Published Date: 04 November 2010
By Jim Gilchrist
IT IS A UNIQUELY Scottish music form, yet is currently neglected somewhat by younger players in favour of pedal-to-metal jigs and reels. I'm talking about the strathspey, that snappy tune and dance step, which can range from the near-regal stateliness of a North-east slow strathspey to the frisky Highland version.
In the Gaelic diaspora of Cape Breton they churn them out as if there was no tomorrow, yet amid the impressively swelling ranks of our young fiddle tyros one gets a distinct impression that the strathspey is less than trendy.
There's nothing new in such concerns, however. As far back as 1903, Highland fiddler (and angling innovator) Alexander Grant of Battangorm, Carrbridge – "Sandy Battan", as he was known – formed the Highland Strathspey and Reel Society to preserve what he regarded as the old styles of Highland fiddle playing, particularly the strathspey, which he feared was slipping away.
Over a century later, one of his fiddle-playing descendents, Sarah-Jane Summers, is doing her own bit for the art of the driving up-stroke, having recorded a DVD, Highland Strathspeys for Fiddle, which she will launch at Edinburgh's Fiddle 2010 festival on 13 November. Summers, who released Nesta, a fine album of Norse-inflected Scots fiddle music, two years ago, is currently living in Oslo, where she is pursuing her interest in Hardanger and other Norwegian fiddle playing. She grew up, however, outside Inverness and from an early age was tutored by the influential Highland fiddler Donald Riddell, who himself was taught by Summers's forebear, Sandy Battan.
Summers, 33, recalls Riddell, who died in 1992, as an inspiring teacher and a great raconteur, who passed on to her a love of the Highland strathspey. "I find them so rhythmically exciting and expressive," she says. "And Donald Riddell had a similar passion for them, and he learned fiddle from a relative of mine, Sandy Battan, who had a huge passion for Highland music and for strathspeys in particular, and who felt, even as far back as 1903, that it was in danger of dying out."
The secret to a skeely strathspey is in the bowing, and the all-important upstroke – or, as Summers puts it nicely, in having "a lot of air under the bow".
So it's all about lift. Summers also relates the style to the musical ebb and flow of local speech patterns, adding: "The fact that strathpey players leave a lot of air under the bow relates to the fact that Highland speech is quite light and airy." And she stresses that she's talking Highland fiddle here, as opposed to the more bagpipe-influenced West Highland style – "these are distinctions which I feel are being lost".
On the DVD, she carefully deconstructs such fine examples as Lady Madelina Sinclair for the benefit of the aspiring player. She's accompanied by guitarist Juhani Silvola, but also includes examples of Gaelic song from Margaret Stuart and dancing from Sheila McCutcheon, reminding us that these rare tunes did not develop in a concert environment, but in one rich in both song and dance.
She is currently absorbing Norwegian fiddle technique in Oslo, but returns home for Fiddle 2010, during which, as well as launching the DVD, she will give a talk about Sandy Battan. She'll also appear with her trio, with guitarist Ewan MacPherson and bassist Duncan Lyall, at gigs in Drumnadrochit and Duns.
Is that updriven bow a prerequisite for Norwegian music? Not for Hardanger playing, she replies: "The bowing is completely different, but I may be in better position to answer that question at the end of my course."
"In the meantime," she laughs, "I speak Norwegian music with a very Scottish accent."
• For further details and dates, see www.myspace.com/sarah-janesummers and www.scotsfiddlefestival.com