The Fiddle

Scottish Fiddle Music

The fiddle is one of the three national instruments of Scotland, the others being the bagpipes and the clarsach.

Thomas the Rymer said in the 13th century: “Harp and fedyl both be found
the getern and the sawtry
Lute and rybid ther gon gan
There was al monor of mynstralsy”

The fiddle may have come to Scotland first with the crusaders. There is a story regarding Mary Queen of Scots when she is supposed to have been visiting Holyrood Palace in 1560. It is said that 600 of the vilest fiddles and rebecs were played outside her window and that although assured by John Knox that it was a tribute to her by her people she moved rooms so she could not hear them!

By the 16th century the Scottish fiddle was more like the instrument we know today - based on the Italian models. At this time there was no difference in the music played by the court and that played by the peasants but after 1603 this changed when the court moved to London. Then Scottish music became more the music of the common people. The court became interested in “classical” music mainly imported from abroad.

Fiddle tunes have been written about anything and everything but there is a strong tendency in fiddle composers to commemorate in music either people who have a significant place in the community or events, local or national which impinge on the life of the people. A wealth of tunes have been written not only about people but about historical events, the supernatural, prohibition, disasters etc. The Jacobite period has given us some very good fiddle material and songs.

It is said that Robert Burns played the fiddle - he certainly collected fiddle tunes and used them for some of his songs. The Gows from Perthshire in the 18th century were a famous family of fiddlers and composers who were popular all over Scotland and as far as London at the great parties and balls. Scott Skinner and William Marshall are other famous Scottish music composers and they have given us a wealth of good Scottish tunes which are still very popular today. There are many styles of fiddle music from different parts of Scotland.

There is the distinctive Shetland style related to the hardanger fiddle style from Norway. The West Coast style related to the playing of the bagpipes and still some remains of a distinct Orkney and borders fiddle style.

We produce fiddle music books and fiddle CDs that represent many of the composers and fiddle styles mentioned above and we also have included many new young composers and players representing the thriving world of the fiddle in Scotland today.

Fiddle - Shetland Fiddle Style

The strongest influence on Shetland style fiddle music was probably the Hardanger fiddle and its music introduced from Norway around the end of the 16th century (“da muckle fiddle wi mony strings”). The hardanger has five sympathetic strings below the regular strings that resonate when a tune is played on the upper strings. There are many tunings used in Norwegian music. The bridge of the hardanger is much flatter than that on a fiddle allowing two strings to be played simultaneously, thus “the ringing strings” that is common in Shetland traditional tunes. By the early 1700’s the fiddle as we know it had been introduced but the Hardanger’s influence on both the music and dances remained.

Some areas of Shetland had distinctive stylistic features; in the island of Yell players tended to use the upper half of the bow with continuous short bow strokes; in the island of Unst the up beat and down beat quavers were accented more for a heavier sound. Often fiddlers from both these islands used scordatura tuning, ADAE being popular. On the island of Whalsay fiddlers used few slurs and when they did it was often to create a “back bowing” style that made for very distinctive accented rhythm. Versions of some Scottish tunes could also be found in the Shetland repertoire. Poor transport communication between the islands resulted in a variety of regional versions of the tunes though the fiddlers on the fishing boats often exchanged tunes.

There is now a general style known as Shetland style but this has only happened in more recent times. With much better transport links between the islands fiddlers can meet up and swop tunes much more easily. With fiddle tuition in Shetland schools and many fiddle groups, Shetland music is now going from strength to strength. However the music has become much more standardised and sadly many of the regional styles and versions have fallen out of use.

In Shetland fiddle music had two main functions. It was played for ceremonial/descriptive music and it was also played for dancing. Shetland had some unique dances but though many of these have died out the tunes still remain.

Shetland players of the last century played with their fiddle on the upper arm rather than on the shoulder and under the chin. It has been suggested that this is the reason for many of the older tunes being in D and G as this position restricts the freedom of the left hand to reach the 4th finger and change position. Some of the old tunes were neither major nor minor but modal, as is also found in some Highland fiddlers’ pipe tunes and as is found in the traditions of Norway and Cape Breton. The tonalities of some Shetland tunes also differ from the normal in that a tune may change key dramatically within its parts. Most mainland tunes will stay in the same key. Shetland reels have similar endings to mainland hornpipes and imply syncopation frequently in the tunes.

