The King arrives in America


This 1926 press photograph featured in Wicked Good Fiddling, an exhibition on fiddling in Maine held last year at the Lewis Gallery, Portland. It shows, on the right, James Scott Skinner on arrival at Boston on his way to participate in the World Fiddlers’ contest at Lewiston Maine. The player on the left is the Irish competitor Wiseman from Co. Cork.


The story of 83 year old Skinner’s exploits on this trip are detailed in the People’s Journal of 29 May 1926 and reproduced in the modern edition of his biography My Life and Adventures (Aberdeen 1994) p. 111-113. There we learn that at the competition the contestants were banned from the playing of strathspeys. Also, the pianist was unable to follow Skinner’s playing and he left the platform in disgust. To make matters worse, particularly in the light of my earlier post on Skinner as the foe of jazz:

Another thing that hurt his dignity was that a jazz band had been engaged for the occasion and that contests in the playing of melodeons, mouth-organs, jews-harps, &c., were features of the entertainment. (p. 113)

I sounds like Skinner would have hated the festivals of the Traditional Music and Song Association of Scotland (TMSA) that introduced such competitions, along with those for fiddle, during the revival of the late 1960s!

Skinner Wiseman Press

The images are borrowed from the exhibition’s Facebook gallery:

James Scott Skinner: Scots Baronial Fiddler


This post was prompted by a message from fiddle researcher Ronnie Gibson.

Coming from a background in building conservation I find I am constantly drawing parallels between Scotland’s architectural and musical histories. The language of historic architecture can occasionally offer insights, perspectives or convenient terminology when seeking to describe a particular aspect of the music. Of course, this is not unusual among those who write and talk of the high arts (think “soaring Gothic”), but perhaps less common at the folk level.

Taking our lead from the writings of historian R. W. Brunskill, we often differentiate between vernacular and the polite architecture:

In architecture as in so many other fields a distinction may be made between the strand of low culture which runs alongside the more familiar and prestigious strand of high or academic culture. Vernacular architecture is part of the one strand while polite architecture is part of the other. The analogy with speech is an obvious one: there is the polite speech of the cultivated urban minority and the vernacular speech of the uneducated country-dwellers who once were in the majority. Whereas works of polite architecture are principally influenced by academic precedent, by aesthetic rules, by abstractions and by fashions in high society and only slightly, if at all, by traditions, those of vernacular architecture are influenced principally by immediate, local considerations and only to a limited though perhaps constantly increasing extent, by fashion or academic precedent. Innovations in polite architecture are frequent, speedily adopted, readily discarded; changes in vernacular architecture occur slowly and with a very long overlap between the decline of one tradition and the rise and general adoption of another.

[R W Brunskill, ‘Vernacular Building Traditions in the Lake District’ in John R. Baldwin and Ian D. Whyte (eds) The Scandinavians in Cumbria (Edinburgh, 1985), pp. 135-160, p. 135.]

I find this a handy and relatively value-free way of thinking of the dichotomy in Scottish fiddle music that, from the eighteenth century, has come to contrast the rough/untutored/country with the educated/urbane playing published works of named composers. Taking such thinking a stage further, I like to see the music and revival/tranforming activities of Scottish fiddlers of the late nineteenth century onwards, particularly those of James Scott Skinner, as the musical equivalent of the so-called Scottish Baronial style of architecture that was so successful at the same time:

Sometimes referred to as Scots Baronial, this was a revivalist style of architecture that emerged during the mid-19th century in Scotland and applied largely to country houses. It took its inspiration from the fortified and semi-fortified Scottish houses of the 16th and 17th centuries. But an important motivation was a new interest and exploration of national identity, which stemmed in part from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott and expressed in built form by his house at Abbotsford (1824), with its crow-stepped gables and projecting turrets. Further impetus was given when Queen Victoria acquired Balmoral and reconstructed it in 1852-1856. Scottish Baronial was also a reflection of a more general European interest in the revival of picturesque styles, which were used to express national character. It conveyed a romantic image of Scottish national identity and tradition, typified by the incorporation of architectural features such as crenellations, turrets, gables, small windows, little ornamentation and the use of rough-hewn stone.


I made this connection in a paper on Scottish music in which I discussed Skinner’s ‘improving’ approach to the tradition as promoted through his manifesto A Guide to Bowing (c1900). There I compared his emphasis on and exaggeration of key Scottish elements in the music with the deliberately prominent national details of baronial revival buildings.

[Eydmann, S 2006, ‘Unravelling the birl : using basic computer technology to understand traditional fiddle decorations’. in I Russell & M A Alburger (eds), Play It Like It Is : Fiddle and Dance Studies from around the North Atlantic. Elphinstone Institute Occasional Publication, no. 5, University of Aberdeen, Elphinstone Institute, Aberdeen, pp. 33-41, p. 38]

I later suggested that a:

…new, hybrid fiddle music was facilitated by the Royal household’s enthusiasm for and patronage of all things respectably Scottish, including piping, fiddling and dance. Also, its advocates were at pains to associate themselves with the creative and artistic legacy of the master player/composers of the so-called Golden Age of Scottish fiddle of the late eighteenth century while, at the same time, denigrating contemporary ‘country’ or ‘folk’ players and their styles. Skinner sought a modern, ‘national’ school of Scottish violin music, as in Hungary, and would have been delighted if his concerts had achieved the high status enjoyed by those of the professional Hardanger fiddlers of Norway described by Hkon Asheim in his paper to this conference.

[Eydmann, S ‘On First Hearing’ paper presented to the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention. Derry/Donegal, 2012. Awaiting publication]

This area, I suggest, merits further exploration. Coincidentally, I have recently found that Skinner had architectural associates, but I’ll leave that for another post.