The fiddle, or violin, has always been a very popular instrument in Scotland, and is often learned at school. People have played the fiddle in Scotland for over 500 years and the instrument has a colourful history. It has often been associated in folklore with the devil.
The instrument has four strings tuned G, D, A and E, starting from the lowest note up (G below middle C), and is played with a bow. The acoustic fiddle itself is made of wood, although some players who play in contemporary bands can also use an electric fiddle which is made of synthetic material. The bow is also usually made of wood, although some modern bows are made of materials such as carbon fibre, and they are all haired with horsehair. The strings are made of steel, although they would once have been made of animal gut. The main melodic range of the fiddle is very close to that of the female human voice, and it is perfect for playing beautiful, slow melodies. However, the fiddle is probably best-known for playing fiery, energetic dance tunes. It can be played solo, or as part of a dance band, fiddle group and other combinations.
There are several broad regional styles of Scottish fiddling - Shetland, North East, Highland and Borders. Scottish-style fiddle playing is also popular in Nova Scotia, Canada, where it was preserved and developed its own characteristics as part of the emigrant Scottish - and particularly Gaelic - communities there.
You can listen to many fiddle tunes on this site. Well-known modern Scottish fiddle players include Aly Bain, Hector McAndrew, Catriona MacDonald, Alasdair Fraser and Chris Stout.
There have been many famous fiddlers over the years in Scotland. Neil Gow (1727-1807) lived in Perthshire, where he gave up his trade as a weaver to become a professional musician. He played for dances along with his brother Donald, who played the cello, and the Duke of Atholl became his patron. Neil Gow composed many famous pieces including 'The Marquis of Huntly’s Snuff Mill' and 'Farewell to Whisky'. His son, Nathaniel, also became a fine fiddler and composer.
William Marshall (1748-1833) came from the village of Fochabers in Morayshire. The poet Robert Burns described him as the 'first composer of strathspeys of the age'. Marshall was writing music that was more difficult to play, and this pushed fiddlers to learn new technical skills. Like many other composers, Marshall often wrote tunes for people he knew or for his patrons. Two tunes of this kind are 'The Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell' and 'Miss Wharton Duff'.
Later, the fiddler, composer and dancing master James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) from Banchory, also in the North East, was to become a true celebrity musician. He had a classical violin training as well as being a traditional fiddler and he could play virtuoso violin showpieces by composers such as Paganini as easily as strathspeys. He played at countless concerts in Britain and America and his gramophone recordings were hugely popular all over Scotland and far beyond. He was nicknamed ‘The Strathspey King’ and was an iconic figure in the fashion for all things Scottish led by Queen Victoria. Skinner wrote many compositions, from simple tunes such as 'The Cradle Song', a beautiful slow, but complicated air, to showy pieces such as 'The President'.
There are several broad regional styles of Scottish fiddling – Shetland, North-East, Highland and Borders. Scottish-style fiddle playing is also popular in Nova Scotia, Canada where it was preserved and developed its own characteristics as part of the emigrant Scottish – and particularly Gaelic - communities there.In recent years, some fiddle players such as Alasdair Fraser have helped re-establish the place of the ‘big fiddle’ or cello in Scottish music, an instrument that was popular in the 18th Century and has now become popular once again, as a bass accompaniment but also as a dynamic rhythmic instrument, using modern playing techniques.