Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society Oral History Project – 4

1976 Fiddlers’ Rally, Aberdeen Music Hall

Fiddlers’ Rallies 

The origins of the idea for a Fiddlers’ Rally are not known precisely, but the concept probably emerged at Mods in the late 1960s, when players from societies from all over Scotland would gather to play a grand concert. The experience of fiddlers playing en-masse was thrilling, and the idea was soon exported to Aberdeen, when, on 26 April 1969, the combined societies of Aberdeen and Banchory hosted a ‘Rally and Grand Concert’ in the Music Hall. Eight other societies were represented, with players from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Kilmarnock, Stirling, Oban & Lorne, Angus, MacDuff, and Buchan taking part. The event featured Scottish-Violinist, Hector MacAndrew, as a guest artiste, and was recorded by the BBC for ‘broadcast in the near future’. 

The new cultural format, such as it was, provided a much-needed opportunity for cultural exchange between the many societies across Scotland, with players forging friendships with like-minded individuals from other societies. As Sylvia and Donald recalled, attending rallies hosted by other societies also afforded a bonding opportunity for Aberdeen members, and the opportunity to play in iconic venues:

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SA: [We] used to go regularly to the Elgin [Rally]. There used to be a group of us went up, about 10, 12 of us would have gone up. That was earlier on when they needed it. I think now they only ask for two or three players, but at that time they were wanting players to go along. They were short of members, so there would have been 10, 12 of us, maybe more sometimes, went up by car. We just all took cars, four in a car and travelled with people. I enjoyed that. That was great. On the way back we would have stopped at a lay-by to have teas and coffees or something stronger, and then a fiddle would have come out. This was in a lay-by just off the street, but it was just all fun. They made us very welcome, they always did. … We’ve still got friends from Elgin who come down to the rallies now, you know. 

DA: We used to go down to Dundee.  

SA: Yes, that’s right. We used to go to the Dundee Rally. I haven’t done that for a long time. It was quite a big rally because Caird Hall holds I think it’s two and a half thousand. It’s quite a big hall.  

DA: It’s bigger than the Music Hall. The last time playing there the conductor was Ron Gonella, so that’s a long time ago. It was quite strange because the seating in the Caird Hall is very steep and there was nowhere for the double-basses to stand and we were right at the front in front of the conductor and the fiddlers were all behind us. And then the accordions at the top. I didn’t know that until I went and I thought, ‘Oh dear!’ I felt very exposed in the spotlight. I didn’t like that. 

Another member, Donald Grassie, explained how rallies afford the opportunity to travel and learn new music: 

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Donald Grassie: I’ve played all over Scotland. In Oban, I played in last year, Inverness, Elgin. Next week, this Saturday coming, it’s Garioch. And the following week. And I love getting a new set of music, so it’s music you haven’t seen before, and I love practicing at home and trying to work out. 

Ronnie Gibson: Right enough. That’s a lot of music! 

DG:  About 50% of the music you get, you’ve played before, but every rally has a different interpretation. There’ll be a different set of notes, or a different thing. So you can play the Bluebell Polka. You think it’s going to be the same, but actually it’s slightly different all the way through. And you’ve got to, you’ve got to listen carefully. So I love, I love that precision, getting new music, practicing it away, and you think you have everything. Usually, the reel is going to be ridiculously fast. I can never play at that speed. And then you turn up at the rally. Something that you’ve played fast is actually a slow one, a slow piece or something that you thought you were doing well to hang in at a particular speed, guys are playing at like twice that speed. Or maybe just the just stress of particular notes is different from what you’ve been playing. So it’s a great learning experience.

RG: It sounds like you must be on quite a steep trajectory for all the repertoire you’re getting through in the year? 

DG: Yeah, well it’s always been my background to my personality; I just want to learn and improve. So I don’t really go for doing something over and over and over and over again. I like to just do something, learn it, learn a new piece, etc. And then I put it down and pick up a new piece. 

Graham Reid recalled the time, 1990s–2000s, when the Aberdeen Rally was part of the Aberdeen Alternative Festival (AAF): 

I will always be very grateful to the AAF and Duncan Hendry who was the Festival Director. Duncan was a great supporter of the society and we always had our rally on the last Saturday of the festival. We were well looked-after by the festival: a civic reception at the Town House for dinner before the concert and a ceilidh at the Beach Ballroom, afterwards. We also were given some of the best acts in Scotland for guests, with Willie Hunter, Alasdair Fraser, or Aly Bain on fiddle, Anne Lorne Gilles, Peter Morrison, or Fiona Kennedy as singers, and Robbie Shepherd or Robert Lovie as compère, to mention just some of the artistes we were lucky enough to share the stage with. A special memory was the year Stephane Grappelli came to town. I was asked to go to the Caledonian Hotel on the Saturday morning to meet the great man and go over the tune, The Cradle Song’, as Stephane was going to play this along with the orchestra. Nervous, or what?!  I was taken up to his room to go over the music for tempo, phrasing, etc., as it was a completely new tune to him, and after a couple of run throughs and a coffee it was memorised – amazing! I’m sure everyone on stage and possibly everyone in the Music Hall will never forget the evening with Stephane Grappelli. About a week later, an envelope arrived in the post with a hand written letter thanking the society for letting him play along with the orchestra. He included 3 or 4 snaps that were taken of himself with his band and me. A true gentleman. 

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