Crafting Fiddles and Tunes in Fochabers
After another 'set you up for the day' breakfast from Janet, I got to the Fochabers Public Institute good and early and felt included as the tutors prepared for the day, deciding on the format of the classes and also the sets that they would play together for tonight’s concert. Mhairi Marwick welcomed me into her workshop first that morning. We learned the reel ‘The Dashing White Eejit’ and a strathspey ‘Lime Hill’ by ear. Unfamiliar with the first tune, a composition by Alan Henderson following an accident at a wedding involving his sister Ingrid, I remembered the second from the UCC group Fiddlesticks which was led by Liz Doherty while I was a student there, although I wasn’t part of the ensemble. A Cape Breton tune by composer Dan R. MacDonald, its presence in the repertoire of young Scottish fiddlers reflects the popularity of Cape Breton music in Scotland from the late 1990s. My familiarity is borne out of Doherty’s research on Cape Breton fiddle music around the same period.
After the break, Jack Smedley challenged the group with a 7/8 piece ‘Luke Skywalker Walks on Sunshine’ by David Stone. Somebody asked ‘Is this Scottish?’ and Jack told them a little about the group Ímar. Including Jack’s Rura colleague Adam Browne, Ímar is an exciting lineup with musicians from Ireland (Ryan Murphy), the Isle of Man (Tomás Callister, Adam Rhodes) and Scotland (Mohsen Amini). The band's website notes ‘It’s this combined commonality and diversity of background and influences that fuels Ímar’s unmistakable synergy, centered on the overlapping cultural heritage between Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. All three places once shared the same Gaelic language – the name Ímar comes from a 9th-century king who reigned across this combined territory – and a similar kinship endures between their musical traditions.’ After lunch, Adam Sutherland revised the John Sommerville composition ‘Angie Forregen of Abriachan’ and his self-confessed cheesy comments successfully inspired the students to the think about colour and dynamics in their arrangement.
Over lunch I had the opportunity to interview Charlie Armour, the man who made the fiddle I was using for my fieldtrip. At 83 years of age, the former joiner is still keenly interested in music, although he doesn’t play as much now. From Forres, it was his father who brought home a fiddle and organised for young Charlie to learn from Kim Murray who taught a number of other well-known fiddlers in the area, as well as Prince Charles. He played in a band for a time and in 1953 formed a dance band The Armour Brothers with his brother, accordion and piano player Ian. It was a five or six piece band with fiddle, two accordions, piano, bass and drums. They would travel distances of up to eighty miles to play for dances. Charlie was also an entertainer on cruise ships for a time. His party piece was ‘The Hens March Over the Mountain’, which he performed while dropping eggs from under his kilt in time with the music!
Charlie began making fiddles on his retirement twenty-seven years ago. Having been a joiner by trade, he was used to working with wood and enjoys picking the wood and working it through to hear it played. I was playing a Lira shaped fiddle, inspired by a visit by Glynne Adams, a viola player and former leader of the London Symphony Orchestra who was a friend of James Alexander. Charlie's fiddles are well-regarded by local musicians and are played by a number of the Fochabers Fiddlers. He made twelve fiddles from a Sycamore tree that was cut down in the middle of the village. Two were given to the Fochabers Fiddlers to be awarded to the outstanding young musicians progressing through the ranks. Mhairi Marwick was once one of the recipients and she later bought one of Charlie's fiddles made from the same tree. Charlie takes great pride in hearing his fiddles played and in 2009 was at a performance involving fourteen of his violins played at the Royal Albert Hall.
Charlie notices a difference in the repertoire and style of the musicians now. The dance bands, which are still popular, played much more strictly in tempo for the specialised ‘posh’ dances in the halls. He considers the new music as ‘more Celtic’. He references Jimmy Shand, Bobby McCloud, Aengus Fitch amongst the good dance bands. Today the fiddle and accordion clubs, including the Forres Accordion and Fiddle Club, keep this music alive.
In the afternoon I set off with a new playlist for the Winding Walks. Following Jack’s workshop, I was anxious to listen more to Ímar and their 2017 album Afterlight. That brought me up the hills through the forest to the Duchess of Richmond monument from where I could see the sea. Listening to Calum Stewart and Lauren MacColl’s Wooden Flute and Fiddle (2012), I came back around by Ranald’s Grave where the chief of a band of tinkers that camped here as a base for robbing wayfarers on the Aberdeen road was tried and executed. I made it back into the village as the hailstones came down and queued for the award-winning fish and chip shop that was evidently very popular.
