Keeping Time in Fochabers
This morning, I met Fochabers Fiddle Week organiser Jack Smedley for a chat at the Bracken’s B&B before heading up to the Institute. At the concert the previous night, one of the young fiddlers, who had received the Fochabers Fiddle at Speyfest in 2016, noted the importance he placed on the workshops, allowing the young musicians to add tunes to the local repertoire. The repertoire of the Fochabers Fiddlers group has remained largely consistent, which allows returning fiddlers to join in the concerts at Speyfest each year but causes some of the older teenagers to become tired of the canon. Jack also noted the importance of the workshops as bringing in professional musicians who could inspire local students, just as he and Mhairi were inspired as children. For the professional musicians, the connection to a grass roots community also appears very important and there is a sense of recognition from the tutors of their experiences learning in the tradition.
Like many people in the area, Jack began playing music through his school. He learned from Jane Alexander for a time and at the point where he may have been considering giving up, he got a place learning from James Alexander and with the group the Strathspey Fiddlers with Donald Barr. Interestingly, Jack was part of the group that performed for the Cork International Folk Dance Festival in 2005 when I was Artistic Director. He moved to Glasgow to study at the Royal Conservatoire in 2008 and was shortlisted for the 2009 Young Traditional Musician of the Year. He recognises the influence of touring bands coming to Fochabers on his decision to become a professional musician and hopes that the Fochabers Fiddle Week, now in its fifth year, can aid the development of the next generation of musicians in the area. While he had known Dave Foley for a while, it was at the RSC that he met the other members of the band Rura.
Jack feels there is sometimes a need to challenge people’s perception of what music from the North East is, broadening it out beyond the Marshall and Scott Skinner traditions, without denying the importance of these composers. He recognises that labels matter, not just in terms of regional descriptors and related expectations but also in terms of folk, Celtic, traditional and other terms [further complicated by the use of 'heritage acts' for bands such as AC/DC and The Rolling Stones]. It is something that he is particularly conscious of in the context of Rura as they seek to reach out to markets as a professional outfit. Adam Sutherland takes a broad view of music believing that a good tune is a good tune regardless of where it is from. One of the most popular of the current composers in Scottish music, Adam’s tunes were in demand amongst the young musicians at the workshops. He points to the conservation over preservation argument, perhaps echoing some of the discourse in Irish traditional music of the 1990s captured in the River of Sound and Crossroads Conference debates. His broad view of music informs his approach to composing, performing and teaching.
Adam’s workshop began with a debate on 5/8 and 7/8 tunes, with Adam deciding to teach the tune Nabo, challenging the students to think about their sense of rhythm and rhythms beyond the traditional Scottish canon. We then learned a Mike McGoldrick composition ‘Kepplehall’, which is on Capercaillie’s Live in Concert (2002) and Beautiful Wasteland (1997). As well as working on bowing patterns and rhythms, Adam challenged the students to think harmonically and developed a chord sequence. He also encouraged the students to compose – a brief survey showed that many had already tried. Amongst the current composers he referred to was piano accordion player John Sommerville. He was part of the ceilidh band for an event Adèle and I attended in Glasgow last year; the two piano accordion players sharing opinions on makes, models and reeds. To finish, Adam played one of his own strathspeys, ‘Dusk on Lough Ness’, telling them of how he came to compose it.
Taking a break, I chatted with Lauren in the kitchen. While I had been impressed by the contemporary feel of Jack’s band Rura and the creativity of Adam’s compositions, it was the sparser approach of Lauren’s collaboration with Calum Stewart that had impressed me most, perhaps echoing my own project Midleton Rare (2012) and not denying her creativity in other musical projects. Lauren commented on the perception that Wooden Flute and Fiddle (2012) was a ‘brave’ album that seemed to contrast greatly with other releases in the Scottish scene.
Like Jack, Lauren MacColl also began with school violin lessons. Both her great uncle and great grandfather played and she was taken to a lot of concerts and ceilidhs when she was young. Then she went to Fèis Rois in Ullapool and while there wasn’t a fiddle group in the Black Isle, she joined a group in the Thain from the age of fifteen onwards. Like Jack and Mhairi, she was inspired by Ian MacFarlane and Alan Henderson who came to Fèis Rois as tutors and she pursued the same course as them. She had been aware growing up of the Fochabers scene because of the contingent that would travel to Inverness for concerts and also that the Fochabers Fiddlers making CDs but she wouldn’t have been aware of the Marshall tradition, although she probably played some of his tunes. She feels the connection between the professional and grassroots worlds is strong because that is how many of the professional performers themselves learned. In 2004 Lauren won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award as a soloist and regularly teaches workshops and summer schools around Scotland including The Black Isle Fiddle Weekend, a weekend of tuition for adults in Cromarty on the Black Isle that she organises.
