When I was in the Highlands recently I had the pleasure of meeting the eminent Scots musicologist Dr John Purser, who has been presenting a long-running series of radio programmes on the history of Scots music – much of which has come as a surprise to today’s radio audience. John and his wife Barbara treated us to one the best meals we’ve had in a long time, all cooked from produce they had grown or reared on their croft, or gathered from the shore.
Dr Purser also gave me a copy of a very interesting CD which is about to hit the shops, and I want to recommend it. It’s called ‘Scotland’s Fiddle Piobaireachd’. This Gaelic word ‘Piobaireachd’ is more usually encountered in the form ‘pibroch’, which doesn’t (as I thought) mean ‘bagpipes’ but refers to the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. Over the centuries, pibroch has also been played by Scots violinists who also use the type of ornamentation played by pipers. It’s a very serious type of music which has little in common with the merry jigs and reels we tend to associate with Scots fiddle music.
On this disc, the American violinist Bonnie Rideout, who has made a special study of pibroch, plays it on her violin and viola. Listening to the music has something in common with listening to a solo Bach violin partita. Usually it begins with a haunting melody – a lament, love song or ‘gathering call’ – and then develops the melody in a series of increasingly complex variations, culminating in a virtuosic display. On some of the tracks, Bonnie is accompanied by bronze age horns supplying the ‘drone’ of the pipes. She’s also joined here and there by a flute player, a clarsach, bagpipes and voice.
Bonnie Rideout tunes her violin and viola in all sorts of different ways. For the opening track, ‘MacDougall’s Gathering’, for example, she tunes her viola to B flat, b flat, e flat and b flat. For the closing track she tunes it to D, A, d, a. It’s a most intriguing record and a glimpse into a musical heritage of which I was hardly aware.