Alan Buchan

Alan, husband of Stow’s first lady minister from 2002-2009 Catherine Buchan, is an organist and ran the church choir. He is also an expert in repairing organs and maintains both Stow and Heriot church organs.


I grew up in Edinburgh in Portobello and spent most of my first 40 years in Edinburgh, until we started flitting around, which we've done ever since of course. My first memories of music are of hearing the church organ. It was at Wardie church in Leith. I was fascinated by the power of it and the different tonal colours that one can get. There wasn't much of a musical influence from home. My mother attempted to play the piano but wasn't very successful with that. My father was tone deaf. My paternal grandfather was an organist however, up in the Buchan area of Peterhead, so somehow the musical influence must have filtered through.

I started playing the piano at about seven. I first started having a shot at the organ when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was taught piano by an elderly lady in Portobello. She started me off until I went to study with Dennis Townhill at St. Mary's Cathedral in Palmerston Place. He did the difficult bit. I attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh, the building that didn't become the Scottish parliament on Calton Hill. We had a music teacher who was an organist. He was the last organist for St George's Parish Church in Charlotte Square. He was very skilled and very interested in old music which created an interest on my part in pre-renaissance music. He was called William Bowie, so it's a good musical name – Bowie. Like most children of the sixties I was interested in the pop music that was around at the time, which seemed to be radically different from anything that came before. It's lasted. Everyone said it would disappear within a year or two but it's still being aired and performed. I was quite keen on Manfred Mann. The lead singer, Paul Jones came to our church two years ago on one of his evangelical singing trips and I was able to meet him there which was great. I quite like folk rock, Steeleye Span and stuff like that. I like to watch them on You Tube now and view performances that I haven't seen for decades.

I'm interested in the Renaissance period, Early music. It's very rhythmic and has a certain amount in common with popular music of the period I was brought up in I find, but no-one else seems to equate it with that. I became interested in organ music, the Bach period and gradually I followed on with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It took me a longer time to assimilate that.

At ten years old I had a duo with a friend along the road, but that never took off because he was not musically inclined. I directed a small church choir of 15 while living at Stow. It was a joint choir for Stow and Heriot churches. We shared our anthem singing between the two and I was really grateful for all the support I got during those years from the members. I gather it has now blossomed into the Galawater Community choir directed by Jim Letham, with a membership of 30 or more. It's good to know that it has expanded like that.

We sang at a Burns supper in 2009 and that was a good opportunity to get out into the community at large.

Other performances that were well received were:-

The Shepherd's Farewell by Berlioz which was one we did at Christmastime in 2006. It somehow fitted the atmosphere of this area. Berlioz came from Isere, a rural area in the south of France, with a landscape and lifestyle very similar.
Sanctus from Faure's Requiem was done about the same time.
A Basque Carol – Sing Lullaby was one I really enjoyed doing. We were able to give great expression to the words in the different verses.

I was persuaded to join the Melrose Opera which I really enjoyed once I got going. We did the Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and others. There was one where there had to be smoke on the stage to provide a mysterious atmosphere. The first night the smoke canister didn't work at all, so next night they provided several and there was so much smoke that we couldn't see where we were going on the stage, which was great fun.

The organ was installed in the Stow church in 1905. We had a hundredth birthday party for the organ. The organ was funded by donations from church members and a grant from Andrew Carnegie. It was opened by Mr. Claude Cover, organist at St. Paul's in Galashiels.

Margaret Dick was the organist before me and I hear she still stands in occasionally. I tune the Heriot organ once a year. It's all mechanical and never causes any problem. It seems to thrive in the atmosphere there. You don't want it too damp or too dry. It seems to be in the right place and still working well.

The Stow organ is operated pneumatically with air going down tubes. More up to date ones are operated electrically. The Heriot one is easy to maintain. The Stow one is more complicated and susceptible to changes in humidity. But by and large organs go on for hundreds of years if you keep restoring them periodically. They are very durable. Jamie Lightoller from North Berwick attends to Stow organ. He's a descendant of the Lightoller who was first mate on the Titanic. He's a good tuner.

I enjoyed playing the organ to accompany the bagpipes with Stow pipe band which of course has distinguished itself on many occasions. They came to the church once a year and always played Highland Cathedral accompanied by the organ. Normally you don't use the full power of the organ, but to make yourself heard at all with the pipe band you had to pull out all the stops as the saying goes which I was happy to do on these occasions. It produced a tremendous effect which just about blew the audience out the church. So that was great fun. With the bagpipes you always have to play in the same key......that's Eb, no matter what you're playing because they only play in one key.