Article MT067

Donald Davidson

The Banchory Moothie


When Reg Hall produced the 20 volume Topic set of CDs The Voice of the People in 1998 his booklet notes contained copious information regarding the performers.  Or, rather, most of the performers.  Sadly, one or two still remained biographical blanks.  Who, for example, were the Hyde Brothers, two melodeon players who recorded the jig Back o' the Haggart in New York in 1928?  And what of Donald Davidson, a mouth-organ player who made a number of records, including the two pipe-marches The Inverness Gathering & Dornock Links which appear on volume 14 of the series?  Again, a biographical mystery.

Well, I'm quite partial to a good mystery (as my bookshelves, groaning under the collected works of Elmore Leonard, Robert B Parker, James Lee Burke, James Crumley and all those other American crime writers, can attest) and, having moved to within 3 miles of the Scottish border, I thought that somebody, somewhere, should know something about Donald and his moothy, if only I knew where to start.  In fact, that somebody was Bill Dean-Myatt, a Rushall-based record researcher who is currently compiling the definitive tome on the Beltona Record label.  This was the company that Donald recorded for, and, within minutes, Bill had found a Beltona flyer which said that Donald was from the town of Banchory, some miles to the west of Aberdeen.  By chance, Rod and Danny Stradling had recently stayed in Banchory when they were launching their Daisy Chapman CD - in a B&B run by Bunty and Fred Davidson!  Having phoned the B&B, I soon found myself talking to two of Donald's nephews, Gordon and (another) Donald Davidson.  They, in turn, suggested that I should speak to Peter Davidson, a nephew who lives in Poole, Dorset, and who, it turned out, had been researching his family's history.  Now, thanks mainly to Peter and Bill, I am glad to say that Donald Davidson is no longer a biographical mystery.

Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson was born on 2nd April, 19l0, in the Deeside town of Ballater.  He was the last of nine children to be born to Peter Davidson, a blacksmith, (b. 5.9.1872) and Isabella Sotherland Davidson, née Hay.  Isabella's father, James Hay, (b. 17.12.l829) had also been a blacksmith, albeit one with a literary, and possibly socialist, frame of mind; for he was the author of The People's Right to Own the Land, or, The Key to Permanent Prosperity, a tract which would probably have alienated him from the handful of people (many of them English) who then owned Scotland.

Peter and Isabella had been married on 8th August, l896, in Aberdeen and their first two children, Helen (b. 27.1.1897) and Peter (b. 7.5.1898) were born in Aberdeen.  The remaining children, Annabella (b. 15.10.1899), William (b. 21.2.1901), Robert (b. 11.2.1902), George (b. 15.10.1904), Dora (b. 19.6.1906), John (b. 27.7.1908) and Donald were born in Ballater.  So it would seem that the family moved to Balater in l898 or '99.

Donald first went to school in Banchory, a few miles east of Ballater, where the Water of Feugh joins the Dee, probably because the family moved to Banchory when Donald was aged about four or five.  By then, Donald's father, Peter, was working as a carrier for a Banchory firm called Smarts, delivering goods between Banchory and Balmoral Castle.  As a carrier, Peter was daily at the Castle during the visit of the Court and was known to members of the Royal Family, the younger members of whom apparently used to wait eagerly for his arrival.  On his retirement he was presented with a clock from the staff at the castle. 

Banchory was, of course, the home-town of the fiddler Scott Skinner, and a well-known centre for traditional music, folksongs and balladry.

Four and twenty noblemen rode thro Banchory fair,
But bonnie Glenlogie was floor o' them there.
Four and twenty noblemen rode from Banchory ha ,
But bonnie Glenlogie was floor o' them a .
Glenlogie or Jean O' Bethelnie (Child 238)
Donald told friends that he started to play the mouth-organ when he was only four years old being inspired by the music that he heard on his parent's old wind-up gramophone (with a gold and scarlet horn).  Donald, it seems, was especially taken by the music of Peter Wyper and several other early melodeon players.  All of his brothers were musical and could play the mouth-organ and at least one sister, Dora, could play the piano.  Later, Robert, a house-painter, John, a telephone linesman, and George, a slater, took up the pipes, becoming one third of the Banchory Pipe Band, which became known locally as Davidson's Pipe Band.

Donald completed his education at a school in King Street, Aberdeen, and it was during this period that one teacher, a Lancastrian called John Stordy, taught him to read and write music.  Some of Donald's later recorded tunes, such as Frisky Lambs, Dobbin's New Shoes and The Alpine Waltz, were his own compositions.

