Calum MacKinnon is a terrific Scottish fiddler. He worked many years for Boeing as an aerospace engineer. As fiddler Frank Ferrell put it, “when he retired he gave up Boeing for bowing.” A charming man with the most beautiful Scottish brogue, I caught up with him at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, last summer.
I began by asking Calum a little about the history of Scottish music.
What’s the earliest stuff we know about?
The earliest stuff we know dates back to the early 1600s. There were a few manuscripts of tunes, and they weren’t actually written for fiddle in those days, they were written for the lute. It’s got the same tuning and the same fingering as fiddles and mandolins, so it was easy to transpose from lute to fiddle. But the real fiddle itself, the fithel, as it was called, was a two-stringed instrument. It was supposedly brought back from the first Crusade by the Crusaders who went from Scotland. It was by all accounts a wretched little instrument that was never in tune, and it sounded awful.
It was replaced in the 16th century with viols when the King of Scotland got a consort of viols shipped out to him, and they were played for a while, but the people called them by the old name. Then when the viols were replaced by violins in the 17th century, they continued to keep the old name, modified a bit from fithel to fiddle.
The tunes themselves go back several hundred years. There’s a small handful that supposedly go back to the 14th century. Of course they were never written down for hundreds of years, but were passed on orally. Then finally they were written down in the 16th and 17th centuries.
In the 18th century the local traditional fiddlers were pretty much taken over by the Intelligentsia of Edinburgh, and all the old fiddle tunes were rearranged in the Baroque style. They were rearranged with continuo, for harpsichord and cello, and with figured bass. There were elaborate counter-melodies written in some cases for the harpsichord and for the cello. Actually Joseph Haydn was commissioned to arrange almost 400 Scottish songs, and Beethoven did 150, and there was some local talent who did a lot of that as well, the local Scots. So there’s a whole Scottish Baroque 18th-century period, which I love, and play.
So by that point we at least have the dots.
Yes, it’s all written down. There was a tremendous blossoming of music books starting in the 18th century. The first real fiddle music was published in 1700, but then from 1750 to 1850 there were dozens of books published. It became very popular. Many of the tunes were arranged so that they could also be played by the German flute, a wooden flute. It was capable of going down to the low G on the fiddle.
Then Niel Gow, the most famous Scottish fiddler of all, came along in the middle of the 18th century. He was a great fiddler with a great style and had a brother who played the cello with him at dances. Niel’s son Nathaniel became a prolific composer and a great publisher of fiddle music.
In the 1800s James Scott-Skinner came along. He was a concert violinist as well as a fiddler and a dance teacher and started off as a little boy in a kids’ musical group. He became very famous as a performer and also wrote over 600 tunes, many of them the best tunes in the repertoire. Most of his works were written with piano accompaniment, and from then on, there has been a progression of performers who have kept his musical tradition alive. There are players today who sound just like Scott Skinner did, and many are successful fiddle competition winners.
The history goes way back, but let’s talk a little about your family history.
My parents came from a little island called Tiree in the Hebrides. They both came from Gaelic-speaking families, and Gaelic was their first language. By the time I came along, they had moved to Glasgow, so I grew up in Glasgow, although I spent the five years of World War II up in the islands away from the bombing. All the kids were evacuated from the cities. In my early years I had more Gaelic than I had English and I had to learn English when I came to Glasgow.
When I was age eight the headmaster in our primary school started violin lessons on Saturday mornings, so my mother signed me up. At the same time, the old man next door was a traditional fiddler who played his fiddle down in the crook of his arm. He claimed to have been taught by Scott Skinner, but he had a twinkle in his eye when he said it, so I’m not sure that it was true. He taught me the fiddle music, and with my Highland parents, they were much more interested in fiddle than they were in the classical violin. I was extremely fortunate, in that I got both of them at the same time. I got the good technique from my violin teacher and the Scottish style from old Willie Kemp. My violin teacher organized a summer camp for us and so I attended my first one at age eight…that would have been in 1947.
What was that like?
It was great. It was the headmaster and some of his teachers who were the staff at camp. We were all little nippers –– we were all primary school kids, about thirty of us, boys and girls. We were watched pretty closely, and we lived in a school house building in another part of the country. We spent a couple of weeks down there learning to play as an orchestra, and then did a concert at the local community hall.
Was it classical music?
No, it was classically-based arrangements that we did, but they were based on Scottish tunes. Some of the very first tunes I learned were reels and strathspeys and jigs and slow airs. I got all of that stuff even from the classical man. We were also doing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and La Paloma and stuff like that, but there was a fair mixing of the Scottish stuff thrown in at the time.
So fill me in. When did you leave Scotland?
I went to high school and university in Scotland. I left school early and went to join Rolls Royce. I got a five-year apprenticeship at Rolls Royce and became an engineer. They sent me to college so I finished up with an engineering degree as well. Then, when I was about twenty-seven years old, I came over here. It was only originally for a two-year trip, just to see what it was like. That’s why I went to Phoenix. I was attracted by the palm trees and the swimming pools and the sun. Sun! But it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. After a year and a half in Phoenix I still wasn’t ready to go home but I wanted to live someplace that looked more like Scotland, so here was Seattle and Puget Sound and a job with the Boeing Company, so I came up here in 1967 and I’ve been here ever since.
So what are your future plans?
Well, I’m spending more time at home just now. If I’m wanted for a dance on the East Coast, it’s a day traveling to get there and there’s another day traveling back home for three hours of pleasure, so I’ve been a little more selective on the gigs that I take on. I really enjoy teaching. I love being invited back to Swannanoa. I’ll go back there any time they ask me. I teach a lot at home and play for a lot of dances and the odd concert.
There are lots of Scottish fiddle competitions around the country, and I’m a judge for these competitions. I’ve been a judge at the US National Scottish Fiddling competition five or six times now and have coached a few National champions. That’s where I met some of my heroes, like Arthur Scott Robertson.
We have a Northwest Scottish Fiddlers’ organization here in Seattle that I started up. Many but not all of them of them are students. We have a nice little teen band with eight or so teenagers that we give separate sets to do, and we perform at places like the Northwest Folklife Festival. A week after Folklife we got an invitation to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. Of course that’s out of the question, to fly to Edinburgh, but it was a feather in our hats to be considered.
Well, that’s terrific. You’re a success story. You play the music you love, and it sounds like you’re doing the right thing, getting it on to the next generation.
I just love teaching. You know what it’s like. It’s so satisfying to teach, especially the young ones, and watch them grow. I did a big dance weekend last fall here at Fort Worden. Muriel Johnstone and Keith Smith, a great fiddler, and I were all here and a week later we did a concert in Seattle while they were in town. We got my premier student Christina Smith…involved in the concert too…she’s sixteen years old, an absolutely gorgeous player, and as I was sitting in the audience, listening to her play, the thing that struck me was not that she reminded me of my playing — she reminded me of Arthur Scott Robertson’s playing, who was one of my mentors, and I thought I must have done something right here because I’ve transferred it straight from Arthur to this young woman here, who’s then going to transfer it on to somebody else when she gets older. And that’s very satisfying.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Calum’s tune “Springtime Waltz,” purchase the winter 2010/11 issue!]
For more information, please visit www.calummackinnon.com
[Fiddler Magazine’s Review Editor, Paul Anastasio is a former student of Joe Venuti and a veteran of the bands of Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, and Loretta Lynn. For information on opportunities to study with Paul, and his “Swing Cat” recording company and “The Impressionist” chin rest, see his ad on page 44 or visit his website at www.SwingCatEnterprises.com.]