MUSIC is at the heart of Tiree life. Few know this better than Gordon Connell who for almost half a century has taught youngsters on the Hebridean island how to play accordion.

Many of their names you may recognise: Angus MacPhail of Skipinnish, Daniel and Martin Gillespie of Skerryvore, Campbell Brown of Gunna Sound, Ian Smith of Trail West and Eilidh MacFadyen of Dun Mor are all among his former pupils.

Connell, 77, is originally from Blairmore near Dunoon, but moved to Tiree in 1962 to teach history and then later modern studies. He fell in love with island life. "I made my home here," he says. "I love the friendliness of the people and the wonderful beaches."

It's a blustery morning in Tiree when we meet at his Crossapol home, the wind whistling down the chimney. Connell sits in a chair and takes the accordion on his knee. As it bursts into life, music fills the living room, the sole of his brown suede slipper gently along tapping in time.

Connell began teaching accordion as a leisure activity at Tiree High School in 1970. His eyes twinkle as we run through the illustrious list of musicians that he has given lessons to. "They have done well for themselves and it is great they are able to earn a living – or at least good pocket money."

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Just don't ask him to name favourites: Connell steadfastly refuses to pick out a star pupil. "Oh, I wouldn't say," he says. Gary Innes, host of BBC Radio Scotland's Take the Floor, once asked him the same question. "And I wouldn't tell him either."

What makes it even more remarkable is that Connell is self-taught.

"Apart from seeing it played at dances, I didn't know what an accordion looked like before I came to Tiree," he chuckles. "I had never handled one. I bought a wee 12 bass accordion from a neighbour in 1963. I foutered about with it until I got the hang of it.

"I went down to Blairmore that summer. I knew a guy who owned an accordion and didn't play it. I bought it for £25. That was a 72 bass, so a real upgrade."


Connell is sanguine when asked the secret of being a good accordion player. "You've got to have an ear for music," he says. "There are lots of good accordion players who play from sheet music, but most of them have got an ear for music as well.

"If you just play it completely off the sheet, without any interpretation, it sounds a wee bit bland. But if you have got the ear for music, you can add embellishments and put your own stamp on it."

He retired as a teacher in 1996 but continues to give accordion lessons at the school each Thursday. Connell estimates he has taught between 100 and 200 pupils how to play "the box" over the years. "Although, I couldn't put an exact figure on it," he says.

What he enjoys most, says Connell, is the craic. "Seeing the kids mastering a tune for the first time, making wee breakthroughs and overcoming hurdles, it makes it all worthwhile."

It is important to him to continue sharing that knowledge for as long as possible. "I'm not going to last forever," he says. "The younger generation need to carry that music tradition on. It is nice to see people I've taught then teaching others."

Connell's passion shows few signs of waning. "I enjoy playing," he says. "I take the box out every evening. I try to learn tunes that I thought I wouldn't be able to play, jigs and reels, all the fast ones. I'll not stop playing until I'm no longer able.

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"I am fighting against old age. I think: 'Am I going to learn this tune before the fingers start to give in?' I was playing at a dance recently and after Strip the Willow, we switched to a slower paced waltz, and my thumb cramped up. Thankfully that was a one-off."

One of his all-time favourite moments was joining many of his former pupils on stage during Tiree: Outside the Box at the O2 ABC in Glasgow in 2012. Yet, Connell is reluctant to take any credit for helping stoke Tiree's prolific presence on Scotland's thriving traditional music scene.

"Music is a big part of the island life," he attests. "There are so many people from Tiree who are tuneful – whether they sing or play an instrument. I think it is in the genes."

Angus MacPhail, who was taught by Connell between the ages of nine and 17, co-founded Skipinnish in 1999. "Gordon is a very modest guy," he says. "You will never ever hear him boasting about what he has done or the effect it has had on Tiree, but it is absolutely huge."

Skipinnish was formed by MacPhail and Andrew Stevenson, who hails from Achnacarry in Lochaber, when they were students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – in Glasgow.

What began as a duo has since evolved into an eight-strong band. The line-up has undergone several incarnations in recent years with Norrie MacIver, who had been singing with Gaelic folk-rockers Manran, joining Skipinnish in 2016.


MacPhail, 38, describes last year as their most successful so far. Skipinnish was named Scots Trad Live Act of 2017 and played a sold-out performance in Glasgow's Barrowland Ballroom.

Already 2018 is shaping up well with a sold-out Celtic Connections gig under their belts. The band will play their biggest gig to date at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on May 18 and then headline the Tiree Music Festival in July.

Former MP Tessa Jowell recently revealed she had found relief in her battle with brain cancer listening to the music of Skipinnish. In an interview for the BBC's Today programme in January, Baroness Jowell sang along to the band's song Alive.

"It's the ultimate honour as a musician and a songwriter to hear your music has been positive in having an effect on people who are going through that type of illness and hard times in life," says MacPhail.

While Connell reckons that music is in the Tiree genes, MacPhail believes the answer is more straightforward. "It is absolutely simple," he says. "The reason so many people on Tiree play the accordion is mainly down to Gordon.

"As a musician you often hear people say: 'Oh, it must be great to be talented and play an instrument'. It has absolutely bugger all to do with talent.

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"Obviously, some people are going to be better than others at anything in life – whether it is the long jump, writing a novel or playing the accordion – but unless you have the opportunity to learn how to do that in the first place, then 99% of people will never begin that endeavour.

"What Gordon did was give people the opportunity to learn in the first place. It grows from there. Take him out the equation and the prevalence of accordion music on Tiree would not exist."