The ‘Invention’ of a Scottish Fiddle Tradition

While for many, it is a source of great pride that Scottish fiddle music can be said to have been in continuous transmission since at least the eighteenth century, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that fiddle players could be said to conceive of their practice in the context of a tradition. Only at this time was the significance of the past fully recognised, and its influence in shaping the music of the [then] present felt. I’ve written in a previous post about the perceived ‘waning’ of Scottish fiddle music at this time, and how central I believe this period to be in its history. The current post will expand on an important aspect of this by examining mid nineteenth-century Scottish fiddle players’ engagement with history and the emerging role of tradition in their practice.

Fiddle Music in Mid Nineteenth-Century Scotland

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of significant change in the history of Scottish fiddle music. The introduction of new performance platforms, including at competitions and in music halls, led to the aestheticisation of performance as it became increasingly divorced from its historical function as an accompaniment to dance. This trend reached its apotheosis in about 1900 with fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner’s, The Scottish Violinist, a collection of tunes elevated from the status of dance music to that of art music.

Similarly, the once common format of publication of relatively short tune collections by individual fiddler-composers was being overshadowed by near-encyclopaedic anthologies of tunes compiled by collectors and editors motivated to make definitive collections of the best dance tunes ever composed. Early examples include Davie’s Caledonian Repository (c. 1849) and Kerr’s Merry Melodies (c.1870s), followed later by the AtholeGlen, and Skye collections.

Repertoire

While new tunes continued to be composed, a much greater emphasis came to be placed on a relatively narrow canon of old tunes which had stood the test of time. In the ‘Golden Age’ of Scottish fiddle music the composition of new tunes was an essential part of the patronage system in place to support fiddler-composers of the late eighteenth century, but the once-numerous ‘Miss Someone of Somewhere’s Whatever-Fashionable-Dance’ became less common into the nineteenth century as the mechanisms of patronage decayed and fiddler-composers sought alternative avenues of income.

A not unexpected feature of the new tune anthologies was the low incidence of variation sets. While it was common in the fiddler-composers’ collections to include a tune with variations (affording them the opportunity to demonstrate their ability as both composer and performer), the emphasis in later collections was on definitive texts, most usually performable at the piano. As a result, few new variation sets were composed and rhythms became standardised.

Performance Style

The establishing of ‘definitive’ texts upon which to base a performance was an important step in the creation of a Scottish fiddle tradition. Another was the definition of performance style, an endeavour in which Niel Gow became a central figure. Of course, Gow experienced fame and celebrity in his lifetime, which was only amplified by his passing in 1807 when his transition from mortal to legend was finally complete. It became common in newspaper obituaries from the 1860s on for recently deceased fiddle players to be described as ‘the last of the Niel Gow School,’ yet as late as the 1870s James MacIntosh continued to brand himself as ‘the last pupil of Niel Gow,’ having received lessons as a young boy shortly before Gow’s death. Indeed, even today players in the North-East contend that the up-driven bow, a vital weapon in their armoury of bowing techniques, has its roots in Gow’s performance practice.

What I believe this mid nineteenth-century fascination with Gow to be indicative of is an emerging awareness among fiddle players of the historical roots of their style and technique. This awareness is advertised most publicly by James Scott Skinner in his Guide to Bowing (c. 1900) wherein he outlines the technique of a ‘Strathspey School’ of performance. The combination of ‘mainstream’ violin techniques with those particular to the performance of Scottish fiddle music highlights its unique technical demands and separate if overlapping trajectory to classical violin music.

Conclusion

The ‘passing on’ of Scotland’s fiddle culture has always been a priority for its players, but it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that it could be said to inhabit a recognisably homogeneous form. The reporting of performances in newspapers went a long way to enhance the relevance and significance of a national fiddle tradition, with the aestheticisation of the music for its own sake rather than as an accompaniment to dance facilitating its commodification. Of course, the tradition has been continually re-invented in the intervening years between then and now, perhaps most dramatically as part of the post-war folk music revival, but I would argue that the mid nineteenth-century period in the history of Scottish fiddle music can no longer be over-looked, being, as it is, of central significance to subsequent developments.

Ronnie Gibson (17th January 2014)

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