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SCOTS FIDDLE FESTIVAL - Edinburgh - 17-19 November 2017

An unmissable event for devotees of Scottish fiddling, SFF is now in its 21st year. Since I last attended in 2013, a few things have changed. This year saw a new venue at Summerhall, a new artistic director in Rosie Munro, and a lot of new faces both on stage and off. The festival is one of the main events of the Scottish fiddle calendar and attracts a lot of visitors from near and far, taking its place in Edinburgh’s procession of festivals from harps to jazz to books to film. Despite its narrow focus, the Scots Fiddle Festival offers elements of all of the above, and much more.

There are several threads to this event: main concerts, shorter and less formal recitals, a ceilidh, workshops, sessions, talks and, of course, a festival club with appetisers and reprises as well as special guests and surprises. With a full programme across three days, it wasn’t possible to sample everything: I managed to do justice to about half the events, as well as chatting and browsing and playing a few tunes. I had to skip the ceilidh, which I regret because music for dancing is often undervalued; both the discipline that comes from playing for dancers, and the connection with an active and energetic audience, can be hugely beneficial and rewarding for musicians. The Grouse Ceilidh Band boasts a fine fiddler in Mairi Thérèse Gilfedder, and judging by the noise coming down the stairs, a good time was had by all. I did catch Mairi Thérèse’s recital the next day – but first things first.

The festival programme kicked off on Friday evening, with no real build-up to the first major concert. As this is a city event, ten minutes’ walk from Edinburgh’s main attractions and shopping streets, there was none of that tedious arriving and sorting out accommodation and meeting like-minded people which you get in more rural or residential festivals. The Friday evening main concert and ceilidh were the real openers, and I plumped for the former: the young trio Snuffbox from Glasgow, and the not much older fiddle prodigy Graham Mackenzie from Inverness. This was modern Scottish fiddle from two of the best. Snuffbox combines the talents of champion young fiddler Charlie Stewart with Rufus Huggan on gut-wrenching cello and guitarist Luc McNally, who also sang a gentle Tom Waits song. Mackenzie brought a small orchestra on stage for his compositions combining trad and classical, Scottish and Irish and Cape Breton influences: clarsach and keyboards, a traditional string quintet and even step-dancing brought to life his excellent tunes. After a good two hours of invigorating Scottish fiddle, it was time to head for the first night at the festival club.

SFF split its events this year between the Queen’s Hall for the Friday and Saturday night concerts, and Summerhall for everything else. The purpose-built auditorium of the Queen’s Hall is a perfect place to appreciate fine music, and the two venues are only 100 yards apart, but it did mean a quick trot through Edinburgh’s chilly cobbled streets each evening. Eschewing the tempting strains of pipes and fiddle from the ceilidh still going strong, I headed for a casual session, joining a dozen or so fiddlers, a couple of banjos and a lone button box for a few tunes. Although the core repertoire at all the sessions over the weekend was Scottish, both traditional and modern, there was a fair helping of North American, Scandinavian, Irish, and even occasional English choices. With players from all over Scotland and England, as well as a few from Ireland and the USA plus a surprisingly large number from Australia, a wide range of tunes popped up. The standard was good but not virtuoso, and we stayed mainly in the comfortable keys of A and D with quick readjustments if someone started a tune in a flat key. People began to fall away as midnight approached, but the festival club upstairs was in full swing until 1am so I caught a gritty set from veteran Campbeltown fiddler Archie McAllister with his combination of Gaelic, piping and Irish influences, culminating with The Humours Of Tulla at speed, making all those high triplets the hard way.

