Scottish Ceilidh & the Dynasties of Fiddle Families
If you are you thinking of booking or hiring an Scottish Ceilidh Band for your wedding reception or birthday party, then it is interesting to learn about the long history of the Scottish Ceilidh and the families that developed the tradition? So, what is a Scottish ceilidh and what is traditional Scottish folk music? It depends who you ask! Let me first of all get you worried by one description of a ceilidh, BUT then I will describe the sort of ceilidhs that we would normally put on for a wedding or party, and is the sort of ceilidh that is enjoyed in a large part of Scotland.
So here's the scary version of a ceilidh. Ask a person in an east coast Scottish town, and you may well get a description of an event that is likely to scare the living daylights out of you (unless you've been to dancing classes) where dancers are dancing complicated things like strathspeys, have all been to dancing classes, and dance to a band who play at exactly the right speed of 93.5 bpm, or whatever. (Yes, seriously, to the nearest decimal point. I have a copy from a very old book on Scottish dance, which gives the dance speeds for various kinds of dance to such ridiculous accuracy.) Is that sensible? No, not at all. But it is reflection of one attitude to Scottish dancing. It has to be perfect, it has to be just so. It is a perfect art form. And in this form it is really, seriously good, but it is more closely related to ballet or competition ballroom dancing, (as you might see on the Come Dancing TV series) than it is to a Scottish ceilidh that is intended to be a fun social event.
Does this description of a Scottish ceilidh scare you? It certainly scares me. I've played for plenty of dances for Scottish dance societies, than for reeling events, where the band is playing appropriately for such an event. It's more like playing Mozart in the position that is required, the folk music, and in my view it isn't really folk music.
Now, go and ask the same question in a West Coast Scottish. Let me recount a conversation I had with a guy on the island of Skye, on a beautiful sunny day (yes, very occasionally it does stop raining on the island of Skye, but you have to go at the right time of year, and this was May.) He was a guitarist who played in some of the local ceilidh bands, and also played internationally with the Scottish band toured around Europe. When I told him that I played in the Scottish ceilidh band in England, he looked alarmed. Was it a ceilidh band almost a Scottish country dance band, he asked? He then told me that they did ceilidhs on the island of Skye, and only once a year did they invite an east coast Scottish country dance band to the island, just to satisfy those people who liked to dance strathspeys, and do it all just right, just the right speed, in just the right way, in just the right attitude. On Skye, he said, we have wild ceilidhs. The right speed is as fast as you can go. That applies to the band and the dancers.
Well, that sounds like fun to me. This is the sort of laid back and fun ceilidh that goes down well at weddings and birthday parties and the like. The band doesn't necessarily play as fast as they can, because the band and caller will adjust the tempo to suit the people at the event. If they are elderly or have had a tiring day at the wedding ceremony, the drinks reception and have stuffed themselves full at the wedding breakfast, then perhaps the dancing will go quite slowly. But if there energetic bunch of graduate doctors who have just got their degrees and celebrating the end of their university life, or if they are an athletics group used to running 20 miles every night, then they are going to be full of energy and wanted to go flat out and the band mustn't disappoint them!
So how come they can be one term, a Scottish ceilidh, and to seemingly opposing descriptions. If history. The history of Scottish folk music is very different to, let us say the history of Irish folk music. Irish ceilidhs tend to have the same background, it is music and dance of the people for the people, in other words genuine FOLK. Although there is a strand of Scottish folk music and Scottish ceilidh that is the same as this, there is another strand that diverged to become the music and dance of the aristocracy, the music of the military, indeed the Scottish pipes that you hear in the military pipe band, perhaps playing the original pibroch pipe music, is part of a military weapon, the ancient equivalent of a tactical nuclear weapon. This might sound daft, unless you've heard a pipe band in the open coming towards you marching.
I had this experience years ago at RAF Holton. It was an open day, the pipe band was out in force. The runway at RAF Holton goes over a hill, so that if you're standing at one end, you can't see the far end of the runway as it disappeared over a gentle rise and fall. The band were marching from the opposite end of the runway. At first you could only hear this faint howling in the distance. You could hear the groans, but you couldn't hear the chances playing the tune clearly because they were too far away, there was just an unearthly in human howling sound. As they marched towards us the sound louder and louder, bit by bit. Gradually as they approached, though still out of sight, you could start to make out the skirl of the pipes, the tunes that they were playing. It was an original pibroch piece, completely suited for the rather strange scale that the pipes play in. (When bagpipes are playing the well-known marches, it never sounds quite right, because the more modern music is written in the usual key that author instruments play in, the tune of the bagpipes and the intervals between nodes aren't quite the same, so it always sounds a little odd. However when playing the original old people music, then that was written and developed for the scale that the pipes really play, and to me it's absolute perfection.).
