The Winter 2012/13 issue featured the first installment of our chat with Pete Clark at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. Pete and dancer Theresa MacVarish discussed the history of fiddle and dance in Edinburgh and the Highlands, from the very early days up to the 18th century of Niel Gow, Robert Mackintosh, and Robert Burns. In Part Two, our topics include accompaniment instruments, James Scott Skinner, the origins of some popular tunes, and the future of the music. Finishing up our tour of Scotland, we thank Pete, Theresa, and all the others who have shared their music and stories along the way!
The band you had yesterday was two fiddles, cello, piano. One of Niel Gow’s accompanists was a cello, right?
That’s right, his brother Donald. Played the “bass fiddle,” as they called it.
Do we know much about how the cello was used in the bands at that time?
The most detailed information you’d get is by looking at the Gow collections which were published, as in Mackintosh, with a bass line. And usually at the start it would say in brackets, “with bass line for violoncello or harpsichord.” And I think these bass lines were probably an indication of how the cello would have been played for the tunes. Often, they’re very simple in form and rhythmic, rather than harmonic. Basically the cello is there to punch out the accent for the dancers, much as the bass guitar does in modern pop and rock music.
Would it have been bowed or plucked?
We’re not certain but if you look at that old famous picture of a Highland wedding where you’ve got, I’m pretty sure, Niel Gow and Donald playing for a dance, I think in that picture Donald is bowing the cello. But again, it would be up to the musical choice of the players.
When did the cello phase out of use? It isn’t something that I had seen a lot of in past years.
No, when I was young you didn’t really think much of cellos playing with fiddles. But it could be down to practicality. The cello is not the handiest of instruments to transport. As the piano became more and more available, then there was no need to take a cellist. Take someone who could play a bass line on the piano and there you go! But then the other big evolutionary step in our traditional music came in the 20th century when the accordion started to gain prominence. The accordion essentially is a one-man band. A loud one-man band. So suddenly dance groups and dance societies thought, “Well, we can use this newfangled instrument instead of our usual fiddlers. Everyone can hear it and there’s a bass line and a melody line all from this one instrument. “So the accordion I suppose at one time posed a threat to the fiddle. Nowadays, of course, it’s played in conjunction with fiddles and with modern amplification, it’s quite possible for a fiddle to be as loud as an accordion.
Between Niel Gow and now, in the middle there was Scott Skinner. What was his effect on Scottish music?
Skinner was around in Victorian times. He took on board the whole Victorian Scottish image, all the tartan and the extravagant clothing. The style of fiddle that he played and composed was extravagant as well. He was very prolific as a composer and wrote over five hundred, maybe six hundred tunes. And a lot of those are technically demanding and maybe a bit flamboyant but nevertheless distinctly Scottish. He also wrote some lovely, very simple tunes which I tend to prefer. Tunes like Hector the Hero or Cradle Song. But he was the megastar of his day, very opinionated. He was a showman. He’s credited with the quote, “Talent does what it can. Genius does what it must.” It’s a bit like William Marshall a century before Skinner. When asked why he wrote so many tunes in the flat keys, William Marshall is alleged to have replied, “Well, I don’t write for bunglers.” So there’s a danger for some of these fiddle players to get full of themselves. But Skinner was a showman and left a great legacy in the Scottish fiddle repertoire, in what is generally termed as “the northeast style.” Skinner was a trained musician and played classical as well as traditional, so no doubt he had a good technique. You might say he was part of the foundation of the northeast fiddle style. One of his mentors was Peter Milne of Tarland and he was a very respected fiddler in his own right. That style is quite distinct and different from the west Highland fiddle style and very different from the Shetland fiddle style. But before there was mass transport and broadcasting and all the rest of it, these styles did evolve very much on their own in their own little part of the country. Today you still get fiddle players who will say that that is the way fiddle should be played and the other styles are all inferior. It is not a philosophy to which I subscribe. I don’t like this concept of “better than.” I think they are all valid styles and all have evolved to suit that particular idiom or style of music, but there is no one style which is right or wrong or better than the other.
Were Skinner’s tunes meant for dancing?
Some are very dancey. His reels in particular work well for dancing although sometimes there are a few too many notes. He isn’t renowned for having composed many jigs, but he did write two or three very nice jigs. And his strathspeys are lovely for the country dance style of strathspey dancing. I suspect most of his repertoire was performance repertoire. His slow airs and laments are particularly beautiful.
Did the slow airs and laments come from a singing tradition?
Yeah, many of the slow tunes came from a singing tradition. And a piping tradition. The name lament suggests the reason for the tune, just to mark the passing of a friend or a respected person in the community. So there is a tradition of laments in Scotland. It was Niel Gow’s lament for his second wife that first got me interested in Niel Gow. It is such a beautiful tune. Any time I came across the name Niel Gow in a tune book, I’d check the tune out.
Were they associated with lyrics originally, or was it a way for a fiddler to do what a singer does but without actual words?
It was conveying emotion and sentiment without lyrics. Although in the west Highlands, you’d get laments that had their origins in the singing tradition. And they’d be sung. But laments like Niel Gow’s lament for his second wife or for his brother Donald or Skinner’s beautiful lament, Hector the Hero, they were written as tunes per se. Lyrics were only added maybe as an afterthought. But I really think lyrics for tunes like that are superfluous. I think the tune says it all.
Are there any tunes in Playford’s or other very early manuscripts which are Scottish tunes played today?
If you look at some of the oldest known tunes, like Tullochgorum, it’s one of the oldest tunes in the Scottish repertoire. It’s probably pre-1700. I’m pretty sure that Tullochgorum would have originally have been played on the pipes. And the very name “strathspey reel,” which is how strathspeys were referred to, implies quite a brisk feel. I think tempo-wise, if people are unsure of tempo, I often say, “Well, how fast can you hop?” Because there’s really only one speed you can hop at. That is a good guide as to tempo, you know? Because we don’t have any recordings from 1700, we can’t really be sure what music was like then.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Pete Clark’s transcription of “Arthur’s Seat,” purchase the Spring 2013 issue. Part One of this interview appeared in the Winter 2012/13 issue.]
[For more information on Pete, his recordings, performances, and his Dunkeld Bridge Fiddle Weeks, visit www.pete-clark.com.]
[Peter Anick, amateur archaeologist, unaccidental tourist, and author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” teaches fiddle and mandolin and performs with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]
Photo: Steve Niblock