Scordatura, drones, strong accents, particular bowing styles, playing in octaves all lead to stronger sound and this may be the reason for their use in Shetland music in the days before amplification, pianos and accordions.

The following characterstics of Shetland fiddle music can be noted:

  • use of ringing strings, octaves and other double stops
  • syncopated rhythms and strong accents
  • frequent use of cross bowings
  • scordatura tunings
  • changes of key within tunes
  • preservation of ritual and work tunes

Fiddle - Orkney Fiddle Style

There are still remnants in Orkney of an Orkney style of fiddle playing. These were kept alive by the playing of one or two fiddlers such as Ronnie Aim (1919-1982) and Hugh Inkster (1910-1988 ), another well known player. The features of the style, as far as can be ascertained, are a simple flowing bow style where the melody comes through very clearly and with a precise rhythm. The ornamentation is similar to that of the Highland fiddlers but the grace notes are played more slowly, adding to the melody line. Polkas are the most popular type of tune associated with the Orkney Islands today. Surprisingly, the style of fiddle playing does not seem to have been much affected by neighbouring Shetland till more recent times. In the immediate past the music was influenced by early recordings, the radio and any fiddlers who moved from the mainland with their mainland dance traditions. Tunes were also learnt from visiting dancing masters, bringing with them the new country dances, and from such visiting fiddlers as Scott Skinner who had a big influence on fiddle music throughout Scotland.

The main features of the Orkney style as we know it are:

  • very simple bowing without slurring for the most part.
  • powerful as well as delicate playing which sounds better unamplified.
  • little or no vibrato.
  • occasionally the use of a flattened 3rd and 7th when playing in A, D or G and a sharpened 4th and 8th note.
  • little ornamentation, but sometimes a grace note to the note above and back to the original note. (See mordents p.19.)
  • angle of fiddle held down with the palm near the fingerboard or supporting it so little use of positions.

Here as elsewhere in Scotland the main dances in the 19th century were reels. There were foursome, sixsome, eightsome and the eightsome (Axum) reel from North Ronaldsay as well as a reel for six known as “Hands Across” from the mainland district of Dounby. The foursome was identical with the Scotch foursome reel on the mainland. The sixsome and eightsome were peculiar to Orkney. The original tunes used in these dances seem now to have been forgotten, or it may be that they were the same as in other parts of Scotland. The repertoire used for the dances in the 21st century in Orkney is much the same as elsewhere.

Dances such as “Babbity Bouster” and “Hands Across” had their own tunes but no one so far has been able to confirm what they were. As early as the 1880’s the new country dances were being danced by the young people but the older people strongly opposed their introduction especially in the more remote regions. Itinerant dancing teachers from the mainland taught evening classes and the new dances soon spread to remoter areas without dancing teachers. As there were no halls, music was played for the dances in people’s homes and, as there was not much room, usually no more than six dancers at once could dance and the company took turns.

According to Traditional Dancing in Scotland by Flett and Flett in the past the fiddler marked the conclusion of the reel with a prolonged screetching by playing behind the bridge. This signalled the move by the male partner to grab his female partner and give her a kiss known as a “mooter” or payment for the priviledge of having the dance with her! Usually the lady rushed away, as to submit and enjoy was considered lacking in propriety. “Mooter” is derived from “multure”, the toll paid (in the form of a portion) to the miller for grinding the oatmeal. The practice of the “mooter” fell into disuse at the end of the 19th century but the fiddle screech when playing a foursome reel continued till the second world war.

Fiddle playing is popular in Orkney today and many new players are making a name for themselves and Orkney by touring extensively and writing popular new Orkney tunes and songs.

These notes on styles of fiddle playing in Scotland are taken from the book Traditional Scottish Fiddling published by Taigh na Teud. In the 144 page book there are tune examples of all the styles and a Cd of good Scottish fiddlers to illustrate the points.

Fiddle - West Coast Fiddle Style

Evidence shows that 300 years ago fiddling was popular throughout the Gaidhealtachd. An Clarsair Dall (The blind harper and poet) approved of it to accompany dancing and his own father, John Morrison of Bragar, was well known as a fiddler. By 1703 Martin Martin reported 18 fiddlers on Lewis.