Anyway, you were hearing this scream of the massed pipes getting gradually louder, but couldn't see anything of them, until just over the rise you saw these vertical spikes bobbing and swaying gradually getting taller and taller, what sort of creature was this? Was it some mythical monster, because the size of it was hugely stretched from left to right right across the runway. It was alive, because was moving like a giant enormous centipede lying on its back waving its legs in the air, and it was coming straight towards you, screaming and howling. I can tell you, the goosebumps were coming up all over me. Even though I knew what it was, it was still terrifying. Yes, perhaps ridiculous to feel terrified on a beautiful sunny day in Oxfordshire, but there was something primaeval about this, something supernatural, something slightly inhuman.
Imagine this happening to you standing on a battlefield, perhaps the Battle of Culloden or some other similar events in the wilds and mists of Scotland. Standing there with your sword knowing that soon you would be fighting for your survival. Imagine seeing this coming towards hearing this coming towards you, you had hundreds of men around you but what was this was coming at you, something in human, you didn't stand a chance.
This was a runway in Oxfordshire. The lakes grew longer and longer until you began to see these hairy beasts stretching across runway dozens of them, furry vicious -looking creatures with their wavy legs. I knew that what you are seeing with the tall bearskin helmets the pipers were wearing, and that the waving legs with the groans of the chances, but even knowing that didn't change the primaeval fear that was welling inside me. Gradually the men grew taller and taller as they came over the hill first their bearskins, then their heads, then their shoulders made to look even broader by the bagpipes they had slung over their shoulders and the splaying drones, then their sporrans waving from side to side in unison as they marched, then their kilts, and then there are whole forms as they came over the brow of the hill, superhumanly tall extended upwards by their bearskin hat and the drones of their pipes. One part of me wants to run. I'm sure if I was in the opposing army, we would have all turned and run by now. They would have won the battle without drawing a drop of blood.
So there are many elements in the history of Scottish ceilidh music and dancing which have little to do with folk on the ordinary population of the country, and this makes it somewhat different to most folk music. So let's examine it.
Scottish folk music has a long tradition, going back to the people what is a Scottish traditional pibroch bagpipe music. From there it became part of the music of the aristocracy and the Royal Courts, was hijacked by the purveyors of nostalgia in the Victorian era, was rescued by people like the Shetland fiddle player, Tom Anderson, and is now fit and well both within Scotland, and beyond, particularly in parts of calendar and America where there is not a dry eye at the sound of the pipes, and great enthusiasm for good old Scottish ceilidh dance.
Even within Scotland there is a huge difference between an East Coast and West Coast ceilidh. I was only up in sky earlier this year, talking to a guy who played in a number of local ceilidh bands. When I told them that I played in a Scottish ceilidh band down in England, he looked alarmed and asked whether it was a Proper ceilidh band or one of those Scottish country dance bands, played so oh genteel the video so perfect dancing. He told me that once a year they had a dance band from the east coast for those who liked to do the highfalutin dances, but for all the other ceilidhs they expected to have a West Coast ceilidh. He explained that it is always better to have two fiddlers are to accordions in the band, because you could make the dancing go faster and faster, (I think the idea was that when one of the musicians started to flag all got muddled up, the other would take over and keep things going without any slackening of pace), and that the object of the exercise was to see how fast the band and the dancers could go before they fell into a heap. This is so very different from the common attitude in England, where the aficionados keep impressing how important it is to go steadily so the dancers can do all the steps. Not so on the West Coast of Scotland. They have a much more upbeat attitude to the whole process. BRILLIANT!
So let's run through some the history of and background to the Scottish ceilidh.
The art of music-making has often produced particular families whose involvement has extended down through several generations, the skills being handed on from father to son. Scottish traditional fiddling has proved no exception in this respect with such famous names as the Allan family from Forfar, the Cummings from Speyside and the Gows from Dunkeld.
