‘Thoroughbreds and Wild Horses of the Prairie’: Some Thoughts on Ideas about Scottish Fiddle Music


We are the thoroughbreds, and Scottish fiddlers are the wild horses of the prairie.

Yehudi Menuhin

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


The Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship 2014

I had the pleasure of attending the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship at Blair Castle yesterday afternoon. Considered by many to be the premiere Scottish fiddle competition, it was introduced in 1989 to compliment the piping championship sponsored by the same distillery. Setting aside for the time being the ethical implications of such sponsorship, it is my aim in the present blog post to share some observations and contextualise the event in some wider issues.

Unsurprisingly, each of the eight invited performers gave a highly polished recital of three sets:

  1. Slow Air, March, Strathspey, and Reel
  2. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig
  3. A set of tunes composed by James Scott Skinner

The choice of Scott Skinner as the named composer for set three (a different composer is chosen each year) struck me as being slightly dissatisfying, given that competitors chose many of his tunes to make up sets one and two, also. Rather than nominating a composer, it would be interesting to see the results of nominating a specific collection of tunes, especially if it were to be one of the lesser-known collections.

The topic of music competitions is contentious. Many people don’t believe music should be a competitive business, but others argue that competitions keep the standard of performance high. But what constitutes a high standard of performance? And, more importantly, who decides? The Glenfiddich competition is judged by three adjudicators who award first, second, and third prizes, with each judge having considerable experience performing and judging the music.

Standards of Performance

The BBC recently launched The Genome Project, a website which contains the BBC listings information from the Radio Times, 1923-2009. My first search, of course, was for ‘Scottish Fiddle Music’, and I found this fascinating quote from Alec Sim, founder of the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society (1928):

Sim is critical of the older generation of Scottish fiddlers. ‘You know how the old fiddler sawed up and murdered our music’, he says. ‘We are trying to get away from this and to play it with the same care that one would play Bach or Beethoven.’

I’ve written before about value judgements in connection to traditional music exams, and in many ways fiddle competitions are an extension. Ultimately, there are governing musical aesthetics that value some aspects of performance and not others. The quote from Sim highlights one ‘classicising tendency’ which was strongly in play at yesterday’s competition.

Some may identify in the desire to classicise the performance of Scottish fiddle music a ‘cultural cringe’ common throughout many aspects of Scottish culture, and Sim’s disdain for the older generation is a reflection more on him than them. I would argue, as I have done before, that their performances embodied an alternative musical aesthetic less geared towards platform performance, and perhaps geared more towards playing for dancing.

A comparison of the competitors’ biographies which were printed in the programme reveals that five of the eight are studying ‘classical’ music at either a University or a Conservatory (though not all are studying the violin as their primary instrument). Of the remaining three, one is a graduate of the RCS’s Scottish Music course, one is studying a non-music-related subject, and one does not specify their training.

Folk Fiddlers

Nicola Benedetti has a new CD out (Homecoming: A Scottish Fantasy) which features a Scottish-inspired programme, including Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy alongside sets of ‘traditional’ tunes, some by Scott Skinner. Of course, Scott Skinner himself was an advocate of a classical training, but he also practiced as a dance band musician, combining classical and traditional modes of learning and performance. You will often find him described as a ‘folk fiddler’, but he cannot in all fairness be described thus. In truth, I find the label utterly useless, and struggle to identify any performer to whom it could be accurately applied.

The term ‘hybridity’ is used a lot in Ethnomusicology to describe musical traditions or practices which combine elements of different traditions/practices. It is not ideal, given that it denies the tradition its autonomy, but nonetheless, it provides a helpful framework within which to understand the Glenfiddich competition: the ideal performance will combine a formidable classical technique (some call it just ‘technique’) with appropriate ornamentation and rhythmic articulation which are not always specified by the music notation.

And the Winner is…

As noted above, each of the eight recitals was of a high standard, but there were a few distinguishing aspects:

  1. Stage Presence: Many competitors failed to acknowledge the audience appropriately, perhaps focused more on their performance. However, regardless of what you might like to believe, the competition is about more than just the sounds produced. It’s a fundamentally social event, in which impressions can make a big contribution.
  2. Sound Production/Tone: With the benefit of hearing the competitors in close succession, it quickly became clear that some were producing a much stronger tone than others. This is partly a result of their instruments, but also their technique. When you are performing un-amplified in a big hall, it is crucial that you fill the space, and some did that better than others.
  3. Bow Control: There are those who argue that bowing is everything in Scottish fiddle music. This may or may not be the case, but the competitors’ use of bow certainly distinguished them. Ultimately, it is intimately connected with the tone, but it is also visual, and can make a strong impression on the audience.
  4. Virtuosity: There were varying degrees of virtuosity in both the selection of tunes and their interpretation. The use of left-hand pizzicato, extended sections of double-stopping, and a variety of bowing techniques marked the most technically accomplished competitors above the others, but the depth of emotion and application of stylish ornamentation are surely just as significant in an overall judgement?

The repertoire was selected from a relatively narrow band of sources, with Scott Skinner and Marshall featuring especially widely. One competitor made the effort to include some lesser-known tunes in their Scott Skinner set, but otherwise the choice of tunes was from the core of the Scottish fiddle canon. There was little by way of regional variation, but I detected in the performance styles of the two North American competitors more cosmopolitan features than the others.


