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A Highland Gentleman: Farquhar MacRae, the Roshven Fiddler
Shona McMillan
2008-03-01
Google “Farquhar MacRae” and little information will be found pertaining to this fiddle and box player from Roshven. Yet, in 2000, his funeral at Glenfinnan was one of the biggest ever seen as hundreds of people traveled from all over the Scottish Highlands and Islands to pay their respects to this most remarkable man. As a musician, he was not recognized as a prolific writer of tunes or as a formal teacher of students. Nevertheless, in Scotland’s traditional music scene, his name is synonymous with Highland music at its best. So, for this kindly, generous, fondly remembered man, it is fitting that his legacy is not to be found in the factual, emotionless listings of the Internet but rather in the living musical legacy which he gave so freely to others. From village hall dances to the largest of traditional music concerts around the world, the love and passion for music which he knew and instilled in the young is itself now being passed on for the benefit of subsequent generations. Many of today’s internationally acclaimed West Highland musicians recognize his influence in their most formative of musical years.

Iain MacDonald of Roshven Records relates, “Growing up in Glenuig, I knew Farquhar since childhood. He had a significant influence on my musical upbringing and was the first person I ever played with professionally… A quiet, gentle, self-effacing man, he would be surprised at the huge influence he has had on so many and the high regard in which he is still held today! He was a consummate musician and a consummate gentleman.”

As a boy who taught himself to play by ear in a remote part of the Highlands, Farquhar grew up to become a man internationally respected for his music. So, how does his story begin?

Not long after the turn of the last century, the MacRaes –– Duncan MacRae from Faddoch, near Dornie in Kintail and his wife Mary, a game keeper’s daughter, from Crianlarich –– moved to Roshven. Working in farming they set up home in Moidart and raised five children: Donald, Dougie, Katie, Farquhar, and Peggy.

Born in 1925, Farquhar’s early life was very different from life in Roshven today. Recalling this time, his sister Peggy MacRae, just a few years younger, speaks of their life in “another world.” “There was no electricity, no hot or cold running water, and to get to nearby villages, we had to walk four miles over the hills to Glenuig or take a boat for six miles to Lochailort. Not until 1967 did the road open.”

Peggy recalls three or four scattered houses in Roshven, all occupied by people working the land. However, such a physically demanding lifestyle also had benefits. Living off the land gave people the deepest appreciation of their environment, its changing weather and seasons. Socially, there was a tremendous sense of community. When work was done, people enjoyed their time free from cell phones, email, Internet, and TV. For Farquhar, his time was all about the potential for music –– to hear new tunes, and to learn and develop these into sets to play with others. Peggy remembers him as a young child, playing a small two-row piano accordion. There was music in the family on their mother’s side and a cousin in Inverness, Dougie MacDougal, was a particularly good box player. Yet from Roshven, Inverness was the other side of Scotland. Peggy suggests it is likely that the initial musical interest sparked in her brothers was from a local musical family, the MacKenzies.

As the siblings grew, so too did their appetite for playing, and from this the Roshven Ceilidh Band was born. Considering the geographical challenge of their starting point, their motivation was impressive. To go to dances they had to walk for miles over the hills and, after playing, return again on foot. At local halls, the drums would be already set up for Peggy. Farquhar, with equal ability on accordion and fiddle, would play the button box while his brothers played the fiddle. Peggy and the three boys, with their musical instruments strapped to their backs, would hike back and forth to the different venues. In time, Farquhar also picked up the pipes and could “knock out a tune” on the piano. Music from such a talented family made for an entertaining if unpredictable event. Crossing the hills in rain, sleet, snow, and gales would play havoc with their time-keeping but dancers would patiently await their arrival. If a late start happened it was only likely to result in a later finish, perhaps at three or even four o’clock in the morning.

As another young person growing up in Moidart, Fergie MacDonald would enthusiastically attend these dances. Today, he recounts many humorous stories from this time. In one, Fergie remembers watching the MacRaes leading a hall packed with dancers as water dripped around the musicians’ feet, their clothes soaked by an earlier downpour.

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For the full text of this article, as well as the tunes “The Roshven Fiddler” by Fergie MacDonald and “Farquhar and Hettie’s Waltz” by Farquhar MacRae, purchase the Spring 2008 issue of Fiddler Magazine!

[The author wishes to thank Hettie MacRae and Peggy MacRae, Iain MacDonald, Fergie MacDonald, Angus Grant, Iain MacFarlane, Allan Henderson, Iain MacMaster, Murdo Morrison of Radio Mod, Roy Carbarns, Stan Reeves, and from the School of Scottish Studies, Cathlin Macaulay, Caroline Milligan, and Andrew Wiseman.]

[The photograph accompanying this article is copyright of Harriet (Hettie) MacRae and should not be reproduced in any form without her written permission.]

[Shona McMillan is a fiddle-playing photo journalist and artist living in Edinburgh. Shona learned to play the fiddle by ear with Edinburgh’s Shetland Fiddlers Association and players such as Aly Bain before receiving a scholarship from Alasdair Fraser to learn in America with Willie Hunter from Shetland and Buddy MacMaster from Cape Breton. In Canada she guested with the Waterboys before journeying to Ireland with Martin Hayes and continuing to learn from players John Sheahan of the Dubliners, Steve Wickham of the Waterboys and Gerry O’Connor of La Lugh. Shona can be reached at shonamcmillan@yahoo.com. For more information, please see her myspace page atwww.myspace.com/delfiniproductions.]