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Instrumental Scottish Music: Scottish Fiddling Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 18th, 2021

Although it is believed that the first fiddle might have come to Scotland as a transplant during the crusades, there is no denying the fact that this instrument, identical to the violin in other cultures, has become integral to the concept of Scottish music. While the fiddle and the violin are the same instruments, the music that is played on them, as well as the style of playing, are vastly different – one being characterized by the folk music of the countryside and the other being associated more with the classical traditions of the continent. The music itself, as it has traditionally been composed and performed within Scotland, is often written about important community leaders or about significant events that impinge on the listeners’ world, whether these be local, national or world events that have reached the islands. Other popular topics include the supernatural, prohibition, natural and manmade disasters. While the subjects may carry numerous similarities throughout the nation, the musical styles of the various regions of Scotland retain distinguishing characteristics. Today, there are approximately five recognized historical Scottish fiddle styles including the Shetland style, the Orkney style, the West Coast/Highland Fiddle style, the East Coast style and the style of the Borders, as well as an emerging contemporary style that struggles to encompass them all.

The Shetland style is most frequently associated with the Hardanger fiddle which is believed to have originated in Norway. According to Lynn Berg (2007), in Norway “the modern Hardanger fiddle appeared about 1850 when influences from mainland Europe began to have a much greater influence in Norway. It is about this time that the body became very violin-like, yet kept the unique style of the ‘f’ hole. … Either four or five understandings became the standard.” However, the earliest known Hardanger fiddle is dated 1651, indicating that this type of instrument was in use long before mainland Europe began spreading its influence (Berg, 2007). The understandings of this instrument are what makes it, and the Shetland style of fiddle music, so unique. These strings resonate with their own sounds whenever a tune is played on the upper strings, giving the instrument a multi-layered voice that has often been used to intriguing effect. In addition, a flatter bridge enabled the player to hit two strings at once, producing the ‘ringing strings’ common to Shetland music (Martin, 2003). While the fiddle as its recognized today had entered the region by the early 1700s, the Hardanger retained a good deal of its influence.

The most common form of fiddle music recognized as particularly Shetland in nature is the Scottish reel. These are typically played with a relatively fast beat, “ornamented by little triplets known as ‘shivers’ and by the occasional droning of open strings – giving a bright ringing sound reminiscent of the Hardanger” (Haigh, 2007). According to Haigh, the most traditional reels are in repetitious 4-bar sections which were appropriate for its primary use as an accompaniment to the 16-bar Shetland Reel dance as “there is a distinctive and highly infectious swing to Shetland reels” (Haigh, 2007). Dancing was one of the two primary reasons for playing fiddle music. The other was for ceremonial/descriptive music (Martin, 2003) and slow airs and waltzes also became popular and developed sounds that were often similar to those found in the folk music of American fiddling such as the rich tones and vibratos, the double-stopping and the sliding of notes, providing a more slurred effect (Haigh, 2007). Thus, the particular characteristics of Shetland style fiddling emerge as being the use of ringing strings and double stops, the syncopated rhythms, the use of cross bowings, frequent changes of keys within tunes and scordatura tunings (Martin, 2003). Scordatura tuning is defined by Richard Cole and Edward Schwartz (2007) as “The practice of tuning the strings of a stringed instrument differently than the standard tuning. Scordatura is generally used to extend an instrument’s range, or to make certain passages easier or more possible to perform; it is also used to achieve certain special effects.”

The Orkney style of fiddle playing was almost lost until fiddlers such as Ronnie Aim and Hugh Inkster began incorporating its characteristics into their own playing. According to Christine Martin (2003), this style of fiddle playing is primarily characterized by a simple flow to the bow style allowing the melody to remain clear and the rhythm to maintain a precise structure. Ornamentation seems to have been influenced more by the Highland fiddlers than the Shetland region, yet grace notes are languid and used to contribute to the melody rather than simply leading into the music. The most popular reels played in this region seemed to be the sixsome and eightsome. On an interesting side note, the conclusion of a reel was typically indicated by a prolonged screeching produced when the fiddler played behind the bridge (Flett & Flett, 1964). While not much is known regarding the traditional Orkney style, Martin (2003) identifies the primary characteristics of fiddling from this region as including a simple bowing without slurring, powerful playing with a delicate touch, a general absence of vibrato and restricted use of ornamentation.

