Classical Violin and Scottish Fiddle: A Two-Hundred-Year Musical Conversation

Danny Carnahan on December 26, 2018
Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl, by David Allan (1786)

The folk tradition has long been mined as a core source for classical music. From Chopin to Bartok to Copland, generations of composers have taken folk sources and dressed them up in classical clothing and we are all the richer for it. But Scottish folk music, and particularly music for the fiddle, made a singular mark on the European classical world through the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras. And delightfully, this wasn't a one-way influence. Each era returned the favor, with classical violin inspiring advances in Scottish fiddle technique and style. This is a story of how this musical conversation began, and what it's led us to today.

The modern violin has been popular in Scotland since at least the 17th century. Imported primarily for the gentry at first, violins began to trickle down through all strata of Scottish society and within a generation or two the violin had been thoroughly absorbed into Scottish musical tradition from pub to town hall to manor house. And by the mid-18th century, violins were being produced all over Scotland, their quality quickly rivalling that of the English makers.

Of course, since there had been earlier bowed instruments called fiddles in Scotland from at least the 8th century on, the newcomers were dubbed “fiddles” as well. In the hands of Scottish folk musicians, these new fiddles were able to express all the ornamentation, rhythmic lilt, and melodic range of the voices and instruments that they joined in the tradition, while adding new possibilities of their own. And so, a new kind of violin music was born in Scotland, taking the classical techniques on offer from the Continent, then adapting them to express the unique musical accents of this remote and fiercely independent land.

For the next couple of centuries, influences flowed both ways. The Scots imported baroque, romantic, and modern styles as well as technical innovations and evolving fashions in accompaniment and ensemble arrangements. And Scottish fiddle music gained complexity and striking regional specificities, firing the imaginations of generations of classical composers and performers and periodically stepping into the popular spotlight as far as Italy.

Putting the Scots in Fiddle Music

Portrait of Niel Gow, by Sir Henry Raeburn (1787)

The seemingly straightforward question “What is Scottish fiddle music?” turns out not to be straightforward at all. To understand how Scottish fiddle music has evolved, you have to go back to the three most important fiddlers in its history: Niel Gow, William Marshall, and James Scott Skinner.

The first of the three, Niel Gow (1727-1807), born in Strathbraan, Perthshire, exhibited musical talent when very young and blew off being a weaver’s apprentice to become a full-time musician when still in his teens. At 18, he won a prestigious fiddling competition, catching the notice of the Duke of Atholl, who became Gow’s patron. From then on, he was steadily employed and gained renown both for his performing skill and for the new strathspeys and reels he penned and popularized.

The strathspey is a uniquely Scottish tune form; challenging, emotionally intense, rhythmically explosive, and for dancing often paired with a reel. The most striking stylistic element of the strathspey is the “Scotch snap,” or the reversing of notes in a dotted pair — the shorter note preceding the longer. Baroque players of the era were familiar with the similar “Lombard” rhythm, but the essence of the strathspey required that the short note be played as short as possible, often with very non-Baroque dynamic emphasis.

Gow was a master of the strathspey, penning at least 87 of his own, many of which have enjoyed steady popularity for 200 years. A lovely example is “Niel Gow’s Wife,” paired with an older, unattributed reel aptly titled “The Old Reel” and played by fiddler Alasdair Fraser and cellist Natalie Haas.

Gow’s son Nathaniel (1763–1831) shared his father’s musical talent and wrote many tunes of his own. He published a series of tune collections from 1799 to 1824.

It should be noted that the Scotch snap appears in other Scottish tune forms beside the strathspey. The lyric phrasing of marches and slow airs commonly includes this rhythmic element which, along with natural rubato, lends a Scottish conversational accent to the tunes. A fine example of the use of the snap in a slow air is “Niel Gow’s Fiddle” played by the late Ron Gonnella about 1985 on Niel Gow’s fiddle.

Fellow Highlander William Marshall (1748–1833) was also among the first to transcribe original strathspeys, credited with dozens. In a fit of public relations zeal, Scots national poet Robert Burns famously touted him as “the first composer of strathspeys of the age.”

