Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society Oral History Project – 3

CD Recording at BBC Beechgrove Studios in the 1990s

Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society on Record 

Within a few short months of its foundation, the society’s orchestra made its first live broadcast from BBC Aberdeen, with a ten-minute concert at 7.45pm on the Wednesday, 23 May 1928. Broadcasts became an annual event for many years, increasing in number to 12 broadcasts in the period from 1936 until the outbreak of war in 1939. From 1934, broadcasts were made across Scotland, having formerly been limited to the Aberdeen regional station, 2BD. The popularity of these broadcasts was noted in the Radio Times, with the synopsis for a broadcast by the society on Saturday, 11 August 1934, advising that:  

[T]he only remarkable thing about [the society’s] history is that it has always played to crowded houses at the two concerts which are given each year. The personnel consists mainly of young women and men, every one of whom is a keen student of the reel and strathspey. We could probably devise no type of programme more certain to please the majority of Scottish listeners. 

In addition to these early broadcasts, the society also recorded three records (six sides) for Beltona at the Music Hall on Tuesday, 29 November 1932. Beltona produced records of mainly Scottish interest, and were likely well-rewarded by recording the evidently-popular Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society. 

The records give a valuable insight into the society’s early style of performance which, as can be heard in the video below, was particularly pointed in strathspeys. The bowing in the strathspey, ‘The Smith’s a Gallant Fireman’ can be heard to include multiple slurs between beats and over barlines, a practice that became less common in Scots-fiddle performance. The piano accompaniment (played by Annie Shand) was also more driving, in contrast to the off-beat vamping style of accompaniment that became common with the introduction of accordions. The instruments of the orchestra at this time included violins, double-basses, and piano, only. 

The Performance Style of Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society in 1932

Further recordings were made over the years, including an unreleased LP of tunes from Middleton’s Selection in the 1950s, and a cassette, ‘Home to Bon-Accord’, in 1992. Interestingly, the cassette includes a tune, ‘Wind on the Heath’, which was also recorded in 1932. As can be heard in the video below, which compares the two recordings made sixty years apart, the society came to develop a different sound, with the introduction by 1992 of accordions, drums, and a harmony violin part. Advances in recording technology aside, there was also a clear shift in aesthetic from the sound of a classical string orchestra to that of a post-war Scottish dance band, as can be heard in the differing piano accompaniments and approaches to expression and dynamics (louds and softs), especially. 

Comparison of Performances of “The Wind in the Heath”, 1932–1992

More recordings followed, with three cds being produced from 1995 to 2006 and less formal recordings being uploaded to social media in recent years, including a ‘lock-down recording’ made during the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2021 for which members recorded themselves at home.

Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society Lock-Down Recording

The move towards regularly recording albums in the 1990s brought about changes in the rehearsal experience. It was felt that the standard of performance had to be higher for making recordings than for performing concerts, and rehearsals became more formal in consequence, as current members, Sylvia and Donald, recalled: 

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Donald Alexander: It was more relaxed in the old days. Since we started making cds, I think that’s when it was said we’ll have to pull our socks up and improve the playing. Starts and stops and had to be spot on, you know what I mean, for recordings. It was originally a cassette tape we did at the Ardoe House Hotel and then we did two cds at BBC Studios. We really had to improve greatly than just a concert.  

Sylvia Alexander: Oh, yes. I mean, the playing, I shouldn’t say it has improved greatly because I don’t just quite mean that either, but it has in a way. But when you read back the old minutes and they had an audition and you had to be of a standard to get in. They were really good players. Whereas we wouldn’t really turn someone away. We’d never say, ‘You’re not good enough to play with us’. I’d hate to think we did that, as well. 

Ronnie Gibson: So when the society started making cds the rehearsals became a bit more formal? Was there an approach previously to more just playing the music and enjoying the music in its own right, rather than being a project? 

DA:  Yes, exactly. Everybody went and we enjoyed it. It was relaxed and had fun.  

SA: That’s right, you could ‘hooch’     

DA: Oh yes, and Margaret [Ferris] often did on the piano. Even during concerts she would do it.  

SA: Of course, everyone would laugh! 

DA: The Society played to enjoy themselves, as against the determination to make sure the audience enjoyed it. If they knew we were relaxed and smiling and happy it spread to the audience. Instead of looking for perfection all the time, which is fine, but if you’re sitting there with a serious face, because you’re concentrating so much in the music. Sandy [Diack] used to always say, ‘Smile’. He was looking at us, knowing that’s what the audience can see and we’re sitting there with long faces. Concentrating hard. ‘Look as though you’re enjoying it, even if you’re maybe not, but look like you’re enjoying it’.  

In addition to recording albums, the society also featured in live television broadcasts from His Majesty’s Theatre and the Music Hall on Hogmanay in the mid 1980s, bringing in the new year in households all across Scotland. Donald and Sylvia recalled the experience with fondness, but also some trepidation, given that they were performing live with limited rehearsal time: 

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DA: The first Hogmanay show they did live, BBC from HM Theatre, 1985. It was broadcast and I think it was one and a half million people had watched so it was such a success. They started doing the programmes live, but they didn’t go back to HM Theatre. The other ones were from the Music Hall, but that was a great experience, as well. Really enjoyed that. 

RG: What did it involve?  

SA: Well, we rehearsed all day. I was working with the Building Society at that time and because it was the end of the year, I couldn’t get away early and I thought I’d never get there in time for the rehearsal, but I did; a little bit late, but I made it and we rehearsed all day. We played to see the new year in and we actually played live at 12 o’clock. I can’t remember now who all the guest artists were. 

DA: Bill McCue. 

SA: Yes, he was one, but I can’t think who else. 

DA: But there was Banchory and Elgin. 

SA: Banchory and Elgin joined us. We were not alone. As was when we played for the Fiddler’s Spectacular, for the Skinner concert, it was combined. And of course, we got to know these other players as well from the other societies. It just was fun.  

DA: Very nerve racking playing live because they had the cameramen were carrying portable cameras and they were in amongst you and your stand. And you see this camera pointing up to your face and you’re trying to read the music. Off-putting, knowing it wasn’t recorded and couldn’t be edited. That was it. Mistakes are not live. It was fun though. It kept you on your toes. We couldn’t really rehearse with the other societies because obviously they couldn’t come in. The only rehearsal of all of us together was in the afternoon of Hogmanay. We went live at half past 11 and the whole show was in the theatre with guest artists.  

RG: Did the three different conductors take a turn or was there someone coordinating it all? 

SA: I think it was just Sandy that conducted.   

DA: It was just Sandy, I recall.  

SA: Yes, it was just Sandy that conducted that one, who was our conductor. When we did the other shows every two years it changed, as well. The Banchory conductor didn’t but Elgin did.  

RG: I heard stories about Bill Brian [conductor of the Elgin Strathspey & Reel Society] being a real stickler for accuracy, is that right? 

SA: Yes, he did.  

DA: He would stop you and make you play it the way he wanted it.  

SA: He was a nice man.  

DA: The producer, James Logan – who of course was a producer for Scotland The What? – he said, ‘Now, look. I am the audience. I want to hear you playing. Come on. Speed up.’ He would stand behind Bill as Bill was conducting a reel and he’d stamp his feet: ‘Faster, faster,’ he would shout at you. 

SA: ‘I want to dance,’ he’d have said.  

DA: ‘I want to feel like I want to dance to the music,’ he’d say. 

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