The Diversity of Scottish Fiddle Music

I was disappointed by yesterday’s announcement that the plug was to be pulled on the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship, but not surprised. It is telling that support will continue for the associated Piping Championship, which was established in 1974 (fifteen years before the fiddle championship), with the reason behind the decision presumably commercial. The pipes have always come first in vying to be Scotland’s national instrument, despite the best efforts of fiddle enthusiasts, and the fiddle championship has always been the poor relation of the higher-profile piping championship.

Anyone familiar with the fiddle championship will know that the compositions of James Scott Skinner reign supreme, counting for a substantial proportion of almost every competitor’s programme. Recent compositions feature rarely (if at all), and the ubiquitous piano accompaniment distinguishes the performance aesthetic from that of bands popular at folk festivals.

The event perpetuates the so-called ‘North East’ style of Scottish fiddle music, which has its roots in the performance practice and compositions of Scott Skinner (I’ve written elsewhere about the issues surrounding the regional model of fiddle music). The style was epitomised in the playing of Hector MacAndrew, whose student, Douglas Lawrence, has tutored many of the winning competitors over the 27-year history of the event.

In privileging the North East style, the championship guarded it against the rising popularity of other styles, but the national profile of the style will potentially suffer in response to Grants withdrawal of their support.

The BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year remains a high-profile contest for Scottish fiddle players, but the performance aesthetic of that event differs from the the Glenfiddich, and it is open to all traditional musicians (rather than only fiddle players). The ‘feeder competitions’ for the Glenfiddich will continue, such as the Mòd, NAAFC, and the Oban Masters, but none is as prestigious. (I’ve written about Fiddle Competitions before).

The privileging of one style over all others is made problematic by the diversity of Scottish fiddle music today. The prospect of a national contest is difficult to realise without perpetuating an establishment view of ‘the tradition’ that is exclusive rather than inclusive. I’m the first to recognise the substantial heritage of past players and composers, but my perception is that the historical component is becoming less relevant at a time of plurality when multiple ‘traditions’ are recognised and valued.

Where does that leave Scottish fiddle music? Unlike the pipes and the clarsach, both of which traditions are marked by a high degree of centralisation, the fiddle tradition is inherently various (as demonstrated by the challenge posed to the organisers of the Scottish Fiddle Society, who have struggled to find a purpose that was relevant to a wide audience). Fortunately, there’s room for all persuasions, traditionalists, experimentalists, regionalists, multi-stylists…

The Golden Fiddle Awards, which preceded the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship as a prestigious national competition and were sponsored by the Daily Record newspaper, lasted for about a decade. At 27 years, the Glenfiddich has had a good innings. It will be interesting to see if sponsorship emerges for a replacement event in this time of heightened national sentiment.

Ronnie Gibson, 1 September 2016

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