Marshall’s career arc was similar to Gow’s. Born into a working-class family in Fochabers, north of Aberdeen, Marshall went into service with the Duke of Gordon at age 12 and impressed the Duke enough with his fiddling that the Duke became his lifelong patron. Marshall was introduced to the aristocracy and all the orchestral music popular in court, traveling as far as London. Most importantly, he began to compose airs and dances, mostly strathspeys, which became hugely popular among commoner and courtier alike, and which, along with the work of the Gows, formed the first canon of tunes expressly written for the Scottish fiddle.

Here’s William Marshall’s “The Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell,” an example of a strathspey:

Modern soloists and ensembles are still performing Marshall’s works the way he wrote them, since he was scrupulous about transcribing dynamics and ornaments. William Marshall’s Scottish Melodies, by Randy Miller and Jack Perron (Fiddlecase Books, 2nd ed. 2007) collects 262 Marshall tunes featuring original bass-clef accompaniments and arrangements for violin, flute, piano, mandolin, and cello.

Composer and violinist William Marshall, by John Moir | Credit: National Galleries of Scotland

Marshall did have his domestic critics. He weathered complaints from some musicians that his compositions were too difficult to play, either on account of wide intervals or other transitions, while others complained of their compass being more extensive than that to which they were accustomed. To such complaints he is said to have replied, “I do not write music for bunglers.”

In the early 19th century, several European composers were inspired to travel to Scotland to compose and perform.

Felix Mendelssohn visited Britain 10 times, for a total of 20 months, starting in 1829. His interest in the Scots musical idioms showed up in his concert overture The Hebrides, composed in 1830, and began his Symphony No. 3 (Scottish) the same year. (It was set aside and then taken up in 1841–42, making it the fifth and last of his symphonies to be completed.) The Scottish influence is particularly clear in the fourth movement of the Symphony. There seem to be not only quotes from Scottish country dances but constant dependence on the Scotch snap in the soaring, urgent violin passages.

Frédérick Chopin, too, traveled to Edinburgh in the autumn of 1848, only a year before his death, at the invitation of Jane Stirling, a talented amateur pianist and member of a noble Perthshire family. Chopin performed in Edinburgh, though illness cut his visit short. While he didn’t write anything during his stay, he dedicated two nocturnes to Miss Stirling.

James Scott Skinner, by John Young-Hunter | Credit: Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

James Scott Skinner (1843–1927), the third giant of Scottish fiddle history, was born near Aberdeen. Like Gow and Marshall he was a prodigious composer of strathspeys. But unlike the other two, he was a musician from the get-go, the son of a dancing master who was performing on fiddle and cello by the age of seven with his older brother Alexander. Early in his long career, he toured with a traveling orchestra, studied in England, won a sword-dance competition in Ireland, and taught dancing to Queen Victoria’s household in Balmoral.

Skinner was a showman and an eccentric, always wearing Highland dress. He was also one of the first Scottish musicians to record his music; his earliest known recording dates from 1899. It’s a real gift to be able to hear Skinner playing his own tunes — an echo from the past — and hear how Scottish traditional performance has evolved over the past century. The University of Aberdeen has a marvelous website devoted to Skinner, including a page with 11 short and varied clips of Skinner’s playing.

Skinner’s performance of his slow air “Hector the Hero” showcases the glissando which he was often known to use. And on the strathspey “The Laird o’ Drumblair”, one can hear Skinner play the distinctive Scotch snaps and rushed triplets so eagerly that the piano accompanist struggles to keep up.

Back on the European continent 50 years after Mendelssohn, Max Bruch mined Scottish fiddle music in Scottish Fantasy, a four-movement violin tour-de-force, débuting in 1880, at the same time Skinner was gaining renown. Inspired by four, traditional Scottish folk melodies, the Fantasy clearly draws from the tunes as played on the fiddle. Opening with a minor lament, Bruch coaxes more emotion from the melody by dipping into Celtic modes. The spiccato passages in the second movement (built around the stately tune “The Dusty Miller”) are delightful hat tips to Scottish bowing style. And particularly striking is the use of the Scotch snap in the fourth movement (which closely echoes the melodic shape of the lively “Hey Tuttie Tatie”), though modern classical renditions tend to soften the snap somewhat from the precision of the Strathspey King. It’s a shame Bruch only visited Scotland a year after first performing the Fantasy. If he’d heard Scott Skinner perform, the piece might have taken some different turns.

