Recordings of Fiddle Music at Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches

I don’t know about you, but I can spend hours on YouTube: whether comparing different interpretations of a tune or finding new tunes on the principle of ‘if you like that you’ll love this,’ it’s usually time well spent and always a voyage of discovery! Of course, the quality of recordings varies hugely, from pros to beginners and from fully equipped filming rigs to shaky camera-phones. Regardless, you can always take something from the viewing.

In a way not dissimilar to YouTube, the website, Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, provides access to thousands of recordings, but content is audio-only and users are unable to upload their own performances. The recordings in question are from the archives of the School of Scottish Studies, BBC Scotland, and the National Trust from Scotland, made over eighty years and covering a wide geographical area (all of Scotland and some of the diaspora) and a variety of topics, including music, story-telling, poetry, and factual information.

My primary interest in the site is its extensive holdings of fiddle music (over 900 recordings), with many recordings dating back to the early 1950s when the School of Scottish Studies was established. Performances by Hector MacAndrew, Aonghas Grant, Aly Bain, Paul Anderson, Tom Anderson, Willie Hunter Snr, Bill Hardie, and Farquhar MacRae are freely available, in addition to many others by less familiar or unknown fiddlers. (Click on the links to access their recordings on the site).

Among the earliest recordings were those made by Francis Collinson in October 1952, of Donald and James MacDonald from Keppoch and Roy Bridge, respectively. Donald’s performance of Lady Madelina Sinclair and The Mason’s Apron demonstrates his great ability, with ringing strings and a drive to the music that you can’t help tapping your feet to! Similarly, James’s performance of La Russe features ringing strings again and really shows how the emphasis for these old players was on the rhythm.

Recorded by Calum Iain Maclean in 1953 at the grand old age of 70, Donald MacPhee (1883-1964) was the undertaker on Benbecula. The fiddle tradition of the Western Isles is not one of the better-known Scottish fiddle traditions, but on the strength of Donald’s example it should be. The lilt in his performance of Millbank Cottage, Louden’s Bonnie Woods and Braes, and Rory Chisholm’s Reel is infectious and his utterances are clearly audible in the background.

Shetland is particularly well represented, with over 400 recordings. Garden and Magnus Johnson both feature in addition to Andrew Poleson of Whalsay. Hear for yourself the ‘old’ Shetland style(s)!

In addition to solo fiddlers, there are recordings of fiddle groups and societies, including performances by The Inverness Fiddlers’ Society and The Angus Strathspey and Reel Society.

As you might expect, the fiddlers are predominantly male, but some female fiddlers are featured, including Morag MacIntyre (b. 1931), Jo Miller, and Margaret MacLeod (b. 1891).

But don’t be limited to the narrow selection I’ve given here. You can search in imaginative ways by place, date, and performer, in addition to searching for the tunes themselves (though be aware that many are listed as ‘unknown’!).

Ronnie Gibson (23 August 2013)

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