Like the Orkney tradition, much of the west coast or Highland style of fiddle playing has been lost as a result of religious prohibitions against dancing, which provided a great deal of the reason for performing music, and the influx of other musical styles from differing regions. Flett and Flett (1964) indicate that the reel was the only traditional dance known to Scotland and was typically characterized by a strathspey leading to a reel. A strathspey is “A lively Scottish dance in 4/4 time related to the reel. A characteristic of this dance is the peculiar rhythmic pattern of a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth, known as the Scotch snap” (Cole & Schwartz, 2007). While there are several collections of Highland music, this is not sufficient to provide the information regarding how this music was played, the unique style in which it was delivered. “The style could only be conveyed from those fiddlers who have ‘passed it on.’ It was an oral tradition and as such, it is now impossible to trace as most of the present tradition bearers have been influenced by recordings, TV and past performances of fiddlers such as Scott Skinner who travelled extensively in the Highlands” (Martin, 2003). In addition to the issues already raised, the Highland style was also corrupted by the Jacobian Rebellion in which playing the bagpipes, another of Scotland’s traditional instruments, was forbidden and many former bagpipers transferred their music into the fiddle. This is noted particularly in the use of the flattened seventh, a bagpipe scale, and in the use of grace notes and other ornamentation that is typical of bagpipe playing (Haigh, 2007). In addition to the reel, Highland music is also characterized by marches, jigs and several slow breaths of air that were originally based upon ancient Gaelic songs (Haigh, 2007).

For this reason, it is generally believed that the truest representation, although not necessarily true, of the Highland style of fiddling can be found in the Cape Breton traditions which received less of this exterior influence. While the island is not within the Scottish borders, it is believed that those who were being persecuted by the church for playing ‘folk’ music as opposed to the more classical stylings of the east coast, moved to Nova Scotia, taking their music with them. Having relatively few outside influences to dissuade their preservation of the ‘old songs, the music of the Highlands found a new home. This particular style remains “highly ornamented, uses mostly short single bows and shows the influence both of highland bagpipes and Gaelic singing. It has an energetic, driving rhythm well suited to the accompaniment for dancing and the fiddlers often sit down and tap their feet as an integral part of the music” (Haigh, 2007).

The east coast fiddling style was heavily influenced by the more metropolitan and continent-influenced Society of London and is therefore much more reminiscent of the classical music being produced in places like France and Italy than its counterparts in other regions of Scotland. Because of this, the east coast music is much more technically demanding, including such features as staccato bowing techniques, more difficult keys, the presence of chromatic passages, double and triple stops, high position work, precise rhythm and a prevalence of unison notes (Martin, 2003). In particular, the driven bow and the turns and trills are seen as being classically influenced rather than natural developments of the region. There is also a greater diversity in the tunes that were played in this region as opposed to others and the keys that were used. “The airs and strathspeys, in particular, were often demanding of good technique and used flat keys and position changes, double-stopped chords and intricate bowing patterns” (Martin, 2003). Scottish composers in the North East emphasized their greater abilities through heavy use of strathspeys, which are highly dependent upon effective and masterful bowing techniques as opposed to the more relaxed tunes of the other regions.

The borders style of fiddle playing is also heavily identified by the composers who have preserved it, but there are some points in which this style differs from the style of other regions. For instance, there is a heavy double-stopping or chording technique that is used in this music that is different from the more delicate touch required elsewhere (Martin, 2003). In addition, the borders encouraged multiple players at a time as opposed to only one. Pairs and trios are common within this musical style perhaps as a means of producing a greater sound within the larger gathering halls and public buildings that were being constructed. Without electronic amplification, a single fiddle could be easily overwhelmed by the throng of people gathered to dance. Unlike other regions, the favoured musical style of the borders region includes airs and hornpipes. In terms of playing style, the borders region is known for its use of slur and snap bowing as well as the use of singled bowed notes (Martin, 2003).

Despite the numerous possibilities that have been raised in music-making with the advent of the electronic age and the proliferation of new instruments coming from around the world, contemporary music in Scotland remains highly dependent upon the fiddle as a part of the mainstream music scene. Examples of this can be found in folk bands such as Runrig, Capercaillie and the Battlefield Band (Haigh, 2007). In addition to the imaginative folk preservationists, there are several more educational contemporary players such as Alisdair Fraser and his group Skydance while others have taken their fiddle music and branched out into more exploratory realms. These include playing with the influence of the American jazz scene through Scottish rhythm and swing and the use of traditional fiddles in the production of new age trance music or club dance music. Finally, the fiddle is seeing increased use in the rock scene as contemporary musicians begin to pull folk music into their more energetic tunes.

Through their music, each region of Scotland took a traditional approach to music, such as in the preference for the Scottish reel, and made it their own, imbued with the personality of the region in which they lived, the cultures they came into frequent contact with and the style of living they preferred. From delicate and quick to hard and beating, the music of Scotland reflects the rugged mountains, the gentle fields, the tumbling rivers and the crashing seas. It incorporates the struggles and the triumphs, the love of life held by its inhabitants, the energy and vitality of the land and the strength of its foundations. Within the seemingly simple context of a fiddle, the fundamental character of Scotland can be found and its heritage preserved despite the outside influences, or perhaps because of them.

Works Cited

  1. Berg, Lynn. ” Fiddlemaker. (2007) Web.
  2. Cole, Richard & Schwartz, Charles. Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary. (2007)
  3. Haigh, Chris. “.” Fiddling Around. Web.
  4. Flett, J.F. & Flett, T.M. Traditional Dancing in Scotland. London: Routledge, 1964.
  5. Martin, Christine. Traditional Scottish Fiddling. Scotland: Taigh na Teud Music Publishers, 2003.
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