Hailing from Lerwick, Shetland, Catriona MacDonald studied with one of the true masters of Shetland fiddling, Tom Anderson. Soon after she started to play, Catriona began to make a name for herself as one of the great fiddlers of the young generation. She won the title of Young Fiddler of the Year in the annual Shetland Folk Society competition in 1983, and in 1991, won BBC Radio's prestigious Young Tradition Award. Not content to let any of life's many possibilities pass her by, Catriona went on to study opera at the Royal College of Music. She has since returned to her first love, the fiddle, however, and now performs solo, with accordionist Ian Lowthian, and with Norwegian fiddle and Hardanger player AnnbjÀrg Lien. A performance by Catriona MacDonald is a delightful mix of exciting music and amusing stories. It was after one such show during a California jaunt in September 1996, that this interview took place.
How did you get started playing the fiddle?
I was eleven years old when I started to play the fiddle, which was quite late for a fiddle player. I started playing when I was nine -- for a year I studied classical music, and got really, really bored with it quickly. I seemed to get to the end of a tutor, and I was playing "Cock of the North," which is one of the easiest Scottish tunes you can play. I gave it up, put it away, and suddenly when I was eleven, I made a decision which was completely against my normal self, and I went along with a friend of mine, who said she was going to go take fiddle lessons with Tom Anderson. I said, "Oh, can I come?" I hadn't played for like a year. And when I went there I just got totally hooked by it. At the time, it was really good for me because Tom put a lot into his pupils, and spent a lot of time with this new group called Shetland's Young Heritage, which was twenty fiddle players in a band, all playing together, which he was starting to develop from his students that he'd been teaching since the late '70s. So I went in 1981, and I started getting a weekly lesson in school -- it's the only place in the whole of Scotland that has fiddle tuition that you can get for free at school. So instead of taking piano or flute, you can get Shetland fiddle lessons. So that was the way I got started.
So you didn't hear too many fiddlers before that, growing up?
Never. I hardly heard any. The only person I ever saw was on the television -- Aly Bain. I didn't really have any connection with it, because my family are not -- haven't been up until now -- musical. But obviously once I got into that circle, then I was hearing a lot of it.
What about your other influences?
When I was growing up, instead of doing the normal teenage thing like going out to discos the whole time, I just got really into playing the fiddle. That's all I did, all the time. My teacher was so, so good. Quite often, we'd go around and do some playing at his house or whatever, and he had an amazing record collection. He was really into collecting all different types of music. We'd have "listen nights," when he'd say, "All right, we're going to listen to ten different things," and it would be everything from classical music, some American music, Scandinavian music, old fiddlers from home, so it was constantly listening to lots and lots of different things. But when I was being taught by him, it was the old traditional Shetland stuff that he was really, really into. I mean he'd been quite into lots of different types of music throughout his life, but by the time I met him, he was in his seventies, and he tuned in very much into the old traditional style -- traditional as in not the style after the '30s. Not anything that's been influenced by Scottish dance music or anything like that. So it was really eclectic -- the music I was listening to -- but the music I was playing was purely traditional in my teenage years.
When did you get into Norwegian music, and the Hardanger fiddle?
I've always liked it, because Tommy [pronounced "Tammie"] started to get into it, and I've always been told how close it is to Shetland music, the old type stuff, but when my teacher died in 1991, he left me his Hardanger fiddle that he'd got from Knut Buen, who I'd met when I was about twelve, and I could just remember him as this player. I was told by Tommy, "Look, I'm going to give you this fiddle, but on the premise that you will go away to Norway and study it." So I wrote a letter to Knut, saying what Tommy said, and that I would like to go for some lessons. And that's why he let me come, because he'd given this fiddle to Tom. So I went there, and he just totally took me in, and we started doing loads and loads of tunes. I've been over again and again, and now I'm playing with a girl called AnnbjÀrg Lien, who's kind of my equivalent in Norway, you know, kind of a younger player. We have a duo playing, and it's amazing, all the time, it never surprises me, the connection between the language, and just how I can play the tunes that she plays really easily, and she can play Shetland tunes that a Scottish player will have a lot of difficulty trying to play. When she and I get together, I just can't describe how close it is -- perhaps more close than me playing with somebody like, I don't know, Natalie MacMaster, or one of the younger Scottish-based players, you know?
[This article is from the (out of print) Fall 1997 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]