On the Winter Solstice, as we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another, it seems appropriate to have a look at some traditional tunes with associations to Christmas or New Year.
Speaking of fiddle music at Christmas, the lovely ladies of Scots fiddle group RANT have uploaded their arrangement of a “Shetland Carol” to YouTube as an early Christmas 2014 gift for their fans. Enjoy it here.
Moving closer to 25th December, there’s an Irish tune, Christmas Eve, which, for a bit of a change from the fiddle, you can hear played fairly “straight” on piano here and then in a rather jazzier version – which is an arrangement by Irish composer and pianist, Micheal O Suilleabhain – here (the tune only comes in about 0:50)
“Christmas Day I’ Da Moarnin” is a tune from Unst in Shetland, said to have been composed by fiddler, Friedemann Stickle.
He was born in the 18th Century, so it’s a fairly old tune.
Tom Anderson’s book, “Haand Me Doon Da Fiddle”, explains that Stickle is said to have played the tune to the Laird of Buness every Christmas morning.
The fiddler supposedly had something wrong with one of his feet and was nick-named “Stumpie”.
Tom Anderson describes the tune as being played at an uneven walking speed – perhaps to fit the composer’s gait – and, at the very end, the rhythm fits the words “Christmas Day ida Moarnin”.
There’s a fine version of the tune on Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson’s album “Fin Da Laand Ageen” (2011).
Kevin Henderson is also part of Shetland band, Fiddlers’ Bid, and the traditional tune “Da Skeklers” features on their 2009 CD “All Dressed in Yellow”
Skekling is a Shetland tradition and Skeklers were groups of guizers – disguised in distinctive straw costumes – who would arrive at houses in Shetland during festivities, such as New Year.
Reputedly, they would also change their voices by speaking only while breathing in.
Playing fiddle music in return for food and drink, they would inspire wild dancing.
The photograph of young Skeklers attached to the article here was apparently taken around 1909.
The tune is the last one of four in the set here and is preceded by the three other traditional tunes: from Estonia, “Aamer August; from Scotland, the March, “Hunter’s Hill”; and, from Shetland (played mainly on harp by Catriona McKay), “Sigurd ‘o Gord’s Spring”.
“Da Skeklers” is a tune which manages to sound slightly sinister, yet wild, at the same time.
Imagine folk like these turning up at your isolated croft house in the middle of Winter during the hours of darkness. Would you have been brave enough to open the door?
In 1994, folk supergroup The Boys of the Lough, released a whole album devoted to the music and songs of Winter.
Originally titled “The Day Dawn”, the CD was later renamed, perhaps better to spell out the theme, “A Midwinter Night’s Dream”.
It contains a wide range of music, both Christian and secular.
One with a Christian background is the jolly Swedish March / Polka by Hjort Anders Olsson, “Trettondagsmarschen”.
This is a Twelfth Night (i.e. early January) tune, celebrating the feast of Epiphany which, in Western Christianity, is largely associated with the visit of the Wise Men to the baby Jesus.
The uplifting version of the tune here is played by musicians on fiddle and nyckelharpa.
The SFO would like to wish all readers and listeners a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
We hope to see you at one of our various concerts over the coming year.
We would love to receive your comments on anything raised in this article.
What is your favourite fiddle tune with ties to Christmas, New Year or Winter, in general?