A Fiddler's Notes
A personal look at the instrument and its music by Duncan
"Fiddle" n.- The colloquial term for the violin, the
smallest member of the violin family, descended from the ancient
viol family of bowed stringed instruments.
Growing up as I did in the North East, it astonishes me
now to think how little traditional music I was exposed to as a
youngster in an area of Scotland supposedly steeped in it. All I
can remember is a constant barrage of religious and American country
music, with only an occasional sighting of a fiddler on television
programmes such as the White Heather Club and Bothy Nichts. I was
always strangely fascinated by the fiddle and the bow and the sounds
that these two objects could produce. Whilst my brothers were imitating
Hank Marvin and Duane Eddy with the aid of their tennis racquets,
I was copying the antics of Hebbie Gray with a fish slice and a
school ruler. I remember when I was about twelve, helping out at
the jumble sale of the local football club. A number of fiddles
came in from a local house in varying states of disrepair. Using
my prerogative as an in situ helper, I bought one for a shilling.
As far as I could make out, it was all properly strung-up, and it
had a bow and a case and a chunk of rosin - all ready to go - but
my mother refused to let it into the house and it ended up in the
garden shed and eventually on the living room fire. Suffice it to
say, I received absolutely no encouragement, either at home or at
school, to further any musical interests that I might have had.
After moving away from home at the age of sixteen, a friend
of mine introduced me to Fairport Convention's sensational
L.P. Full House, and the impact was immediate. Dave Swarbrick's
incomparable fiddle playing spoke a strangely familiar language
to me that went straight to my soul. (Actually, in spite
having heard thousands of musicians since then, I would still
have to say that Dave Swarbrick is the most naturally gifted
of all the folk fiddlers. Whilst he may not be the most technically
accomplished and might break every rule in the book as far
as correct bowing and posture is concerned, his inherent ability
to make the instrument swing and his sensitive accompaniment
to singing is without equal in my opinion.)
At that point I went out and bought myself another fiddle.
It cost £12 from an antique shop in Elgin. From then onwards
I implemented a regime of self-discipline hitherto completely
unknown to me. I literally practiced from dawn to dusk every
day, even abandoning my art school studies in favour of a
new career as a musician, playing on an instrument which nothing
but a vague sense of optimism and self-belief enabled me to
When I moved to the south of England in 1974 it was like stepping
into another world. Whilst the folk music scene was, ironically,
almost completely barren in the North East of Scotland, this was
certainly not the case in Sussex. Literally within days I was in
contact with several like-minded fiddlers who, at the time, were
aspiring towards the heights achieved by players such as Dave Swarbrick,
Aly Bain and a whole host of fiddle players then coming out of Ireland.
For hours we'd sit around our little cassette recorders, playing
and replaying tunes, over and over again, trying to figure-out the
intricate passages, phrasing and ornamentation that so eluded us
for a while but which, through mutual assistance and perseverance,
we were eventually able to pick-up and use in our own playing. Irish
music was certainly all the rage in the seventies, and still is,
to a great extent.
Late one night (three o'clock in the morning, to be precise), I
was listening to the Jimmy McGregor Show on the BBC World Service.
He introduced a fiddle player whose music had as great an impact
on me as had Dave Swarbrick's three years earlier. It was Ron Gonella.
Some people would say there couldn't be a greater contrast between
two players stylistically, but both spoke to me the language of
honesty and directness that I had been seeking so desperately in
my own playing. On the one hand, Swarbrick's style was fluid and
organic, like a natural extension of his own exuberant character,
deriving possibly from the exotic Eastern European ancestry implied
by his unusual surname. In contrast, Ron Gonella's style was elegantly
classical, yet unstuffy, with an inimitable precision and discipline
that helped to create a warmth and breadth of tone that few could
match. I have often heard fiddle players scorning the styles of
both Swarbrick and Gonella, but I merely attribute this to envy
and the fact that their natural skills and abilities are generally
inaccessible to all but the best players. When I finally met-up
with Ron Gonella in the early 1980s, I remarked to him that his
playing epitomised to me the very essence of Scottish music as created
by early composers such as Gow, Marshall and Mackintosh. I imagined
that if by some miracle these composers were able to hear their
music played today they would approve wholeheartedly of that strange
evolutionary process that had culminated in Gonella's sensitive
interpretations. Ron said that my comments bore out completely his
artistic aims. Like me, he didn't care too much for the somewhat
bombastic style of fiddle playing championed by devotees of the
Scott Skinner style, preferring instead to imbue Skinner's music
itself with a less dramatic kind of sensitivity.