And so to bed, and up early for a workshop given by Pete Clark, one of several renowned Perthshire fiddlers featuring on Saturday. Like many of the performers, Pete animated several sessions at the festival: a recital with dance band diva Muriel Johnstone, a talk and demonstration on fiddles played by 17th century icon Neil Gow, and this workshop on tone and tempo. So often, workshops are just lessons in disguise, learning a tune or two and maybe picking up some tips, so I was keen to see how tone and tempo would be explored. I wasn’t disappointed - although Pete used the pretty Gow tune, The Duchess Of Gordon, to illustrate some of his insights, he began with a thorough explanation of tone and tempo and the relation between them, and went through a number of exercises to increase awareness and control of tone. Some students who had been to Pete Clark’s workshops before were already familiar with much of what he said, but every one of the two dozen attendees went away with a better understanding of how to get the best out of their instrument and themselves. The physics behind fiddling is not something most of us think much about, and few players have the confidence to tinker with the set-up of even a moderately expensive instrument. Pete’s demonstration of how set-up can make even a £30 plastic fiddle sing reminded me that most of the music we revere today from Dunkeld to Donegal, Adelaide to Aberdeen, was originally played on cheap and often clumsily-repaired instruments, sometimes not even made of wood, so almost any modern fiddle should be able to handle old Scottish tunes.

There are good options for lunch in Summerhall, and plenty of choice within walking distance – the problem is finding the time! After a quick browse around the impressive array of fiddle-related stalls, and a brief spell in the session being led by Riddell Fiddles from the Borders (or was it Borders Shetland Fiddlers?) it was time for the Saturday afternoon recitals. Mairi Thérèse Gilfedder from South Uist seemed well rested after her ceilidh exertions and delivered airs and dance music with a Hebridean lilt, including some of her own compositions. OBT provided a guaranteed antidote to lilting, Tom Oakes on flute and guitar splitting furious fiddlers Jon Bews and Daniel Thorpe; their brand of brash modern music spans time signatures which would generate an error on a pocket calculator, heavy metal arrangements of innocent Greek dances, and grand old highland melodies dragged screaming from their beds in the dead of night – all perfectly in keeping with Scottish traditions.

Following a rather calmer take on contemporary Scottish fiddle from Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach, it was left to Kelsae lass Carly Blain to be the voice of sanity – certainly not type-casting, but Carly was accompanied by Harris Playfair on a selection of her own tasty tunes and more Perthshire classics from the likes of Gordon Duncan and the Gows. Footwear was something of a feature at this festival, from Tom Oakes’ orangey plastic beetle-crushers to Jenna Moynihan’s sparkly Christmas socks, but the combination of Ms Blain’s stylish and brightly-coloured bocage boots and Mr Playfair’s smart city brogues was hard to beat. As a newly-wed whose husband had left her (temporarily) to tour with the band Talisk, Carly had also received some surprising advice from Dolly Parton on successful marriages: such absence is a great help, apparently, although I suspect that the secret of Dolly’s relationships lies a little closer to her heart.

I mentioned books earlier, and books there were indeed: first Carly’s tunebook, then a new tutor by Amy Geddes, plus Graham Mackenzie’s compositions and several other tune collections for sale. Jazz was also mentioned, so pausing only for a delicious meal at the aptly named Noodles & Dumplings, I headed for the Queen’s Hall and a concert headlined by Michigan fiddler Jeremy Kittel. I reviewed Jeremy’s outstanding album, Chasing Sparks, several years ago - a sort of Celtic-Bluegrass cross-over with none of the horrors that could have produced - and in the meantime Mr Kittel has become an outstanding jazz fiddler covering all the bases from Scotland to San Francisco and back again. What he played in Edinburgh was astonishing, unattainable for most people, a real thrill; as well as driving rhythms and mind-bending chord progressions, great melodies and inventive arrangements, Jeremy is a consummate master of his instrument and one of those virtuosic fiddlers who almost seem to need a longer fingerboard to do what they do. Duetting with the formidable young mandolin guru, Josh Pinkham, and peerlessly backed by that Wunderkind of jazz guitar, Quinn Bachand, Jeremy Kittel lit up the concert audience, many of whom may have gone home to burn their fiddles on bonfires of abandoned ambition which blazed along the Edinburgh skyline long into the night. But I digress.