The Friday night concert was part of the Arc Sessions, set up by local fiddle player Mhairi Marwick. Mhairi first started playing the fiddle at the age of seven after hearing James’ group the Fochabers Fiddlers in the village. She travelled to Germany and performed at the Royal Albert Hall with the group, as well as travelling around Scotland a lot. She now teaches in the Fochabers area, three evenings a fortnight, and it was a group of her students who performed as the Arc Fiddlers at the opening of the hall the previous night. She started the Arc Sessions after the success of a concert featuring the Scott Wood Band in 2015, recognising the local demand for live music. Most of the audience come from Fochabers and some surrounding villages but the development of the Arc Sessions has led to people travelling from a wider area including Uist and Glasgow. Like a significant number of other fiddlers in the area, Mhairi decided to study music at third level, gaining a first class BA (Hons) Applied Music at Strathclyde University. She was a finalist for the BBC Scotland Young Musician of the Year in 2014 and while this has opened doors for her, she has a strong connection still to Fochabers and is delighted to come home to continue the tradition. Around thirteen of Mharhi’s pupils were attending the workshops for the Fochabers Fiddle Week.
At the concert, the four tutors were joined by guitarist Ewan MacPherson. For their opening set, they had settled on a tune by William Marshall, ‘Craigellachie Bridge’, a strathspey named after the second stop on the William Marshall Heritage Trail, a Telford bridge that was used form 1814 to 1970. It somehow seemed fitting at the first concert in the refurbished hall that Marshall’s music would be performed, almost diminishing my concerns that he had been forgotten by contemporary musicians. They followed this with two reels ‘Spey in Spate’ by James Scott Skinner and ‘John McNeill’s’ by Peter Milne. The strathspey reel set showed off the stylistic approaches of the four fiddlers, less evident in the strathspey when they were very tight but adding wonderful colour to the reels – Lauren’s bounce with the bow, Adam’s chops and subtle harmonies, Mhairi’s neatness and Jack’s energetic bowing style and octave playing. There was a sense of personality in the performance. They followed it with a lovely rendition of Scott-Skinner’s ‘Hector the Hero’ with droning effects and finished with a jig reel set that mixed the old and the new, including Leo McCann’s ‘Wes And Maggie's Ceili Croft’ before finishing with another Scott-Skinner tune. The advanced class also finished their set with a Scott-Skinner tune after playing the John Somerville tune arranged earlier in the day.
The Old Blind Dogs have been part of the Scottish music scene since the early 1990s although the current line-up only features fiddle player Johnny Hardie from the original ensemble. The hall was full with an eager audience who were not disappointed. Aaron Jones, still celebrating the recent birth of his twin boys, provided a rich variety of songs but it was his range of approaches in accompaniment on bouzouki and guitar that highlighted the musical development of playing styles over the past two decades. Ali Hutton is well-known for his creativity and he provided a variety of sounds through border pipes, whistles and highland pipes and a very effective air composed for Hardie’s father-in-law. The variety of sounds created on bouzouki was matched by Fraser Stone’s approach on percussion that contributed effectively to the ensemble sound. The ensemble sound was further enhanced in some sets through the effective use of technology, another contemporary aspect that challenges categorisation of the group. From the synthesised sounds used on the bouzouki in the first set, additional bass sounds, reverb and delay created echoes of a contemporary popular music soundscape at times.
Having spoken with various people about the categorisation of music - folk, traditional, Scottish, Celtic, contemporary - it was interesting to consider the discourse in the context of the concert. While the repertoire of the concert was largely Scottish – both old and new – they also included a set of tunes from Britanny, adding to the argument for a ‘Celtic’ identity [further complicated by the title of their 2014 album Icons of Scottish Folk]. The complexity of identity within Scotland was evidenced in relation to language, which provided a sort of metaphor for debates on genre. Songs were not only drawn from the English language song tradition but also Scots, while the opening set began with an air from a Scots Gaelic song.
The band had a good rapport with the audience from the start, creating a sense of familiarity with a community. This was further emphasised when the band called on Adam Sutherland to join them on stage for the final set, in which they would include one of his compositions. Responding to calls for an encore, they were also joined by Jack Smedley; the comfort with which the fiddlers joined highlighting the familiarity with music and cohesiveness of a network of professional musicians who depend on each other’s quality to ensure audiences are satisfied to the point of wanting more. Tickets were available for the next of the Arc Sessions and the concert and céilí to mark the end of Fochabers Fiddle Week tomorrow night and there appears to be an appetite for more in Fochabers.
For a Spotiffy playlist of music chosen to accompany this series of blogs, please click here.