Like the worlds of piping and Highland dancing before it, Scottish fiddle music has now entered a global arena in which the recognised arbiters of performance need not necessarily hail from Scotland. Significantly, the title of the event, ‘Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship’, does not specify Scotland or Scottish. However, the competition circuits from which the invitees are selected specialise in the performance of Scottish fiddle music, and so it is more conspicuous by its absence.

However, unlike the worlds or piping and Highland dance, the performance of Scottish fiddle music retains a strong aspect of individuality. In contrast, the performance of pipe music is in many ways quite dogmatic, and the steps of Highland dancing have been codified in an attempt to achieve uniformity.

That the winner of the 2014 championship was North American may upset ‘purists’ who would have preferred an ‘indigenous’ champion, but such a stance is clearly untenable in the context of a competition. The winner gave a formidable performance, incorporating a warm stage presence with sound technique and an interesting interpretation.

Scottish Traditional Fiddle Exams

Graded Music Performance Examinations

Most learners of the violin will be familiar with achieving their ‘grades’, or sitting graded performance examinations administered by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) or Trinity College London (TCL). With few exceptions, the stipulated selection of repertoire consists of classical music by the like of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. A couple of tunes by fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner, were included a few years back, but these were not strathspeys or reels. Rather, they were theme-and-variation style compositions, his ‘classical credentials’ conforming to the ideological leanings of the boards.

To all extents and purposes, fiddle performance is not catered for by this structure of examination. Of course, many fiddle players learn the classical repertoire and sit the tests, following in the footsteps of Scott Skinner who combined traditional and classical learning to become what he labelled a ‘Scottish Violinist’, though he was around a bit before the examination boards! This has all changed with the introduction of Scottish traditional fiddle exams by two exam boards: the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and London College of Music (part of University of West London, LCM). Further, TCL has published a syllabus which is due to be launched in 2015. The RCS exams were launched in 2008, and the LCM exams have been around since at least 2009.

These exams are more than just syllabi of repertoire. In many ways, they prescribe how Scottish traditional music should be performed, and project ideas about tradition, the music, and its place in society. Before interrogating the content of these exams, it will be useful to consider the implications of music performance examination in general.


The Implications of Music Performance Examination

Earlier, I referred to ‘the ideological leanings of the boards.’ Of course, ideology is omnipresent, not least in institutional establishments such as music exam boards. The style of performance under examination is highly proscribed, with the ‘ideal’ violin performance aesthetic including things such as:

  • No open strings;
  • Vibrato;
  • Uniformity of tone achieved through bow control;
  • The accurate replication of music notation.

Significantly, this performance aesthetic is a normative one. That is to say, Bach is played in the same way as Brahms, despite the births of these two men being 150 years apart and violin technique progressing changing [thanks to David McGuinness for highlighting my own mistaken value judgement!] significantly in that time. In contrast, exponents from the early music revival strive to perform music with an historically contingent aesthetic, adopting the instruments and playing techniques which would have been current when the music was composed. This is a highly divisive topic. I favour the historically contingent approach, and encourage my students to play baroque music with open strings rather than high positions (which would have been quite anathema to the original performers of the music). This has the advantage of making the music instantly more accessible, and reveals a logic otherwise hidden by the adoption of inappropriate techniques. When it comes to romantic music, we look at the kind of position work advocated by exam boards across the entire repertoire.

Essentially, exam boards are perpetuating what was once called a ‘mainstream’ performance aesthetic with roots in the nineteenth century, which has become increasingly less acceptable with the growing expectation that music be performed in an historically contingent way.


Scottish Traditional Music Exams

Anyone familiar with archive recordings of old Shetland musicians will recognise the disjuncture between the performance aesthetics of classical music as discussed above and the performance aesthetics of some traditional musics. Shetland fiddle player, Andrew Poleson’s, performance of Lady Mary Ramsay exhibits a sophisticated musical aesthetic, in particular, a rhythmic intensity closely aligned to Shetland traditions of dance. It can be heard here (the performance begins thirty seconds into the recording) and below is a transcription into music notation.

Lady Mary RamsayA distinction must be made between Sottish traditional repertoire (the tunes as notes on a page) and Scottish traditional performance styles (how the tunes are played). To the uninitiated listener, Andrew Poleson’s performance is an assault on the ears: it does not conform to the clean and highly-polished performances which feature on post-produced cds or HD downloads. Nonetheless, it remains a highly accomplished performance and a valid musical expression within an alternative musical aesthetic. On repeated listening, listeners quickly identify the internal logic of his emphatic style of bowing and the consistency of his tuning. A revealing example is to be heard here where Hector MacAndrew contrasts modern and old (Gow) styles of performing the same tune. As a classically trained player, MacAndrew’s ‘Gow’ style sounds more ‘polished’ than Poleson’s performance, but it contrasts just as highly with his ‘modern’ style.

The question, as far as Scottish traditional music exams is concerned, is: to what extent is or can an element of performance style be integrated into the exam criteria, especially given the high degree of regional variation across the country? Are these exams nothing more than a mirror of their classical counterparts, only with Scottish rather than classical repertoire? If not, then how do they compare?

In what follows, each of the exam boards offering assessment in Scottish traditional music performance will be evaluated, in search of answers to the above questions.



Scottish Music Graded Exams: Fiddle 2014-2020

The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (as it the then was) launched ‘Scottish Music Graded Exams’ in fiddle, accordion, and harp in 2008. A new syllabus (2014-2020) was published just this week (beginning Monday 6 Oct). It is possible to sit exams from grade one to grade five, and for each grade there is a book containing the featured repertoire in music notation, published by Taigh na Teud. Perhaps surprisingly, audio recordings are not made available in conjunction with the books, but candidates presumably have the option to find their own recordings and learn by ear. In addition to the performance of tunes, the exams include the assessment of technical work (scales and arpeggios), a quick study (sight reading or repetition of a melody by ear), and practical and aural musicianship (PAM).