Outstanding among these fiddling families is the Hardie family. In the realms of both performance and violin-making.It was common for fiddlers to also be violin makers, and the business tended to run in families where skills, both in violin making and in violin playing, were passed down through the generations. There is no jumping on the train and popping down to London to the music shops there, travel was hard in the past, particularly if you're living in the Highlands and Islands, if you wanted something, you made it there and then. This was brought home to me by the filmmaker who used to live on the banks of Loch Hourn, on the mainland opposite the island of Skye. It's a wild place now and takes a long time to drive to from the head of Loch Duich, round past Glen Elg and the little ferry that still runs across the sky, and along to Arnisdale and Corran. Is now very different to how it was only 25 years ago, before the EU funded the programme of replacing all the singletrack roads in the Highlands with wide, gently cambered and inclined roads that you can zoom along at 60 miles an hour. Back then the average speed was probably about 25 miles now, having to dive into passing places whenever the occasional car or tractor or lorry came by. It was an adventure in itself, especially to started at Lochalsh, where they used to be a ferry going cross to sky it where there is now a rather beautiful and elegant bridge.
To get to Arnisdale from the end of line railway station at Lochalsh, on drove to Dornie, past the world-famous Eileen Doane and Castle in all its picturesque beauty with the sea leg of Lochalsh as backdrop, inland along q. week towards the Five Sisters of Kintail range of mountains, past Morvich with the National trust Lodge and the Caravan club caravan site, where earlier this year I met a fiddler from a different genre, a member of a very prestigious baroque ensemble, who was backpacking with his son in the area. On past Shiel Bridge, when they sometimes hold c traditional Scottish ceilidhs at the village hall, or bingo sessions as I discovered when I stumbled into one by mistake some years ago, and left just before Rattagan to head over the high Mam Rattagan pass leading over the mountains to Glenelg. This in itself was an adventure that in the old days could take a couple of hours by the time it had stopped to take in the view at various scenic locations. But you only halfway there. Things really got wild after that. Very little habitation, and the scene changed as you passed the islands of Sandaig, made famous by the author Gavin Maxwell and his book the Ring of Bright water about his life there with the otters. On wood along the coast into the frighteningly wild and impressive Loch Hourn, where several miles before its head, the road ends. There is no way out from the head of this law except on foot, with an overnight camp before reaching another road and habitation. It was here that they used to be a fiddle maker, much as the fiddle makers of old would have been isolated in their own little communities. He made his instruments was looking out onto the, he played in his local ceilidh bands, that was it. And so it was with the fiddlers that I'm describing here.
Chronologically, the story begins with Matthew Hardie who was born in Edinburgh in 1755. The probability is that he trained as a cabinet-maker and studied violin-making with a fiddle maker by the name of John Blair. Hardie developed a violin-making and repair business , finding sufficient time to pass on his skills to the younger generation of Scottish violin-makers, in the traditional expert and apprentice situation that was prevalent at the time, also teaching Thomas Hardie (his son) and Peter Hardie (his full cousin). Thus the family connection continued.
This instrument all manually handcrafted, and the importation of cheap German factory-made fiddles seriously affected the business, and eventually destroyed his business, him ending up in the debtor's jail. He died in St. Cuthbert's Poorhouse on the 30th of August, 1826 and was buried in Edinburgh's Grey-friars' Churchyard. A rather sad story of a business being destroyed by competition, which is common enough occurrence nowadays, but doesn't normally end up with such dire consequences. I guess that's the advantage of the welfare state. But life was hard back in the 1820s, much harder than it is for today's Scottish ceilidh bands and instrument makers.
Hardie generally copied the Amati and Stradivari styles of violin, using a spirit varnish which ranged in colour from pale amber to yellow-brown or yellow-red but which has now mostly dulled to a brownish colour.
Here is a comment on Hardie's violins made his Scottish Violin Makers: Past and Present (1910), William C. Honeyman writes:
It is evident that the graceful lines of his violins and the perfect contour of his scrolls have come intuitively from the man's brain more than from his patterns. ... in every one of his violins there is apparent in every line that subtle something which no one can define but which is seen as clearly in the roughest work of Joseph Guarneri (del Jesu). It is the same with the tone. The trained ear at once notes that it is not a commonplace tone, though it sometimes takes a firm hand to show its real grandeur.
Moving on through the family history now, Matthew's son Thomas Hardie was born in Edinburgh circa 1804. Note that this is an East Coast family, and if you remember me saying earlier, the East Coast attitude to a Scottish ceilidh is that everything has to be perfect and just so. This of course is an excellent mentality for a violin maker, because instrument making is absolute precision in wood. This would be a very different situation to the instrument maker I described earlier, who lived in the wilds the west coast. I wonder if the sound of the instruments they made was different because of this, just as the sound of the Norwegian variant of the violin, the Hardanger fiddle is different from the traditional violin, reflecting the wildness and wide open spaces and mountains and fjords of Norway in its sound?
