic account of a ceilidh in Largoward, Fife.
  • Catherine A Shoupe, ‘The “Problem” with Scottish dance music: two paradigms’, from Driving the Bow: Fiddle and Dance Studies from around the North Atlantic 2 eds. Ian Russell and Mary Anne Alburger (University of Aberdeen: Elphinstone Institute, 2008), pp.105–120
  • Ian Cameron, The Jimmy Shand Story: The King of Scottish Dance Music (Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press, 1998), ISBN 1-84017-0190-0
  • Mackays Dance Band – see

Further Listening

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