A Grand Tour of Scottish Fiddling, Part 5: At the Edinburgh Fringe with Pete Clark
In the final leg of our tour of Scottish fiddling, we weave our way south through the eastern Highlands. It is a landscape dotted with the remains of recumbent stone circles, undeciphered Pictish symbol stones, and rugged hilltop castles. Crossing the River Forth, we reach the medieval old town of Stirling, whose dramatic castle witnessed the advance of many invading forces. In the mid 16th century, King James V and his French wife, keen to show their worldly sophistication, brought European architecture, music, and dance to the castle grounds. Continuing south, we arrive at our final destination, Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. It is August and the largest arts festival in the world, the “Edinburgh Festival Fringe,” is in full swing. After enjoying the banter of some of the many street performers, we head over to the Academy for a performance of Scottish dance, music, and song presented by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. The society was formed back in 1923 to preserve traditional Scottish country dance at a time when foreign dance fads such as the continental waltz and American foxtrot were taking over the dance floor.
The orchestra, led by fiddler Pete Clark, consists of two violins, a cello, and piano. It deftly alternates between jigs, strathspeys, and reels while the dancers render balletic interpretations of dances collected from centuries-old manuscripts, many reminiscent of American contra dancing. To wrap up our Scottish tour, we sit down with Pete and dancer Theresa MacVarish to discuss the history of fiddle music from this area.
Pete: We’re in Edinburgh but Niel Gow and his family all had their roots in Perthshire, not far from where I live. Niel Gow stayed for most of his life in Inver, near Dunkeld, but his sons traveled a bit and ended up, as most musicians did in those days, in Edinburgh. His most famous son was Nathaniel, who at the age of twenty-five set up a base in Edinburgh. That’s where he set up his publishing business, his teaching, and his playing. At the same time, one of the other big names, Robert Mackintosh, from the same neck of the woods, Tulliemet, moved down to Edinburgh, and set up here as a teacher and as a performer. In fact, it’s said that Robert Mackintosh gave some tuition [lessons] to Nathaniel Gow. Both of them were part of the Edinburgh society of musicians, a group that was originally led by Alexander McGlashen, another famous name from Edinburgh. So Edinburgh really was a place where all the musicians of the day converged, and not just from Scotland. There was a period of influence from Europe at the end of the 18th century, early 19th century, I guess….
One of the interesting things about Robert Mackintosh’s collection is the first section is almost entirely minuets and gavottes, very classical dances which hark back to that European influence in Edinburgh in the late 18th century. Part of the reason for Scottish composers such as Mackintosh to compose tunes in that style was to try and put Scotland on the European map. After [the Battle of] Culloden in 1746, Scotland was very much under the thumb and suppressed, and there were some musicians who felt that maybe one way of elevating its status in the eyes of Europe as an individual country rather than a part of north Britain, as it was referred to after 1746, they thought that, “We can write music like this as well. We can write music that would suit minuets being danced in France or Italy at the time.” So you’ve got that interest before. In the early 19th century, the dance trend here really swung heavily in favor of strathspeys, jigs, and reels, much more national in character.
Were the jigs and reels thought of more as folk dances or did they also have a European classical origin?
Your’re the dancer, Theresa…
Theresa: I think they started off here rather than being from Europe. The reel was kind of the first national rhythm that the dances were danced to.
Pete: Interestingly, if you look through tune titles, most of our music is dance-based. It evolved along with the dancing. If you look at titles, you might see so-and-so’s reel and you might look up the tune and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not a reel. That’s 6/8 time—that’s a jig.” But the title always refers to the dance. Similarly, you’ll see in the collections of Mackintosh and the Gows, you’ll see tunes entitled so-and-so’s hornpipe. And you’ll look at the tune and it wouldn’t look like our thinking of a hornpipe today. So the word hornpipe in the title would refer to the dance type again, rather than the tune type.
The modern violin itself was developed in Italy and must have migrated up, replacing the earlier fidil or even the pipes.
Yeah. People have often asked me why has fiddling become a tradition in Scotland and although I don’t really know the answer, I think a few things that probably led to its prominence are that it’s quite a portable instrument; it’s not overly loud, so it can be played without discomfort to the listener in a relatively small space; and also, harking back to the 1745 uprising and then Culloden in 1746, I think at that time things overtly Scottish might have been frowned upon. In fact, I’m sure they were. Such as tartan, the playing of the pipes, and all the rest of it. So it might well be that some canny musicians thought, well, we’re not allowed to play our music on the pipes but we could just play on the fiddle. That certainly might have played a part in its prominence.
But there was still a European influence before that. King James V was marrying French wives and they were importing a lot of French culture. So that must have made it up into the Highlands as well, right?
Yeah, French and Italian music has always had its influence. And I know from reading about Niel Gow, it is said one of his favorite composers was [Arcangelo] Corelli. Which is the thing I’ve always tried to put across in my teaching. I’m very in favor of people having an open mind and open ears.
Might that have come later with Niel Gow? Would he have started out in more of a folk tradition before he got into the more aristocratic circles?
Maybe, but if you think about his location, he lived in Inver, a little village across the River Tay from Dunkeld. Now at the time, Inver had an important inn. The building is still there but it’s now a private flat. It was an important place, although tiny, because travelers heading up and down the Tay Valley, they might have to stop there if the ferry wasn’t running. There was no bridge at the time, so it was an important stopping off place. And not far north, twenty miles north of Dunkeld is Blair Castle, in Blair Athol, where lived the Duke of Athol and Duchess Athol, who were patrons of Gow. So there would have been various sorts of people traveling north and south and perhaps stopping at the inn. And I wouldn’t be surprised if in the early years of Niel Gow there may have been musicians en route to or from the castle. They might have stopped by, sat in the bar, had a drink or two and maybe played some music. In those days, you couldn’t just turn on the radio or stick in a CD but if you lived close to a place like that and someone of significance was there, be it a musician or whatever, I’m sure little boys would hang about and listen in through the window. So I’m sure that Niel Gow actually heard some violinists playing in the inn.
In those days, living in the country in particular, if there was anyone playing anything, that would be taught to whoever was interested. In those days there was significant geographical isolation. That’s how regional styles would evolve. Whereas today you can listen to any style from anywhere on the planet at the flick of a switch, in those days you were limited to what was in your particular area. So you’d get little pockets of musical evolution happening throughout the country. And it was only when you’d get down to melting pots like Edinburgh that all these styles would find a meeting place and start to maybe fuse and merge and milk ideas from each other.
[For the full text of this lengthy interview, as well as Pete’s transcription of the tune “Tam the Bam,” purchase the Winter 2012/13 issue. Part Two will appear in the Spring 2013 issue.]
[For more information on Pete Clark, including his recordings, touring schedule, and his "Dunkeld Bridge Fiddle Weeks" (May 13-17 & September 9-13, 2013), 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: Peter Anick