Back to the subject! His apprenticeship began the surprisingly early age of ten and continued for twelve years until father's death in 1826.
Thomas Hardie's work is characterised by craftsmanship of a high order; (is this east coast Scottish thing again!) Vision instrument and a distinctive pale yellowish varnish. Despite his copying of the same Amati Stradivari models as Matthew Hardie, his instruments cannot be favourably compared to with his father's best instruments.
Peter Hardie, the son of an army surgeon, was born (probably abroad) circa 1775, but most of his life in the Dunkeld area of Perthshire. Generally known as "Highland Hardie" he was man of imposing appearance and powerful physique, making the most of the Scottish style as one sees to such great effect with images of Victorian Scottish fiddle player Scott Skinner, who looks positively fearsome. The Scottish ceilidh whether a figure like that at the helm would be quite an event I'm sure, quite different in appearance to the soft and friendly check shirts and casual trousers that are the usual attire these days.
Hardie was a pupil of the then famous Niel Gow and became a in the traditional style. (Note this, that he was a composer of 'traditional' music, and this is typical of Scottish'folk music', where much of it is formally composed rather than being music that has come from an oral tradition. While studying at Edinburgh University he was able to spend time in the workshop of his cousin Matthew Hardie and it was from this master craftsman that he himself learnt the craft of violin-making. In turn, Peter Hardie, passed on his expertise to Willie, the so-called Queen's Fiddler, and to his grandson James Hardie. So yes, a real family business.
He developed his own style instrument, which he is a cross between that of Stainer, the German fiddle maker whose instruments but very distinctive, having a very curved top at, indeed I have a copy of one, and the much flatter Amati. One description by a writer of the past, a Mr W Honeyman states"The Scroll", , "is turned sharply out at the edges in the style of Joseph Ruddiman, whose instrumentsHardie had probably seen and admired. The violins are all neatly purfled, and the tone is large and mellow."
It was with Peter Hardie's son William Hardie (1787 - 1884) that the family moved (around 1830) from Perthshire to Aberdeenshire (note here, still the east coast of Scotland) in the north-east of Scotland. The move initially was to Sauchen Tree near the village of Methlick, and subsequently (c. 1835) to Aquhadley, near Ellon. The family finally put down roots in the Methlick area where Hardie became a tenant of the croft of "Auchencruive".
William Hardie married Mary Strachan (1805 - 1910) the daughter of another celebrated northeast fiddler John Strachan "Drumnagarrow". (So the little business and the ceilidh and music business was a family concern even into marrying into other people in the same line of business. This is much like royalty, and of course ceilidh musicians were treated as royalty in those days, though the tradition is regrettably dying out. At a traditional Scottish ceilidh, when it comes to food, the band always get fed first. When the band arrive, the are formally welcomed with a drink. The band and the caller are a vital part of the evening's entertainment, without them there would be no ceilidh. There was, and still is to a large extent in Scotland, a polite tradition of welcoming guests, a more formal tradition on the east coast a very informal tradition on the West Coast. It doesn't just extend to events like ceilidhs and welcome the ceilidh band, but just in everyday life. When I was living on the West Coast, you never popped in to see somebody without getting at least a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and very often a wee dram. One always had to have cake available, just encased any neighbours or friends popped in, because without offering the cake you will be regarded as just one of those Sassenach's with no manners.)
To continue! They had a family of no fewer than fifteen, several of whom were subsequently to distinguish themselves musically. William himself, like his father before him, combined the talents of composer and player, although he was probably more of a specialist on the 'cello than the small 'fiddle.
James Hardie, son of William Hardie, was born at Aquhadley on the 1st of January, 1836. At the tender age of nine the young James received his first lessons in violin-making from his grandfather, Peter Hardie. He went on to make his first complete instrument when he was fifteen years old and eventually set up business in Edinburgh where, in a long career, he produced over two thousand instruments. He died in 1916 at the age of eighty.
Although he also worked to Guarneri and Stradivari models, his best instruments were undoubtedly those based on Maggini. These are often characterised by use of double purfling and ornamentation on the back. His varnish has a fossil-amber base and is of a golden amber or golden red colour. Hardie's talents as a luthier were complemented by considerable practical skill as a player of strathspeys and reels. James Hardie's work has received considerable critical acclaim.
