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Scottish Traditional Music

Sheila StewartYou can approach the music through three broad types of musician.  This a very general set of categories but allows for some useful distinctions.

The first type of musician is an individual un-selfconsciously engaged with the music in specific social and historic settings.  By ‘un-selfconscious’ I don’t mean that they lack awareness, that they play in some instinctive, ‘natural’ way without attending to their intention, or their technique, or their personal creative contribution; I mean that they do not think of themselves as ‘folk’ musicians or even ‘traditional’ musicians, but rather as musicians with a specific audience and a shared tradition and understanding with that audience.  These are the musicians (and their antecedents and descendants) that have come to be described as tradition bearers.

The second type is the musician whose life might be somewhat distant from the context of the source musicians, but who values what they represent.  They’ll be concerned to reproduce the repertoire and style of the source musicians for their audience, while being faithful to the spirit of their source as they can be.  They will see themselves as a conduit for the music, valuing the music and the repertoire over their individual contribution, although they’ll strive to develop the skills required to do the music justice.  These are the revivalists. They’ll also work to bring the tradition bearers themselves to a new audience.

The third type is the musician who uses the work of the first two in order to make a personal artistic statement.  They may share some of the same feelings towards the material as the second type, but, with world culture now laid out before us in a way that was never possible previously, they’ll see their own musical traditions as a resource on a footing with everything else that’s available, part of a world bazaar where you can browse and choose at will.  They’ll see tradition as something dynamic and malleable, that can change in a historic instant rather than something that changes, yes, but at a glacial and slowly evolving pace.

All of them, and the great number that move across the whole typology, stopping at various points along the way, contribute to the sounding of contemporary Scotland.

It should be noted that much of the music under discussion is dance music.  Not all instrumental music is associated with the dance, but at one time music and dance would have been indivisible, part of the same performance practice and fulfilling the same social functions. 

Much of the instrumental music you hear now has lost that bond to some extent.  The internal rhythms have changed, tempos have changed, but there is still a specialist strain of music very much based on the sound and capabilities of the accordion. Here is a mighty instrument that came to the fore in the early years of the last century, the culmination of a technology which started with the mouth organ, and developed into a mechanical means of introducing a flow of air to rows of reeds, initially with the concertina and the melodeon.  Then came the accordion, with the melody notes played on buttons in the style of the earlier instruments and then on piano keys at a later date.  The typical dance band sound has been immensely popular for decades, is still heard every week on the radio, and is redolent of winter firesides, Saturday night conviviality, and above all, fun. 

Its most celebrated exponent was Jimmy Shand who had a big hand in creating what has become the standard dance band sound.  This is built around rhythm, piano, double bass and drums, and second accordion playing chords, while the melody is covered by the lead accordion and the fiddle.  Away from the dance band context contemporary virtuosos of the accordion include Phil Cunningham who took speed and spirit to a new level, and continues to do so in his duo with Shetland fiddler, Aly Bain.

The clarsach, the Celtic harp, was originally strung with wire.  It was an instrument associated with the ‘courts’ of the Gaelic chiefs in mediaeval times and played by specialist musicians trained from an early age.

Use of that version of the instrument dwindled away, its function supplanted by the bagpipes and the fiddle too.  The version of the instrument that we know now came in around the end of the 19th century, prompted maybe by the Celtic revival that was getting going around that time.  The Clarsach Society was formed to promote interest in the instrument, and has seen a huge increase in the number of players in recent times. (Interestingly the playing of the harp was a male activity in days gone by, and is now mostly played by women.) The Clarsach features in folk bands as both an accompanying instrument or a lead instrument. 

The instrument has also been used very innovatively, again by a generation of women who were determined not to be painted into a corner of gentility and tweeness.  In the vanguard of that movement was Savourna Stevenson, setting the bar for technical and compositional ability followed by a generation including Catriona McKay and Corrina Hewat.

Just as it’s difficult to separate music and dance, so music and story are equally intertwined.

There is a cave in Skye and it was into this cave that the first of the great MacCrimmon pipers, when a young man, found his way and in it that he met a beautiful woman, believed to have been the Fairy Queen. He spent some time with her, although it only seemed like a few moments.  When it was time for him to go she asked him what parting gift would please him most. So she presented him with the thing he spoke of, a silver chanter, but she also gave him the skill to play. And she said ‘when you dance all will dance and when you lament all will lament, the whole island.’ But she told him that after a year and a day he had to promise to come back to the cave and return the chanter to her. He went back to Borreraig and became not only the greatest piper of his own time but the greatest piper there has ever been. He and his family were appointed hereditary pipers to the Macleods. But then the day arrived when he had to keep his tryst with the beautiful woman in the cave. He said goodbye to his wife and family, took his chanter and set off for Harlosh.  But before he left home he wished his gift of music upon his son. Maccrimmon entered the cave playing his pipes, with his little dog at his heels barking madly. His sons and others went with him to the cave’s mouth. They followed the sound of his pipes and the barking of his dog, which they could hear coming through from underneath the ground, to a spot near the Fairy Bridge. The sound of the pipes stopped but they could still hear the barking which led them back to the mouth of the cave. As they approached the bay the barking grew louder until at last out of the cave ran the little dog, with not a hair left on its body…

There is a song and a tune associated with the story, a pibroch. Allan Macdonald is from a West Highland family of pipers, the Macdonalds of Glenuig.  Allan has done much research into the history of the pibroch, the ‘big music’ of the pipes, characterised by a theme and variations. 

