The Fiddle Music of North-East Scotland
by: Wheeler, Les
Stringed instruments that were either plucked or bowed have been around almost as long as folk, but the fiddle, as we would recognise it, has probably been played in Scotland since the 15th. century. The fiddle or fydill was certainly in use then and is probably related to the old Roman word vidula. The music these early musicians played was probably French or Italian - source of many of the dances then popular - but gradually a rich library of native music appeared. Little of the earliest music survives in manuscript although, curiously, the first printed collections of Scotch Dance appeared in England. John Playford included a number in The English Dancing Master(1651). In 1700 Henry Playford produced A Collection of Original Scottish Tunes. Scottish publishers eventually learned from the English and from the 1720s onward a number of collections appeared.
Some people produced private collections and one such was George Skene of Skene who, between 1717 and 1740 copied down fiddle music for his own pleasure. His near neighbour, William Forbes of Disblair, composed for the fiddle - some of his pieces are included in the MacFarlane Ms(Edinburgh 1740), which was compiled by David Young, a founder member of the Aberdeen Musical Society in 1748. Another member was the Toun Dancing Master Francis Peacock who played violin and cello at the society concerts. The Society’s success owed much to the influence of Sir Alexander Grant of Monymusk who was an admirer and patron of all forms of music.
The music that people listened to, reels, jigs or gigues, hornpipes, Scotch measures etc., were played all over Scotland and the rest of Britain too. The truly native Scottish tune form is the Strathspey, named, of course, for the district it came from. There is a fair body of evidence to suggest that originally strathspey was a style of playing rather than a specific type of tune or dance. The term strathspey-reel was often used to describe a reel played in a particular fashion employing a dsitinctive rhythm which is often called by today’s fiddlers the Scottish Snap.
Thomas Newte in his Tour of England and Scotland in 1780 attributes the strathspey style to the Brownes (or Brounes) of Kincardine-on-Spey. He also mentions the Cummings of Freuchie, now Castle Grant, Grantown-on-Spey, one of whom, Angus Cumming, produced his Collection of Strathspeys or Old Highland Reels in 1780. There is an interesting sideline to all this and it is connected with the legend of MacPherson’s Rant.
Legend says that MacPherson had been convicted of sheep stealing and was to be hung in Banff. They moved the clock forward to prevent a reprieve arriving in time and just before he was hung, MacPherson is said to have destroyed his fiddle to prevent anyone else playing it. The only part of this story which has any truth in it appears to be that MacPherson, a notorious sheep stealer, was hung. The fiddle smashing incident was added later as a song about the event became popular and reached the ears of Robert Burns, himself a fiddler, who added to the rhyme and the version popularly known today comes to us from his pen. What is interesting is that one of the men tried at the same court as MacPherson was called Broune and is said to have belonged to the famous family of fiddlers credited with creating the strathspey style. Thus, it would appear, that is how MacPherson’s name and a fiddle came to be attached to the fiddle-breaking incident on the gallows!
One thing is clear, these early fiddlers left a legacy that has been gratefully taken up by hundreds of North-East fiddlers as the presence of strathspey and reel societies in Aberdeen, Cults, Ellon, Banchory, Huntly, Macduff, Inverurie, Elgin and many other places is testament and the whole fiddle playing world feeds on the compositions and expertise of a great many North-East fiddlers and composers.