In 1914, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending, another violin showpiece, inspired by English poet George Meredith’s poem. The Scottish fiddle influence is clear. Pentatonic patterns, so basic to Scottish traditional melodic structure, abound. And the solo cadenzas, written without bar lines, invite lyric interpretations drawing both on unaccompanied Scots ballad singing and the elaborate and formal tradition of Highland bagpipe “piobaireachd” (pronounced PEE-brahk).

Scots Fiddling Now

We’re living in perhaps as pivotal a period of Scottish musical evolution as Marshall and Gow participated in two centuries ago. In little more than a generation, the individual traditional streams of fiddle, Highland pipe, harp, and ballad singing have met electric pop music and come crashing together in a single musical torrent. Where in the past, harps played solo and bagpipes played only with other bagpipes and drums, there sprang up, for the first time, bands comprised of pipes, fiddles, harps, electric guitars, keyboards, and more. What’s more, audiences greeted it all with delight and a clamor for more.

Scottish fiddlers today are conscious of the fact that their stylistic and performance contexts have grown far beyond the imaginings of Gow, Marshall, or Skinner. The experimentation with new instrumental combinations and new extra-Celtic stylistic influences and time signatures sparks constant innovation while maintaining a fierce allegiance to the underlying traditions.

Among the vanguard of the influential new fiddlers is Brian McNeill, who co-founded Battlefield Band in 1969 and continues to teach and perform today. Battlefield’s pairing of pipes and fiddle was groundbreaking, earning them top-tier fame in the Celtic Explosion of the 1970s and ’80s. A good part of Battlefield’s success can be credited to McNeill, whose ornamentation and phrasing, emotional and precise, blended perfectly with the pipes. Here’s a good example in their 1984 recording of “Scotland’s March,” featuring Duncan McGillivray on pipes:

McNeill attended the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, training in both classical and traditional techniques. The Conservatoire was founded in 1847 as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, changing its name in 2011. Its curriculum, offering the full range of classical performing arts, now also embraces traditional Scots fiddling as part of its undergraduate and graduate degree programs. One fiddle faculty member, Pete Clark, recently posted some recordings playing a fiddle once owned by Niel Gow. Here he is playing “Niel Gow’s Lament For the Death of His Second Wife:”

Alasdair Fraser

So, what is Scottish fiddle music? Or, rather, what is it now? Aberdeen-born fiddler Alasdair Fraser enjoys addressing this subject, teaching for decades in both Scotland and North America. In weighing the subtleties of Scottish fiddle, Fraser breaks the music into four regional traditions, each presenting important differences born of geographic influences, though the regions admittedly get fuzzy where they intersect.

In the west, there’s the Gàidhealtachd (pronounced GAYL-takt), or the Gaelic-speaking region, reaching out to Ireland musically with a strong handshake. In Aberdeenshire, there’s the Doric dialect, affecting speech and music equally in inflection and rhythm. Farther north you get to the Shetlands with their strong Scandinavian influences, both linguistic and instrumental; Shetland bowings, in particular, being strongly influenced by Norwegian hardanger fiddle. Then, down in Edinburgh, you get the more urban styles and influences from the Baroque to pretty much everything else European.

Alasdair Fraser

Fraser believes the differences come down to language. “The fiddlers I know,” he says, “use the term ‘vernacular fiddle’ to describe fiddling that follows the language — the particular dialect — of a specific person or place.” So, for Fraser, the traditional musicians to listen to most closely are those born into a dialect who unconsciously and unself-consciously infuse their musical expression with that dialect.

Digging deeper into this musical-linguistic concept, Fraser is fond of teaching and understanding the “vocables” in Scottish vernacular style. “We don’t really play notes; we play clusters of notes,” he explains. “We don’t add ornaments; they’re integral to each phrase and cluster, reflecting the language in which the melody is speaking.”