Throughout my career I've heard a lot spoken about distinct regional
styles. In my experience, this exists only in a general sense. Ron
Gonella, for example, will play a Strathspey in his own particular
way, quite distinctly from Hector McAndrew and those fiddlers that
he inspired. At the end of the day, it simply boils down to individual
interpretation. In seeking to develop their own styles, all good
players will inevitably borrow from that great indeterminate melting
pot of techniques in the hope of eventually acquiring a style of
their own that will become instantly recognisable to the discerning
listener. One will approach a tune according to one's capabilities
and preferences of technique, particularly with regard to ornamentation,
vibrato, tempo and bowing. (Take again, for example, Dave Swarbrick,
with his highly idiosyncratic approach, who appears to pay not the
slightest regard to the ordinary strictures of conventional playing
techniques.) In truth, it would appear that it is a particular individual's
style that is being imitated, and whether he comes from Perthshire,
Strathspey or the Western Highlands is to a large extent coincidental.
A case in point is the influence exerted by Hector McAndrew of Fyvie,
Aberdeenshire upon a whole generation of fiddle players. In admiring
him as a great exponent, they appear to extol every aspect of his
technique (without necessarily imitating him), yet I personally,
and maybe to my loss, have never discovered any staggering virtue
in his playing and actually find it turgid and overly sentimental.
In contrast, I admire the playing of the late Willy Hunter of Shetland,
who was obviously influenced by McAndrew, although Hunter's playing
achieves a greater level of excitement in my estimation. Aly Bain's
recordings, too, are peppered with selections from Hector McAndrew's
repertoire, but their styles of playing actually have very little
in common. In fact, both Willy Hunter and Aly Bain appear to have
relied more on the technical influence of the great Irishman, Sean
McGuire. Alastair Fraser, however, adheres more closely to the style
of Hector McAndrew, as do players like Douglas Lawrence and Paul
Increasingly I have veered further and further away from Irish
music. Whilst at one time, like so many other Scottish and English
players, I was totally immersed in it, I soon came to realise that
the Scottish tradition was just as rich and worthy of deeper exploration.
Besides, I felt a greater affinity with my own native music. In
this respect, I should make mention of my favourite composers, and
top of the list would have to be Nathaniel Gow. His grasp of the
Scottish idiom, like that of his father Neil Gow, was consummate.
He possessed a seemingly inexhaustible fund of melody; and whilst
Neil Gow produced many excellent and memorable tunes, Nathaniel,
as a trained musician, clearly understood the wider capabilities
of the fiddle as an instrument and the finer subtleties of composition.
I must say that my preference tends more towards the music of the
Gows than that of William Marshall, although I am aware that the
latter is generally regarded as a greater composer. Like Scott Skinner
a generation later, Marshall's tunes relied rather heavily on technique
and are therefore often eschewed by less accomplished musicians.
I believe that there is an inherent simplicity in the Scottish idiom
that is in danger of becoming lost in excessive technical posturing
and over-embellishment. I find bow-bouncing gimmickry fiercely tiresome
and unattractive. Almost every fiddle music album that is produced
today contains a trite rendition of the ghastly Banks Hornpipe,
(and if the representation of the soulful Scottish air finds its
finest expression in Margaret's Waltz then give me the spontaneous
gaiety of Ladysmith Black Mombassa any day!)
Among the lesser-known composers, the work of J. Murdoch Henderson
is worthy of note. It is clearly modelled on the Scott Skinner style
but is sufficiently different and idiosyncratic to credit the author
with a degree of originality. The Strathspeys George L. Taylor and
The Scottish "Snap" have a completeness and elegance that are instantly
appealing, whilst the air dedicated to Gavin Greig has a pathos
and grandeur equal to the very best of Marshall and Skinner. J.
F. Dickie's Delight is another wonderful tune - an integral showpiece
within the Scottish Fiddle repertoire, as are the reels J. Scott
Skinner and Charles Sutherland.
The art of composing tunes in the traditional idiom has certainly
not died, but there are only a few truly great new melodies manifesting
themselves in the repertoire today. I find many modern compositions
poorly constructed and basically quite tuneless, with either too
many or too few notes than is good for them.
The fiddle tradition, however, is still very much alive, and long
may it continue. Speaking from a personal point of view, I am profoundly
grateful for it. It has been such an integral and enriching feature
of my existence for so long and I would have been a totally different
person without it.
I'm sorry but I must stop here; I feel a slow air coming on. .
. . .