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.

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)

Folk Meets Baroque

Things are coming together nicely for this recital I’m giving with Natalie Brown, my colleague at the Elphinstone Institute, in a few weeks time. We’ve had three very productive rehearsals to date, with three more scheduled before the event itself. We spent a lot of time choosing the repertoire and arranging it for two fiddles, but have settled on five sets we believe showcase Scottish fiddle music at its best! Now all that’s left to do is polish a few corners here and there and we’re good to go.

The inspiration for the recital is the recognition that our modern ideas about fiddle music are quite different to those of the eighteenth-century fiddlers who composed it. Today, the categorisation of music is made according to its origins – classical music originates with Mozart, Beethoven, or some other composer, while traditional music originates with the folk, a faceless mass of peasants. The composer transmits his music via musical notation while the folk transmit their music by ear. However, in the eighteenth century the categorisation of music depended on its function, with authorship (origins) being valued much less than it is today. As such, Scottish fiddle music was categorised as dance music first and foremost. Slow airs and other non-dance genres excepted, the reels, strathspeys, jigs, and marches so familiar to us today were thought of in the same capacity as minuets, gavottes, and bourrées, which we associate with classical music. Anyone with a passing interest will know that there are composers of fiddle music just as there are composers of classical music – Niel and Nathaniel Gow, Robert Mackintosh, William Marshall – and far from being illiterate peasants, they transmitted their compositions in musical notation.

In this recital, Natalie and I aim to blur the boundaries between classical (baroque) music and traditional (folk) music by combining elements of both. Thus, we will perform a violin sonata by Corelli, said to be a favourite of Niel Gow’s, in a way he might have performed it. And we make a survey of different settings of Tullochgorum, highlighting the scope for creativity and invention surrounding one particular tune. Some later tunes by James Scott Skinner are also included by way of comparison, and to demonstrate the changes the music went through in the course of the nineteenth century (the lens through which we see it today).

The instruments we will be using date from the period when the music was composed, being two fiddles by Joseph Ruddiman of Aberdeen in baroque configuration. The use of baroque bows and gut strings will help regain something of the original sound of these tunes in historical performance.

‘Folk Meets Baroque’

Saturday 11th May, 5.30pm

Linklater Rooms, University of Aberdeen

Free Admission – Part of the May Festival

For those unable to make the recital on 11th May, there will be a second opportunity to catch it at St Andrew’s Cathedral, King Street, Aberdeen on Saturday 15th June at 12 noon as part of the Cathedral at Noon concert series. Free admission with retiring collection.

Ronnie Gibson (1st May 2013)

Post Scriptum A video recording of the recital was made which has been uploaded to youtube, for anyone who was unable to attend.

The Waning of Scottish Fiddle Music: 1822–1881

The waning of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century is a popular trope in the subject’s history: Alburger claims that ‘there was little creativity left’ after the so-called Golden Age of Scottish fiddle music from c.1780 to c.1820, during which time an unprecedented number of dance-tune collections were published. Similarly, Hunter asserts that ‘[b]y 1820 the great fiddle era was past’, not to peak again until the 1880s with the rise of fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner. However, while it is true that the volume of publication decreased significantly from the 1820s, it is short-sighted to malign the period as one of dearth.

It was in 1822 that Marshall published his third collection of tunes, and Nathaniel Gow his sixth collection. After this date, the rate of publication slowed significantly, not because there was little creativity left but as a result of changing socio-economic factors. Publication had always been a precarious business with the majority of Golden Age collections being pay-rolled by the aristocracy, most commonly by subscription. The nineteenth century saw a move away from patronage-driven publication towards market-driven publication dictated by the public, but the transition would take time.

Marshall died in 1833 and Gow in 1831 (his famous father having passed years earlier in 1807) but reprints of their tunes would continue to be produced, and, in 1845, supporters of Marshall published a posthumous collection of his compositions, many of which had not been published before.

The names of Peter Milne, Joseph Lowe, and Willie Blair may not be as familiar to us today as Niel Gow, William Marshall, and James Scott Skinner, but in their time they were widely recognised for their abilities as performers and composers of Scottish fiddle music. Milne commanded a strong influence over Scott Skinner, and both Lowe and Blair were favourites of Queen Victoria at Balmoral. Indeed, it was Lowe who was tasked with the job of teaching the Royal Children to dance ‘Scotch’ reels.

An important tendency which emerges from this period is the move towards the formation of a canon of Scottish dance music, attempted to an extent in the late-eighteenth century by James Aird (in his six-volume Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and Foreign Airs) and Nathaniel Gow (Gow’s Repository of the Dance Music of Scotland), but more vigorously historicised in the efforts of John Thomas Surenne (The Dance Music of Scotland, 1851) and James Kerr (Kerr’s Merry Melodies, four volumes, 1870s). These ultimately led to James Stewart-Robertson’s Athole Collection of 1884 and John Glen’s two-volume compendium of Scottish Dance Music (1891-1895) which remain central sources of Scottish fiddle music for fiddlers today. Keith Norman MacDonald’s The Skye Collection (1887) also deserves mention in this vain.

Related to this change of approach from composition towards collecting was the establishment of the Edinburgh Highland Reel and Strathspey Society in 1881, the first such institution of its kind which existed to uphold and develop ‘the taste for our old national highland strathspey and reel music on the violin.’ Similarly, Alexander Murdoch’s The Fiddle in Scotland, published in 1888, can lay claim to being the first history of Scottish fiddle music.

It was in the years of the mid-nineteenth century that many of our modern ideas about Scottish fiddle music started to form. The very identification of an historical perspective had a significant impact, and enhanced the move away from dance and towards an appreciation of the music for its own sake.

Ronnie Gibson (8th Februrary 2013)