Rip Van Winkle – with Fiddles?
The short story “Rip Van Winkle”, by American author Washington Irving was published in 1819. Set in the Catskill Mountains, it tells the tale of a Dutch-American villager in colonial times. Rip meets enigmatic Dutchmen and shares their strong liquor, falling deeply asleep as a result. When he awakes – 20 years later – the world has immeasurably changed. He has also managed to miss the American Revolution.
What does this have to do with fiddle music?
Trolls and Trows are said to have particular fondness for fiddle music.
A significant minority of Shetland’s traditional music is reckoned to have been learned from the Trows through people who were taken by them or heard the music emitting from their underground communities.
It’s claimed that Trows have often taken fiddlers “hostage”. Usually this would be when the musician was travelling to or returning from a musical engagement, such as a ceilidh or wedding.
Here we see the Rip Van Winkle similarities most starkly.
Trows would take the fiddler away to play at a Trowie party. They might be gone for days, months or years. On their release, the fiddler would believe their absence to have been no longer than a few hours. But the truth might be that more than a generation had elapsed.
Some people who returned from an encounter with the Trows were left with the gift of a whole tune (or maybe just a musical snippet) they had heard being played. In this category, in Shetland, we have tunes such as Garster’s Dream, Haltadans, Winyadepla, and Hjogrovoltar.
Sceptics have been heard to say that these tunes were compositions of fiddlers who were simply too modest (or drunk, at the time) to reveal the true source. But evidence to the contrary comes from a wide variety of compelling sources.
Peter Maxwell Davies composed his children’s opera “The Two Fiddlers” for performance at the second St. Magnus Festival, held in Orkney in the Summer of 1978. He wrote the music and the words for it. It’s based both on Orcadian legend and on an idea by Orkney poet, George Mackay Brown.
The opera tells the story of two young fiddlers, Storm and Gavin, returning home after playing at a wedding dance. Storm is captured by Trolls and, to their delight, he performs for them. As a reward, they grant his wish that men will no longer have to work – which does not have the positive consequences Storm had hoped for.
Ultimately (over 20 years having passed for all but him), a fiddle solo from Storm is required to break the Trolls’ spell and the islanders celebrate:
“The spell is lifted. The Trolls have gone. We can work again. With music we have won. With work we shall win, whatever troubles we are in. Helped by the healing power of music. We are freed from our plight. So we bid you goodnight. But watch out for the tricks of the Trolls!”
Around the same time that Peter Maxwell Davies was inspired by Orkney legend to salute the Trolls and their musical influence, the SFO’s own John Mason was apparently drinking from the same well.
His fiddle duet in waltz time, “The Trow Fiddlers” – composed for Betty Henderson and Reesa McGinn to perform – has a melody and arrangement sweet enough to entrance the grumpiest of Trolls. Given the title of the piece, and despite John’s own Orkney connections, it’s not clear whether he had Orkney or Shetland (or both) in mind in naming it.
To bring things right up up to date, we now move on to consider recent evidence from Shetland, with particular reference to the mysterious Haltadans stone circle.
Visiting the Haltadans.
Maurice Henderson is a Shetland fiddler who was a founding member of the band, Fiddlers’ Bid. These days, he plays much more often with a band called Haltadans and they performed as part of Shetland’s “Folk Frenzy” Festival in Mareel, Lerwick on 11 August 2023.
During the concert, Maurice introduced one of the sets of tunes they were going to play, as follows (Editor’s notes in italics):
“We’ll play a medley of old Shetland tunes. The name of this band is Haltadans and the name of the first tune is Haltadans.”
“It’s a very old tune from (the Shetland island of) Fetlar. Some of you have maybe been to the Haltadans. I recognise a few faces here! A few years back (in fact, almost 10 years ago to the day), we were up in Fetlar with Fiddle Frenzy and Andrew Gifford (fellow fiddler and member of Fiddlers’ Bid) had taught lots of Trowie tunes in the afternoon and we decided that it would be best to go and play the Trowie tunes at the old stone circle called Haltadans.”
“It’s a stone circle in the middle of the hill.”
“The story goes that way back – and we are talking a few hundred years ago – there was a man walking back, taking a shortcut through the hills, and he heard music. He went and hid down behind a peerie bruck (a small mound). He could see there, dancing around, were the Trows. And in the middle was a fiddler and his wife. And the fiddler was having to keep playing and keep playing in order to keep the Trows dancing – in order to keep them back. As soon as he stopped fiddling, they would close in and show their claws. So he kept playing!”
“A bit of the tune – the melody – that the fiddler was playing stuck in the man’s head. Unfortunately, he only got the first half of the tune because the sun rose and the Trows, the fiddler and his wife all turned to stone. That’s how you get (left behind) the stone circle with the two stones in the middle.”
“And, if you go there, you can see on the inside of the stone ring that there is a gaet (footpath) which has been jiggled out by the feet. So there’s obviously been folk dancing there…”
06 August 2013 – 50 fiddlers head for Vord Hill.
The visit to the Haltadans which Maurice refers to involved about 50 fiddlers.
They had to walk across about a mile of boggy moorland to reach the Haltadans.
Once there, Maurice and the group played a few Trowie tunes, including the tune Haltadans, before squelching back the way they had had come (many with wet feet by now).
Maurice explained that he later worried that the “invasion” of the Haltadans by so many fiddlers might have upset the Trows. He feared that he wouldn’t be able to walk safely through the hills in Fetlar again – especially carrying a fiddle.
His nagging doubts caused him to compose a tune with the intention of returning to the Haltadans himself.
Maurice’s idea was to play this tune and appease the Trows (a tune appropriately called Return to the Haltadans).
In the early hours one morning, he set up his fiddle with the AEAE tuning commonly used in the past in Shetland and found his way up to the Haltadans. Once out of its case, the wind blew through the fiddle’s strings and made them resonate. That set off Snipe and other birds in the hills and all sorts of other weird noises. Things got worse, as he saw apparitions and what appeared to be red eyes watching him. Having quickly played through his tune, he lost no time in getting the fiddle back in its case and heading for home.
He hoped the Trows had enjoyed the music and noted that he had “not had any bother with them since”. He also reflected on how he had been back to the Haltadans on one other occasion since 2013, with some family and friends, and had decided that the “trick” to avoid concerns about what might happen if you mix Trows and fiddlers was to take an accordion player along with you.
No one has ever heard of an accordionist being taken by the Trows…
- Haltadans (the band) will be in live in concert at the Scots Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh on 18 November 2023. The Scots Fiddle Festival is a charity which has been supported in the past by the SFO and which is a popular event among SFO members.
- Edinburgh Shetland Fiddlers’ recently unveiled website contains a wealth of free sheet music and some wonderful drawings of Trows by author and illustrator (and ESF member), Debi Gliori – see the excerpt above.
- Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Dances from The Two Fiddlers, for violin and instrumental ensemble Op.78b (1978)” (i.e. the best of the music) can be heard on YouTube or purchased from all good record shops.
- There is a video memento of the 06 August 2013 trip to the Haltadans on YouTube here, featuring (slowish) versions of the tunes Haltadans, Winyadepla and Hjogrovoltar.
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This is an edited and slightly expanded version of an article which first appeared in the SFO Newsletter for October 2023 (No. 97). If you would like to see back-copies and/or sign up to receive our quarterly newsletter via email, please click here.