The Waning of Scottish Fiddle Music: 1822–1881

The waning of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century is a popular trope in the subject’s history: Alburger claims that ‘there was little creativity left’ after the so-called Golden Age of Scottish fiddle music from c.1780 to c.1820, during which time an unprecedented number of dance-tune collections were published. Similarly, Hunter asserts that ‘[b]y 1820 the great fiddle era was past’, not to peak again until the 1880s with the rise of fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner. However, while it is true that the volume of publication decreased significantly from the 1820s, it is short-sighted to malign the period as one of dearth.

It was in 1822 that Marshall published his third collection of tunes, and Nathaniel Gow his sixth collection. After this date, the rate of publication slowed significantly, not because there was little creativity left but as a result of changing socio-economic factors. Publication had always been a precarious business with the majority of Golden Age collections being pay-rolled by the aristocracy, most commonly by subscription. The nineteenth century saw a move away from patronage-driven publication towards market-driven publication dictated by the public, but the transition would take time.

Marshall died in 1833 and Gow in 1831 (his famous father having passed years earlier in 1807) but reprints of their tunes would continue to be produced, and, in 1845, supporters of Marshall published a posthumous collection of his compositions, many of which had not been published before.

The names of Peter Milne, Joseph Lowe, and Willie Blair may not be as familiar to us today as Niel Gow, William Marshall, and James Scott Skinner, but in their time they were widely recognised for their abilities as performers and composers of Scottish fiddle music. Milne commanded a strong influence over Scott Skinner, and both Lowe and Blair were favourites of Queen Victoria at Balmoral. Indeed, it was Lowe who was tasked with the job of teaching the Royal Children to dance ‘Scotch’ reels.

An important tendency which emerges from this period is the move towards the formation of a canon of Scottish dance music, attempted to an extent in the late-eighteenth century by James Aird (in his six-volume Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and Foreign Airs) and Nathaniel Gow (Gow’s Repository of the Dance Music of Scotland), but more vigorously historicised in the efforts of John Thomas Surenne (The Dance Music of Scotland, 1851) and James Kerr (Kerr’s Merry Melodies, four volumes, 1870s). These ultimately led to James Stewart-Robertson’s Athole Collection of 1884 and John Glen’s two-volume compendium of Scottish Dance Music (1891-1895) which remain central sources of Scottish fiddle music for fiddlers today. Keith Norman MacDonald’s The Skye Collection (1887) also deserves mention in this vain.

Related to this change of approach from composition towards collecting was the establishment of the Edinburgh Highland Reel and Strathspey Society in 1881, the first such institution of its kind which existed to uphold and develop ‘the taste for our old national highland strathspey and reel music on the violin.’ Similarly, Alexander Murdoch’s The Fiddle in Scotland, published in 1888, can lay claim to being the first history of Scottish fiddle music.

It was in the years of the mid-nineteenth century that many of our modern ideas about Scottish fiddle music started to form. The very identification of an historical perspective had a significant impact, and enhanced the move away from dance and towards an appreciation of the music for its own sake.

Ronnie Gibson (8th Februrary 2013)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s