In Lauren’s workshop, we revised some of the tunes already learned. It followed nicely from both Mhairi and Adam’s workshops, bringing together some of the tunes from Mhairi’s workshop with a focus on phrasing and rhythm, in a way that complemented Adam albeit from a different perspective, 'going back’ to strathspeys and reels. She highlighted the importance of considering different bow directions and parts of the bow for a more interesting sound. She also spoke of the composers, noting the Cape Breton source for Lime Hill by composer Dan R. MacDonald and playing another of MacDonald’s popular compositions, ‘The Trip to Windsor’, for the students to record.
John Mehigan and his wife Alison brought me away for lunch. We drove out towards Buckie, past where James Alexander grew up and began teaching. It provided me with an opportunity to see the wild but beautiful coastline and the little fishing villages along the route. Alison reflected on the first time the religious service had moved from the church to Speyfest, becoming an ecumenical service and the exciting list of groups that had participated over the years. Reflecting on how the Fochabers Fiddlers and other groups began, she saw a potential link to the 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum, a point in time when Scottish people were developing a greater awareness of their culture. However, coming from Shetland, she was aware of an earlier resurgence of fiddle music there led by Tom Anderson. Some of this music became part of the repertoire of the Fochabers Fiddlers through James Alexander reaching out to other Scottish regions and, in turn, part of the repertoire of John and Alison’s daughter Ciara.
Over lunch we reflected on the nature and success of Speyfest and its future, as well as the importance of the Fochabers Fiddlers to the local community. Both of John and Alison’s children were Fochabers Fiddlers, an identity that they cherished. They both told stories of their experiences of James Alexander as a teacher, colleague and motivator. John remains part of the Speyfest committee and Alison is currently chairperson of the Fochabers Fiddlers, two institutions of which James was a cornerstone. John provided me with additional information on the recent activities of the Young Entertainers, which is an integral part of developing the impact of Speyfest in the community beyond the festival itself. We shared perspectives on the nature of the festival, as insider and outsider, reflecting on the nature of the space, the quality of the acts, the involvement of the community, and the importance of the family focus on the Sunday in particular. They see first-hand the inter-connectivity between the Fochabers Fiddlers and the festival and the festival provides an opportunity for re-connection and reunion for those who have migrated away.
After a pleasant drive back to Fochabers, I decided to walk again to Bellie Churchyard. This time, the soundtrack was the tunes and words in my head from the previous few days rather than a playlist through headphones. I followed the path back to William Marshall’s grave, revelling in the peace of the countryside against the discourse and cacophony in my head. As fieldwork should, it had allowed me to discover a world that cannot be communicated through text in books and articles, or indeed blogs as I am attempting to do. Like Joshua Dickson’s ethnographies of south Uist or Tiber Falzett’s ethnographies of the Highlands and Western Isles I am encountering a dynamic community and musical tradition with changing aesthetics and practices.
After time to myself, it was back to the community and I joined the crowd in the hall for the Fochabers Fiddle Week Concert. It opened with a full stage of young musicians and the tutors joined by Ewan MacPherson on guitar and John Lowery on piano. The ensemble played two sets, including a television theme by Donald Shaw of Capercaillie, highlighting the place of this music in Scottish popular or mainstream culture. The intermediate group with a contemporary set that included a composition by Lauren MacColl and a more ‘traditional’ strathspey/reel set. Adam Sutherland treated the audience to a solo 7/8 tune entitled ‘7/8 Sushi’ before the tutors played a few sets. Highlighting a sense of empathy with the young musicians, they included the tune ‘Wee Michael’, a march by John McCusker that was popular when they were younger and attending similar workshops. Each of the groups performed music that they learned during the workshops, interspersed with a song from Ewan and sets from the tutors, before finishing en masse with an arrangement of ‘Chasing Daylight’ performed by all.
After a short break during which everybody moved back the chairs, Jack, Mhairi, Adam, Lauren, Ewan and John played for a ceilidh. Much of the crowd was children and their parents and they danced enthusiastically, gradually dispersing as the night wore on and younger faces grew tired. Those left helped stack chairs and clear rubbish. It was time for me to say goodbye.
Edward Helmore 'Talking about a new generation... festivals ditch the heritage acts' The Guardian 16 April 2017
F. Vallely, H. Hamilton, E. Vallely and L. Doherty (eds), Proceedings of 'Crosbhealach an Cheoil ' 1996 Conference, Dublin: Whinstone Music.
To listen to a playlist related to this series of blogs click here.