FolkWorld #81 11/2023
© Alex Monaghan

Scots Fiddle Festival

Artist Video Scots Fiddle Festival

The Youth Engagement Programme on stage with Patsy Reid

25+2 Triumphant Return

Scots Fiddle Festival 2022, Edinburgh, 18-20 November.

Almost all of Ando Glaso

Artist Video

Why did I choose to travel almost 400 miles to Edinburgh in the wettest week of the year - possibly the wettest week of the century?! Well, after two years without the Scots Fiddle Festival, 2022 was its triumphant return - and the delayed celebration of its 25th birthday. 25+2 was the motif, and with a special CD and tune book released to mark the occasion, the great and good of Scottish fiddling flocked back to the very accommodating Pleasance venue for a long overdue fix of the finest music.

I won't dwell on the journey up. If it had been any worse, it would have been a train crash. As it was, all trains north of Newcastle were cancelled, the main roads were flooded, and most of North East Scotland was under water with Aberdeen receiving a month's rainfall in a day. They don't complain in Aberdeen, but the Aberdonians I met had even more granite in their expressions than usual, and they managed to squeeze every Scots and Doric word for miserable damp weather into their brief conversations.

Looking on the bright side, the clouds and warm fronts meant a surprisingly mild Edinburgh: temperatures above freezing all weekend, not much rain beyond a dreich drizzle, and most of that falling vertically rather than horizontally. Locals were sallying forth in summer fleeces, and Orcadians were roaming the night in crop-tops and flip-flops. The women were even more lightly clad. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

All of HEISK in psychedelic mode

Artist Video Heisk @ FROG

Friday's programme started with the evening concert, a chance to meet a few friends beforehand in the bar, and informal sessions. The concert was well attended, with two fine bands in the plush Pleasance Theatre. Put together by Glasgow-based Hungarian fiddler Jani Lang, Ando Glaso is a collective combining the talents of several virtuosi from the Roma community. Their repertoire spans Romania, Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary and other places, with close ties to Jewish traditional music. Two belting singers, twin fiddles from Jani and Marius Vioristul, accordionist Artek Diana, and a fabulous cimbalom player, were backed by bass and guitar for a very full sound: swirling dance music, plangent songs, bittersweet good-time music.

Talking of good times, HEISK were the headliners on Friday night. This all-female band has stamped its hallmark glitter and glamour onto the Scottish folk scene with spangly platform boots since shortly before Covid. Six ladies took to the stage: Catriona Hawksworth on keys, Sally Simpson on fiddle, Becca Skeoch matching her rainbow electroharp, Megan MacDonald on piano box (Why does nobody make glitzy accordions? Oh wait ...), and a silvery Lauren MacDonald sliding into the safety cage on drums. American Scottish fiddler Madeleine Stewart made six, stepping in for her HEISK debut and doing a fab job! Looking like a million dollars - or at least a million sequins - HEISK had people bouncing in their seats with their amazing blend of Seventies pop meets Scottish folk meets Scandinavian fiddle.

The Festival Club is a key feature of this event, running to around 1am on the Friday and Saturday nights. It's a chance to catch the main acts in more relaxed mood, and to showcase up and coming talent as well as serendipitous visitors. The first night featured more great music from Ando Glaso, with blistering solos from several members, in addition to a cut-down HEISK represented by the duo of Simpson and Hawksworth playing some of their own fine compositions. Orkney youngsters Kirsty Harrison, Isla Cogle and Owen Griffith gave us a few rousing sets, and local fiddlers Sarah and Luisa Brown recreated their epic California tour with a number of good old Scots tunes to complete a cracking selection of music. One change from pre-Covid festivals was a lack of fiddlers looking for a session after 1am: whether this was due to a slightly older demographic this year, or the different mores of a post-pandemic population, who can tell? Either way, I was in bed before 2am and up with the larks shortly after ten the next day.

An afternoon concert with Ellie McLaren and Ciar Milne

Artist Video

I can't comment on events leading up to midday Saturday - a morning concert, and early workshops - but the sessions were in full swing and the various stalls of makers and retailers were crowded in the main bar before recitals began at twelve. Youngsters from Glasgow's South Side Fiddlers were first up, hordes of enthusiastic wee players, many of them quite big actually, and some already internet sensations - check out April MacCaulay on YouTube. New to me, Ellie McLaren and Ciar Milne performed duets and solos on fiddle and border pipes in a confident set of classic Scottish dance music plus some of their own tunes. Catriona Price from Orkney, a founder member of the band Fara, treated us to solos from J.S. Skinner to J.S. Bach with some contemporary music in between, a dazzling range of styles which belied her boiler-suited and besocked stage presence with prehensile toes tapping pedals and buttons for the latest in looping effects. Gráinne Brady performed in fine Irish style, backed by Calum McIlroy on guitar, traditional pieces and some of her own picaresque creations for the fascinating concept albums she has released recently. For me, the highlight of Saturday's recitals was the show by Oban fiddler Rona Wilkie, ably assisted by several friends in duets and quartets: Morag Brown, Liam Lynch, and the ubiquitous Sally Simpson joined her for compositions new and old, culminating with a beautiful arrangement of the haunting Gaelic song of lost love and family tragedy Griogal Cridhe.