Allan Macdonald’s contention is that there are other ways of playing this music other than those sanctioned by the rules of bagpipe competitions, and that one clue as to interpretation and performance is in pibroch’s origins in Gaelic song.  Observance of the rhythm and cadences of song will perhaps prompt a brisker rhythm, perhaps a more passionate and less rigidly stylised way of playing the music (music being the operative word). Allan Macdonald’s argument is hotly contested in piping circles, but he might contend himself that what he is basically saying is that there is more than one way to play music, and that a plurality of approaches does not necessarily spell extinction for one of them.

There is a conservative side to the idea of tradition, that is reluctant to let go of prescribed ways of looking at things and to allow tradition to find its own course.  Another prominent critic of the strictures imposed on piping by competition is Hamish Moore. Hamish Moore finds in the Cape Breton approach to Scottish music a rhythmic suppleness and attention to the requirements of dancing that he maintains has become neglected on this side of the Atlantic, and argues that we need to find that again.

For Hamish Moore the other great culprit in the narrowing of possibility for the instrument was the military and their innovation of the pipe band with all its morale boosting and courage inducing properties.. On the other hand pipe bands have become an important feature of community life in Scotland with bands at all levels encouraging piping and drumming from an early age, with tuition provided voluntarily for the most part.  The military has contributed much in the way of repertoire to the piping world, especially in the tempos and styles of the pipe march, adopted in its various forms not only by the bands but by competition pipers, dance bands and fiddlers alike.

Gordon DuncanThe bagpipe has also been the focus of innovatory practices in terms of technique and melodic possibilities, with players such as the late Gordon Duncan pushing the potential of the instrument further than many thought possible (or desirable – not all of his innovations were met favourably by some in the piping establishment).

Another innovation has been the remarkable resurgence in popularity of the Scottish small pipes.  Hamish Moore and others reintroduced the small pipes in the 1980s and brought to the fore an instrument that could sit comfortably in folk bands in more congenial keys.

And before I leave the pipes I should point out that a descendant of the MacCrimmon in the Cave of Gold story is playing to this day, in the band Breabach among other places.  He’s been at it for more than a year and a day so it’s safe to assume that he doesn’t have to hand the chanter back yet.

If the pipes are associated with the Gaeltacht before becoming emblematic of Scotland as a whole, then the fiddle travelled in the opposite direction, eventually usurping the place of clarsach and pipes in the affections of some chiefs and lairds as they sought to assimilate themselves into the life of polite society in Edinburgh and London.  Thanks to the patronage of the likes of Lord Abercairney and the Duke of Gordon, fiddler-composers were able to find leisure to create and perform and, crucially, have their work disseminated through collections raised by subscription and printed using the improvements in engraving and typesetting processes developed in the late 18th century.  Niel and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall, Robert Mackintosh and their contemporaries established the repertoire which is still being drawn on today for the concert stage and the dance floor.

Again though questions of style and taste come to the fore.  There is of course nothing new in that.  Even in the heyday of the 18th century we find this:

There needs na be sae great a phrase,
Wi' dringing dull italian lays;
I wadna' gie our ain strathspeys
For half a hundred score o 'em.
They're douff and dowie at the best,
Douff and dowie, douff and dowie,
They're douff and dowie at the best,
Wi' a' their variorum.
They're douff and dowie at the best,
Their allegros, and a' the rest,
They canna please a highland taste
Compared wi' Tullochgorum!

The virtuoso turns which annoyed the Rev. John S. Skinner in that poem were a feature of the fiddle repertoire, exemplified by the career of J. Scott Skinner (no relation) who was a colossal figure in Scottish music and indeed in Scottish show business from the late 19th century through to the 1920s.

The fiddle had its less flashy role though in the dance band where it would sing out above the dunt of the rhythm section, wrapped in tight with the lead accordion. And there are those, like Duncan Chisholm, who can fathom depths with the instrument that are a long way from the brittle flash of the showmen.

It is arguable whether the fiddle is being played by more people now than it was say 100 years ago, but it’s probably safe to say that it’s being played by more people at a high standard.  There are lots of reasons for that, but at the heart of it is the accessibility of great teachers.  Many young Highlanders, for example, learned with a great character called Donald Riddell, who taught many of the fiddlers who have featured in the popular band Blazin Fiddles

One aspect of Blazin Fiddles that points up a growing trend is the gender balance within the band, which over twenty years has gone from having one female member to a fifty: fifty ratio.  This is reflective of the scene as a whole.  At one time women were largely to be found as singers, but are now making their presence felt in every instrumental category through players like Anna Massie, Jenna Reid, Mairi Campbell, Mairearad Green, Jenn Butterworth and many more.

Another influential teacher is Alasdair Fraser, very much in the line of Skinner, as he tours endlessly with his musical partner Natalie Haas on cello, reviving a musical combination that was a common sight in the 18th century.  Teachers are an important source of regional styles, which are particularly marked in fiddle playing traditions.  Although fiddle music is played throughout Scotland, there is a wide variety of regional styles. The style in the West of Scotland  and the islands (e.g. Aonghas Grant)is distinct from that in the North East (e.g. Paul Anderson), which is distinct again from the Northern Isles (e.g. Jenna Reid) and likewise the South of Scotland (e.g. Lori Watson). The style in the Highlands and Islands (e.g. Iain MacFarlane) is closely related to the bagpipes, with similar ornamentation and the use of many pipe marches, jigs and reels.

This has been the briefest of overviews of Scottish instrumental music.  We have scarcely touched on the voice as an instrument, and there is much to say about the Scots and Gaelic song traditions for which there is no space here.  At its best, however, the instrumental tradition aspires to the flexibility, rhythms and cadences of the human voice, but there is another story to be told of how song reflects the history, perceptions, feelings and aspirations of the people among whom it originates.