Fiddle Competitions

Fiddle competitions are an important part of the Scottish traditional music scene. Events take place in the context of Accordion & Fiddle Clubs, the TMSA, and the Mòd, with the pinnacle for many being the invitation-only Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship at Blair Castle in October. They provide an opportunity for fiddlers to measure themselves against one another, fostering a high standard of performance and promoting Scottish fiddle music in the public sphere. The prestige associated with winning an event like the Glenfiddich can stimulate a player’s professional career, with such plaudits being more helpful than academic qualifications or degrees, and gaining the player significant media coverage and bookings.

As Stuart Eydmann explains in a recent blog post, the place of the competition in the history of Scottish fiddle music has not been defined in any great detail, yet is of central significance. Most people mistakenly assume events have been held regularly since the eighteenth century, citing the famous anecdote about Niel Gow winning a competition: the blind fiddler who was adjudicating is said to have confessed that ‘he could distinguish the stroke of Neil’s [sic] bow among a hundred players.’ However, precious little is known about the event, first recorded in Gow’s obituary in The Scots Magazine (1809). An examination of what it reports reveals the relative informality of this particular competition: ‘a trial of skill having been proposed, amongst a few of the best performers in the country.’ Far from being an annual or instituted event, it appears to have been a one-off, and the account doesn’t give a date or location (Perth in 1745 has been suggested). I know of no earlier reference to the competition than Niel’s obituary from 1809, nor who the other competitors were (David Baptie suggests that one was possibly Niel’s teacher, John Cameron). Another reference to an early fiddle competition is found in Baptie’s entry on Robert Petrie (1767-c.1830), who, he claims, ‘succeeded in carrying off the silver bow prize at Edinburgh.’

The fiddle competition has been investigated by Chris Goertzen in a Norwegian and North American context, but no-one has given similar treatment to the competition in a Scottish context. In addition to a basic history – which competitions took place when, who competed, who won, who organised – the motivation for holding competitions and their impact on the performance and understanding of the music is also worthy of consideration.

Towards A History of Scottish Fiddle Competitions: 1855-6

It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the fiddle competition emerged as an instituted platform for the performance of Scottish traditional music. The earliest references I can find in a search of nineteenth-century newspapers to a fiddle competition taking place in Scotland are these from the Glasgow Herald:

17th December 1855:

CITY HALL/GRAND FESTIVAL OF SCOTTISH MUSIC, ON FIRDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 21, 1855./A PRIZE OF/A GOLD MEDAL AND A PURSE OF FIVE GUINEAS to be given to the best Player of SCOTCH REELS and STRATHSPEYS./Open for Competition to Violinists from all parts of Scotland./WILLIAM CAMPBELL, Esq. of Tillchewan Castle, has kindly consented to preside on the occasion, and present the Gold Medal and Purse of Five Guineas to the successful competitors./MR JULIAN ADAMS/Respectfully intimates that he will give a Grand National/CONCERT OF SCOTTISH MUSIC,/on Friday, 21st December, 1855, at the City Hall [...] In order to encourage the taste for Scottish Music, the best Violin Players of Reels and Strathspeys will be engaged from various parts of Scotland, and a Prize, as above-mentioned, will be awarded./THREE SCOTTISH VIOLINISTS/will be the Umpires.

21st December 1855:

Grand Competition of Scottish Violin Players.- Our readers will see by an advertisement in this morning’s paper, that this grand affair is to come off in the City Hall to-morrow evening. We have seen the gold medal (value fifteen guineas) a most beautiful specimen of Glasgow art. We trust the recipients will fully remunerate the committee of management. This competition amongst Scottish violin players is a new thing in Glasgow, and will most likely draw a bumper audience.

The fact that the competition is described as ‘a new thing in Glasgow’ suggests that competitions may have been held in other parts of the country before this date but I have not yet come across any specific reference to these.

A review of the event was published in the London newspaper, The Era, 6th January 1856:

Competition Festival of National Scottish Music.- A concert was recently given in the City Hall, Glasgow, by Mr. Julian Adams, at which the leading strathspey and reel-players from all parts of Scotland attended. The prizes offered by Mr. Adams, were a gold medal, value £15, and a purse and five guineas. The end was achieved – the illustration of music of a purely Scottish character in a most satisfactory manner in the presence of a densely-packed auditory. The orchestral arrangements were confided to Mr. Alexander Menzies. Among the “performers” present, was Donald Bane, the piper who led the 42d Highlanders at Alma: he was decorated with the silver Crimean medal. William Burns, Esq., writer, presided; and the following contended, and played a short strathspey and reel, viz., Messrs. Blair from Balmoral, (Her Majesty’s piper); Robert Heron, Glasgow; Lawrence Ritchie, Bonhill; James Allan, Forfar; Andrews, Irvine; Archibald Menzies, Edinburgh; Duncan M’Kercher, Dunkeld; M’Intosh, Atholl; and Archibald Gray, Kilmarnock. The gold medal was awarded to A. Menzies, of Edinburgh, an announcement which did not seem satisfactory to all the parties assembled; and the purse to Ritchie, who is blind; M’Kercher was honourably mentioned.