The omission of ‘traditional’ from the official title of the exams reflects a neurosis of the parent institution, as the RCS offers a ‘Scottish Music’ course at undergraduate level. The decision to avoid ‘traditional’ is perhaps wise, given how loaded a term it is. Indeed, the blurb to each grade book celebrates the ‘great diversity of traditional and modern tunes’ on offer, suggesting one use of the term traditional. However, another is introduced in the introduction, where it is stated that the RCS ‘offers graded examinations in Scottish traditional music.’

The 2014-2020 fiddle syllabus features a refreshed choice of tunes (though many are retained from the 2008-2014 syllabus), and books feature a list of the technical work, quick study, and PAM required for the grade in question. There are three categories of tune, A. Airs; B. Dance Tunes; and C. Recent Compositions, with candidates required to select at least one tune from each category when preparing their programme. This choice of categories is highly problematic, seeming to privilege, as it does, ‘recent compositions’, and assigning anything non-recent to a singular undefined past. More so, recent compositions are also to be found in the other two categories, minimising the role of historical compositions even further. In contrast, the ABRSM model of roughly A. music composed before 1800; B. 1800-1900; and C. music composed after 1900 implies a more transparent (though still far from ideal) structure, which facilitates candidates’ understanding of the historicity of the repertoire. This is an issue which strikes at the heart of discussions about ‘traditional’ music. Of course, it is a living tradition, but with roots in the often distant past. Further, the majority of sources cited for the tunes are ‘recent’ publications, mostly by Taigh na Teud, rather than the original publications in which tunes were printed. Adaptions are made liberally by a host of ‘arrangers’ with bowings included to more-or-less reflect the rule of the down bow, whereby bars begin with a down. This re-writing or omission of history is potentially a cause of grave concern.

One small detail I was relieved to see improved in the new syllabus is the simplification of a grade four tune, Stirling Castle, which in the 2008-2014 syllabus took the form of being ‘as played by Paul Anderson’. Accordingly, it featured many technically challenging double-stops and bowings which far exceeded the technical expectations of grade four!

The tune genres included are: [slow] air, slow strathspey, march, waltz, strathspey, reel, slow reel (well, we have the slow strathspey, so why not?), hornpipe, polka, and jig. Encouragingly, exams are assessed by a fiddle specialist rather than a generic examiner, but accompaniment of any sort is not allowed – a highly problematic edict given the pervasiveness of piano and guitar accompaniment in the professional sphere.

Information about publications from Taigh na Teud is accessible here.

More info from RCS is accessible here.



The London College of Music offers examination in Irish and Scottish traditional music. Admittedly, these are perhaps the most dominant traditions with the UK and Ireland, but it seems anachronistic to omit Wales and England given their emerging heritage.

The guidelines advise that:

[t]he examination may be taken in any one of the following instruments: fiddle, cello, double bass, button accordion, piano accordion, melodeon, concertina, electronic keyboard, piano, Lowland and Highland pipes, harp, whistle, flute, guitar, and voice. A candidate wishing to use an instrument other than those listed above should write to the Chief Examiner in Music for approval.

From the guidelines, it would appear it is only possible to sit grades two, four, six, and eight, but this may not be the case. It is also possible to achieve diplomas, including DipLCM, ALCM, LLCM, and FLCM. Specific tunes are not specified, but rather guidelines for each grade are given, and a list of ‘Suggested Repertoire’ is available on request. Interestingly, ‘All regional styles will be accepted and regarded as equally valid,’ (see my previous post for my thoughts on this) and accompanists are allowed.

There are three components to the exam:

  1. Performance, which consists of the performance of a specified number of pre-prepared sets of tunes;
  2. Repertoire, which requires the candidate to submit a list of a specified number of tunes, from which the examiner requests tunes randomly;
  3. Supplementary tests, designed to test candidates’ aural skills and musical knowledge (including of their music tradition).

Given that the traditional music exams feature alongside the non-traditional music exams administered by LCM, the structure is in many ways more robust that the RCS model, with the possibility of progressing beyond grade five and the provision of extensive detail on the marking criteria and scoring of performances. The syllabus is accessible here. The assertion that ‘examinations are conducted by trained external examiners who are specialists in the relevant tradition’ is encouraging, but needn’t necessary imply instrumental specificity.



Trinity College London has published a syllabus of ‘Grades for Scottish Traditional Fiddle,’ in advance of the exams launching in 2015. It has been developed in Shetland by Margaret Scollay in liaison with Pauleen Wiseman, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, features a significant Shetland component to the proscribed repertoire. It will be possible to sit grades one through eight, with grades six to eight having ‘been designed to mimc the requirements for the National Championship, The Glenfiddich Fiddle Competition.’ This is significant, because there are other national competitions, primarily the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, at which fiddle players can compete, but in an very different context to Glenfiddich. The syllabus also advises that:

Traditionally[,] fiddlers held the instrument almost under the shoulder rather than under the chin [Andrew Poleson did], however[,] the demands musically and technically were not so high. As a result[,] modern traditional players and students are encouraged to use a more violinistic approach.

There’s that dichotomy between modern and traditional again, and the suggestion that the demands musically were not so high shrieks of value judgement. I don’t know if I can even accept that the technical demands were not so high… Sure he wasn’t playing in fourth position, but Andrew Poleson’s bow control required just as much technique, if in a different application.

