Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Scotland’s Accordion King – The Scottish Banner

September 30th, 2011

Dave making musicMusic and the sea each have a heartbeat of their own but they dance to different rhythms. No one knows this better than Dave Pullar, one of the last of the east of Scotland salmon netsmen and owner of probably the largest collection of accordions in Scotland.

The accordion is one of Scotland’s traditional musical voices along with bagpipes, fiddle and the human voice itself. It is firmly embedded in Scotland’s culture as the principal accompaniment to the reels, strathspeys and jigs of our familiar Scottish country dances. Recognition of the instrument’s influence on Scotland’s musical and cultural life can be said to have culminated in the knighthood awarded to Sir Jimmy Shand for his dedication to the accordion and its music, and the pleasure he spread worldwide.

The catalyst for Dave’s collecting passion was a memorial concert in 1999 for Dundee accordionist John Huband. As he listened to the young players in particular paying their personal tributes to their teacher, he promised himself – “If these wee craturs can play like that, I’m going to have a go myself.” Good to his word, at the end of the concert he announced that he wanted to buy an accordion.

His first purchase was a Hohner Vox 4 accordion and within a week he had purchased a second instrument. So started the hobby that has grown into a grand passion – in his own words “the infection had taken hold.”

Visit Dave’s home and you walk into a treasure house of accordion history. Piano accordions, button key accordions, melodeons, concertinas and continental and chromatic “boxes” surge over floors, tables and chairs in all states of restoration.

As with any collection, one man’s junk is the next man’s treasure. What at first sight looks like a wheezy old instrument with the music knocked out of it can, in the hands of an enthusiast like Dave Pullar, be restored and have life breathed back into it. He served his apprenticeship as a joiner and quickly realised he had the practical skills to repair and maintain his instruments, and most of his huge collection are in playable condition.

Dave has bought accordions from all over Britain and abroad. Friends have been generous and he has been the grateful recipient of dusty boxes that have lain forgotten in lofts and sheds; others he has saved from rubbish skips, as well as more routinely buying them from dealers and at auction. So completely hooked on accordions has he become that there have been occasions, after a buying spree, when there has been no money to put food on the table!

Accordions are bulky instruments and when your collection numbers over one thousand – “I’ve lost count”, smiles Dave – you need lots of space, which fortunately he has. In his decade of collecting Dave has sold only three of his collection. It’s not always their musical qualities that attract him. Accordion manufacturers can spend nearly as much time and care on the decoration of the cases, and the collection includes many instruments with beautiful and intricate ornamentation of the highest standards of workmanship.

There’s no better way to learn to play an instrument than to make music with others, and from the outset Dave has been a member of the Montrose Fiddle & Accordion Club – and the Buttons and Bows Club which has the distinction of being accordion-maestro the late Sir Jimmy Shand’s home club.

Like any true enthusiast nothing gives Dave greater pleasure than sharing his enthusiasm with others. The traditional fishing net store below his home had outlived its original usefulness and Dave has converted it and created a museum to display the best and most important examples from his collection, along with photographs and memorabilia.

But the instruments are for playing, so the space doubles as a studio. Many’s the evening the old walls resound to melody and laughter as young and old musicians, of every ability, enjoy Dave’s hospitality and make music in the informality of impromptu ceilidhs. Dave’s personal musical favourites are waltzes and slow airs, but the range and diversity of the music played at these evenings reflects the range and diversity of the musicians.

Several important examples of accordion appear in the collection, notably a Gola which is a top-of-the-range German instrument designed by the Italian designer Merino who worked at the time for the Hohner company (who started originally making mouth organs). Another, top of the Italian range, is a Scandalli Super 6. These are top quality instruments, made from the finest materials and beautifully balanced. Dave’s own favourite, a 1932 Salas which he regularly plays because of its beautiful tone, is a particularly well crafted instrument with superior decorative work.

A valued addition to the collection is the Ranco played by the late Tommy Ford who was lead box player in the famous Jim Macleod Band. A very special instrument is the small Black Shand Merino which belonged to and was played by the great Sir Jimmy himself, and is believed to be the only example of the small instrument made. Pride of place however goes to the Gold Shand Merino made by Hohner specially for Sir Jimmy, and again unique as it is the only gold one ever made. His most expensive instrument cost £4000 and Dave considers it worth every penny he paid.

Dave’s working life was spent building up the family commercial salmon fishing enterprise based at the aptly named village of Fishtown of Usan, five miles south of Montrose, from which he has now retired. For him fishing was more than an occupation, it encompassed his whole life – hard work was repaid with pleasure and satisfaction. He restored the last of the fishermen’s cottages, built around 1822, and lives there now with the measured, timeless melody of the sea breaking on the rocky Usan shore filling his days and thoughts.

His love of and involvement with music has shaped Dave Pullar’s life. It gave him a new lease of life after the death of his wife and now his leisure time revolves round music. When abroad it has overcome the language barrier – “You can have a tune in any language” he smiles.

But it’s been a two-way traffic with friends such as Irish band leader Donal Ring from Cork, and visitors from all over Scotland and Germany beating a track to Usan to see and enjoy his collection. Doubtless the thought that, with his family connections, Dave can always lay hands on a side of the very best wild, Scottish smoked salmon has been an added temptation for them to make the journey.

The door to his home and the music studio is always open to musicians. It’s one way he can repay the camaraderie he has enjoyed, and the welcome and hospitality he has been shown, being treated as one of the family by so many musicians he now regards as friends.

Dave sits at the window of his bothy with the changing sea, the light and the sky as his companions. Nature and wildlife fascinate him – every spring goldcrests return to Usan to nest, and he watches them feeding on the thistle heads on the rocky outcrops outside his sea-facing windows. Gannets, seals, whales and dolphins are ever present on this part of Scotland’s north-east coast.

The salmon net-fishing industry, dating back centuries and employing 3000 netsmen at its height, has substantially contracted due to the dominance of cheaper farmed salmon. Dave Pullar is a living archive of the old industry and of a way of life that he invested his own life into. It looks as though he may now have taken on the mantle of custodian of one of the threads in the fabric of Scotland’s musical heritage.

An ongoing question is what will happen to his collection. Dave would like it to be preserved if possible, but he’s very honest about his passion. “You need to be a bit eccentric to share your life with a thousand accordions” he’ll tell you. If this is so, it’s surely a harmless enough eccentricity.

Written on Friday, September 30th, 2011 at 9:33 pm for Claivers.