In the late 1920s Donald began to broadcast frequently from 2BD in Belmont Street, Aberdeen, and he came to the attention of Tom D Walker who worked in the north-east of Scotland for Beltona Records, possibly as a talent scout and record salesman.  (In the 1950s, Walker was to move to Decca Records.)   Walker arranged for Donald to travel to London in October, 1929, where he recorded a dozen unaccompanied mouth-organ sides for Beltona.  Many of these sides were of relatively well-known tunes, such as Monymusk, The De'il Amang the Tailors, Kafoozulum, The Soldier's Joy, The Bonnie Lass o' Bon Accord, The Mason's Apron and The Muckin o' Geordie's Byre.

Less than a year later, in August, 1931, Donald was back in London to record a further dozen sides. (sound clip, left - Inverness GatheringAgain, there was a mixture of well-known and less well-known pieces. (sound clip, right - Dornoch Links)  As soon as these were issued, Hohner began to advertise their wares using Donald's name:

Donald Davidson of Banchory is a brilliant musician whose pungent performances on the Harmonica are played from music, not by ear.  His instrument is the Tartan Echo and we think you will agree with the general opinion, that he is the doyen of Strathspey players.  The assemblage of sweet sounds that he produces is loud enough to be heard above the din of dancing feet and so affords pleasure to listener and dancer alike.
Or, again
BELTONA ELECTROGRAPHICS Introducing DONALD DAVIDSON and his Hohner Harmonicas in Sparkling Records of Scottish Music.  Imbued with the gay reckless spirit of Tullochgorum, Davidson plays these Rugged Reels and Sprightly Strathspeys with a forceful resonant tone in a manner that is absolutely correct in rhythm and time.  We are pleasantly surprised at the clarity and colourful recordings, but then the mouth-organ is no Cinderella among instruments, but truly the Hohner Harmonica is a musical instrument of the very highest type.
Seventy years later such Brig o' Doon-ish sentiment sounds slightly forced and out of place.  But then that was the style, as this thirties' newspaper report also shows:
Meet the sook-blaw-sook expert extraordinary, a mouth-organ player who adapts and reads his music, scorning the assistance of even a faultless ear.  That's the difference between Mr Donald Davidson, 254, Union Street, Aberdeen, and the general run of mouth-organists.  To him the BBC studio has been familiar ground since the days when Mr Neil MacLean controlled affairs at Aberdeen ...  Donald and [his] mouth-organ (Mr Davidson thinks harmonica highbrow) have been pals in variety concerts, single turns and children's hour work.  Broadcasts have brought him many letters of inquiry, mostly in the strain, Where can I get an instrument with tone like yours?  Here's the reply right now, It's not the instrument, it's the man .
Interestingly, the newspaper makes no mention of Donald playing for dances and most people that I spoke to in the Banchory area also remembered Donald's radio work, rather than anything else.

Donald does not appear to have ever been a full-time musician.  He always kept his day job as a house-painter and, for a time, worked in Banchory in partnership with his brother George.  On 1st October, 1931, he married eighteen year old Isabella Fortune in Aberdeen.  The couple had one son, Donald Junior, who, like his father, studied music at school.  Sadly, though, Donald Junior died at an early age. 

In November, 1939, a few days before the battle of the River Plate, Donald returned to a London recording studio for the last time.  He had travelled down to London with the singer Willie Kemp, a stalwart of the Beltona catalogue, and he recorded eighteen sides, accompanied by an unknown pianist, before recording a number of duets with Willie Kemp.  Willie was from Oldmeldrum, to the north-west of Aberdeen, and the pair had previously worked together in Aberdeen.  They recorded a total of six sides, although only five sides were issued, which, today, are extremely hard to find.  They were certainly issued, but, with a shortage of shellac, it may be that few copies were pressed.  A 1949 Beltona catalogue shows that none of Donald's records was then available, although twenty-two of Willie Kemp's records - including many pre-war recordings - were still being offered for sale.  Times had changed, and the solo mouth-organ had been superseded by the more popular accordion band.

Donald spent most of the war in an anti-aircraft (ack-ack) brigade.  It seems that mouth-organs were hard to come by during the war, so, whenever he was called on to provide some music, he would play the piano or banjo!  In 1945 Donald solved the shortage problem by making his own mouth-organ, an extra large, double-reeded instrument, that was designed to get a tremolo sound very close to the double-keyed button accordion.

Following his retirement, Donald became interested in symphonic music and would spend his evenings listening to recordings and reading complicated scores.  He died on 21st June, 1987, at his home, 139, Gairn Terrace, Aberdeen.  Although his son had predeceased him, other members of the Davidson family continued to make music.  Donald's brother John became a music teacher in Banchory and is remembered today by many of his former pupils.  Donald's nephew Gordon continues to play the pipes in Banchory, whilst Gordon's daughter, Judy Davidson, is making a name for herself as a fiddle-player in the Shetland Isles, where she now lives.

