We are the thoroughbreds, and Scottish fiddlers are the wild horses of the prairie.
Yehudi Menuhin’s image of Scottish fiddlers as ‘wild horses of the prairie’ and classical violinists as ‘thoroughbreds’ is a thinly veiled example of cultural imperialism (albeit, unintended) that rightly inspires outrage among Scots-fiddle enthusiasts… but we know what he’s getting at. His unfortunate comparison, while devaluing the cultural significance of Scottish fiddle music, chimes with ideas about the repertoire and its performance as natural, rustic, rural, folk, and authentic. The division between violinists and fiddlers is absolute in popular culture and has been for decades.
His deep respect for Scottish fiddlers was expressed elsewhere, with the deferential tone of his foreword to The Fiddle Music of Scotland reinforcing the esteem in which he held the tradition:
The genuine Scottish fiddler has an infallible sense of rhythm, never plays out of tune, and is master of his distinctive and inimitable style, which is more than can be said of most ‘schooled’ musicians. We classical violinists have too obviously paid a heavy price for being able to play with orchestras and follow a conductor.
He clearly admires the ‘genuine Scottish fiddler’, whose freedom and individuality makes up for his lack of schooling.
Yehudi Menuhin and Scottish Fiddle Music
As a cultural outsider, Menuhin’s views on Scottish fiddle music might be expected to be of no consequence, but they are deserving of consideration given his advocacy for the repertoire and its performance which substantially enhanced the national profile of the tradition.
Among his earliest experiences of Scottish fiddle music was a competition at Perth in 1969. The event was hugely significant, being the first national fiddle competition since before the war. It was even televised, being broadcast on St Andrew’s Night, 30 November. The icing on the cake? One of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin, had consented to be an adjudicator.
Five years later, he took a televised lesson with the so-called ‘doyen’ of Scottish fiddle music, Hector MacAndrew (a fellow judge at the Perth competition), and as part of the same event was guest of honour at a recital featuring MacAndrew’s tune, ‘Yehudi Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle’, performed by the combined orchestras of the Angus and Banchory Strathspey and Reel Societies. The event was documented by the BBC and broadcast on Channel One the same year (as it happens, on St Andrew’s Night again).
Menuhin also presided at a significant concert of fiddle music held during the Edinburgh International Festival in 1985, which Stuart Eydmann has written about here.
These events were vital to sustaining the revival of interest in Scottish fiddle music at this time, and Menuhin’s involvement lent them cultural credibility. The vibrancy of traditional Scottish culture today – so much a consequence of Devolution and the Independence Referendum – contrasts with the situation in the 1970s and 1980s when folk culture was yet to be fully recognised within mainstream media.
Ideas about Scottish Fiddle Music
Menuhin’s ideas about Scottish fiddle music are surprising given his experience of it. He identifies a seemingly unbridgeable gap between classical violin and folk fiddle, yet the fiddlers he met in Scotland did exactly that. There is a recording of his erstwhile teacher, Hector MacAndrew, playing classical music on Kist o Riches (listen here) and the winners of the Perth competition at which he adjudicated were decidedly ‘schooled’ in their technique.
The idea of a divide between fiddlers and violinists can be traced back to the nineteenth century: Alexander Murdoch, the author of the first history of Scottish fiddle music (1888), described Niel Gow, ‘as a genuine Scotch fiddler [who] probably gained an advantage in missing the chance of elaborate tuition’. Similarly, he wrote that Pate Bailie’s ‘real success as a Scotch fiddler was due to his inborn genius more than to any extraneous help’.
Murdoch’s views are very similar to Menuhin’s, with the formal schooling of classical violinists contrasting with with the innate ability of Scottish fiddlers.
His son, William Mackenzie Murdoch (1870-1923), was one of a new breed of violinist in Scotland in the late-nineteenth century, being a classical violinist who also played ‘Auld Scotia’s Airs’. James Scott Skinner (1843-1927), the apotheosis of the ‘Scottish Violinist’, was more qualified than Murdoch, having been a dancing master before embarking on a career as a solo violinist and composer, and so having first-hand experience of national dance repertoire.
The notion of the Scottish violinist didn’t long outlive Scott Skinner, it seeming incongruous to post-war revivalist for whom the divide between violin and fiddle was so important. Conforming to the model of the folk singer, the folk fiddler came to be valued primarily as an unschooled, non-literate tradition bearer. Such players did exist, but are increasingly rare. They never made up the overwhelming population of fiddle players, as some people have suggested.
Ronnie Gibson, 31 July 2016