For each grade there are three categories, A, B, and C, but the content of each varies between grades:

  1. A. Waltzes; B. Marches; C. Reels;
  2. A. Waltz and Polka/Hornpipe/Schottiche/Jig; B. Air; C. March and Reel;
  3. A. Waltz and Jig; B. Air and Polka/Hornpipe; C.March and Reel;
  4. A. Waltz and Reel; B. Air, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. March, Strathspey, and Reel;
  5. A. Air, Hornpipe, and Jig; B. March, Strathspey, and Reel; C. Contemporary Set;
  6. A. Air, March Strathspey, and Reel; B. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. Set by a Given Composer (Willie Hunter, Tom Anderson, or Margaret Scollay);
  7. A. Slow Air, March, Strathspey, and Reel; B. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. Set by a Given Composer (Neil [sic] Gow, Peter Milne, or J. Scott Skinner);
  8. A. Slow Air, March, Strathspey, and Reel; B. Slow Strathspey, Hornpipe, and Jig; C. Set by a Given Composer (Gideon Stove, J. Scott Skinner, or William Marshall).

The repertoire itself is accessible in a round-about way through the Boosey website here, selecting ‘Scottish Traditional Fiddle from 2015’ from the drop-down menu then the relevant grade from the options presented.

A wide range of publications are consulted in the choice of repertoire, with candidates mostly requiring at least two books per exam. While potentially rather costly, this encourages the building of a library of books, and reflects, in a way, the heritage of published collections and the practice of exploring them in their entirety. However, the question of literacy and aurality is again raised, with the emphasis on notation maligning aural aspects of learning music. There is also the very concerning requirement that bowings and dynamic markings should be marked on the examiner’s copy of the music, to enable the student to demonstrate their ability at realising these features from notation – something surely quite alien to traditional music?

A list of fiddle nuances are given, which attempt to define the performance of Scottish fiddle music, for instance, bowing advice in strathspeys and hornpipes, and general advice on rhythmic articulation.  I take issue with the guidance that all ornaments should be played as acciaccatura and not appogiatura, given the presence of both in equal measure in the playing of the fiddle player upon whom the Glenfiddich style is modelled, Hector MacAndrew.

Extra-performance aspects such as scales, sight reading, and aural tests are not listed in the syllabus I have consulted, but presumably form part of the examination.



Each of the exam boards discussed above offers something of value in its structure: the provision of books by RCS offers a convenient manual of graded tunes useful to learners regardless of whether they choose to sit the exam; the pragmatic approach of the LCM, at least as set-out in the guidelines, empowers the learner to find their own path through the exams; and the attempted modelling of TCL on the Glenfiddich reflects current practice more than the others. However, questions remain regarding the place and status of these exams. While LCM and TCL discuss interpretation to an extent, RCS makes no explicit reference to it. The assumption that most candidates will be tutored by an expert in Scottish tradition music is perhaps misplaced, given the propensity of specifically violin teachers in schools, resulting in a literal interpretation of the notes on the page without an appreciation of any aspect of performance style. The mechanisms of learning fiddle have changed a lot in the past few decades: the advent of fiddle schools and feis in the 1980s and adult-learning organisations such as the Scots Music Group, the Glasgow Fiddle Workshop, and Scottish Cultures and Traditions in the 1990s have made fiddle music more accessible. Similarly, the introduction of fiddle in the context of school instrumental lessons has been growing since the late 1970s. These exams surely have a place in achieving professional status for fiddle players and gaining recognition of the repertoire, but changes in the perception of the music and mechanisms of learning inevitably have an impact on the music itself. Change is not necessarily good or bad – well, it depends on your perspective…

Ronnie Gibson (10th October 2014)

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.


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)

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.


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.


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)

Fiddle Competitions

Fiddle competitions are an important part of the Scottish traditional music scene. Events take place in the context of Accordion & Fiddle Clubs, the TMSA, and the Mòd, with the pinnacle for many being the invitation-only Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship at Blair Castle in October. They provide an opportunity for fiddlers to measure themselves against one another, fostering a high standard of performance and promoting Scottish fiddle music in the public sphere. The prestige associated with winning an event like the Glenfiddich can stimulate a player’s professional career, with such plaudits being more helpful than academic qualifications or degrees, and gaining the player significant media coverage and bookings.

As Stuart Eydmann explains in a recent blog post, the place of the competition in the history of Scottish fiddle music has not been defined in any great detail, yet is of central significance. Most people mistakenly assume events have been held regularly since the eighteenth century, citing the famous anecdote about Niel Gow winning a competition: the blind fiddler who was adjudicating is said to have confessed that ‘he could distinguish the stroke of Neil’s [sic] bow among a hundred players.’ However, precious little is known about the event, first recorded in Gow’s obituary in The Scots Magazine (1809). An examination of what it reports reveals the relative informality of this particular competition: ‘a trial of skill having been proposed, amongst a few of the best performers in the country.’ Far from being an annual or instituted event, it appears to have been a one-off, and the account doesn’t give a date or location (Perth in 1745 has been suggested). I know of no earlier reference to the competition than Niel’s obituary from 1809, nor who the other competitors were (David Baptie suggests that one was possibly Niel’s teacher, John Cameron). Another reference to an early fiddle competition is found in Baptie’s entry on Robert Petrie (1767-c.1830), who, he claims, ‘succeeded in carrying off the silver bow prize at Edinburgh.’

