About Scottish Fiddle Music

A brief overview

Scotland has a long and noble musical tradition. In order of antiquity, the three most important Scottish instruments are the harp, bagpipe, and fiddle. In the days of Mary Queen of Scots the “rebec” was in vogue, a bowed instrument. When the Italian violin developed, it took immediate hold in Scotland. As the new fiddle was beckoning the Scots to dance, a newly reformed Church (now Presbyterian) was condemning the instrument as a vehicle of licentiousness.The gentry would not give up their dance, and rich and poor alike side-stepped the clergy’s protestations. All over the land, from Duke’s ballroom to shepherd’s fields, the power of the fiddler’s “up driven bow” made the success of the gathering.

Bowed string instruments have been called fiddles in Northern Europe since at least the 12th century. The word in Old English had various spellings from fithele to fiddlel. In Gaelic it’s fidhle, and in Yiddish, fidl.  As for 'violin,' it is a 16th century adaptation of the Italian word violino.

Classical music is a composer’s medium. Fiddling is a performer’s medium. Great fiddling demands spontaneous inventiveness on the part of the player, bringing alive exciting variations of tunes.  Where classical music might focus on tonal purity, fiddling technique projects the beat. Since fiddle music is dance music, fiddlers set a high value on rhythmic drive.

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Types of tunes

Fiddle tunes are often referred to by the meters in which they're written, which in turn are associated with particular dances.

Jig

6/8

Slip Jig

9/8

Pipe March

6/8

March

2/4

Reel

4/4

Hornpipe

4/4, occasionally 3/2

Waltz

3/4

Strathspey*

4/4

Air

freely

*The strathspey, which is indigenous to Scotland, is named for the area in which it originated, the strath (valley) of the river Spey.

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Some sources for tunes

SFSF tunes-of-the-month from 1986 to the present are available from Music Librarian Sandy Joseph; an essential reference for those who read music. There is a charge of approximately $69 to cover photocopying, plus the postage fee.

There are dozens of compilations of Scottish tunes. The following are a just a few of the better known collections.

Carlin, Richard

The Gow Collection of Scottish Dance Music

Fraser, Simon

The Airs and Melodies Peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles

Hardie, Alastair

The Caledonian Companion

MacDonald, Keith Norman

The Skye Collection

Taigh na Teud

Ceol na Fidhle, Vols 1 -?

A good mail order source for these and many other collections is Fiddler's Crossing. Email Jan Tappan for a catalog, or fax an order or a question to her at (626) 792-6323.

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Further reading

Here are some references for further reading about Scottish traditional music.

Alburger, Mary Anne

Scottish Fiddlers and their Music (London, 1983)

Elliot, Kenneth & Rimmer, Frederick

A History of Scottish Music (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973)

Emmerson, George

Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of  Scottish Dance Music (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971)

Farmer, Henry George

A History of Music in Scotland (London 1947)

Johnson, David

Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1972)

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