Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society Oral History Project – page 5

Trends in Membership 

The introduction of county instrumental services in the 1960s introduced more young people than ever before to learning the violin, and many of them came to join the society, including the society’s now honorary vice-president, Graham Reid:  

I joined Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society in September 1975. I was about to leave school and didn’t have an outlet to continue playing the fiddle. Three of my dad’s work colleagues played with the orchestra (Jim Yule, Stewart Rae, and Jim Banks) and [they] encouraged him to get me to go along. I was greeted that first Monday evening by Donnie Macbeth, a great character who was Secretary at the time. He gave me some music and drew in a chair alongside some of the other younger members and I must admit I have never looked back. 

Shortly after Graham joined, the society formed a junior orchestra in response to the number of young people wishing to learn and perform Scottish music. Under the leadership of Alex Thom, the new orchestra entered competitions at festivals all over Scotland, as Graham recalled: 

When I had first started, Jim Yule had a group of mixed ages he would take to different festivals and competitions, and I was lucky enough to be part of it. We would travel up and down the country taking part at The Golden Fiddle, The Mod, and other strathspey and reel societies’ competitions. Alex Thom then started the first Junior section of the society and competing at Banchory, Elgin, and Kirriemuir became annual events. These were great days out, with Elgin and Kirrie often being a weekend adventure: meeting up with players from other societies and making new friends, many of which are still great friends today.  

He goes on to explain how he met his wife, Sheila, through the society: 

Sheila had joined the Society by this time and was also a member of the junior section. Our friendship developed and, as they say, the rest is history! 

Sylvia & Donald also recounted the friendships that had come about between members: 

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DA: Certainly made a lot friends through music. Everybody does of course, because then you’re interacting with other musicians because we’re all like-minded.  

SA: Because Kevin and Shona, who were members but they’re more involved in golf these days, but their son is our godson.  

DA: Sheila and Graham got to know each other and eventually got married because they were members of the society. Shona and Kevin, the same: got to know each other through playing together and then got married, as well, so two marriages have arisen out of it.  

SA: The trip to France, the piper who we took over with us, is a distant relative of mine. And while he was there, he fell in love with one of our young fiddlers and they’re now married and have two kiddies. 

DA: Yes. It can be dangerous joining the society.  You never know what’s going to happen! 

In recent decades, an increasing number of adult learners – players who started to learn an instrument later in life – have joined the society, with many beginning their musical journey at Scottish Cultures and Traditions (SC&T), an Aberdeen-based adult education initiative that provides group tuition ‘by ear’ rather than from music-notation. One such member is Alastair Bruce, who explained how he came to be a better reader of music after a few years at the society: 

