The Scotsman Sessions #135: Norman Mackay

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, Edinburgh-based accordionist and composer Norman Mackay performs his tune Big Hamish, written in tribute to his uncle, the Highland games athlete Hamish Davidson

Accordionist, composer and furniture maker Norman Mackay gives fond expression to his tune Big Hamish, written in memory of his uncle, the legendary Highland games heavyweight athlete Hamish Davidson. Mackay, Nairn-raised but based in Edinburgh, has a fine way with a slow air, which was also evident on his album The Inventor, which he released last autumn.

The Inventor was an ambitious project, with Mackay accompanied by everything from trumpet to string quartet, enlisting such familiar names as violinist Greg Lawson, trumpeter Cameron Jay, cellist Su-a Lee and bassist Duncan Lyall. His compositions, too, were nothing if not eclectic, ranging in style from Highland air to continental café.

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Yet, as Mackay explains, he never formally studied the relatively unusual three-row button accordion (also the instrument of choice for the great Jimmy Shand). “Nobody really teaches it,” he says. “I was just taught tunes by my dad and my neighbour, who were famers playing for their own enjoyment, when I was wee, then I taught myself through trial and error, listening to Phil Cunningham records and things like that. It was a pretty long road.”

Norman MackayNorman Mackay
Norman Mackay

Mackay’s music-making – he also has a rocked-up dance band, the Ceilidh Experience – runs in tandem with his craft as a furniture-maker, trading under the name Woodeye Furniture (with customers including fellow-accordionist Cunningham). On the left of the video you can see the Woodeye piano which featured in The Inventor, an existing instrument which Mackay stripped down, re-casing it with his own, finely wrought woodwork in Scots elm, giving it an impressive new resonance.

Following last autumn’s album launch, he had planned to spend this year touring on the back of it but that, of course, went by the board. Post-Covid, he hopes to resume live performance: “And there will be new music, which I’ve been writing.”

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