The fiddle competition has been investigated by Chris Goertzen in a Norwegian and North American context, but no-one has given similar treatment to the competition in a Scottish context. In addition to a basic history – which competitions took place when, who competed, who won, who organised – the motivation for holding competitions and their impact on the performance and understanding of the music is also worthy of consideration.

Towards A History of Scottish Fiddle Competitions: 1855-6

It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the fiddle competition emerged as an instituted platform for the performance of Scottish traditional music. The earliest references I can find in a search of nineteenth-century newspapers to a fiddle competition taking place in Scotland are these from the Glasgow Herald:

17th December 1855:

CITY HALL/GRAND FESTIVAL OF SCOTTISH MUSIC, ON FIRDAY EVENING, DECEMBER 21, 1855./A PRIZE OF/A GOLD MEDAL AND A PURSE OF FIVE GUINEAS to be given to the best Player of SCOTCH REELS and STRATHSPEYS./Open for Competition to Violinists from all parts of Scotland./WILLIAM CAMPBELL, Esq. of Tillchewan Castle, has kindly consented to preside on the occasion, and present the Gold Medal and Purse of Five Guineas to the successful competitors./MR JULIAN ADAMS/Respectfully intimates that he will give a Grand National/CONCERT OF SCOTTISH MUSIC,/on Friday, 21st December, 1855, at the City Hall […] In order to encourage the taste for Scottish Music, the best Violin Players of Reels and Strathspeys will be engaged from various parts of Scotland, and a Prize, as above-mentioned, will be awarded./THREE SCOTTISH VIOLINISTS/will be the Umpires.

21st December 1855:

Grand Competition of Scottish Violin Players.- Our readers will see by an advertisement in this morning’s paper, that this grand affair is to come off in the City Hall to-morrow evening. We have seen the gold medal (value fifteen guineas) a most beautiful specimen of Glasgow art. We trust the recipients will fully remunerate the committee of management. This competition amongst Scottish violin players is a new thing in Glasgow, and will most likely draw a bumper audience.

The fact that the competition is described as ‘a new thing in Glasgow’ suggests that competitions may have been held in other parts of the country before this date but I have not yet come across any specific reference to these.

A review of the event was published in the London newspaper, The Era, 6th January 1856:

Competition Festival of National Scottish Music.- A concert was recently given in the City Hall, Glasgow, by Mr. Julian Adams, at which the leading strathspey and reel-players from all parts of Scotland attended. The prizes offered by Mr. Adams, were a gold medal, value £15, and a purse and five guineas. The end was achieved – the illustration of music of a purely Scottish character in a most satisfactory manner in the presence of a densely-packed auditory. The orchestral arrangements were confided to Mr. Alexander Menzies. Among the “performers” present, was Donald Bane, the piper who led the 42d Highlanders at Alma: he was decorated with the silver Crimean medal. William Burns, Esq., writer, presided; and the following contended, and played a short strathspey and reel, viz., Messrs. Blair from Balmoral, (Her Majesty’s piper); Robert Heron, Glasgow; Lawrence Ritchie, Bonhill; James Allan, Forfar; Andrews, Irvine; Archibald Menzies, Edinburgh; Duncan M’Kercher, Dunkeld; M’Intosh, Atholl; and Archibald Gray, Kilmarnock. The gold medal was awarded to A. Menzies, of Edinburgh, an announcement which did not seem satisfactory to all the parties assembled; and the purse to Ritchie, who is blind; M’Kercher was honourably mentioned.

That this review was published in a London paper over two weeks after the event was not unusual, the review most likely having appeared in local press soon after the 22nd December. The identification of “performers” in parentheses may be a sign of prejudice towards the musicians, but, alternatively, it may indicate the confused recognition of dance music being presented in a concert setting, given that it was a relatively new phenomenon in the 1850s. Significantly, the competitions ascribed prestige to the winners and built their reputations, with subsequent reviews citing a competitor’s previous successes.

Baptie’s entry on the winner of the gold medal, Archibald Menzies, informs us that he ‘invariably took the first prize at the Jullien competition concerts held in the large towns of Scotland.’ It is also learned that he was born in Dull, Perthshire, about 1806, died in Edinburgh on the 16th July 1856, and was ‘a very famous violinist.’

The next competition for which evidence is available took place in Edinburgh on the 26th March 1856, this from the Caledonian Mercury, 13th March 1856:

Concert of Scottish Music: Grand Competition of the Best Native Violin Players.–In order to impart a stimulus to the study and practical cultivation of our National Music, it has been resolved to bring forward, early in the Month of May, as many of our NATIVE VIOLIN PLAYERS as wish to COMPETE for THREE Prizes, to be awarded by the Judges who may be appointed to decide. The Preliminary arrangements for the Competition will be under the superintendence of Mr Wood and Mr Alexander Mackenzie, who will take the necessary steps to have a Committee of Gentlemen appointed who feel Interested in the progress of our National Music.