Born at Aquhadley, Charles Hardie (1849 - 1893) was the son of William Hardie and brother of James. A carpenter by trade in the city of Aberdeen, he was considered "one of the best violinists in Scotland in his day". J. Scott Skinner (who I mentioned earlier is having a grand and fearsome Victorian Scotsman image, who was obviously not a shrinking violet in other ways. I have a book of his music, with a fearsome picture of him on the front, and the modest statement made by him underneath which goes something like "talent does what it can, genius does what it must ", presumably the genius was the very modest Mr Skinner!)
Charles Hardie's talents were accorded the official recognition of his being invited to play for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. (You see, Scottish folk music in Scottish ceilidh is was high-fashion, the stuff of the Royals, not just music for the humble people. In some ways it was stolen from the general population. And I suppose in some ways, Irish music has slightly similar if not more ancient history. It is regarded as music of the people now, and doesn't have the same Victorian connection with the aristocracy as Scottish folk and Scottish ceilidh music has, that if one goes back even further in history to the iconic Irish folk harpist Turlough O'Carolan who was around from 1670 to 1738, he was a regular performer at Royal Courts all around Europe. So there's a bit question of how folky is folk music?
On being informed of his untimely death at the age of 44 the Queen is said to have expressed her own personal feeling of loss at the passing of this talented musician. It's sad that he died so early, because playing a musical instrument is normally very good exercise and quite physically hard work, so it tends to keep musicians fit, but obviously not so in his case!
William Hardie Jnr. (c. 1856 - 1944), son of William Hardie and brother of James and Charles, was born at "Auchencruive". A good exponent of the slow strathspey, dance strathspey and reel, he was a man whose talents, far in advance of the average country fiddler were much in demand at local dances and functions, i.e. Scottish ceilidh is.
Following the death of his youngest child Annie — she died of meningitis at the age of 9 — he was so grief-stricken that he gave up the fiddle for a period of some twenty years. (I can understand this, as music is an emotional activity, being a way of expressing one's own emotions and creating emotions in other people. If one isn't happy inside, is difficult to play happy music for others, and Scottish ceilidh is about enjoyment and happiness.) Time however is a great healer and he eventually returned to his music, continuing to play right up to his death in his 88th year.
Grandson of William Hardie Jnr. and son of John Hardie, an Aberdeen engineer, Bill Hardie was born in Aberdeen in 1916. His enthusiasm for the fiddle was first kindled by the playing of his grandfather at "Auchencruive" and this, together with the playing of J.F. Dickie and the recordings of J. Scott Skinner, can be cited as his principal influences. (You can hear some of Scott Skinner's original recordings on YouTube, and it's interesting how nostalgic and to our modern ear, rather sickly, some of his playing is, but this is only a matter of changing styles and expectations.)
Bill Hardie achieved competitive success at Aberdeen in 1937 by winning a challenge cup for the performance of J. Scott Skinner's strathspey and reel compositions. Again in 1951 he won the slow air and march, strathspey and reel classes at the Banchory and Mintlaw festivals. (So this was a competitive business with festivals and so on, much as with the Welsh Eisteddfod and the American folk music contests, where traditional folk tunes will be stretched and developed into a standing complexity.)
Other significant activities include innumerable broadcasts for the B.B.C., (the first broadcast was at the age of sixteen, quite something), recording, adjudication, teaching and, from 1965 - 67, the conductorship of the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society. Of particular interest is his lifelong friendship with J. Murdoch Henderson (1902 - 1972), whose Scottish Music Maker (1957) testifies to a highly fruitful collaboration between collector and player.
The picture emerges then of a family's emotional and professional involvement throughout a wide range of the art and craft of music. The work of these men and the tradition which they represent has been sustained by convictions of social usefulness and artistic value.
So this brief look at one particular dynasty of Scottish ceilidh band musicians and instrument makers, shows that it is something much more than just music of the common people spontaneously invented and created in communities, it is a come pleat business enterprise whether skills are both playing music and making instruments were passed on through the generations much as the skills of stonemasons were passed on through apprentices and entry into the Guild. To how different is it to the music of Mozart and other classical composers who plied their trades through family lines, was supported by royal patrons and continued their classical traditions, which are now used more generally both on the classic FM radio station and by our string quartets and harpists playing for church wedding ceremonies and civil wedding ceremonies and the wedding celebrations thereafter. Perhaps not much difference, as a matter of fashion.
If what you have read has inspired you, you can follow the links below to see the bands that perform in your county. Enjoy!