John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
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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, Aberdeen:

"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.

The Ideal
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.

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