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Fundraiser in court for ‘driving piano’ on A92 at Arbroath as charity venture hits bum note

James Tofalli was stopped by police in Angus while pulling his piano from John O'Groats to Land's End.

James Tofalli was stopped by police near Arbroath.
James Tofalli was stopped by police near Arbroath.

A charity fundraiser has been given penalty points for illegally “driving” his piano along the A92 in Arbroath.

James Tofalli – known as Piano James during his 2021 John O’Groats to Land’s End adventure – had six penalty points added to his driving licence.

The 30-year-old had been raising funds and awareness for mental health charities, as well as money for instruments, by pulling and steering his piano the length of the country.

He came a cropper as he left Arbroath, however.

James Tofalli and his piano. Image: DC Thomson.

Police stopped him on the A92 near Elliot Roundabout just after 10am on September 15 and he was charged with driving his piano without insurance, L-plates and while under the influence of cannabis.

He appeared for trial at Forfar Sheriff Court on Wednesday.

Charity champion

Giving evidence, self-employed street musician Tofalli, from Middleton, near Morecambe in Lancashire, said: “I was travelling from John O’Groats to Land’s End with my piano.

“That day I was walking from Arbroath to Dundee, approximately 20 miles.

“I was raising awareness for mental health and autism through music, something that’s very close to me and something I felt I could give back on.

“I played to thousands of people.”

At the time, his piano was bolted to a contraption 75cm wide and seven-and-a-half feet high.

He said he avoided pavements, as many road signs are around the same height and dropping down the kerb to get past them risked toppling his trolley.

James Tofalli in Montrose with his piano. Image: Supplied.

He told the court from John O’Groats to the banks of Loch Ness earlier that summer, he had pulled the 250kg piano on a warehouse turntable trolley manually, using a harness.

However, after meeting other people during his journey who were concerned for his safety, a team of four mechanics completed the 100kg motorised upgrade.

That involved fitting the rear of a 90cc child’s Kazuma quad bike chassis to the trolley and adding BMX handlebars onto the original U-bar, with a thumb throttle and kill switch.

It had a plastic fuel tank and exhaust and car battery-powered lights, including an agricultural-style amber beacon.

Tofalli said the engine would not manage to help up hills with gradients of more than five or six percent and never exceeded his pace as he walked alongside, steering.

‘How is this a vehicle… I’m using my legs?’

Police who traced Tofalli on the 70mph dual carriageway explained he needed L-plates as he was only a provisional AM licence holder.

PC Fraser Butter said he found a single plate in the bed of the piano, which Tofalli said he had collected in a litter pick.

The court heard the musician laughed when asked by police if his vehicle was insured.

He said friends phoned two or three quad bike, motorcycle and specialist insurers at the scene to try to get a policy for the device, without success.

A drug wipe was also carried out and Tofalli tested positive for cannabis.

James with his piano on the A92 near Arbroath. Image: Paul Reid.

The vehicle was seized and needed an electric winch and three five-tonne security straps to have it removed.

Police said the piano was secured with too many bolts to be removed but they did leave Tofalli with a chest containing personal belongings.

After being cautioned and charged, Tofalli told police: “I don’t understand that this contraption is a vehicle as it doesn’t have a seat and can’t be ridden.

“How is this a vehicle when I’m using my legs?”

Tofalli previously told The Courier his piano was damaged in the incident and he had to pay £150 to have to released by police.

‘It’s a piano on wheels’

In court, his solicitor Hannah Fairbrother argued the trolley was not a vehicle and how her client controlled it did not amount to driving.

She said: “It really comes down to – it’s a piano on wheels, controlled with an engine.

“I would suggest he wasn’t driving it, he was pulling it with the assistance of the engine.

“This was once a quad bike. I would dispute that it’s a motor vehicle, it doesn’t have the capability of being used any other way.”

The prosecutor, however, argued “a person can be seen as driving simply by walking alongside the vehicle” and “essentially, being in control of the movement is driving.”

The vehicle was seized by police. Image: Crown Office.

Sheriff Mark Thorley agreed and convicted Tofalli of all charges.

He said: “You’ve probably been a victim of some misfortune here.

“I can quite accept this was a trolley on wheels with a piano on top when you began this exercise.

“It became something different. It became a motor vehicle.

“Regrettably from your position, I will find you guilty.

“On one view, on looking at the trolley one might have thought it’s not a vehicle. Clearly on examination, it is.”

James Tofalli’s piano vehicle. Image: Crown Office.

At a previous hearing, Tofalli admitted possessing cannabis when he was stopped. He was fined £75 for the drugs offence.

Ms Fairbrother said her client used the Class B drug to self-medicate his ADHD.

After his conviction, she said: “He had no reasonable knowledge to insure this vehicle.

“He didn’t believe this was something capable of being insured.”

The sheriff deemed there were special reasons which meant he was able to avoid mandatory disqualification and admonished Tofalli for the driving offences.

James Tofalli at Forfar Sheriff Court this week.

‘I tried and I failed’

After leaving court, Tofalli posted on Facebook the court appearance meant he had “failed” in his charity venture.

He said he had raised £6,189 but had actually spent £9,000 of his own money.

He wrote: “The £6189 I raised, walking 450 miles is going to cover 70% of the total costs this project has cost me.

“Yes – I’ve put well over 9k of my hard earned money into this project.and that’s why I’m taking the GofundME total.

“I tried, and I failed.”

Found guilty of driving a piano. This means my piano project is over.The £6189 I raised, walking 450 miles is going…

Posted by Piano Man on Wednesday, 12 April 2023

Overcame addiction

Tofalli previously spoke about how music helped him overcome addiction to the legal high spice.

“After a battle with myself I came away from it going cold turkey.

“The first place I kind of landed was St Pancras Station in London.

“Inside the station they’ve got public pianos and I sat there for a few hours and wrote a piece of music and for me that was a sort of transition in my life.

Tofalli with his piano contraption. Image: Supplied.

“Since then I’ve been a busker playing in places across England and Wales and I thought it was my time to give back and talk about my experiences in regards to the mental health problems I have had and the difficulties I have had with ADHD.”

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