The Scottish Fiddle Tradition(s)

People regularly talk about Scottish fiddle music as an homogeneous entity, often comparing it to Irish fiddle music by making a series of blanket assertions about style, technique, and repertoire. While such assertions are usually qualified as ‘generalisations,’ I question their value and wonder about precisely what it is they are representative of.

At the same time, it is becoming increasingly common to identify autonomous regional fiddle styles. At the forefront are North-East and Shetland, but West Highland, Borders, and Orcadian are also widely recognised and more can be added; Caithness, Sutherland, and the Western Isles, to name but three.

National versus Regional

Tom Anderson

Tom Anderson’s advocacy of Shetland fiddle music from the 1950s until his death in 1991 had a significant impact across the whole of Scottish fiddle music. While before 1950 critics readily observed that fiddle players from different regions played in different styles, the emphasis remained on a national tradition of Scottish fiddle music, perpetuated, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, by the competition circuit, and united by a shared repertoire disseminated through music notation. However, with the growing recognition of specifically Shetlandic fiddle music, the focus shifted from a national tradition (represented most prolifically by the fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner (1843-1927)) to a regional model in which distinct geographical areas became associated with a local tradition of fiddle performance.

Nonetheless, there remains a tension between national and regional models of Scottish fiddle music which stems from confusion over the music’s historical and geographic roots. Issues of transmission and function also contribute to the problem. This blog post will attempt to ‘set things straight’ by introducing some new ideas about the reception of Scottish fiddle music.

The National Tradition of Scottish Fiddle Music

I’ve posted before about the ‘invention’ of a Scottish fiddle tradition, where I discussed the growing awareness among fiddle players in the mid-nineteenth century of the historical roots of their practice. It was from this time on that a national tradition of Scottish fiddle music started to manifest itself, with James Scott Skinner’s famous publication of c.1900, The Scottish Violinist, clearly implying a national perspective. In addition, the circuit of competitions which emerged from the 1850s onwards attracted a national array of competitors, and the ready availability of other publications of Scottish dance music (most significantly, Kerr’s Merry Melodies) actively encouraged a national perspective.

Of course, there were many fiddle players outwith these national mechanisms of transmission and presentation. Most notably, the emphasis placed on musical literacy disbarred those players who were non-literate and played by ear, of which there were many providing music for dances the length and breadth of the country. However, the ubiquity of such music-makers resulted in their being taken for granted, to an extent. More so, the emphasis within the national tradition was not on the performance of music as an accompaniment to dance, but in its own right or for its own sake.

Regional Traditions of Scottish Fiddle Music

Each regional style can be interpreted as a result of the specific historical background and socio-cultural factors of the geographic area it represents. Nonetheless, it remains important that the style not be reified – dissociated from the individuals whose performances perpetuate and are representative of it. Ultimately, any study of regional fiddle style must remain based on the proponents of the style, and while this may seem obvious it is important to bear in mind throughout discussions of generalised regional styles. Indeed, the identification of regional style is more accurately considered a musical genealogy, with shared influences and stimuli represented by a degree of stylistic coherency.

As regional styles are defined by performing styles, it is only really possible to discuss them as far back as audio recordings are available. That means regional styles can only be dated as far back as the 1950s, when Tom Anderson began recording players in Shetland, and when fieldworkers from the School of Scottish Studies began recording players throughout Scotland. There are some commercially available recordings of fiddle music from before this time (the first being a recording of Scott Skinner made in 1899), but these were issued few and far between. Nonetheless, the argument could be made that these represent earlier evidence of regional performing styles.

The Problem with the North-East Style

As noted above, the North-East style of fiddle performance is widely recognised as among the most prominent of regional Scottish fiddle styles. However, it is made problematic by its links with the national tradition. Unlike the other regional styles which, at least in the past, were transmitted aurally rather than literately, the music preferred by North-East-style players has always been transmitted in music notation. Furthermore, through Scott Skinner’s links to the region (he was born in Banchory), the national and regional narratives collide somewhat. A related issue arises when the topic of a Perthshire style is raised. The ‘father’ of Scottish fiddle music, Niel Gow, famously lived at Inver in Perthshire, and was only one of many famed fiddler-composers from this region. However, today there are few practitioners of much celebrity. Pete Clark and Dougie MacLean certainly reside in the area now, but do not hail from it. Attempts to connect the Perthshire style with the North-East are made through the presence of the ‘up-driven bow’ in the latter style, yet believed to have originated in Gow’s fiddle technique.

Conclusion

The apparent certainty afforded by autonomous regional fiddle styles is deceptive. That each style is influenced by external factors makes a mockery of attempts to distil ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ defining principles. That each performer is unique further belies the fallacy of such general principles. However, it cannot be denied that a performer’s style is intimately connected to the musical influences they experience, and as such, commonalities across a localised area should come as no surprise. Of course, in this age of increasing globalisation, one’s locale can extend around the globe, but attempts to preserve and sustain regional styles ensure against a cultural gray-out.

At the same time, a national tradition continues, but in a quite different form to how it did historically. Competitions remain popular, but have diversified to an extent, with the ideals of Glenfiddich contrasting quite markedly with the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. Further, educational centres including the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the centre of excellence in traditional music at Plockton privilege particular styles through the hiring of particular tutors, and formal traditional music exams (currently supported by both RCS and the London College of Music) perpetuate a defined repertoire of tunes.

The reception of Scottish fiddle music is marked by its variety of perspectives, highlighted by the many regional styles and manifestations of a national style. While it is at times helpful to speak of a single Scottish fiddle tradition, I hope the above to have demonstrated that such a stance is not sustainable. Recognition of the plurality of Scottish fiddle music leads to a fuller understanding of the incredible breadth and diversity of practices which have existed for centuries and continue to do so today.

Ronnie Gibson (4th June 2014)

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One thought on “The Scottish Fiddle Tradition(s)

  1. Nigel Gatherer says:

    It’s good to see discussion of regional styles in Scottish fiddle music, as it’s a subject usually talked about but misunderstood. As you have written, it’s a lot more complicated than the pigeonholes “West Highland”, “North-East” etc. Scottish musicians’ love of notation has led to a certain homogenisation of “style” and the Strathspey and Reel societies have furthered this. I have always maintained that if there are specific regional styles today it’s because of dynamic teachers in these areas (e.g. Donald Riddell). My late friend Derek Hoy used to say that he played in “East Leith” style. Joking sure, but also questioning the wisdom of applying the Irish regional style model on the Scottish fiddle tradition.

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