Farewell to Fochabers
I went to the Famous Focharberians Garden before getting the bus. On the way, I met a group on their way to their church service who recognised me and said hello. While waiting in the village square for the bus, Gordon Christie from the Institute came over to say goodbye. He was preparing to turn on the village fountain and take down the Christmas lights. Once on the bus, I allowed my creative juices to work on some ideas I had thought about or sketched over the preceding days. The bus gently ambled through quiet villages, which showed little signs of life on this Easter morning.
Aberdeen was very different. Bustling and busy, I returned to listening to The Old Blind Dogs as I set out. There are a number of second hand bookshops in the city and, in one, I treated myself to Mary Flemings Clársach, Cramasie and Crowdie (1995). Drawing on 700 songs, she considers Scottish social history from the songwriters’ perspective. Fleming emphasises the power and importance of song and I wonder how my most recent composition, ‘The Ghosts of Fochabers’ might sit beside the existing canon.
Walking in Aberdeen, I was reminded somewhat of the politics of Scotland. Outside Her Majesty’s Library stood an impressive statue of William Wallace, put to death it clams “for his love of liberty, his effectual resistance of aggression, and his fidelity to his native land.” He towers above the much smaller Albert, both located around the corner from Robert Burns. The city is at once Scottish and British. The morning newspapers celebrated Aberdeen FC’s return to European football competitions with the suggestive headline, ‘We’re back in Europe’, contrasting with Brexit headlines on the front page.
I made my way to beautiful Old Aberdeen and around by King’s College Chapel, now listening to Lori Watson. The cobbled streets and quaint aspects evoked another type of heritage. Her song ‘Maggie’ was very popular with the DkIT students who performed it for the Ceol Oirghialla concert Iontais in Albain (2016).
The sun shone as we drove through Dundee, birthplace of South Armagh fiddler and composer Josephine Keegan. A study of Keegan’s musical life highlights many more connections between Irish and Scottish traditional music, albeit in the case of Keegan, more specifically Shetland and Cape Breton music (understanding Cape Breton as an outlier of Scottish musical culture). Keegan’s long term musical collaborator, Sean Maguire, was a great fan and exponent of the music of James Scott Skinner, enjoying the challenges of different keys and music composed specifically for the fiddle. Keegan was inspired by her Scottish experiences to start a fiddle group in Mullaghbawn, which read from sheet music in a manner I also observed in Scotland. I’m sure she would enjoy the music of James Alexander’s Fochabers Fiddlers. Inspired again, I listen to The Speyside Fiddler, starting with ‘Charlie Armour’s Roysvale Reel’.
My Scottish fieldtrip has been an enjoyable and informative experience. Having shared the experience of Speyfest with Adèle the previous summer, it was interesting to experience the village without the tents, stages and large sound systems. The small community welcomed me back and responded enthusiastically to my questions. Despite a strong sense of pride in their local fiddle traditions and an awareness of the character William Marshall, the young musicians that I spoke with did not know where Marshall was buried and although aware of his importance, expressed a preference for some of the newer tunes being recorded by popular Scottish bands in the traditional music scene. Local musicians such as Jack Smedley have not only experienced a broader Scottish musical culture but are pioneering a new aesthetic that is filtering down to the local community. The regularity with which leading musicians and bands come to perform in Fochabers, notably for Speyfest, also impacts on the evolution of the local musical aesthetic. In When Piping was Strong, Joshua Dickson defines musical aesthetics as ‘a society’s evaluation of their own music, culturally embedded and expressed in a variety of ways both verbal and behavioural’ (2006: 211). The strong connections between the local and global I experienced in Fochabers is part of the expression of the communities musical aesthetic that can include William Marshall but in a broader musical aesthetic that is still developing and evolving. Fochabers is an interesting, exciting and worthwhile place to experience, interograte and research traditional music and I look forward to returning.
Dickson, Joshua. When piping was strong: tradition, change and the bagpipe in South Uist. John Donald Publishers, 2006.
For a Spotify playlist of music linked to this series of blogs, please click here.