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Written by Tim Macdonald; Photography by John A. Macdonald

The most striking result was the audience response. Regrettably, Baroque music often engenders a stereotype of stuffy music and stuffy players focused more on historical research and elegant frappery than truly moving performances. But instead of politely golf clapping, the audience carried on and made more noise with hands and voice than I thought possible. A great moment! And I was especially thrilled to talk to a handful of them after the competition. Some were true musical and historical experts, and I had wonderful discussions with them about the fine details of the performance. But others just wanted to hear a braw choon or twa and appreciated the period performance for its musicality and entertainment value, not its historicity and its academic credentials. Now more than ever I’m convinced that my own solution to reconciling the constraints of tradition and the desire for innovation is simply to help resurrect the Scottish music of the 18th century Lowlands. Not to “banish vile Italian tricks”, as Mr. Fergusson pleaded for in the above poem (and as indeed happened shortly after his untimely death at 24), but to be one of the few living players to embrace the special synergy between music emerging from Scotland and ideas imported from High Baroque Italy. Not out of an obsession with 18th century Scotland (though there would certainly be academic merit there…and it was a pretty cool place anyway), but because there was some good music played then and it’d be a shame to forget about it.

This also brings up my increasing problems with genre. I don’t envy the three judges—how are they supposed to rank seven convincing performances of modern traditional music? How are they possibly supposed to know where to put a convincing performance of Scottish-Baroque music in relation to the other seven? I’ve heard most of the other competitors either live or on recordings, and it seems that they held back some of their secret sauce in an effort to sound more “traditional”. I also received the strong impression from judges and audience members alike that I prevented myself from even being considered for a medal by not sounding “traditional”. But…what is “traditional”? Perhaps the best working definition I’ve come up with is “How most of the players of my grandfather’s generation in a given area sounded”, but that’s neither rigorous nor satisfying. If an obsession with traditionality leads to a restriction in time (e.g., discounting my 18th century style) or region (nobody at the competition played in a Highland style or Shetland style, despite those being as legitimate as the Northeast style that ruled the day) or repertoire (modern tunes are relatively uncommon at the Glenfiddich, and tunes by Skinner are disproportionately popular…to say nothing of the banned 18th century sonatas and 21st century salsas that are arguably just as Scottish as the required jigs and reels), is it beneficial? Perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to play traditionally if nobody can agree on a definition of “traditional music”? If players at the jam sessions across the country I visited scoff at a competition for being “too traditional”, does that mean that they themselves are not traditional? But what else would you call a mixture of old and new music played in a regional style at pubs by non-professional musicians? If that’s not the very stereotype of traditional musicians, I don’t know what is. I don’t pretend to have answers for any of these questions, but they do trouble me. Perhaps my biggest concern is that such a focus on guarding the gates of “traditional music” will lead to arbitrary restrictions at the expense of musicality. But at the same time we must be careful of going too far the other direction, which leads either to a melting of styles into an indistinguishable mess or to the extinction of a worthy type of music. The via media is a narrow one, and ultimately I think we’re forced to put our faith in the good taste of artists and listeners.

But this was meant to be a travel log, not a philosophical reflection. I’d be remiss not to thank Rachel and David for helping to prepare Jeremy and I before the trip and Ronnie, John, David, Aaron, Elizabeth, and Stuart for meeting with me during the two weeks I had post-Glenfiddich and saying fascinating things about the history of Scotland’s music (more on that once I’ve had a chance to digest it even more thoroughly!). It was a wonderful time bouncing around the country exploring new cities both as a musician and as a tourist and meeting these musical heavyweights. Thanks too to the traditional music school in Plockton (I believe the only high school dedicated to non-classical music in the world!) for hosting me and Jeremy for a workshop and concert. I also spent my fair share of time in the National Library of Scotland and John Purser’s private library making scans of literally thousands of pages of 18th century sheet music. And still found time to see some wonderful museums, gorge on delicious food, and appreciate the beauty of downtown Edinburgh and the rural West Highlands and many places in between.

Check out Tim and Jeremy's duo, The Attila the Hun Show!

But perhaps more central to my Scottish music education than intellectual discussions about the life and work of William McGibbon or the accumulation of another 1740s music manuscript or whatever was the cultural education I also received. Seeing Niel Gow’s portrait and gravestone in person. Digging for potatoes on the Isle of Skye. Lying in the heather by the shore while John sang a Gaelic rowing song about the exact mountains and sea we were looking at. Peat fires. Single malt scotch. Wandering down the Edinburgh side street where Robert Mackintosh used to live. Feeding a highland cow out of my own hand. Hearing bitter rants about Gaelophobia and English colonialism. Having a pint in the pub while learning to play a new reel from a few fiddlers I just met. And making people’s feet tap, even when there’s a sign telling them not to. Because perhaps the most important thing about folk music is right there in its name: it straddles the abstract, impersonal world of music and the earthy, intimate world of folk like you and me. 

Or as Robert Fergusson put it in the next stanza of “The Daft Days”:

For nought can cheer the heart sae weel
As can a canty Highland reel;
It even vivifies the heel
          To skip and dance: 
Lifeless is he wha canna feel
          Its influence.

Heralded for his “impressive and stylistically Scottish playing” (Melinda Crawford) and as “a real fiddler” (Bonnie Rideout), Tim Macdonald is a regular performer, composer, and teacher of Scottish-Baroque music. He was the first US National Scottish Fiddling Champion to win on a Baroque violin. In addition to performing, Tim teaches privately, and his compositions have won first place at both Scottish FIRE Composition Competitions. Tim is an Arthur and Lila Weinberg Fellow at the Newberry Library, where he is researching the period-correct performance of Scottish-Baroque music. Learn more about Tim on his website.