The Scots Fiddle Festival 2019, Edinburgh, 15-17 November.
Driving up through England overnight in a torrential downpour, suddenly the rain turned to snow and then the snow cleared and the Scottish Borders came into view: the Eildons, the Lammermuirs, and away in the distance the lights of Edinburgh. Two more hours of driving under a clear sky brought me to the Pleasance, a compact complex of rooms hosting the Scots Fiddle Festival for the second year running, and booked for its 25th birthday in 2020. The 2019 festival featured three full days of fiddling from Scotland, Canada, the USA, Norway and more, world class players with an audience of fiddlers and fiddle fans from around the globe. Almost every event was already sold out when I arrived, and some of the workshops had been moved to a larger room because of the high demand.
Kicking off this year's festival were Ross Couper and Tom Oakes. Best known as one of the frontmen of the Peatbog Faeries, Ross hails from Shetland, and even up there he's considered a phenomenal fiddler and a force of nature on stage. Tom Oakes from Devon is a great flute-player in the Irish style, and also a fine guitarist who is one of the few that can keep up with Ross. Playing many of their own tunes, belters every one, this duo did slow down briefly for a waltz. Guitarist and box-player extraordinaire Tim Edey dropped in for a few tunes with them, swapping shirts and stories, pumping out some great Irish reels. Even with a half-hour over-run, the crowd was demanding more and many stayed for the Festival Club bonus tracks after midnight! Peg Collective - three Scottish fiddlers and keyboard queen Jen Austin - were followed by the concert openers Twelfth Day, a fascinating duo of fiddle and harp with vocal harmonies and a highly entertaining repertoire from ballads to bossa nova. Couper and Oakes brought Edinburgh fiddler Kathryn Nicoll and Battlefield's Alasdair White to the Festival Club stage, along with Mr Edey whose box was well able to compete with three fiddles. Reels, jigs and more, good old Irish and Scots tunes, ended the first night in fine style.
Saturday saw sessions and workshops to start the day - sleepy tutors from Shetland and Orkney, with wide-awake Marie Fielding focusing on tone. I caught the end of Marie's Spectrum Project recital, her own compositions backed by Tom Orr and Luc McNally with Chloë Bryce: I missed the start as I was in a delightful workshop on ornamentation with the rightly celebrated fiddler Liz Carroll. Gavin Marwick was sadly unable to appear because of quite serious illness - hundreds of people wished him well - so Charlie Stewart stepped in alongside jazzer Fergus McCreadie on a keyboard which threatened to jump off its stand with his inventive pounding! More innovation from Farrland, Bavarian fiddler Bernadette Kellermann with Calum Morrison and David Shedden, left Madeleine Stewart and her trio to wrap up the afternoon. Madeleine is from the Boston Scottish fiddle community which has produced several great young players, and she looks like being the next.
Forget food: we launched into sessions around 5pm, with familiar faces from Newcastle and Linlithgow, Riddle Fiddles from the Borders, and new friends from Switzerland, the USA, Yorkshire, and other exotic locations. Nobody wanted to miss the evening concert - Liz Carroll and guitar genius Jenn Butterworth, softened up by Gnoss and their brand of boyish exuberance. At 7.30 sharp, the stage was filled by the Youth Engagement Project, young fiddlers tutored by Adam Sutherland to deliver three pieces from his new collection What a Story a Pair of Boots Could Tell: a powerful, imaginatively arranged performance with almost twenty youngsters playing their hearts out for a packed hall. Gnoss - a little older, but no less accomplished - offered a varied and entertaining set of songs and tunes, with virtuoso fiddle and flute from Graham Rorie and Connor Sinclair, to end their 4-week tour on several high notes. And then, after a quick break for tea and biscuits, it was time for the main act.
Liz Carroll should need no introduction, but just in case ... a Chicago Irish fiddler with a 40-year back catalogue, composer of hundreds of great tunes which have made their way into the tradition, Liz has been honoured with lifetime achievement awards in her home state of Illinois, in the USA's national heritage awards, and in Ireland with everything from All Ireland fiddle wins to the highest recognition for traditional composition. Not surprisingly, tickets were sold out early on and the audience was expecting something special. They weren't disappointed - although their treat was slightly delayed when Liz forgot her microphone lead, leaving guitarist Jenn Butterworth to extemporise for a minute or two. Jenn is no musical slouch either, featuring on many fabulous recordings despite her relatively tender years, and adding considerable bite to the Kinnaris Quintet. Together, Carroll and Butterworth produced a masterclass in relaxed fiddling and refined accompaniment, mainly on Liz's compositions but throwing in a medley by Butterworth and Madeleine Stewart who briefly joined the pair on stage. I may have underestimated Jenn in previous reviews - accompanists can get a raw deal - but on this occasion her brilliance was plain to see.
Talking easily about her own past and her inspiration, Liz Carroll thrilled us with tunes from her latest recording Half Day Road as well as classics such as Planxty Charles Bunworth and her slipjig Rose & Kathleen's, plus a few pieces too new to appear on recordings as yet. Reels of course, slow airs, hornpipes and even a strathspey sprang from Liz's fiddle full of life, while Jenn slotted her seemingly effortless accompaniment into just the right places. This was an exceptional concert, but the best was still to come, as Liz and Jenn were joined on stage by Gnoss and the entire YEP team for a finale. As the whole gang launched into The Champaign Jig, superstar Liz unplugged her microphone lead (remember that?) and went round every one of the young fiddlers, talking and playing with them, making them her focus for that moment, a moment they will probably never forget. That's tradition, that's devotion to the music, that's passing on your heritage, and it puts Liz Carroll right at the top of the tree in my estimation.
