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  • Writer's pictureDaithí and Adèle

Finding my Way to Fochabers


It was an early start! Dublin airport seemed particularly busy but I set about doing a little prep work. On the flight over I listened to Break It Up (2012) and Despite the Dark (2015) by Rura, whose fiddle player Jack Smedley is one of the organisers of the Fochabers Fiddle Week. I also read a little of Trish Winters and Simon Keegan-Phipps’ Performing Englishness (2013). The sounds and texts provided some context for understanding the other, albeit in conflict as Scottish and English. I read the newspaper on the bus from the airport to Glasgow; the news dominated by international conflict. Our Scottish research experiences occur between two Scottish independence referendums and during the Brexit process, factors that also inform Winter and Keegan-Phipps (pp. 105-109), even if they were only predicting some of the significant historical events that would take place in the wake of their publication (and from an English perspective). The focus for our fieldwork is on Scotland and, more specifically the North East fiddle tradition as can be experienced today in Fochabers, once the home of the great fiddle composer William Marshall (1748–1833). The support for Scottish Independence and membership of the EU from musicians and artists is something that we can consider another time.[1]

The National Piping Centre, Glasgow

I had some time in Glasgow. Travel allows for new perspectives to develop. Although I had been to Glasgow before, there was much for me to see. I stopped at bookshops to get a sense of what might be useful but resisted the urge to fill my rucksack. I walked around by the National Piping Centre. Adèle and I had taken a tour of the museum and performed in the venue upstairs in 2016 as part of the International Society for Music Education Conference. I had a quick look at the shop, having been impressed the last time I was here. I was again struck by the books of tunes for pipers by various composers, notably Gordon Duncan and Ross Ainslee, whose music I admire. I wonder are such tunes assimilated more quickly into the piping tradition here and Scottish traditional music more generally than newly composed tunes in Ireland, such as Adèle and I have recorded. In Fochabers the young musicians are more likely to learn recent compositions than tunes from the canon, such as those composed by Marshall (partly due to the technical complexity and key signatures of Marshall’s compositions).

My walk around Glasgow brought me to the Cathedral, where I had not previously been. Rather than the cathedral itself, I was drawn to the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. Providing a little insight into many religions, it reminded me of how much music is part of people’s lives and is incorporated into spiritual well-being and beliefs. Near the main desk was a stained glass window of King David playing the harp. In another room was a statue of Shiva as Nataraja or Lord of the Dance. Nearby was a young Krishna playing the flute while, in a corner, an audio-visual display provided a soundscape for the room that transitioned from Anglican Evensong to Native American drums to Eastern Chant. A sign on the wall stated that music is the speech of Angels – who am I to disagree. Previous conversations with James Alexander and interviews provided by contributors to The Road to Speyfest, noted the power of music to bring people together and the integral role of music in their lives regardless of nationality, religion or age.

Glasgow Cathedral

Back on the bus, I listened again to Rura and Session A9’s albums Bottlenecks and Arm Breakers (2009) and Live from Celtic Connections (2013), another band involving a tutor from the Fochabers Fiddle Week, fiddler and composer Adam Sutherland. Progressing to Atlas (2016) by Fat Suit and Lay Your Dark Low (2013) by Salt House, I found a strong contemporary sound to many of the recordings but, as Winter and Keegan Phipps point out in relation to English artists, these groups may ‘eschew an fusion based labelling of their work’ (2013, p. 43). They are recognisably of a tradition and my fieldtrip and continued listening to both recorded and live music will inform me further of the complexities of this tradition. As the bus ambled through the countryside, the soundscape facilitated by my phone changed with the scenery. Somewhat fittingly, as I travelled the coast road into Aberdeen, I listened to The Great Scottish Latin Adventure (2000) by Salsa Celtica as I gazed out at the beautiful blue sea. After a brief stop, time for change again. Heading north, the geography of William Marshall’s world as marked out in his tune titles becomes clear – The Marchioness Of Huntly's Jig, The Marquis Of Huntly's Favorite, Miss G. Gordon – Banff, Miss Ross’ Strathspey – Elgin, Miss Gordon of Bellie, Gordon Castle.

In Fochabers, the overlaps between the professional and grass roots musical worlds is readily evident. For Mhairi Marwick and James Smedley, this is where they grew up under the fiddle tutelage of James Alexander. At the B&B, Janet put on a Chris Drever CD while I ate my dinner and told stories about him staying with her and some of his performances that she attended. I am looking forward to more stories of Speyfest and other musical activities locally and considering some of the elements of the folk industry that might be evident as I seek to understand the local musical heritage.

Home of Speyfest

[1] These are exemplified by the ‘Say Yes in a Night for Scotland’ concert and the ‘Songs for Scotland’ series of albums.

References: Trish Winter, and Keegan-Phipps Simon. Performing Englishness: Identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence. Oxford University Press, 2015.

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