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Alastair Bruce: I did try teaching myself in the early days, but I think with any instrument you can only teach yourself up to a certain level. And after which you do need someone to tell you what to do … As I say, it was left to one side for several years. And one year I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to try to do something with it, or just get rid of it.’ So I had a look around for evening classes … So I started looking around for evening classes and I discovered that SC&T ran a class – must’ve been in the very early days of SC&T. Yeah, probably about 2001, 2002. Something like that. So I went along there and quickly found that I knew nothing whatsoever about playing the fiddle in spite of having spent a couple of years trying to teach myself a few years previously! I was quite lucky in that nobody else in the class knew anything about playing the fiddle either … I felt after that that I had achieved something. So I did go to SC&T for three or four years altogether … But SC&T was very much learning by ear, rather than reading music. I learnt to play quite a lot of tunes by ear, but it was done in an evening class group session and there wasn’t individual tuition on technique and tone and the like. And the end result of it was that, although I was very enthusiastic, and at the end of it I could get some tunes out of the fiddle, I think I had a very poor technique and body posture. I ended up with a frozen shoulder in my left shoulder which was very painful and essentially stopped me playing the fiddle for a couple of years, before I managed to get it fixed with rest and physiotherapy mainly. By that time, my daughter was actually playing with the Juniors in the Strathspey and Reel Society. One of my sons played double bass, and he played bass with the juniors, so I had become aware of the Strathspey and Reel Society and I thought, ‘Well, am I going to go back to try and play the fiddle or am I going to just forget it?’, basically. But I thought, ‘No, I’ll see if I can take some lessons and I’ll have a go at the Strathspey and Reel Society,’ which was a very scary thing, really, because these people appeared to be able to play their instruments very well! I’d been to a couple of Fiddlers’ Rallies at the Music Hall, mainly because my children played, and it all seemed to be very fast and frenetic … After six months of [learning with a teacher], I decided to try my hand at the Strathspey and Reel Society. I remember the first night I went along was at the start of the term and I didn’t bring my fiddle so that nobody could say show us what you can do. And I went home with a book of music which they were practicing and I spent the week frantically trying to learn all these tunes and came along the following week. It was very full. There was one seat to sit in, which – unbeknown to me, because I was ignorant in the ways of orchestras in those days – was the leader’s chair! So I thought, ‘Ah, the only seat is that one at the front. I’ll go and sit there.’ So I went and sat there, and I assume everyone was looking at me and wondering who on earth this person was! In my panic, I was oblivious to all this and I couldn’t get my stand put up. I couldn’t play a single note, and I almost died of embarrassment! So I thought, ‘What will I do?’ So, I went back the next week and I sat at the very back. And I still couldn’t play a note, but I persevered with it. Part of the problem I think was to read the music. I found it quite easy to learn by ear, and because I had had piano lessons as a, quite a young child, I did know what the notes were and what they were meant to sound like, but I couldn’t sight-read music. And I had a great difficulty. Always took me a long time to transpose a note or convert a note from a mark on the page to a sound on the fiddle. So I think, in all honesty, it probably took me two or three years to get up to speed with the sight-reading, but I worked away at it … It was a very fast learning curve I think and it took me a wee while to get there. I started, I think 2009 … was when I started with the Strathspey and Reel Society orchestra, after about six months of lessons. So I’ve been trying very hard to play the fiddle since then. And I have found in the last two or three years since the beginning it’s starting to sound a bit more the way I’d like it to sound. It’s not quite such a battle to play and that has really been my fiddling career. 

He went on to explain the importance of live performances with the society in bringing him on as a player: 

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AB: I think the first year I was there, I didn’t play at the Fiddlers’ Rally at the time. I did play at the Fiddlers’ Rally at the Music Hall the second year I was there, at which I could probably play – well, I thought I could play most of the pieces, but when I actually got up on stage, I found that my fingers wouldn’t move properly. I’m not sure quite whether or not I contributed anything to the orchestra, but it was an experience and it became easier after that.  

Tom Cumming, another member who learned to play later in life, made a similar point about how playing with the society brought him on. Writing of a treasured memory from his time with the society, he explained, ‘The first rally I played in and the fiddlers’ spectacular in HMT – both gave me a real buzz and an enormous sense of achievement,’ before going on: 

[It’s] really good to play with others who are more experienced. It really does help to improve your playing as you cannot stay in your comfort zone in terms of speeds, key signatures etc. And when you are having a problem, you can always turn to the person on your right or left to ask for a bit of help! Great context for improvers and good for the experienced players to be able to pass on their skills and tricks! 

A consequence of the diversification of traditional music, particularly since the 1990s, is that strathspey & reel societies are no longer the only, or even the primary, forum at which to learn and perform Scottish music. Organisations such as SC&T – where learners are encouraged to play ‘by ear’ – present an alternative, more informal, approach to performance, suited to session-playing and ceilidh-band performance, and traditional-music groups modelled on pop-music formats have achieved great success – whether by incorporating drum kits, electric guitars, and synthesisers, or emulating boy bands with an energetically choreographed front line. Accordingly, the representation of strathspey and reel societies in mainstream media has diminished. However, societies across the country continue to enjoy the support of players keen to perform Scottish dance tunes from sheet-music, in a tradition of performance that goes back over 150 years. 

The Oral History Project
The Aberdeen Strathspey & Reel Society Oral History Project was launched in 2018 to mark the society’s ninetieth anniversary (1928-2018). Member interviews were recorded in Spring 2018, and items from the society’s archive were digitised over the following three years, including Minutes, Concert Programmes, and Audio Recordings. Access to the resulting Digital Repository can be arranged via the contact form.

Text by Ronnie Gibson, Spring 2022.
Interview transcriptions by Ian Bowman.
Made possible with support from Tasgadh: Traditional Arts Small Grants

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