The Edinburgh Sessions at Sandy Bell’s

Leaving that famous royal mile, the narrow ridge that defines the tourist heart of Edinburgh, with its wall to wall tartan and cashmere shops and sinister themed tours, we descend the steps in search of the real Edinburgh. Down the stairs of Castle Wynd which hug the old rampart walls to the first terrace, then further on to another level or two until we find Forrest Road. Looking back up at the narrow terraces as they climb that ancient mound gives one a better appreciation of Edinburgh’s architecture. We wander a little further along to the home of celtic music sessions, Sandy Bell’s pub. It’s a tiny single fronted place with a cluster of chairs here and there and a designated spot down the back for the musicians.

Waiting for the musicians. Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh

A session in a pub refers to the music played by those who arrive to play celtic music, that is, jigs and reels, at a set time. A good session will go for four hours or more, improving along the way as the participants get to know each other. It is assumed that the musicians are competent in their chosen instrument. There will usually be a leader, often an older player, who sets the tone and keeps the session running smoothly. A good leader will open the set, determine the pace, and show, through a series of hand gestures, when a shift in a set is about to take place. In the session we attended at Sandy Bell’s, an older gentlemen playing two mouth organs at once set a rigorous pace. Other players included a guitarist, three fiddles, then later a uilleann piper and a pianist.

Musicians gather for a session, Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh

Singing is not usually a feature of a session, though a song or slow lament might be sung by a single musician between sets. This was certainly the case in the many sessions I had the pleasure of hearing in the pubs along the West coast of Ireland some years ago and it was also the case here in Edinburgh. The guitarist quietly sang a solo of ‘Ranting, Roving, Robin‘, a most unusual Robbie Burns tune, during the break.

Uilleann pipes in action, Sandy Bell’s

The aim of a session is to practice and share music; it is not a performance and so clapping is not usually appropriate. Posturing or grand standing by individuals is also frowned upon: personal musical virtuosity is less valued than the collective effort. Most participants in a session understand this etiquette.

Uelleann pipes, Sandy Bell’s

We stayed at the session at Sandy Bell’s for four hours and with each tune, the group became more cohesive and the music intensely enjoyable. It had nothing to do with the pints consumed, I swear.

https://www.sandybells.co.uk/

12 thoughts on “The Edinburgh Sessions at Sandy Bell’s”

    1. Thanks Sandra. The West Coast Irish sessions are the best, more natural and they seem to just come from nowhere. I had 14 nights of music in Ireland, often locked in for the night.

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  1. Oh, how absolutely delightful . . . and not having had a chance to partake, thank you for the links. Methinks I would have quite inadvertently stayed the hours without noticing also . . . Each country is different . . . . right across eastwards on the same latitude in Estonia it is all singing in the same thus manner with instruments playing but little part . . . well, perchance the occasional squeeze-box 🙂 !!

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    1. I would love to be present at an Estonian session. Singing traditional English folk songs ballads in pubs has taken off in pubs around Britain. I went to a session in York, where the musicians and singers were at loggerheads- the jigs and reel players wanted to perform music from Ireland and Scotland, while a large gathering of non instrumentalists wanted to sing English songs together. There was no compromise. The singers were very good, and I guess they need their own pub.

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      1. No – with your curiosity about the world, should you be in Europe in the summer of 2019 spend a few days in Tallinn and go to one of the very largest song festivals in the world: 30,000 on stage, a minimal 80,ooo in the audience ! Estonians can be quite serious. almost dour . . . but put any three together for five minutes and the ‘vocal chords’ will be busy! The Song Festival is incredible and these days Estonian choirs will come in from all across the diaspora . . .

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  2. I love the look of those pipes – I imagine it would take immense concentration to play them – like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. You can imagine that the pub and those sessions would have provided warmth and camaraderie on winter nights – as well as lively spirits and I imagine too that the ancient walls of the city hold many a lively spirit. We have a bar near us that holds similar sessions on Friday nights although they seem to play the same tune all night long, but as players come and go the tempo changes, either way it’s good fun.

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