The popularity of the fiddle declined with the disapproval by the church of dancing after the Reformation. The old Highland style was primarily an incitement to dance and this may have led to the destruction of instruments and their individual style. Then there was the Clearances when many people left taking their traditions away from Scotland.

Though fiddle playing has again a strong place in today’s Highland music scene the fiddle tradition did suffer a decline from around 1900 till the 1980s. The advent of popular music hall style of entertainment at the beginning of the 20th century and increasing numbers of young people leaving the area to find work contributed to this decline. Another reason for the decline of local traditions was the educational policy of taking young people away from the more remote areas and the islands to educate them in larger schools away from their home communities. There was also the influence of the radio and later television.

The original Highland dances were reels and the music played by the fiddlers mostly related to the dances performed. According to Flett and Flett in Traditional Dancing in Scotland the reel is the only traditional dance in Scotland and consisted of a strathspey running into a reel. In the Gaelic speaking areas the tunes used for dancing were greatly influenced by the Gaelic language and song.

There are not many early Highland collections of dance music to give an idea of how the music was played in the past. There is Captain Simon Fraser’s Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland (1816) which contains many tunes and songs he learnt from his parents and grandparents but also some of his own compositions and it is known that he “smoothed out” tunes and added ornamentation. It is an excellent collection in many ways but it cannot show us how the Highland style was played. Patrick MacDonald’s Collection of Vocal Airs (1781) contains interesting material, as does Daniel Dow’s collection, but as with Fraser’s book the style cannot be conveyed from the written music. The style could only be conveyed from those fiddlers who have “passed it on”. It was an aural tradition and as such it is now impossible to trace as most of the present tradition bearers have been influenced by recordings, TV and past performances of fiddlers such as Scott Skinner who travelled extensively in the Highlands.

Puirt a Beul (dance music sung in Gaelic see p. 75) is probably the closest link to a lost Highland style - that and the fiddle music of Cape Breton. By the time collectors were researching it was too late to identify with certainty distincive local styles of Highland music. Angus Grant is considered the foremost exponent and the main features of his playing are contained in the list below. It is possible, but unlikely, that his style may have been a recent development. Much of his repertoire is very ancient. Other leading exponents were the late Farquhar McRae and Pibroch MacKenzie. Ian Kennedy from Fort William is another well respected West Coast player. Many Cape Breton fiddlers believe that their style of playing represents the old Highland style.

Nowadays the Highland style is often thought of as bagpipe music on the fiddle, but this was not always so. The bagpipe influence is very strong in Highland fiddle playing, due to that instrument’s use in the army. It would appear that if ever there was a native style of fiddle playing in the Gaelic speaking areas of Scotland then it has largely been lost or superseded by the bagpipe influence.

The following characteristics of West Coast Highland fiddle music can be noted:

  • The playing is generally smoother and less accented than the playing of fiddlers from the North East.
  • The strathspeys are played with less double dotted spiky rhythm and many tunes relate to the rhythm of the language as sung in puirt a beul. - In airs and Gaelic song airs the timing is very free.
  • There is use of drones and ornamentation in imitation of the bagpipe and Gaelic singing. The grace notes are played fast and in a fiddle imitation of bagpipe grace notes. Many of the tunes use only the notes of the bagpipe scale. A type of tune commonly associated with the Highland style is the 2/4 pipe march.
  • There is slight stretching of the dotted quaver beat and cutting the semiquaver in the playing of 6/8 marches.
  • Jigs are often written with equal quavers when the playing style of them is dotted quaver / semiquaver / quaver giving them a good “lift”. - Playing with the middle of the bow using a separate bow for each note and use birls and triplets. Many fiddlers will begin the strong beat at the beginning of a bar on an up bow.
  • The structure of a strong beat meaning a down bow and a weak beat meaning an up bow is not significant for many Highland players. - Playing in octaves if there is more than one fiddler.
  • Highland fiddle tunes in major keys often have the flattened seventh note which is related to the bagpipe scale.

These notes on styles of fiddle playing in Scotland are taken from the book Traditional Scottish Fiddling published by Taigh na Teud. In the 144 page book there are tune examples of all the styles and a Cd of good Scottish fiddlers to illustrate the points.