While we waited for the late night extras, I stuck my head into the celidh hall where you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife, or at least squeezed it into a bucket. Wall to wall dancers were in mid Strip the Willow as pipes and fiddle rose over the beat of the Bell Rock Ceilidh Band. The previous night had seen the Herland Ceilidh Collective warming up the dancers to the point where they were now positively glowing on their second course of serious ceilidh. It was all too hot for me, so I left them to it and gulped some cold fresh air before rejoining the concert crowd. Despite a gruelling tour and an urgent need for clean washing, Gnoss were fired up to play at the Festival Club. Graham and Connor led off, supported by Aidan Moodie and Craig Baxter who had some tasty tricks up their sleeves. Fiddle and flute, whistle and mandolin (the only man I know who swaps hands between fiddle and mandolin!), singer-guitarist and solid drummer raised the energy levels towards midnight. While the stage was reset for Liz and Jenn, there was a lovely performance from a young lady whose name is not on everybody's lips yet: Guro Kvifte Nesheim, from Oslo, a lone Hardanger fiddler at this year's festival, with a beautiful rhythmic dance tune full of ancient resonances. Then Carroll and Butterworth took their seats again, with that microphone lead, to huge applause. This time the tunes were more traditional: reels and jigs from the core of the Irish repertoire, The Old Favourite, The Silver Spear and more, bow grinding and fingers flying, feet tapping and chords hitting beats and offbeats at will, finishing with a set of Liz's own tunes which included her wonderful Wisahicken Drive.
Sunday. More fiddle, starting with a Cape Breton workshop from the devilishly good Mairi Rankin who then squeezed in a recital with her Outside Track buddy Ailie Robertson before skipping off to give a stepdance workshop, all in the space of about 6 hours. Eilidh Steel and Mark Neal played a set of highland fiddle music with some outrageous songs, and the fun continued with a masterclass of improvisation and blind faith from concertina virtuoso Simon Thoumire and flexible cellist Su-a Lee. Su-a gave us a fascinating insight into the sort of cello accompaniment which would have been used for James Scott Skinner's music in the 19th century, plus a couple of dazzling solos showing the benefit of flawless technique, while Simon jazzed up some of the lesser known Skinner pieces: hugely entertaining and delightfully irreverent. The climax of Sunday's recitals saw the return of Guro Kvifte Nesheim with her Hardanger fiddle, taking full advantage of the rather echoey Quaker Studio to maximise the harmonics and resonances of Norwegian fiddle music. Guro's workshop earlier in the day had been extremely popular, so expect to see more Hardanger music in future Edinburgh events.
There was time for a quick bite to eat before a final session, and then the closing concert, another biggie. Jenna Reid, a Shetland fiddler with a range of tempos, played a powerful set with pianist Harris Playfair - sometimes airy and graceful, sometimes a race for the finish. Su-a made a comeback on a tune Jenna wrote for her, the two ladies equally matched in their music and their couture. The main act, by quantity at least, was the Alasdair White Trio: I'd been speaking to Alasdair on both previous days, discussing his work with Battlefield and with Dàimh, and discovered that while he now lives in New York he is originally from Lewis. That Hebridean lilt certainly comes through in his fiddling, aided by fellow Lewisman James Duncan Mackenzie on flutes and border pipes. The third member, Ewen MacPherson, swapped instruments more often than some of us blink, and led a lively little number from his excellent solo album Fetch! Tunes by Alasdair (whose approach to naming is based on American Indian traditions) included a gorgeous slow air in true solo mode. Famous Ballymote from Ireland, Kenny Gillies from Skye, and some old Hebridean reels were stirringly played. Jenna joined the boys for a final blast of jigs, and then it was all over bar the thank-yous, the hugs, the farewell drinks and the fiddle cases departing until next year.
Three days, fifty events, plus a strand of youth workshops and performances which included Gizzenbriggs from Tain and Southport Strings from somewhere else. Thousands of tickets, an army of volunteers and a cloud of rosin to rival an Icelandic eruption. The Scots Fiddle Festival is an event the organisers can be extremely proud of, and one I would recommend to any fan of this music, any fiddler, or any folkie who needs an excuse to visit Edinburgh. Roll on November 20th 2020!
It takes three people to move a classical pedal harp
There is so much great new music out there
Fiddle goes with everything
James Scott Skinner wrote some very peculiar tunes
Shetlanders can play jigs after all
Ear wax is not an acceptable substitute for fiddle rosin
The next Scots Fiddle Festival will take place from 20th-22nd November 2020.
Photo Credits: (1) Adam Sutherland with YEP, (4) Liz Carroll & Jenn Butterworth, (5) Guro Kvifte Nesheim, (7) Adam Sutherland & Ross Couper (by Alistair Cassidy); (2) Scots Fiddle Festival (unknown/website); (3) Twelfth Day (by Stuart Cobley); (6) Mairi Rankin (by Rebecca Lomnicky).