Mystery Reel Played by Bob Nicol Revealed as a Composition of GS McLennan

We had a very good response to to yesterday’s story on the playing of RB Nicol and in particular the unidentified tune mentioned. Thanks to everyone who took the trouble.

Duncan Watson: Aha! That reel that Bob was recorded playing is called Anon and is a composition of GS McLennan. Anon spelled backwards comes out as ‘Nona’ which was the name of GS’s wife.

He also composed a slow air and called it ‘Nona’ as I seem to remember. It was later in Bob’s life that I heard him playing and this would be the same for most of his young pupils of whom I was one.

The late Donald Morrison would have heard him when a good bit younger and Norman Meldrum had interesting accounts of Bob’s playing, obviously of piobaireachd but including the light music.

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Bob resided at times in a bothy on the royal estate at Balmoral and this was the venue for a lot of the playing and of course discussion and debate between the Bobs, Brown and Nicol, on the tunes they were taught by John MacDonald (Inverness).

MacBeth’s Strathspey was a tune he played a good few times to me and I tried to emulate it. You can hear a good deal of snap to it. Doubtless those ‘old guys’ – who were not always old – had in their playing more life than what we generally hear now, even at the most prestigous of competitions. It is apparent that chasing prizes causes safe approaches.

I think the reel Anon appears in the Gordon Highlanders pipe music book, but it slightly differs from what Bob played. Bob in his young day heard GS MacLennan.

I played the tune Conon Bridge quite a bit (Conon Bridge is near to my home town of Dingwall) and Bob had a twist to it too which does not appear in the setting in the Gordon Highlanders book.

P/M GS McLennan, Gordon Highlanders

I wish I had recorded some of the stuff Bob Nicol played. One tune that I was really struck with was the Glengarry Gathering played in the most flamboyant of ways and I asked if it was the GS McLennan style. ‘No’, said Bob, ‘That is the way that William MacLennan played the tune but it is thought that it was the work of Geordie (GS).’

GS’s setting of the Braes of Castle Grant had some interesting turns to it and I recall the late Seumas MacNeil making caustic remarks about it. A bit of research and we find that actually when the tune was only two parts, those interesting turns are present. Doubtless there are losses in the standardising of tunes.

Here is Bob Nicol’s playing of Anon once more:

Andrew Hayes, Canada: Hi Rab, the reel is Anon by GS McLennan

Nick Hudson, Texas: The first reel there is Anon by GS McLennan – played at over 100 BPM!

David Livingstone: Now might be an appropriate time to suggest to Jakez Pincet that he republish (perhaps digitally) his collection of Nicol and Brown light music settings ‘Musique de Cornemuse Ecossais, Marches, Strathspeys and Reels, Jigs and Slow Airs; Versions Anciennes de RU Brown et RB Nicol’. This has long been out of print, but I remember seeing a copy years ago, and being very taken with the very nice settings of classic tunes.


Harry Stevenson, Northern Ireland: The mystery reel is Anon by P/M George Stewart McLennan. Anon is Nona spelt backwards (Nona was GS’s wife). It’s in one of the very early Cowal books [above], also in Captain John MacLellan’s ‘More Music’ and the Gordon Highlanders Book 1. A very fine tune and I loved Bob Nicol’s playing.

Alan Clark, Aberdeen: The reel is Anon by G.S. McLennan. It was composed for his wife Nona (with Anon being her name in reverse). It can be found in the Gordon Highlanders Pipe Music Collection (Volume 1) and is also featured in Book 2 of the Cowal Collection

  • Patrick Molard has kindly supplied recordings of a few more tunes in original settings all played in excellent style by P/M Nicol. We’ll carry these shortly so stay tuned to PP.

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