That this review was published in a London paper over two weeks after the event was not unusual, the review most likely having appeared in local press soon after the 22nd December. The identification of “performers” in parentheses may be a sign of prejudice towards the musicians, but, alternatively, it may indicate the confused recognition of dance music being presented in a concert setting, given that it was a relatively new phenomenon in the 1850s. Significantly, the competitions ascribed prestige to the winners and built their reputations, with subsequent reviews citing a competitor’s previous successes.

Baptie’s entry on the winner of the gold medal, Archibald Menzies, informs us that he ‘invariably took the first prize at the Jullien competition concerts held in the large towns of Scotland.’ It is also learned that he was born in Dull, Perthshire, about 1806, died in Edinburgh on the 16th July 1856, and was ‘a very famous violinist.’

The next competition for which evidence is available took place in Edinburgh on the 26th March 1856, this from the Caledonian Mercury, 13th March 1856:

Concert of Scottish Music: Grand Competition of the Best Native Violin Players.–In order to impart a stimulus to the study and practical cultivation of our National Music, it has been resolved to bring forward, early in the Month of May, as many of our NATIVE VIOLIN PLAYERS as wish to COMPETE for THREE Prizes, to be awarded by the Judges who may be appointed to decide. The Preliminary arrangements for the Competition will be under the superintendence of Mr Wood and Mr Alexander Mackenzie, who will take the necessary steps to have a Committee of Gentlemen appointed who feel Interested in the progress of our National Music.

‘[T]he progress of our National Music’ is highlighted as a significant motivator for staging the competition, which can be usefully interpreted against a backdrop of rising cultural nationalism stimulated by Queen Victoria’s love of the Scottish Highlands. A review of the Edinburgh competition was published in the same newspaper on 27th March 1856:

[…] Nothing struck us more vividly in listening to the competitors for the prizes, than the marked difference between the capability of each performer in rendering reels and strathspeys. In the former all were comparatively perfect in time and execution. In the latter we are constrained to say that all were more or less imperfect in the elucidation of the true characteristics of this national type of dance music. If for no other reason than to encourage the attainment of greater excellence amongst our public performers in this interesting and peculiar class of melody, we should rejoice to see these competitions continued from time to time. We shall offer no remarks upon the personal merits of the candidates, because, in doing so, we should be compelled to dissent strenuously from the decisions of the judges. This is probably of the less consequence, because, in all likelihood, the diversity of opinion amongst the audience, had their award been preferred, would have prevented a more satisfactory determination. While making this remark, we are bound to add, that it would be impossible to doubt the anxiety of the adjudicators to mete out equal justice to all alike. The fact that the Lord Provost was amongst their number, and intimated the grounds of their decisions, is a sufficient pledge of the correctness of this statement. We cannon conclude without a commendatory observation upon the leadership of Mr Stewart. He acquitted himself well. The prizes were awarded as follows:–

1.    A gold medal, Value L.20, to Mr A. Menzies, Edinburgh, winner of the gold medal at a recent competition in Glasgow; 2.    A silver medal, value L.8, to Mr Hoffman, Edinburgh; 3.    A purse and L.5, to Mr David Macdonald, Glasgow; 4.    A purse and L.3, to Mr James Allan; 5.    A purse and L.2, to Mr Alex. Skinner, Aberdeen.

Menzies is seen to have scooped the gold medal again, and there is a reference to his winning in Glasgow. It’s also interesting to note that the fifth-placed ‘Mr Alex. Skinner’ was the elder brother of James Scott Skinner.

Alexander ‘Sandy’ Skinner is seen to have exported the concept of the competition to Aberdeen a few weeks later, with this article from The Aberdeen Journal, 23rd April 1856:

Competition of Scottish Music.–On Friday evening [21st April 1856], Mr Skinner gave a musical entertainment, including a competition by violin players from different parts of the country. The entertainment consisted of singing and piano-forte playing by Miss Wilson and Miss M. Wilson–both of whose efforts were very well received. Mr Skinner himself played the solos for which he was recently awarded a prize at Edinburgh, effectively, and to the satisfaction of the audience. For the prizes, 15 competitors entered the lists for reel and strathspey playing, and 8 for slow airs. They were Messrs William Blair and James Blair, Balmoral; Forbes Morrison, Tarves; John Thomson, George Paterson, Peter Milne, John Melvin, Sen., Alexander Adam, J. Nisbet, A. Wilson, John Melvin, Jun., Andrew Henry, and John Smart, Aberdeen; George Gaul, Whitehouse, Tarland; and Mr Hardie, Knockespock. The Judges were Messrs John Marr and William Smith, Aberdeen; Alexander Walker, Castle Newe, Strathdon; and David Mortimer, Birse. The competitors played behind a screen, where they were sufficiently heard by the audience and yet not seen by the Judges. The playing generally was not of so high an order as might have been expected. There were several pretty good reel players, but there were only two or three performers who could lay claim to much ability at slow airs. The first prizeman, however, played admirably. The Judges awarded prizes as follows:

For Strathspey and Reel–1st prize (Silver Medal), P. Milne, Aberdeen; 2d (Silver Medal), Forbes Morrison, Tarves; 3d (Fiddle Bow), G. Patterson [sic[, Aberdeen; 4th (Merit), A. Henry, do.

For Slow Airs–1st prize (Silver Medal), P. Milne, Aberdeen; 2d (Merit), J. Nisbet, do.

–The after part of the entertainment consisted of the competitors playing before the audience in solo and combination. There was a considerable audience.

While not as prestigious as the gold-medal-offering Glasgow and Edinburgh events, this Aberdeen event attracted many competitors and ‘a considerable audience.’ The audience, of course, was crucial, as these events were intended to generate high ticket sales (to cover the costs of the competition prizes in the first instance, and recompense the entrepreneurial impresarios who organised them in the second). As going commercial concerns, these mid-nineteenth century fiddle competitions were quite different in ethos to the competitions of today.

Inverness, 1863

The next reference to a fiddle competition I could find was this from The Aberdeen Journal, 30th September 1863, which features the arrival of James Scott Skinner on the scene:

Great Violin Competition of Strathspeys and Reels. –The above contest came off in Dr. Bell’s Institution, Inverness, on Saturday [26th September 1863], when several well-known violinists entered the lists. The Judges (five in number) consisted of gentlemen of well-known musical talent, amongst whom were Cluny Macpherson, &c. There was a very numerous and fashionable audience, who testified their approbation by repeated applause. The following is a list of the successful competitors:

Strathspeys–1. J. S. Skinner, Aberdeen, £3 3s; 2. J M’Leod, Inverness, £2 2s; 3. Forbes Morrison, Oldmeldrum, £1 1s.

Reels–1. H M’Callum, Inverness, £3 3s; 2. John M’Leod, do., £2 2s; 3. Forbes Morrison, £1 1s.

Reel o’ Tulloch–1. John M’Dougall, Fort-Augustus, £1 1s; 2. H M’Callum, 10s 6d.

There was a prize given for the best Gaelic Poem. Several were sent in, and the prize was awarded to a Ross-shire gentleman, for a Poem upon the late Prince Consort. There was also a prize offered for the best singer of a Gaelic song, but no one came forward.

This competition was organised by a few Inverness-shire gentlemen, who think that Scotch music should not be allowed to fall off, and who consider that music on the violin is quite as essentially national, and deserving of encouragement, as any other class of music. This being the first contest, it has been rather hurriedly got up, but the Committee intend to considerably enlarge their programme next year. At the conclusion of the competition, the whole instrumentalists played a Strathspey and Reel, which gave great satisfaction. The prizes were then awarded, and when all were retiring, a voice called lustily for “Auld Robin Gray,” from Mr Skinner, evidently quite a stranger here, but an excellent musician. His tact and style of playing “Auld Scotia’s Airs” are of such a nature as cannot fail to be appreciated, especially by such an audience. The whole arrangements reflected the greatest credit upon the several enterprising gentlemen connected with it.

The assertions that ‘Scotch music should not be allowed to fall off’ and ‘that music on the violin is quite as essentially national, and deserving of encouragement, as any other class of music’ (bagpipes? art music?) give a clear insight into the motivation for this competition. The dedication for the Reel o’ Tulloch of a category of its own demonstrates the significance of this particular tune (and variations) for the organisers and fiddle players from this region.

Conclusions

The limited accounts of these mid nineteenth-century competitions don’t give anything near a full picture of proceedings. It is likely that many more took place for which no record has been found, and the events themselves are poorly reflected in the short reviews. For instance, it would be fascinating to learn which tunes were played; but, alas, it would appear no record has been kept. Nonetheless, the picture that emerges is at odds with many present-day assumptions about the history of Scottish fiddle music. I’ve commented before about the loaded terms used when talking about performers (see my earlier blog post here) and the evidence of competitions furthers my claim that Scottish fiddle music is unhelpfully understood in an exclusively rural and non-literate context. There was clearly a well-maintained network of fiddler players around the country, which would have resulted in an exchange of tunes and performance styles. Further, the division between traditional and classical, while there to an extent, is not vigorously maintained. However, the significance of regional styles is highlighted by reference to ‘fiddle players from all over Scotland.’ The lack of female competitors is striking, but more do appear as the century progressed.

 Ronnie Gibson (13th September 2013)