Before the Fiddle 1 : A Parallel Universe

Scotland’s writers and historians of the national and traditional music have speculated on whether there was a tradition of bowed instruments before the arrival of those of the viol type leading, ultimately, to absorbtion of the violin family. Speculation has been based on a relatively small number of written sources although I’d like to think modern scholars may have added more to these.

Francis Collinson (The National and Traditional Music of Scotland (London, 1966) p.199) states that “Stringed instruments of different sorts and styles played with a bow have existed in Scotland from a very early period” and quotes Henry Farmer in A History of Music in Scotland who refers to lines in a poem by Thomas the Rhymer:

                Harp and fedyl

                The getern and the sawrty

                Lut and rybid ther gon gar

                Thair was al maner of mysnstralsy


There is, therefore, suggestion of the fiddle (fedyl) and of the rebec (rybid). Names, however, are no indication of what actual instruments actually were at any time as the same name was often applied to different devices and established titles stuck, even when the instruments were greatly changed or new.

There has also been speculation on bowed harps and similar instruments that may have come from Celtic or Scandinavian cultures.

Collinson (plate 11) has a good photograph of a rebec player carved on the outside wall of the south transept of Melrose Abbey that he suggests is 12th century. I have yet to see this carving and to locate a recent photograph so I am not sure what condition it is currently in. Carvings of musicians exist on a number of Scotland’s monuments but many have suffered considerable deterioration in recent times.


Then there is the oft-quoted and much later reference to Mary Queen of Scots being entertained in Edinburgh in 1560 by “a concert of the vilest fiddles and little rebecs, which are as bad as can be in that country” (Collinson 1966, p. 201).

In terms of the pear shaped, mandolin sized rebec, therefore, there is very little to go on. The making and playing of rebecs of all shapes and sizes have been revived through the early music movement although, to my limited knowledge, it has not attracted the attention of many players of Scottish traditional music.

The rebec is, to my mind and ear, very viable as a medium for much Scottish music, and it seems a pity that it has not been exploited/discovered/explored more. This example show one way:

I wonder if there are complex revival forces operating here as Scottish musicians have tended to promote revivals that build on the more recent ‘golden age’ of the 18th century enlightenment and/or are committed to the generation and performance of what we call “new music in the tradition”. I suggest that questions and messages of national identity, image and future direction are at play here by which the connotations and sounds of the parallel revivals of the ‘very early music’ movement are rejected.

Ethnomusologists love the idea of comparative study of living musical cultures and often prefer to look sideways rather than backwards for comparators. In Europe, but as far away from Scotland as we might go, it is possible to encounter instruments of the rebec type in everyday use. Might these give use some clues as to how such instruments might have been performed at one time in Scotland (if at all) and insights into our music in general?

In Crete the bowed lyra is highly popular and enjoys a large, principally male (as far as I can detect) player community. The instrument is held almost vertically rather than under the chin and the strings are stopped not by pressing down on the finger board but by placing the finger nail against the string from the side.This allows for very precise intonation and the playing of a range of glissandi, vibrati and interesting ornamentation. In autumn 2014 in Rethymnon I visited the workshop featured in the video below where, sitting in the same chair as the musician shown, I was given a lesson on the instrument. I tried my best but could hardly get a sound from it! I was wholly unprepared for the idea of stopping the string from the side and became totally finger tied.

I know nothing of this player or his music but this video is another good introduction to the instrument and how it is played:

But, as is always the case with music, things are not all they seem.

The lyra is tuned as in the violin but it was not always that way. The instrument as made and played today is a modern version of an older instrument the lyraki that may have been associated in performance, musical style and repertory with a bagpipe tradition. Tunings were was different and there was much use of open strings and drones. The modern lyra subsequently developed under the influence of, and in competition with, the violin and was adapted to survive. In doing so, it and its music, became more violinistic.

The violin became a dominant instrument is some parts of Crete, as in the province of Chaniá in the nineteenth century, while, until the second half of the twentieth century in Western Crete, the lyra was played mainly in the province of Rethymnon. After the Second World War the lyra became the subject of a major ‘official’ revival in which the violin, despite being long-absorbed into traditional music making, was shunned. Endorsed musical revivals, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so, are not rare. The lyra is certainly popular today among young musicians as well as old and we find, as elsewhere, the presence of new folk ensembles using ‘foreign’ instruments and sounds to make a new Cretan music. I recommend listening to the 2005 album Music of Crete by lyra player and revivalist Ross Daly that can be auditioned on Spotify.

The revival pattern in this case appears to me to have been:

older bowed instrument played with bagpipes >>> old instrument and its music modernised under influence of violin >>> violin absorbed into traditional music making >>> modernised instrument coexists with violin and takes on aspects from it >>> ‘foreign’ violin rejected on ideological grounds >>>  modernised, violin influenced instrument privileged and officially endorsed >>> modernised instrument undergoes subsequent revival and reinforcement

This, if I have it correct, could be a good basis for comparison with how the fiddle : violin polarity has played out in Scotland.

There are historical recordings of the old ways of playing and a good album of Cretan fiddle music available on Spotify: Muisca populare di Creta- I Violinisti / Folk Music of Crete – The Fiddlers. For a case study of how the the lyra – violin tension affected one musician I recommend this excellent website Repertories and identities of a musician from Crete by Tullia Magrini.