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.

Recordings of Artists Working in Scotland 1978

Recordings-1978 Massed-Fiddles

Those interested in the folk revival in Scotland will find this publication an essential resource and, of course, it covers other forms of music too.  Published by the Scottish Arts Council in January 1978 it is a:

…list of recordings of the work of artists living in Scotland… Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy and the Council gladly acknowledges the help in preparing the list given by: Elisabeth Hutchings; Kim Chambers, School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh; Paul Hindmarsh, Scottish Music Archive; the Recording Industry.

The extract above shows the entries for “massed fiddles”, a genre which was quite popular at the time of publication. Unfortunately, solo and general fiddle music is scattered through the lists for “traditional”, “Scottish country dance bands”, “revival” and others. Nevertheless, it forms a very welcome snapshot of commercial music activity at a crucial time in Scotland’s musical history.

Some words of wisdom

Some more words of wisdom from fiddleologist Mark Wilson:

By the way, we should note that our understanding of British tradition isn’t so hot either. I’ve not been able to hear very much Scottish music proper that is bowed in the fashion of the older Cape Bretoners. Apparently the 19th century wreaked havoc on the “folk fiddling” in Scotland: either the Presbyterians burned your instrument or you were taught to “elevate” your playing by incorporating classical techniques. Insofar as I am aware, we do not possess a very reliable picture of the evolution of Irish fiddling either. Once again people don’t seem to be asking the proper questions.

From Kerry Blech ‘In the Field. An Interview with Mark Wilson.’ in The Old-Time Herald Vol. 7, No. 6. It can be read in full here.

Glasgow Fiddlers, from the records

Fiddler's Close 2 Fiddlers Close, Glasgow

Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow Vol. 1, 1573-1642, ed. J D Marwick (Edinburgh, 1914), pp. 1-34 [accessed 6 August 2015]:

29 October 1574: Pipers, fiddlers, minstrels, vagabonds.

Item, it is statute and ordanit that na pyparis, fidleris, menstrales, or ony wther vagabundis, remane in this toun fra this tyme furtht during the tyme of the pest but speciall leif of the prouest or vnder the pane of scurgeyng and banisment; and alsua that na pure commone beggaris remane in this towne fra this furtht except thai that hes bene borne within burght and parochin or hes bene lang within the samyn, and that thai depart furtht of this towne within xxiiij houris nixt, vnder the pane of burnyng on the cheik; and ordanis tham that is permittit to remane, to cum to the tolbuytht and ressaue thair merkis the morn and gif in thair names, and gif it salbe fund that ony of the beggaris resaueris of the merkis trawell furtht of the burght or parrochin and cum in agane thairinto thair merkis sal be tane fra thame and thai banist for ewir.

Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow Vol. 3, 1663-1690, ed. J D Marwick (Glasgow, 1905), p. 492:

From Michaelmas, 1664, to Michaelmas, 1665

Item, to Robert Inglishe, the tounes musitiane, for his fiel : 20.00.00 Scots

Extracts From the Accounts of the Burgh of Glasgow Vol. 3, 1663-1690, p. 510:

From Michaelmas, 1685, to Michaelmas, 1686

Item, to the fidleris and drummers on the King’s birthday, four rex dalleris : 11.12.00 Scots

Before the Fiddle 4c : Poland


The above photograph is a detail from a picture postcard, already quite old I think, that I bought in Zakopane, Poland, in 1977. Note the fiddler plays on a small kit-like instrument and that the bass is lozenge shaped and has three strings. The fiddle and bass combination is common in the music of Eastern Europe including Romania and Hungary and was once known in Scotland also – think of those paintings of Niel Gow band. The benefit of this grouping for dance music is obvious, and once more there may be clues to how traditional music in Scotland once sounded waiting to be discovered in other cultures that employed it.

Before the Fiddle 4b : Poland


I cannot recommend this website highly enough for anyone interested in the pre-violin and folk-violin bowed instruments. The sheer variety of fiddle types is mind boggling, the website is beautifully designed and the sound recordings and videos are a delight and must surely hold clues to what might have been heard in Scotland. But don’t take it from me – spend some time there now!

By the 17th century, it is estimated that there were at least 30,000 Scots living in Poland. Krakow was one of the main cities in which they settled, and in 1576, the Scottish community in Krakow was large enough that Poland’s King Stefan Batory, assigned a district of the city for them to settle in. Given Scotland’s trading and military links with Poland from the mid-sixteenth century onwards and the great number of Scots who went there, could instruments have come to Scotland that way?

Before the Fiddle 5a : Scotland

I made a trip to the National Museum of Scotland to look at a couple of woodcarvings that are a key part of the very limited iconography of the early bowed instruments in Scotland. These items have been employed by writers on Scottish music to support the suggestion that there was a pre-violin fiddle tradition.


This Picassoesque carved relief, perhaps from Threave Castle, Kirkcudbrightshire, and from the late 1500s, shows a violin bodied instrument with a long neck played horizontally from the upper arm. There appears to be a projecting terminal where the scroll is expected. It has been suggested that the subject (and the accompanying bagpiper and dancers) are minstrels, i.e. professional entertainers, and links to Atlantic Spain have been postulated.


In this mid-sixteenth century carving associated with Perthshire the putto is more symbolic rather than real, as found extensively in drawn and painted art throughout Europe although the bells and ribbons around his knees do suggest jolly, musical fun. The musician is playing a rebec-like instrument of three strings, again in a horizontal fashion. The fingers of his left hand do not quite meet the strings – is it possible that the player is using the finger nail, side pressure technique found in Crete, Bulgaria, Poland and elsewhere as discussed in previous posts?

Neal Gow, the Highland Fiddler, 1801

Neal GowAfter months of searching I have now traced the above image of the great man that I had seen some time ago. I never thought to search for it under the spelling Neal.

The image is by J Jenkins and is published by the National Library of Scotland in its Digital Gallery [, shelfmark Ry.II.b.16] under a Creative Commons Non-commercial ShareAlike 4.0 International licence.