A FORMER member of a well-known Scottish traditional music band has taken up the post of music tutor for a number of Sutherland schools.
Civil engineer turned professional musician Colin Melville (38), toured internationally for years with folk band The Tannahill Weavers. He is still connected to the group, featuring in the Weavers’ line-up last month at a Celtic Connections gig in Glasgow and due to play with them at Easter.
Mr Melville has lived in Australia for the last four years where he helped lay the foundations for a new piping academy.
He succeeds long-term incumbent George Stewart as piping tutor based at Golspie High School and covering five primary schools – Golspie, Brora, Helmsdale, Rogart and Lairg.
And after just a fortnight in the job – with several days off because of snowy weather – he is full of praise of Mr Stewart’s legacy, which includes the flourishing Sutherland Schools Pipe Band.
He said: "What George has done is wonderful and the set up here is excellent and obviously works because so many kids are involved and enthusiastic about music."
A native of Fort William, Mr Melville is no stranger to Sutherland – big sister Marissa was head teacher at Tongue Primary School until some four years ago.
He took up piping aged seven, following in the footsteps of Marissa and his other two older sisters and studying under noted piping teacher Duncan MacDonald.
He recalls: "I was always bonkers on piping. I remember a few years ago Mum found this diary dating back to my primary school years.
"In it the teacher posed the question: What do you want to do when you grow up?" and I wrote that I wanted to be John D. Burgess, who was a famous piper. I had a number of lessons from Mr Burgess in my childhood and I am still in awe of him!"
A member of Lochaber Schools Pipe Band, he was also a keen solo competitor and cites the highlight of his junior years as winning the Under 18s March, Strathspey and Reel at the 1997 Northern Meeting.
"I was fair chuffed!" he said.
After leaving school, he studied for four years at Heriot Watt University and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
But at weekends he travelled back to Fort William to play at ceilidhs and other events in the area and began to become increasingly involved in the folk music scene.
As well as the Highland bagpipes, he plays the Border pipes, small pipes and tin whistles.
He said: "After I graduated I thought I would take a year out and continue with my music before taking an engineering job. But it didn’t go too well and I wasn’t making money so half-way though I resigned myself to going back to engineering and began looking at jobs."
However fate presented him with a golden opportunity when he bumped by chance into Duncan Nicholson of The Tannahill Weavers in the car park of Safeway’s at Fort William.
"Duncan was about to join the police and asked me if I would take over his job with the band," he said.
The long standing folk band, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, is famed for being one of the first popular bands to incorporate the sound of the bagpipes in an ensemble setting.
In doing so it helped to change the sound of Scottish traditional music.
Mr Melville toured extensively with the Weavers, performing on concert tours and at festivals across Europe, the United States and Canada.
"It was awesome," he said. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. Musically it was terrific – you can imagine the experience these guys have built up over the years and to get a chance to work with people like that was fantastic.
I did a couple of albums with the Weavers and got to meet a lot of interesting characters along the way."
But after 14 years, he began to tire of the continual travelling and decided he needed a change of pace.
"It sort of came to a natural end and had run its course," he said. "I’m still in touch with the Weavers and have done a few gigs with them including one at Celtic Connections."
After leaving the band, he relocated to Adelaide, Australia for personal reasons, began working in retail and started playing with the City of Adelaide Pipe Band as well as tutoring aspiring pipers.
"I went through the ranks and ended up as a pipe sergeant," he said. "The band hadn’t competed for a few years but we built it back up to Grade II level and entered a competition in Canberra last October.
"There were a few kids coming along to the band for lessons but it wasn’t that organised so I saw an opportunity to create a learners’ programme. I did some foundation work and designed a syllabus to progress the programme into a school of piping.
"That has been growing since I left and the band has just unveiled its new Gracenotes Academy of Piping and Drumming."
Mr Melville also took up a post as vice-principal of piping for the Australian Pipe Band Association, liaising with pipe bands in South Australia and organising massed pipe band events.
"Piping is just wonderful. I have never been stuck for opportunities and it has all come from piping and music," he said.
Despite all that he had achieved in Australia, he jumped at the chance to return to Scotland after successfully applying for the music tutor’s post.
He said: "I’ve always wanted to be a school tutor and kept my eyes peeled for these jobs coming up – I have applied for a few over the years.
"However they don’t fall vacant very often – George was in post for 30 years! – and when they do, there are a lot of people competing for the posts.
"The job in Golspie ticked all the boxes. I wanted to come back to the Highlands and to work in smaller communities. It is very much a dream come true for me."
Mr Melville, who plans to return to competitive piping, has no intention of making any sweeping changes to the current tutoring set-up but will still be making his own mark.
He said: "I don’t need to do anything radical but everyone has their own system so there will be little changes, but I will very much be building on the foundations that George has left."