‘[T]he progress of our National Music’ is highlighted as a significant motivator for staging the competition, which can be usefully interpreted against a backdrop of rising cultural nationalism stimulated by Queen Victoria’s love of the Scottish Highlands. A review of the Edinburgh competition was published in the same newspaper on 27th March 1856:

[…] Nothing struck us more vividly in listening to the competitors for the prizes, than the marked difference between the capability of each performer in rendering reels and strathspeys. In the former all were comparatively perfect in time and execution. In the latter we are constrained to say that all were more or less imperfect in the elucidation of the true characteristics of this national type of dance music. If for no other reason than to encourage the attainment of greater excellence amongst our public performers in this interesting and peculiar class of melody, we should rejoice to see these competitions continued from time to time. We shall offer no remarks upon the personal merits of the candidates, because, in doing so, we should be compelled to dissent strenuously from the decisions of the judges. This is probably of the less consequence, because, in all likelihood, the diversity of opinion amongst the audience, had their award been preferred, would have prevented a more satisfactory determination. While making this remark, we are bound to add, that it would be impossible to doubt the anxiety of the adjudicators to mete out equal justice to all alike. The fact that the Lord Provost was amongst their number, and intimated the grounds of their decisions, is a sufficient pledge of the correctness of this statement. We cannon conclude without a commendatory observation upon the leadership of Mr Stewart. He acquitted himself well. The prizes were awarded as follows:–

1.    A gold medal, Value L.20, to Mr A. Menzies, Edinburgh, winner of the gold medal at a recent competition in Glasgow; 2.    A silver medal, value L.8, to Mr Hoffman, Edinburgh; 3.    A purse and L.5, to Mr David Macdonald, Glasgow; 4.    A purse and L.3, to Mr James Allan; 5.    A purse and L.2, to Mr Alex. Skinner, Aberdeen.

Menzies is seen to have scooped the gold medal again, and there is a reference to his winning in Glasgow. It’s also interesting to note that the fifth-placed ‘Mr Alex. Skinner’ was the elder brother of James Scott Skinner.

Alexander ‘Sandy’ Skinner is seen to have exported the concept of the competition to Aberdeen a few weeks later, with this article from The Aberdeen Journal, 23rd April 1856:

Competition of Scottish Music.–On Friday evening [21st April 1856], Mr Skinner gave a musical entertainment, including a competition by violin players from different parts of the country. The entertainment consisted of singing and piano-forte playing by Miss Wilson and Miss M. Wilson–both of whose efforts were very well received. Mr Skinner himself played the solos for which he was recently awarded a prize at Edinburgh, effectively, and to the satisfaction of the audience. For the prizes, 15 competitors entered the lists for reel and strathspey playing, and 8 for slow airs. They were Messrs William Blair and James Blair, Balmoral; Forbes Morrison, Tarves; John Thomson, George Paterson, Peter Milne, John Melvin, Sen., Alexander Adam, J. Nisbet, A. Wilson, John Melvin, Jun., Andrew Henry, and John Smart, Aberdeen; George Gaul, Whitehouse, Tarland; and Mr Hardie, Knockespock. The Judges were Messrs John Marr and William Smith, Aberdeen; Alexander Walker, Castle Newe, Strathdon; and David Mortimer, Birse. The competitors played behind a screen, where they were sufficiently heard by the audience and yet not seen by the Judges. The playing generally was not of so high an order as might have been expected. There were several pretty good reel players, but there were only two or three performers who could lay claim to much ability at slow airs. The first prizeman, however, played admirably. The Judges awarded prizes as follows:

For Strathspey and Reel–1st prize (Silver Medal), P. Milne, Aberdeen; 2d (Silver Medal), Forbes Morrison, Tarves; 3d (Fiddle Bow), G. Patterson [sic[, Aberdeen; 4th (Merit), A. Henry, do.

For Slow Airs–1st prize (Silver Medal), P. Milne, Aberdeen; 2d (Merit), J. Nisbet, do.

–The after part of the entertainment consisted of the competitors playing before the audience in solo and combination. There was a considerable audience.

While not as prestigious as the gold-medal-offering Glasgow and Edinburgh events, this Aberdeen event attracted many competitors and ‘a considerable audience.’ The audience, of course, was crucial, as these events were intended to generate high ticket sales (to cover the costs of the competition prizes in the first instance, and recompense the entrepreneurial impresarios who organised them in the second). As going commercial concerns, these mid-nineteenth century fiddle competitions were quite different in ethos to the competitions of today.

Inverness, 1863

The next reference to a fiddle competition I could find was this from The Aberdeen Journal, 30th September 1863, which features the arrival of James Scott Skinner on the scene:

Great Violin Competition of Strathspeys and Reels. –The above contest came off in Dr. Bell’s Institution, Inverness, on Saturday [26th September 1863], when several well-known violinists entered the lists. The Judges (five in number) consisted of gentlemen of well-known musical talent, amongst whom were Cluny Macpherson, &c. There was a very numerous and fashionable audience, who testified their approbation by repeated applause. The following is a list of the successful competitors:

Strathspeys–1. J. S. Skinner, Aberdeen, £3 3s; 2. J M’Leod, Inverness, £2 2s; 3. Forbes Morrison, Oldmeldrum, £1 1s.

Reels–1. H M’Callum, Inverness, £3 3s; 2. John M’Leod, do., £2 2s; 3. Forbes Morrison, £1 1s.

Reel o’ Tulloch–1. John M’Dougall, Fort-Augustus, £1 1s; 2. H M’Callum, 10s 6d.

There was a prize given for the best Gaelic Poem. Several were sent in, and the prize was awarded to a Ross-shire gentleman, for a Poem upon the late Prince Consort. There was also a prize offered for the best singer of a Gaelic song, but no one came forward.

This competition was organised by a few Inverness-shire gentlemen, who think that Scotch music should not be allowed to fall off, and who consider that music on the violin is quite as essentially national, and deserving of encouragement, as any other class of music. This being the first contest, it has been rather hurriedly got up, but the Committee intend to considerably enlarge their programme next year. At the conclusion of the competition, the whole instrumentalists played a Strathspey and Reel, which gave great satisfaction. The prizes were then awarded, and when all were retiring, a voice called lustily for “Auld Robin Gray,” from Mr Skinner, evidently quite a stranger here, but an excellent musician. His tact and style of playing “Auld Scotia’s Airs” are of such a nature as cannot fail to be appreciated, especially by such an audience. The whole arrangements reflected the greatest credit upon the several enterprising gentlemen connected with it.