Supporting Jeremy’s trio, an unenviable task, was Perthshire’s Patsy Reid. If you had to pick a fiddler for a difficult assignment, it would probably be Patsy. This is the woman who set herself the challenge of writing Scottish music in all seven classical modes, and who has now brought out an album of almost entirely traditional Scottish fiddle with subtle piano accompaniment by Alistair Iain Paterson. Patsy’s concert set was wide-ranging: Alistair was joined by guitarist Ewan MacPherson and percussionist Signy Jakobsdottir, and the material included many of Patsy’s own compositions in addition to lissom strathspey and reel sets from the rich Perthshire tradition. There was even a piece by Scandinavian mandola player Marit Fält who came on stage for a brief cameo. I don’t often single out percussionists for praise, but Signy’s contribution to much of this music was exceptional: delicate, precise, complex yet completely controlled. Credit must go to Patsy for the arrangements, but their flawless execution made this a great performance. The highlight of the night was the final duet between Reid and Kittel, driving through some great old Scots tunes with matched bowing and flying fingers.

One of the aims of the Scots Fiddle Festival, as well as promoting and showcasing the best in fiddle music, is to encourage participation and to reach out to the wider community of new and potential fiddle players. As part of its outreach project, SFF showcased eight young fiddlers who have been honing their performance skills under the guidance of former artistic director, Eilidh Steel. These youngsters opened the Saturday night concert with an impressive selection of tunes arranged for eight fiddles, demonstrating their ensemble playing and stagecraft abilities as teenage performers and potential future stars in their own right. Sunday’s recitals built upon this with performances by students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and by Fika Collective, a group of young and far-travelled fiddlers playing music ranging from the Nordic countries all the way up to Australia!

The weather was kind for November, but even so the walk home after Saturday’s late session was bracing, and the early starters on Sunday morning might well have needed a jacket. The grass was still crunchy as I hurried back to Summerhall in the morning sunshine to catch one of the highlights of the festival, The Groove Is Not Trivial, a documentary by Tommie Dell Smith about the music and mindset of Alasdair Fraser, a master fiddler who left his native Clackmannanshire for California as a young man and who now runs fiddle camps across the world. A fascinating film, it discusses the Scottish Cultural Cringe, the reasons for Alasdair’s change from engineer to full-time musician, his exploration of Scottish music on fiddle and cello, his revolutionary approach to fiddle camps, and his personal, political and musical philosophy. This is a film every Scottish fiddler should see, and provides a real insight into a generation of Scots who were forced to take back their cultural identity, or lose it forever. I spoke afterwards with Roo Geddes, a young violinist who lost interest in music until he was cajoled into attending one of Alasdair’s camps on Skye: as a result, Roo has become an avid traditional player and a serious student of classical violin. I have heard this story repeated with variations by so many fiddlers who have been inspired by Alasdair, and I am now sorely tempted to attend one of his fiddle camps in Scotland, California, Spain or even Australia.

Which leads nicely on to Jeremy Kittel’s fiddle workshop on Sunday afternoon, another well attended event following the guitar and mandolin sessions by his bandmates. Perhaps 20 fiddlers, undeterred by Jeremy’s bravura performance the night before, had come to learn from this young master, and in a very relaxed atmosphere Jeremy discussed many things: the need to practice scales at least once a year, the role of chord sequences in music from simple jigs to jazz solos, and the importance of that groove again. I confess to being a melody junkie – I never learnt accompaniment and I’m not good on polyphonic instruments – but even I understand that there’s a shape to a tune which goes beyond or perhaps underpins the melody, and I’m beginning to appreciate the importance of that shape for rhythm, harmony, ringing strings, and even improvisation. Chasing Sparks is part of it too: as a performer or a composer, you must find the courage to follow the elusive spark or will-o-the-wisp which will guide you through a tune. That spark is what defines creativity, what motivates players to explore old music and write new music. Don’t beat yourself up for imperfections. Instead, motivate yourself to find that spark of creativity, that thing which makes playing worthwhile. It’s not important whether you play perfectly, or whether you master every technique, or even whether you can play exactly what you hear in your head: what matters is whether you follow and capture the spark. At least, that’s what I think Jeremy was saying.

