Helen Otton

Helen plays the organ for Heriot church. As a member of Heriot Ceilidh Band she plays both keyboard and clarsach and has accompanied the Gala Water Singers on occasion also.


I grew up in Dundee and I just moved away when I went to university. I went right through school in Dundee and after university and working down south I ended up coming to the Galawater area in 1988, which is thirty years ago exactly.
We had a piano in the house that nobody played, but a friend of my mother’s used to come and play it. At that point I was very keen also to be able to play it, but that didn’t happen until I was a bit older. Other musical influences were school, the playground and particularly as a girl guide music was an extremely big part of the guide company that I was part of.
I remember the whole normal set of nursery rhymes that we also went through with our own children, probably no different from anybody else’s. There were a lot of playground rhymes particularly for skipping and elastics – endless playground rhymes!
Down in the meadow where the green grass grows
I bought a bubble car in 1968, and I took it around the corner and put on the brakes ……… and that was a skipping song where people skipped together and then left. It was a way of everyone getting a turn quite quickly, whereas other ones were much bigger ones that were accumulating ones with birthdays, everyone would join in when the month of their birthday was announced
Vote vote vote for ……… was another
Here comes somebody at the door…. And then somebody else would come and join the skipping. This is when there is one person at each end and then either the group gets bigger or people leave.
On the mountain stands a lady. That was another one we sang. So these were all action songs and ones for skipping or elastics.
I started learning the piano when I was eight. There was a lady who worked with my father and she was a piano teacher in her spare time. In fact she was an extremely good piano teacher and had some illustrious pupils. I learnt with her right through from the age of eight to seventeen when I left home. Her name was Doris Donnelly.
The guiding movement was a very big thing when I was growing up. There were endless songs. In fact, I had a book, which was published in the Dundee area, of all the assembly of campfire songs. ‘Our Chalet’ is the signature guiding song. It’s about our chalet in Switzerland which is the centrepiece for European guiding. I enjoy a lot of music, but my preference is distinctly for classical piano music.
I’m a member of the Heriot ceilidh band. It was formed in about 2007. Both our children were young, nine and eleven, both learning to play instruments and at Heriot primary school they taught the guitar and most of the children who were offered the opportunity took it up. It was an opportunity for children to play together outside school; although guitars are not the traditional instruments that you associate with a ceilidh band. My husband Felix started the group with Sally Caunt - the two of them together. As well as that my daughter, along with a couple of others, was going to Stow for violin lessons. (There was no instrumental lessons at all in Heriot at the point when our daughter was primary five, six, seven, so she had to be driven down to Stow every Friday). So we had two or three young fiddle players, we had maybe twelve guitarists and in addition to that we had some adult musicians who came along, and also some students who were learning music who were older siblings. We had quite a big group of people potentially who’d come to the weekly rehearsals, probably about 25 to 30 people who could come but didn’t all come on the same day. Over the years it obviously transformed because all the children who started off in the ceilidh band, they’ve all now left school. We don’t rehearse other than for events that we’re asked to play for. ‘Phil the Fluter’ was a popular tune that they liked playing. They enjoyed fast jigs although they didn’t always find it very easy. We would sometimes start with a set of waltzes, maybe ‘My Love is like a Red Red Rose’ and a couple of others.
I play the organ and have been the church organist for the past 25 years. I have played for a lot of weddings and funerals. I accompanied the Gala Water Choir briefly to help them through a sticky patch. I pick up the harp occasionally. I used to play in Edinburgh with the harp orchestra, The Clarsach Society, but not that regularly. I occasionally use my harp with the ceilidh band but more recently I’ve used the keyboard to support the band as the harp is a bit quiet.
When I was younger, I used to go and hear these amazing pianists, in the Caird Hall in Dundee….. like Peter Frankl, Alred Brendel……. and they were just amazing. They came to Caird Hall as part of what used to be called the Scottish National Orchestra. Now they are the RSNO. If I was ever in London I would try to go to a concert or two. At university there was a very lively music scene. I sang in choirs and there were a good selection of concerts in St Andrews. In terms of performing I do have quite vivid memories of performing with Heriot WRI in the Church Hill theatre on a couple of occasions. That was quite an interesting event. I’d never played in an orchestra pit before and that was the first time that I, as the only musician, had a full orchestra pit to myself.
My husband, Felix, plays the accordian and the piano. He has been the accompanist for Heriot Panto for many years.
I’d like to mention Donald Thomson who is a modern composer. Two or three years ago he published a set of five piano pieces called The Borders Suite. The first one is called Heriot Water. He is the brother in law of a neighbour, but he’s quite a well-known composer in the Scottish music scene apparently. He used to be based in West Lothian, but I think he’s now moved to the North West. I have a recording of his music on my phone for you to hear.
……………………………………………. (snippet of music)