Donald Davidson on Beltona - A Discography by Bill Dean-Myatt

Donald Davidson
(hca solo):
Recorded Peckham. October 1929
M 12490-Monymusk(Strathspey); De'il Amang the Tailors(Reel)1497, BL 1497
M 12491-Invercauld March & Marchioness of Huntley (Strathspey)1502, BL 1502
[12492-93 = Dan Jones & Alick Lilley]
Donald Davidson
(Hohner hca solo):
Recorded Peckham,October 1929
M 12494-Rose Amang the Heather; Kafoozulum1499, BL 1499
M 12495-1Stirlina Castle; The Soldier's Joy1501, BL 1501
M 12496-Lord Lyndoch (Strathspey); The High Road to Linton1498, BL 1498
M 12497-79th's Farewell to Gibraltar1498, BL 1498
M 12498-The Highland Wedding1497, BL 1497
M 12499-The Bonnie Lass o' Bon Accord; The Muckin' o' Geordie's Byre1500, BL 1500
M 12500-The Smith's a Gallant Fireman, & The Drummer1502 BL 1502
M 12501-1The Marquis of Huntley's Highland Fling;Mason's Apron1501, BL 1501
M 12502-Eriskay Love Lilt; The Road to the Isles1500, BL 1500
M 12503-Atholl Highlanders1499, BL 1499
Donald Davidson
Recorded Peckham, 12 or 13 August 1931
M 13716-Miss Forbes' Farewell (March); The White Cockade (March)1717, BL 1717
M 13717-There's Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose; Lady Madeline Sinclair (Strathspey)    1717, BL 1717
M-The Lass o'Gowrie (Lancers); My Love is But a Lassie Yet (Lancers);
Duncan Gray (Lancers)
1713, BL 1713
M-The Deil's Awa (Lancers); Cum.berland Reel (Lancers);
John Grumlie (Lancers)
1713, BL 1713
M 13720-The Cock o' the North (March); Bonnie Dundee (March);
Come Under My Plaidie (March)
1712, BL 1712
M 13721-Come Ower the Stream Charlie; Logie o'Buchan (Waltz)1716, BL 1716
M 13722-Jesse Smith (Schottische) Duke of Gordon (Strathspey)1715, BL 1715
M 13723-1Lady Ann Hope (Schottische);Stumpie(Strathspey)1714, BL 1714
M 13724-2    Awa' in the Heilans; Where Gadie Rins;
Flowers o'Edinburgh; Kate Dalrymple
1714, BL 1714
M 13725-Inverness Gathering (March);Dornoch Links (March)1716, BL 1716
M 13726-Wha Wouldna Fecht For Charlie (Strathspey); Cawdor Fair (Strathspey)1715, BL 1715
M 13727-The Orange and the Blue; The Lad wi' the Plaidie1712, BL 1712
Donald Davidson
(hca or chromatic tremelo hca -1;), acc. unknown pno:
Recorded prob. West Hampstead, London,prob. 21st. November 1939
M 899-Frisky Lamibs;Dobbin's New Shoes -Strathspeys -12420, BL 2420
M 900-Alpine Waltz2420, BL 2420
M 901-The Blackthorn Stick -12421, BL 2421
M 902-Sir Roger de Coverley2421, BL 2421
Willie Kemp
(baritone vcl), acc. unknown pno:
Recorded prob. West Hampstead. London, 21st. November 1939
M 903I Canna Get a Lass2429, BL 2429
M 904Sings That Auld Song: There's Aye a Wee Bit Slippery Stane
at Ilka Body's Door
2424, BL 2424
M 905Work o' the Weaver2429, BL 2429
M 906Sings a New Humorous Song: Aye Scrubbin'2423, BL 2423
M 907Ower By the Auld Quarry Knowe2430, BL 2430
M 908Sings a New Character Song: Piper Tam2424, BL 2424
Donald Davidson
(Harmonica) with unknown piano
Recorded prob. West Hampstead, London, 21st. November 1939
M 909Millicent's Favourite2422, BL 2422
M 910Petronella2422, BL 2422
M 911Strathspey & Reel:Cameron's Got His Wife Again2431, BL 2431
M 912Donald Davidson Plays on the Mouth Organ a
Yokie Auld Reel - The Old Bog Hole
2419, BL 2419
Willie Kemp
(baritone vocal) with unknown piano
Recorded prob. West Hampstead, London, 21st. November 1939
M 913Sings the Old Ballad: on the Banks of Sweet Dundee2423, BL 2423
Donald Davidson
(harmonica) with unknown piano
Recorded West Hampstead, London, 21st. November 1939
M 914The Atholl Highlanders' march to Loch Katrine2431, BL 2431
M 915Marches - The Cory blend2432, BL 2432
Willie Kemp
(Baritone vocal) with unknown piano
Recorded West Hampstead, London, 21St. November 1939
M 916The Massacre of Ta Macphairson2430, BL 2430
Donald Davidson
(harmonica) with unknown piano
Recorded West Hampstead, London, 21st November 1939
M 917Strathspey and reels - Duncan Davidson, Within A mile
of Edinburgh Toon;
Clydesdale lassies
2433, BL 2433
M 918Hornpipes - The Liverpool, etc.2433, BL 2433
Donald Davidson & Willie Kemp,
Davidson(harmonica), Kemp (ocarina-1, jews harp (trump) -2, tin whistle -3)
Recorded prob. West Hampstead. London, 21st, November 1939
M 919Wille Kemp & Donald Davidson play Favourite Melodies
on Trump and Harmonica - Losh!  -1
2418, BL 2418
M 920Jist!  -22418, BL 2418
M 921Willie Kemp & Donald Davidson Play Pipe Tunes and Marches on
Tin Whistle and Mouth Organ -Fegs!  -3
2419, BL 2419
M 922 unissued
M 923Fairly Musical Sketch - Yavels an' Chaff Part 12425, BL 2425
M 924Musical Sketch - Yavels an' Chaff Part 22425, BL 2425

