James Fowlie Dickie
"Master of the Slow Strathspey"
The following article was written
by Kenneth Kemp a short while after Dickie's death in 1983
and is reproduced here by kind permission of The Evening Express,
"The Man Who Loved Life"
Scottish fiddler James F. Dickie, a lifelong pacifist
and a passionate animal lover, died earlier this year aged
96. For the last twenty years of his life he was unable to
let the world hear his unique gift for music because of multiple
sclerosis. Next week friends, family and musicians will gather
in his home town of New Deer to play his music and pay tribute
to this deeply loved man.
In the early summer of 1923 James Scott Skinner sent a scrawled
letter from his Victoria Street residence to a master slater
in New Deer. The letter was a touching accolade which gave
a remarkable insight into the life of one of the North East's
finest men, James Fowlie Dickie of New Deer. Skinner, then
an old man in his eighties, was sufficiently moved to say
in his letter that "you are one of nature's gentlemen and
I shall be a friend all my days."
James F. Dickie
1886 - 1983
At that time Skinner and Jim Dickie shared commercial interests
with Jim happily acting as a part time agent for Skinner's vast
output of popular sheet music, signed mementoes and photographic
portraits which were part of the exciting ephemera of the Twenties.
But the fine praise in the letter expressed sentiments outwith
the commercial sphere. Skinner's glowing words were from one inspired
musician to another. Jim Dickie himself was the genius who became
known as the "Master of the Slow Strathspey" that hauntingly beautiful
style of music found only in Scotland and nurtured in the North
East. Buchan's rich tapestry of music and song must have been woven
into Jim Dickie's character.
"Jim is a player of great taste and polish.
In the rendering of slow strathspeys and E flat airs his style
is inimitable." JMH, 1935.
J. F. Dickie's Delight. A strathspey
from Henderson's Flowers of Scottish Melody,
written by Henderson in Dickie's honour and performed here
by Duncan Wood.
Born in Cartlehaugh, Old Deer, in 1886, his father, himself
a slater, was well known for his concertina playing and his brother
often shared the bill at village hall engagements playing the penny
whistle. As the twentieth century approached his reputation spread
throughout the North East. At an early age he took lessons from
one of Skinner's best pupils, Bill Duguid of Fyvie, and he distinguished
himself before his 24th birthday by being the gold medal fiddler
at a large national contest in Dundee. There was little doubt that
his playing was quite exceptional and his slow style - although
influenced by Skinner - was original and fresh.
Yet in other aspects of life Dickie showed his love and compassion
for his fellow human being and his regard for animals. If Lewis
Grassic Gibbon in his novel "Sunset Song" was in need of a real
life character to base his egalitarian thinker Long Rob of the Mill
then Jim Dickie could have been ideal. In Grassic Gibbon's book
Long Rob is the conscientious objector from the Mearns who refuses
to fight during World War I. He was a respected miller who stuck
steadfastly to his humanitarian beliefs. James Dickie was a person
of similar persuasion in real life. When war broke out he refused
to fight and was thrown into the "No Courage" brigade. This was
the Non Combatant's Corps, set up in 1916, for those whose only
objection was to the taking of human life. This white feather squad
were frog-marched around Aberdeenshire ridiculed by the patriotic
public and beaten up for being "cowards."
It was not an easy decision to opt out of World War I when a generation
were being slaughtered in France, but Jim Dickie remained strongly
opposed to the killing. After the Great War the memories in rural
Buchan died very hard and even very recently an old retired farm
hand still remembered the fiddle genius as the "conshy" from New
Deer. Dickie returned to New Deer to his business of slating and
work with concrete. His office note paper proudly boasted that he
was the patentee and manufacturer of the "Dickie Ventilator"
and a specialist in everything to do with reinforced concrete. In
March 1927 he submitted a patent for the improvement of ventilation
for byres and other buildings which prevented rain and snow falling
through the vent and allowed air out.
According to Jim Dickie's son-in-law, James Duncan, himself a fine
fiddler and expert on Dickie's music, another tradesman in the area
stole the idea before the final patent was through and made a lot
of money from it. It was one of the few times in Jim Dickie's life
when he was visibly annoyed! His specialist interest in cement was
ingenuously put to use in another of his loves - beekeeping. As
an expert apiarist he successfully kept 1.5 million bees in modern
hives which he designed as weatherproof and rat-proof and this earned
him national reputation in the 1920s and 1930s. He employed many
other revolutionary ideas to tomato growing and the vegetable garden
but he also held some very revolutionary political ideas.
The rise of fascism between the wars and Sir Oswald Mosely's black
shirted British fascists converted Jim Dickie to communism. He openly
stated his admiration for the peoples of Russia and their simple
way of life but he abhorred Stalin's cruelty and later political
purges. For many years a familiar sight around New Deer was Jim
Dickie selling the "Daily Worker" newspaper to farm hands and his
good humoured banter and argument with the locals.
As age crept up on him so too did the crippling and debilitating
illness multiple sclerosis and as his fiddle playing suffered he
made the conscious decision to put down his favourite Jameson violin
and never play again.
Being a vegetarian and an animal lover he would not allow any treatment
which involved experimentation on his animals and so relief from
some of his pain was denied. For the last twenty years of his long
and eventful life - which included a spell in a nursing home in
Stonehaven where he had regular visitors bringing him music - his
gift of music was lost.
Perhaps Dickie's greatest admirer was the Aberdeen composer John
Murdoch Henderson who composed much of the music in his masterpiece
"Flowers of Scottish Melody." Murdoch Henderson dubbed him the "Master
of the Slow Strathspey" and wrote the tune "James F. Dickie's
Delight," a slow strathspey still very popular with fiddlers today.
When his friends gather in New Deer village hall on Friday, June
17, it will be at the scene of many of Dickie's finest performances.
There will be a packed house with people travelling from all over
Scotland to play and sing and talk about Jim Dickie. Appropriately
enough all the proceeds from the concert go to the James F. Dickie
Animal Welfare Fund - which will go solely to any charity which
helps protect animals. Certainly that thought would be music to
Jim Dickie's ears.