The assertions that ‘Scotch music should not be allowed to fall off’ and ‘that music on the violin is quite as essentially national, and deserving of encouragement, as any other class of music’ (bagpipes? art music?) give a clear insight into the motivation for this competition. The dedication for the Reel o’ Tulloch of a category of its own demonstrates the significance of this particular tune (and variations) for the organisers and fiddle players from this region.


The limited accounts of these mid nineteenth-century competitions don’t give anything near a full picture of proceedings. It is likely that many more took place for which no record has been found, and the events themselves are poorly reflected in the short reviews. For instance, it would be fascinating to learn which tunes were played; but, alas, it would appear no record has been kept. Nonetheless, the picture that emerges is at odds with many present-day assumptions about the history of Scottish fiddle music. I’ve commented before about the loaded terms used when talking about performers (see my earlier blog post here) and the evidence of competitions furthers my claim that Scottish fiddle music is unhelpfully understood in an exclusively rural and non-literate context. There was clearly a well-maintained network of fiddler players around the country, which would have resulted in an exchange of tunes and performance styles. Further, the division between traditional and classical, while there to an extent, is not vigorously maintained. However, the significance of regional styles is highlighted by reference to ‘fiddle players from all over Scotland.’ The lack of female competitors is striking, but more do appear as the century progressed.

 Ronnie Gibson (13th September 2013)

Gow the Gael: An Alternative History of Scottish Fiddle Music

Niel Gow (1727-1807)

In the history of Scottish fiddle music, no-one is held in higher esteem than Niel Gow. While his contribution to the canon of tunes is relatively small, the few he composed are of such high quality as to guarantee his place in the ‘fiddlers’ hall of fame.’ But it’s his reputation as a performer that raises him above all others: as a celebrated performer of dance music he inspired and excited dancers with powerfully rhythmical music and regular cries of encouragement; and in non-dance contexts he demonstrated the emotional depth of his art in the performance of deeply moving laments.

His image came to represent Scottish (in particular, Highland) culture at a time when issues of national identity were still settling after the Union of Parliaments in 1707. Even today, his continuing high status as a national icon is confirmed by the fact that his portrait has been chosen to adorn a wall in Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland. The famous portrait by Raeburn (1787, above) depicts a slight, older man in livery and tartan trews, gazing thoughtfully into space as he plays a tune on his fiddle. What’s more, he holds the instrument introvertly, in contrast to the virtuosi of the nineteenth century who positively brandish it across the frame.

A comparison with the portrait of his near-contemporary, William Marshall (1748-1833), highlights how differently the two fiddler-composers were represented: Marshall’s portrait betrays nothing of his Scottish nationality, but shows a man of the Enlightenment, with a quill on the table beside him a sign of his erudition and ability as a composer.

Returning to Gow, there are other aspects that contribute to his unique brand of Highland identity: the location of Inver on the Highland boundary suggests the fusion of Highland and Lowland cultures which was ultimately key to his success. Further, Helen Jackson, in her book, Niel Gow’s Inver, notes that as late as 1890 in Strathbraan, where Niel was born, the population spoke Gaelic almost exclusively, with the suggestion that, in all likelihood, he would have been bi-lingual. The Gaelic spelling of his name (Niel rather than Neil) supports this suggestion.

It is also greatly significant that he composed laments, three of which were published: Niel Gow’s Lamentation for Abercarney (1784); Niel Gow’s Lamentation for the Death of his Brother (1788); Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his 2d Wife (1809). Laments are not a uniquely Highland form, with examples from earlier classical music including ‘Dido’s Lament’ in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, but the genre was transformed by the London-based Scot, James Oswald, in the aftermath of Culloden (1746), when Londoners’ interest was piqued by all things Highland.

There are no examples of the lament in volume one of Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion (c. 1745) but they are included from the second volume onwards (c. 1750, twelve volumes in total), with ‘The Scots Lament’ in volume two and ‘The Highland Lamentation’ in volume three (c. 1751).

The romanticisation of the Scottish Highlands and Gaelic culture reached fruition with the publication of MacPherson’s Ossianic poetry in the 1760s, but these examples by Oswald from the 1750s are a precursor. The association of the lament with the Highlands legitimised it as a primarily Gaelic form of expression. The expressive leaps in the melody and lilting descending figures are not so far removed from the affect and topoi of the laments of classical music, but with scotch snaps cementing the Scottish character of these examples.

The Myth of Gow

While recognised as the father of Scottish fiddle music, surprisingly little of certainty is known about Niel Gow. Like all great figureheads, the facts of his life are surrounded by myth and anecdote: almost immediately after his death in 1809, long tales emerged starring Gow in the dramatic personae. Alexander Murdoch, in his history of Scottish fiddle music (1888), recounts the following:

Neil [sic] made no distinction as to rank; men and women, and braw lads and lasses, were his only words of qualification in speaking to the people he encountered during his long public career. On one of these occasions, when the genial Duchess of Gordon called on him, she complained, in answer to a question as to her health of a giddiness and swimming in her head, on which Neil wittily said– “Faith, an’ I ken something o’ that mysel’, yer leddyship; when I’ve been fou the nicht before ye wad think that a hale bike o’ bees were bizzin’ in my bannet.” [Alexander Murdoch, The Fiddle in Scotland, pp. 42-43.]