Annex - The Silver City Harmonica Band

The Davidson family were not the only mouth-organ players at school in Banchory.  One of Donald's schoolmates was Lewis Middleton, the son of a gillie on the Royal Estate at Balmoral, who, unlike Donald, later played only in private for friends.  He seems to have been quite a good player ("I kept my teeth as long as I could for the sake o' the moothie", he was once supposed to have told a friend.)  However, Lewis's younger brother, Eddie Middleton, also played and, like Donald, was to broadcast from 2BD in Belmont Street, Aberdeen.  Eddie was a founding member of the Silver City Harmonica Band which played a lot around Aberdeen in the 1930s. The Band had been formed by John Reoch, its conductor, who was a musician from the Aberdeen Tivoli Theatre Orchestra.  Apparently they were helped quite a bit by the local firm of Patterson, Sons and Marwood, of Union Street, Aberdeen, who provided them with rehearsal rooms.  One of the Band's first engagements was at the then newly-opened Beach Ballrooms.  Originally there were about 15-20 players in the Band, but, gradually, it expanded so that at its peak there would have been some 50 mouth-organ players performing together!

Sometime, during the period 1933 - 35, the Band made a number of recordings for the Great Scott label, which was owned by John Drummond of Megginch, 15th Baron Strange, and his wife Violet.  The recordings were probably made at Megginch Castle, the family seat, which is at Errol in Perthshire, and there were possibly two different recording sessions.  Like all Great Scott recordings, the Silver City Harmonica Band sides are extremely difficult to find today and, like the Donald Davidson/Willie Kemp sides, it may be that they were only pressed in small numbers.  After Great Scott stopped trading, stocks of records were kept at the castle but these were melted down at the outbreak of war, in 1939, to supply shellac to the armaments industry.

The war also brought about the demise of the Band, although Eddie Middleton was still playing in the early 1970s, when not working as a photographic technician in the botanic department of Aberdeen University.

Thanks to Chris Hamilton, we have details of the following five records made by the Silver City Harmonica Band (1).

The Silver City Harmonica Band

c.1933 - c.1935.  Erroll, Perthshire.
Hymn of Lourdes
Scots Selection
Great Scott A233
American Medley
March, Strathspey & Reel
Great Scott A235
Our Director
Savoy Irish Medley
Great Scott A380
Naval Cadet
The 93rd Farewell
Great Scott A382
Irish Selections
Scotch Selections
Great Scott A384

(1) For a history and discography of Great Scott Records, see Great Scott Records by Chris Hamilton in Hillandale 184 (February, 1992) pp.  335 - 62 and Hillandale 185 (April, 1992) pp.  3 - 10.


Firstly, my thanks to Reg Hall for including one of Donald Davidson's recordings on The Voice of the People.  Bill Dean-Myatt was only too happy to talk to me about the Beltona Record Company and I am grateful for his permission to print his Donald Davidson discography and for a copy of the Beltona flyer .  Thanks also to Keith Chandler for sending me reprints of Chris Hamilton's two Great Scott articles.  Three members of the Davidson Family also deserve praise, Gordon and Donald Davidson in Banchory and, especially, Peter Davidson, son of Donald's brother Peter, of Poole in Dorset, who supplied me with details of the Davidson Family tree, as well as a wonderful selection of printed memorabilia about the family.  I could not have written this article without all their help.

Mike Yates - 20.11.00

Article MT067

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