Sessions, sessions - the Borders group Riddell Fiddles was well represented in a large session near the bar, playing mainly Scots music with a smattering of Scandinavian and American tunes. Two hours of impromptu fiddle with a wee break for my obligatory deep-fried pizza, and it was time to take our seats for the main concert. Saturday night ritually opens with a spot by the Youth Engagement Programme, SFF's outreach project to school-age fiddlers across the country, this year tutored by the multi-talented Patsy Reid. Almost two dozen crammed the stage and wowed us with great pieces from Niel Gow to Michael Rooney, four and five part arrangements held together and expertly driven by Patsy. What with the families of these students and the massive fan base of headliners Session A9, the theatre was packed to capacity, and nobody was disappointed. The simultaneous SFF ceilidh was also a sell-out in the next-door hall, dancers out in force after a long lay-off. In between the young guns and the old guard was an act which steps outside the Scottish tradition but which has a following north of the border. Tom Moore and Archie Moss come from different corners of the English folk tradition and combine their East Anglian and West Country roots to produce progressive music on viola and melodeon. Acoustic instruments are augmented by live electronics and a simple stomp box to weave patterns of notes and noise which are hard to describe. Imagine a Dr Who episode with evil Morris dancers from a parallel universe - or maybe not. Archie continued the Saturday sock theme with a fine pair of timeless mustard yellow classics, bobbing to the beat of his bass buttons. Tom was in tasteful browns, with a bronzed glow to his viola. Hypnotic rhythms and repeating phrases, gentle melodies with manifold variations, Moore and Moss made a big impression and their workshop the following morning was well attended, rewarding their two days and over a thousand miles of travelling for the Scots Fiddle Festival.

Skrebo, young musicians from Orkney at the Festival Club

The main act took up a little more space on stage - only seven of the A9, but well spread out to stop them squabbling. Four fiddles, percussion, guitar and keyboards were strung across the stage, and mischief soon ensued. Nudges and winks, cracks and ripostes more than justified the Scots' reputation for banter and badinage, with quips about paternity, sobriety, dexterity and animal husbandry. Brian McAlpine kept things on track from his seat at the keyboard, with Marc Clement bringing the benefits of maturity along with his flexible guitar and flowing Country & Eastern vocals. As for the legendary Chimp Robertson and the fiddle foursome of Gordon Gunn, Charlie McKerron, Adam Sutherland and Kevin Henderson, I've seen less messing on school trips. If you thought Mr Sutherland wore a slightly bewildered look as standard, you missed a defining moment on this night. The fun was non-stop - but oh can these guys play! East coast, west coast, north coast, classics and contemporary creations, the music streamed out. Full of twists and turns, cleverly plaited strands with perfect timing, instrumental medleys were spelled two to one with Marc's mightily arranged songs, bringing forth flurries of mandolin from Gordon and featuring cameo duets from each pair of fiddlers - magic stuff. The grand finale saw YEP back on stage for a fine Adam Sutherland strathspey whose name I didn't quite catch - something about inspecting a duff mountain.

Lyre Lyre wrapping up the final concert

Artist Video Lyre Lyre @ FROG

Saturday's Festival Club saw the seven-piece Session A9 squeezed onto a somewhat bijou stage - luckily most of YEP had gone to their beds at this hour so there was no question of accommodating thirty players. Complementing the lads from the North East were a reprise of Moore and Moss - actually a more traditional set without electronica, hardcore English as it's known - plus a very impressive performance from the polished young Orcadian quintet Skrebo, and a scratch band of artistic director Jeana Leslie (Orkney, explains a lot), Catriona Price (Orkney), Craig Baxter (Orkney), Rory Matheson (adopted Orkney), and Pàdruig Morrison (not Orkney at all, but North Uist, which is nearly as windswept). We finally stepped out into the balmy Edinburgh night - gentle rain, revellers splashing barefoot through the puddles ("Ma feet are pure killin' me fae they heels!"), and a westerly breeze picking up stray cats and small suitcases and wafting them out to sea.