Of course, this is not to say that no one born outside Scotland can really express the regional traditional nuances. There are clearly musicians who are enamored of a particular vernacular style and strive to learn it from the outside. Fraser has taught the art of the strathspey to many classically-trained violinists. Some get close. But even getting as close as they can, in his view they still miss something essential if they insist on viewing the music through a classical lens.

The differences among the regional fiddling vernaculars can be difficult to describe adequately. Years of listening and comparing is required to identify and master the subtleties. Here, for the sake of comparison, are examples of two of the other musical dialects as suggested by Alasdair Fraser — those of the Shetland Islands and the Edinburgh-Lowlands.

Representing the Shetlands is Aly Bain, one of the most renowned Shetland fiddlers today. Notice in particular his bow control, muscular without being overbearing and triplet ornaments that really pop.

By contrast, Edinburgh-born Johnny Cunningham somehow managed to combine silky-smooth bowing with an urban urgency that cries out a big city origin. Johnny was also adept at spinning endless inventive variations of tunes, as evidenced in this 1986 concert set with his brother Phil:

A fair amount of musical code-switching goes on among classical violinists who play Scottish music and Scottish traditionalists with classical training. This correlates closely to the dialect switching between a village accent, say, and BBC English “received pronunciation.” Armed with some classical training, Alasdair Fraser encourages a willingness to fiddle in two different dialects, though too often he has encountered classical players who are deaf to the code-switching and insist that he “play properly.” Regretfully, Fraser says, “This is how strict classical training can grind the Scottish color off of a player’s performance.”

And yet, since the days of Gow and Marshall, classical training has been, if not essential, extremely useful in mastering the details of Scottish fiddle. Scott Skinner started out playing cello behind fiddlers at village dances, vamping along with the figured bass lines of the day. Traveling to Manchester, he learned the violin and classical technique. Back in Scotland, he was able to play the strathspeys with his Highland accent, but also switch code to classical to perform Sarasate and Paganini.

A fair number of classic strathspeys are technically beyond the level of your average village fiddler. One needs to play in position, to have strong vibrato, and to have total bow control. The trick always is to lose neither the classical grace nor the traditional wildness of spirit.

Scott Skinner’s reel “The Hurricane” offers a good example, requiring third position shifting and extraordinary bow control at the frog. Nicola Benedetti’s spirited rendition sports both classical and traditional flair:

Interestingly, the place where one can hear Scottish fiddling most like it was played in Gow’s time is Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Settled by Scots, Cape Breton is home to a fiddling tradition that has largely preserved the 18th-century aesthetic and repertoire. These old tunes are most often passed along with no classical technique intrusion and largely stay in first position. To compare with Nicola Benedetti’s “Hurricane,” here is a rough-hewn performance by a 13-year-old Cape Breton fiddler:

In some ways Scottish fiddle music has come full circle after 200 years. Performers like Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas have paired up fiddle and cello, just as Marshall and Gow arranged in their day. In other ways, Scottish fiddle has grown to invite in the classical influences without fear of cultural loss while the classical world’s respect for the tradition is deeper and more profound.

New groups are discovering the musical riches available at the junction of Scots traditional and classical. Concerto Caledonia, a leading Scottish baroque ensemble, specializes both in performing on period instruments and in performing Scottish works composed by Italians and Italian works composed by Scots. Their recording, “Mungrel Stuff” (Linn Records CKD140) offers a pleasant bit of time travel. Here, the Concerto plays Marshall as the composer likely heard it in his own hall:

Newly commissioned works by traditional Scottish musicians are finding new classical audiences in Scotland and beyond. Phil Cunningham’s ambitious The Highlands and Islands Suite, premièring in 1997, featured the 73-piece Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Highland Fiddle Orchestra, and the Phoenix Choir, with fiddle soloist Aly Bain. Traditional musicians, including Brian McNeill, Dick Gaughan, Phil Cunningham, and Mike Vass, have presented orchestral works at festivals including Celtic Connections in Glasgow, the Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh, and Celtic Colours in Cape Breton.

Scottish fiddle has never flourished as it does today, nor in as many varied colors and contexts. Maybe William Marshall would invite even the “bunglers” to join in creating what comes next.