Fiddle - East Coast Fiddle Style

This style of Scottish fiddle music owes much to classical music and tunes from this area tend to be more technically demanding compared with tunes found in other parts of the country.

The following characteristics of North East fiddling can be noted:

  • Staccato and other classical bowing techniques.
  • More difficult keys including many tunes in flat keys.
  • Chromatic passages.
  • More difficult double stops and even triple stops.
  • Higher position work, sometimes beyond third position.
  • Precision of rhythm and intonation.
  • Frequent use of unison notes.

Some of the bowing techniques and rhythms are specific to North East fiddle playing e.g. the up driven bow, and the use of classical ornaments such as turns and trills.

The first fiddlers were mentioned around the late 17th century and the Browns of Kincardine and Cummings of Freuchie were respected players and composers of fiddle music, especially strathspeys, in Aberdeenshire in the 18th century.

As with other areas of Scotland the North East would have had localised individual styles but these have now mostly been lost and the term North East Fiddle Style has come to mean the music in and around the east coast around Aberdeen and south almost to Perth. This area was greatly influenced by classical music and the best known fiddlers of the day received patronage from the aristocracy and landed gentry who could appreciate the classically related style. Some of Scotland’s best known fiddlers such as Niel Gow (1727-1807), Nathaniel Gow (1763-1831) and William Marshall (1748-1833) were considered great exponents and composers in the North East style. Other players, including those that take us to the present day, are the Hardie family, Scott Skinner (1843-1927), Hector MacAndrew (1903-1980), Bert Murray (b.1913), Paul Anderson, Douglas Lawrence and Jean - Ann Callender.

The classical influence in the North East fiddle tradition is seen not only in the way it is played but in the tunes and keys. There are lots of slow airs and strathspeys. Unlike the Highland tradition where many tunes were borrowed from the pipes the tunes from the N.E. were written by fiddlers for the fiddle by some of the fine exponents mentioned above.

The airs and strathspeys in particular were often demanding of good technique and used flat keys and position changes, double stopped chords and intricate bowing patterns.

William Marshall stated “that he did not write music for bunglers” indicating that the fiddle composers of the North East had a high expectation of the common standard of playing required for their tunes. Scott Skinner wrote tunes that today are considered virtuosic on the fiddle. The Mathematician from The Scottish Violinist is a good example, with its use of chromatic passages and high position work. The type of tune most commonly associated with the North East fiddle style is the strathspey and the secret of good strathspey playing lies in the bowing especially the up bow.

These notes on styles of fiddle playing in Scotland are taken from the book Traditional Scottish Fiddling published by Taigh na Teud. In the 144 page book there are tune examples of all the styles and a Cd of good Scottish fiddlers to illustrate the points.

Fiddle - Borders Fiddle Style

It is difficult to distinguish what makes Borders fiddle music different from other areas of Scotland. The fiddle playing there owes much to Niel Gow (see p. 112) and his family who performed and taught some of the local Borders teachers of the time. Also Scott Skinner, (see p. 114), early recordings, festivals and nearby Northumbrian music have all had their influence on present day Borders fiddling.

It is generally regarded that the main points are a fairly “heavy” style of double stopping or chording as used in tunes played by tradition bearer Tom Hughes and passed on to him from parents and grandparents. Two tune examples of his Borders style of playing are included in the next few pages.

One further feature is the inclination of Borders fiddlers to play in pairs or even trios as the norm. There are many well known pairs and trios past and present. It is possible this may have evolved, as in other parts of Scotland, from the need to produce more sound with the advent of village halls and bigger public gatherings where one fiddler alone did not suffice for dancing. Borders fiddlers are keen promoters and composers of airs and hornpipes.

The following characteristics of Borders fiddling can be noted:

  • fairly heavy style of double stopping or chording.
  • tendency of fiddlers to play in pairs or trios.
  • use of slur and snap bowing and singled bowed notes.
  • popularity of hornpipes and airs.

These notes on styles of fiddle playing in Scotland are taken from the book Traditional Scottish Fiddling published by Taigh na Teud. In the 144 page book there are tune examples of all the styles and a Cd of good Scottish fiddlers to illustrate the points.