If Saturday was a feast of socks, Sunday was a day of stories. From Ewen Henderson's tales of sea shanty shenanigans and tragic marriage mix-ups (Megan still doesn't know he played the wrong tune at her wedding - don't tell her!) to Mairi Campbell's otherworldly tales, the scene was well set for Alice Allen's biographical epic about the second famous cellist to come out of Banchory. Sessions in the morning were well attended, slow to fast depending on your mood. The lad and lasses of Skrebo hosted a slow session with an Orkney flavour, and informal sessions were also available. Interestingly, session table stakes have been raised - Gordon Duncan's Pressed for Time piping showpiece is now part of the standard Scots fiddle session repertoire, as are several hornpipes and breakdowns in Bb. Young folk nowadays, eh?

The Sunday afternoon recitals featured a fresh crop of prodigious youngsters, this time from Portabello where they forage for the suitcases washed up on the sand in between fiddle workshops. Roo Geddes and Neil Sutcliffe, only just into adulthood but making a go of it as professional musicians, played a selection from their amazing new album Homelands, including the funky fun of Hartys and the more serious Mountains, plus some traditional pieces. The rightly acclaimed Paul Anderson from deepest Deeside upheld the strong fiddle heritage of Aberdeenshire, before Klezmer aces Michael Alpert and Gica Loening piled tunes upon songs upon dances from the Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe. Roo, Paul, Michael and Gica were followed by the dapper Ewen Henderson, dressed in his best Òran a' Bhranndaidh tweeds, and the more casually attired Mike Katz for a set of fine Scottish tunes old and new, with tales of disasters real and averted. Ewen's fiddling opened with The Westcoaster, a homage to Aonghas Grant, iconic Lochaber composer and teacher. Accompanying on a curious flatiron mandola, or duetting on smallpipes, Mike Katz brought his characteristic sparkle to a wide selection of West Highland music, rounding off the afternoon in grand style.

Part of an afternoon session

More sessions, with a revolving phalanx of fiddlers, were only curtailed by the final evening concert. Mairi Campbell had brought an entire stage set for her performance: comfortably seated between her fiddle and viola, with a lithophone tripod on one side and a mysterious shrouded shape on the other, she alternated tunes, songs and stories for the best part of an hour. I was half expecting cauldrons and shadowy figures from Scottish or Shakespearean myth, but the veil between worlds remained intact on this occasion. Tales of magic with worldly explanations, stories of exceptional people, and the odd nod to Burns provided the backdrop for several original songs. Strangely, Mairi didn't tell the story behind her opening piece, John Morris Rankin's composition The Last March. This tune was only discovered years after John Morris' sad death at a young age: his keyboard had been left unplayed since that time, and when his family finally dusted it off they found a recording of a previously unknown composition in the keyboard memory. John Morris had not named the march, but the title wrote itself.

After the break, LYRE LYRE took the stage and revealed the reason for the shrouded shape: their cellist Alice Allen was enthroned on high upon a dais braced against a big chunky packing crate with a wedge of monitor on top! From this vantage point, cello and cellist gazed down at Marit Fält on Scandinavian citterns and Patsy Reid on various stringed instruments and her essential xylophone. This trio takes traditional pieces from Norway to the Netherlands and turns them into mini masterpieces of contemporary instrumental folk: their combined talents span classical and rock music as well as a deep understanding of Northern European traditions. All three members of this band have confident stage presence, but Ms Allen excelled at audience interaction and did the bulk of the talking, introducing most pieces and recounting the how and the why and sometimes even the what happened the following day. For any band which finds it hard to engage an audience in conversation, to talk about the tunes or the group's background, ask Alice: she may be available for gigs!

LYRE LYRE's music is endearing, imaginative, satisfyingly precise and delightfully varied. I really enjoyed their CD but I hadn't seen them live before: their performance was exciting and full of energy, the perfect combination of fun and flair. Sadly there wasn't time for an encore to this closing act of a very fine festival. No Festival Club on Sunday either - John Knox has a lot to answer for - so I took a wee detour via Sandy Bell's to catch an Edinburgh session and a few local music friends before heading for a brief hotel kip and an altogether more comfortable train journey home. Great music, fine folk, and an absolute smasher of a festival: happy birthday SFF, it's so good to have you back!

Session A9 firing on!

This year’s Scots Fiddle Festival will be held from Friday 17 - Sunday 19 November at The Pleasance, Edinburgh. Tickets for the 2023 Scots Fiddle Festival are now on sale.

Photo Credits: (1) Scots Fiddle Festival, (2) Ando Glaso Collective, (3) Heisk, (4) Ellie McLaren & Ciar Milne, (5) Skrebo, (6) Lyre Lyre, (7) Afternoon Session, (8) Session A9 (by Rob Shields).

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