Sunday afternoon showcased three very creative women with plenty of spark between them. Sally Simpson and Catriona Hawksworth are a fiddle-piano duo whose album Duo more than makes up for its dull title in breathtaking musical creativity: Sally and Catriona sparkled, in more ways than one, shimmering and shimmying through a stunning set of tunes from their excellent CD. They were followed by Amy Geddes, a fiddler from Galloway who had trouble with her Shetland Garters but not with her long-suffering accompanist Donald Knox or with the eight students she had brought to share the stage: all nine of them could boogie on down to traditional tunes, and played a beautiful version of Donald’s contentious air, The Mothers Of St Ann’s, which happens to feature on Simpson and Hawksworth’s album too.

Female fiddlers were certainly in the majority on Sunday, and probably on Saturday too. My neighbour in one recital wondered why this might be. Part of the explanation is perhaps the gender split among students: it was noticeable that the eight SFF outreach students included seven girls, and among Amy’s eight students there was likewise only one boy. I won’t speculate on why that might be. The number of relative youngsters on stage has a simpler explanation: the Scots Fiddle Festival actively promotes young performers and there were, in fact, almost no grey heads on the festival programme, which is clearly a great thing for the future of Scots fiddle music.

Sunday night’s concert followed some of these trends. The Boston-based pairing of Jenna Moynihan on fiddle and Màiri Chaimbeul on harp opened the show with a brilliant set of new and old music, much of it inspired by Scottish traditions or by Jenna’s Irish roots. These two stunning players produce rich, dramatic music, drawing on Màiri’s Gaelic heritage as well as Jenna’s Appalachian fiddle harmonies. Ms Moynihan also has a striking ability to power through big Scottish reels and strathspeys, thanks to her long experience with Boston Scottish fiddle competitions. Another duo with an outstanding new CD, this pair were still basking in their success at the Edinburgh Harp Festival earlier in the year, ticking our final festival box from the list earlier.

For the SFF finale, the ladies finally gave way to the laddies in the shape of Dallahan, a Glasgow based acoustic folk quintet combining Scottish, Irish, English, Hungarian and, to be honest, any other music that comes into their heads. This was the audience’s chance to dance, and they made the most of it: polkas, czardas, jigs, breakdowns, and things that go bump in the night were pumped out by accordion, fiddle, banjo, bass and the vocals of Jack Badcock. Jani Lang’s Transylvanian fiddle stuttered and screamed, moaned and laughed. Ciarán Ryan’s banjo lilted or hollered from Galway to Graceland. Andrew Waite sparred with both on brilliant piano box, leering at the audience or leaning into musical embraces like a latter-day Lemmy. Bev Morris on upright bass shook the floor with low bowed notes and explosive fingerwork, intensifying the physical side of this wonderful music.

Except for a few moments of step-dancing, and rare outbreaks of Terpsichorean activity by younger members of the audience, dancing had been noticeably absent from all the concerts and recitals: people of all ages and abilities redressed that balance during Dallahan’s set, jigging about for all they were worth, filling the floor with a mass of stomping feet below and bobbing heads above. Dallahan obliged with dance numbers in a bewildering range of rhythms, and set the tone with their own antics on stage. Martyn Bennett’s tune, Sheep Running About, springs to mind, as well as the showmanship of a consummate party band and the easy manner of musicians who know the room is filled with friends, fans and family.

Even the best concerts must end, but thankfully Edinburgh is a city where the craic and conviviality can continue far into the wee small hours. It used to be said that unless you were a local it was difficult to get a drink between three and six in the morning, but with the internet life is much easier now, and there is really no need to go home at all. As I left a very musical and increasingly friendly gathering some time after 2am, I was already looking forward to my next Scottish Fiddle Festival and renewing all the friendships and acquaintances I had made at this hugely enjoyable and rewarding event.
Next year’s dates – 16-18th November

Alex Monaghan