It's hard to believe, given events such as Edinburgh's annual autumn fiddle
weekend which hundreds of fiddlers attend and the now almost compulsory
presence of at least one fiddler in every performing folk group. But when Aly
Bain first appeared on the Scottish folk scene, from Shetland in the late
1960s, he was something of a novelty.
There were other fiddlers, including the late Bobby Campbell of the Exiles
who was among the first to integrate the fiddle into the folk song revival.
Bain, however, was the one who familiarised the wider audience with fiddling
and as the 1960s slipped into the 1970s a whole raft of Scottish groups,
including the JSD Band, Contraband, Ossian, Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard (with an
outrageously youthful Johnny Cunningham), Whistlebinkies, and the Tannahill
Weavers made it almost commonplace.
Before this, the fiddle as we know it today was largely the preserve of
Scottish Country Dance music, its regional styles - from the bagpipe music
and Gaelic song-influenced 'swing' of the West Highlands and Islands to the
North-east's glowing, florid airs and stoutly rhythmical strathspeys -
preserved in village hall hops, accordion and fiddle club sessions and the
then-popular but now much mocked White Heather Club TV programme.
The fiddle's forerunner, the fydill, dates back half a millennium or more in
Scotland. A simple instrument, made from wood and kitchen castoffs such as
sheep gut (for the strings), rabbit skin (which provided the glue) and horse
hair - oh aye, the cry "let's hae horse soup, mither, ah need anither bow fur
ma fydill" was heard regularly throughout the glens when a dance was
imminent, this was supplanted by the streamlined Italian model, the violin,
towards the end of the 17th century.
The earliest reference to this most welcome of imports can be found in
Lessones For Ye Violin, a manuscript found in Newbattle Abbey in Midlothian
and dated around 1680.
A hundred years later, Scotland was enjoying the first golden age of the
fiddle as brilliant players and composers such as Niel Gow, fiddler to the
Duke of Atholl, and William Marshall, factor to the Duke of Gordon,
established a Scottish fiddling elite which would become a holy trinity with
the arrival in the middle of the 19th century of James Scott Skinner.
A man with the virtuosity of Paganini and the predilections of a prototype
rock 'n' roll star, Scott Skinner, along with Gow and Marshall, created the
repertoire which now forms the bedrock of Scottish fiddling. His recordings,
even transposed from early cylinders, glow with vivacity and extraordinary
technical proficiency and his tunes are regarded as both things of beauty and
absolute b******s to play.
Such are the standards attained that in today's vast army of Scottish
fiddlers, technical brilliance is almost taken for granted while the
instrument's potential for personalisation and expression is maximised. The
fiddle is arguably the closest of all instruments to the human voice and by
subtly varying tempo, vibrato, dynamics, bowing, stress, grace notes, slides
and harmonies a melody can be renewed and imbued with the fiddler's own
personality with every playing.
There are still recognisable regional styles, though. Alastair Hardie,
Douglas Lawrence and Paul Anderson are splendid upholders of the North-east
tradition. Bruce MacGregor, who plays with the effervescent collective
Blazin' Fiddles and Gaelic supergroup Cliar; Iain MacFarlane, a graduate of
the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama's traditional music course and
Aly Bain's replacement in Boys of the Lough; and Eilidh Shaw, whose lilting,
swinging style lights up Keep it Up and jazz/folk group John Rae's Celtic
Feet, are examples of the West Highland way.
Catriona Macdonald, who leads the international String Sisters extravaganza,
and Chris Stout, nominal captain of the distinctly fizzy Fiddlers Bid, are
just the tip of a vibrant Shetland fiddle scene that has followed Aly Bain
and is the legacy of the late Tom Anderson. Jennifer Wrigley, a prolific
tunesmith and lively musical partner to her twin sister, Hazel, meanwhile
represents Shetland's southern neighbours, the Orkney Islands.
Another island, Cape Breton, is home to a veritable platoon of fiddlers, all
preserving and regenerating Scottish music in the spirited fashion it
embodied when it left during the Clearances. The MacMasters, Buddy and
Natalie (whose livewire step dancing while fiddling has won her acclaim on
three continents); the MacIsaacs, Ashley and Wendy, and Jerry Holland, Brenda
Stubbert, Richard Wood and the intriguing maverick Oliver Schroer (from the
Schroers of Loch Tay, doubtless) are leaders of the Nova Scotia Cosa Nostra.
For warmth, personality, singing tone and an 'aged in the cask' mastery,
however, Alasdair Fraser, a California-based son of Clackmannan, both with
his group Skyedance (which suggests jazz/rock pioneers Weather Report on a
Hebridean sabbatical) and with guitarist Tony McManus, on the album Return to
Kintail, may well be the benchmark. Pete Clark, who shares his home county,
Perthshire, with Niel Gow and specialises in Gow's music, is another classy,
if slightly less well-known player.
The list goes on. John McCusker replaced his hero, the admirable, all-round
dynamo Brian McNeill, in Battlefield Band and has subsequently been replaced
by another wunderkind, Lewisman Alasdair White. John Martin, once of Ossian & the Easy Club, continues to add polish to the Tannahill Weavers' energetic attack.
Derek Hoy and Ian Hardie supply fiddling nous and discipline to Jock Tamson's
Bairns. Duncan Chisholm with Highland folk rockers Wolfstone, Charlie
McKerron with Capercaillie, Angus R Grant, son of a tremendous fiddler, with
Shooglenifty, Johnny Hardy with Old Blind Dogs, and Clare McLaughlin and
Marianne Curran, with the exciting Deaf Shepherd and their own cMc, are all
talents deserving due recognition.
c. Liz More November 2001
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