His representation of Gow as a folk hero cum country bumpkin (transcending class boundaries with his wit or playing the ignorant peasant?) is representative of the many anecdotes that abound.

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding his knowledge of Gaelic, it’s not certain that he was musically literate. While the lack of any surviving music notation in his hand is not evidence of non-literacy, such an artefact would surely have been highly valued, perhaps so highly valued that Niel’s entrepreneurial son, Nathaniel, might have found a market for such a document? (Yes, I’m clutching at straws on this one, but stay with me…).

The role of Nathaniel in representing his father to the public cannot be over-estimated. It was he who was responsible for publishing the famous Gow collections that bore his father’s name and which were the primary mode of engagement for a mass audience with limited access to the man himself. Nathaniel’s many annotations throughout the publications demonstrate how valuable an asset Niel was. A particularly interesting note concerns Niel’s favourite Corelli movement, which Nathaniel tells us was the Giga from Op.5/9:

This again raises the issue of old Gow’s musical literacy. Did he perform Corelli sonatas from music at home at Inver? Or did he pick up by ear what is essentially a dance tune, in the same way many fiddlers still do today? Was he even familiar with it? It certainly suited Nathaniel’s purposes to represent his father as a sage master of music other than just dance music, appealing, as he was, to an upper- and middle-class audience for whom Corelli was the most highly revered composer. Alternatively, does my belief that Gow was non-literate stem from a need to paint him as a genuine ‘folk legend’? I don’t think so, but you can make up your own mind. My reduction of Niel Gow to an image or a brand may be unsatisfactory to those who believe he had more input into his public image, but, while denying him agency in this sphere, I would be the first to empower him as a live performer. Indeed, accounts of his performances attest to his ability in this respect.

Gow the Gael

The identification of Niel Gow as the father of Scottish fiddle music has shaped the writing of its history: our ideas about him are reflected in our understanding of the music as a whole. The association of the so-called Niel Gow or Perthshire style of fiddle music with the present-day North-East style has dominated the historical narrative, with a line being drawn from Gow through James Scott Skinner to Hector MacAndrew and his ‘classical’ approach to performance.

A recent encounter with the pre-eminent Highland fiddler, Aonghas Grant (b. 1931), got me thinking about the place of Highland fiddle music in the broader history of Scottish fiddle music: I’ve talked before about the bias of scholars towards literate traditions of fiddle music, but geographical bias is also to be found in how the history of this music has been written. Ultimately, the two biases are connected: the paucity of published collections of tunes from the Highlands as a result of general non-literacy has lead to the region’s exclusion from the prevailing historical narrative.

With the ‘discovery’ of Aonghas at the TMSA competition at Blairgowrie in 1969, Highland (or, Gaelic) fiddle music was put back on the map. Admittedly, Farquhar MacRae, along with many other Highland fiddlers, had been recorded by ethnographers from the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s, but Aonghas was the first to achieve competition success outside the Mòd and release an album (Angus Grant: Highland Fiddler, 1979).

The patronage of fiddle music in the Highlands was (is) vastly different from patronage in the North-East: the influence of Scott Skinner’s classical approach, with technically challenging tunes and solo concert performances, contrasts with the community-based structures that supported music in the Highlands, where the influence of classical music was limited and performances took place in the context of dances first and foremost.

The literate/non-literate binary is more helpful than geographic division in diagnosing bias in the received history of Scottish fiddle music. It is just the case that figureheads from the North-East have tended to be literate whereas those from the Highlands have tended to be non-literate. Historically, it was certainly the case that non-literacy was prevalent among fiddlers everywhere, with different mechanisms of learning to those of literate musicians.

If I’m right about Gow, it creates an irony throughout the history of Scottish fiddle music: that it’s ‘founding father’ was, in fact, a non-literate Gael dramatically alters our reception of practice in the present day.

Post Scriptum: A Contemporary Twist

The perceived privileging of Gaelic culture by arts funding bodies has incensed many non-Gaelic traditional musicians in Scotland: while no-one would disagree that it’s important to safeguard the language, the representation of Scotland as Gaelic does a great disservice to the many speakers of other languages or dialects (if you make a distinction) and their associated cultures that make up the nation. In a similar vein, William Lamb’s recent reappropriation of the strathspey for the Gaels, while raising many interesting issues in the process, is ultimately no more than a rebranding of Scotland’s most emblematic musical genre.

With the 2014 Independence Referendum looming, it’s essential to be on guard for ideologically derived narratives and motivations. It’s perhaps unfair of me to reduce Dr Lamb’s excellent paper to an exercise in ‘rebranding’: he is quite right to interrogate the origins of the strathspey, shrouded as they are in uncertainty. Ultimately, it is necessary to mediate between Gaelic and non-Gaelic histories with the aim of recognition and representation.

Ronnie Gibson (20 August 2013)


Since publishing my speculations concerning Niel Gow’s musical literacy, my friends working on the Bass Culture project have alerted me to evidence which strongly suggests he could, in fact, read music: his name appears in the list of subscribers to John Bowie’s 1789 collection and there is a collection of Scots tunes in a North American library of which Niel is said to have been its former owner (and it includes annotations purportedly in his hand). Regardless, I remain adamant that, historically, fiddlers’ engagement with the notated text was far more creative than a literal interpretation of the notes would suggest, and it’s the mechanisms of that creativity which interest me the most.

RG (12 November 2013)