17 May 2015

Fiddling for Scotland

The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra at the Music Hall, Aberdeen. The proceeds of all their concerts go to charity.

This is the text of an article – “Fiddling for Scotland” – which appeared in the Scots Magazine in April 1987 (by Margaret Henderson). It is reproduced here by kind permission of D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd.

Under the energetic baton of John Mason, our “Other National Orchestra” goes from strength to strength.

“The boy next to me was making fun of your kilts,” wrote Jason, a pupil at Thornwood Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, after a concert by members of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, “so I socked him on the nose. Then he made fun of your shoes. I clicked on the leg then, and he didn’t say another word.”

The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra inspires that sort of fierce loyalty, though its more mature fans have, so far, managed to avoid Jason’s particular line in supportive action. He was one of a class of nine-year-olds who presented their letters of appreciation to the SFO musicians before they flew home.

“Thanks a bunch. It was worth coming to school today,” was the tribute from Jason’s more civilised neighbour, Melissa. “You really are the greatest players in the world.”

Perhaps not in the world, but the 150 members of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra have been chosen from the finest traditional musicians in Scotland. Selected now by audition, they are our largest amateur orchestra and the first permanent national orchestra in Scotland specialising in traditional fiddle music.

In the years since their inaugural concert at Aberdeen Music Hall on 22 March 1980, the SFO and its conductor and musical director, John Mason, brought to fiddle music a new respectability in its native land and, through their appearances and recordings, a wider public interest in this part of our national heritage than it has ever enjoyed.

Conductor and musical director John Mason. The Troon lawyer has been involved with Scottish music since his early teens in Wigtown where he formed his own dance band.

“The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra unites people,” points out a fan from this side of the Atlantic, Jimmy Cannell, a retired telephone supervisor living in Prestwick. He is right. Senior citizens and teenagers give up their free time to practise and play; the rest of us make up the audience. Edinburgh folk venture to Glasgow, and Glaswegians to the Usher Hall; at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Sassenachs take to the floor with exiled Scots from the Caledonian Societies for the impromptu dancing which ends SFO concerts everywhere. Celtic supporters stay in their seats at Glasgow concerts when the orchestra’s chairman and compere, the Reverend James Currie, kicks off with an announcement of their team’s defeat by his beloved Rangers.

Jimmy Cannell is a typical SFO fan, following the fortunes of the orchestra as eagerly as football supporters follow their teams. “For me, an SFO concert is the ultimate,” he says. “They give us much more than an evening’s entertainment. It’s a musical experience that’s extremely uplifting and exhilarating. When you watch the joy on the faces of the younger musicians – some of them only schoolchildren – you realise the future of our national heritage is in safe hands.”

The origins of the SFO

The formation of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra reflected an upsurge of interest in traditional fiddle music first evident in the early Seventies. There had been local Strathspey and Reel Societies since the late 19th century, but a resurgence of fiddle playing after the war brought the number of groups up to 30 or so. For their repertoire, they had the traditional tunes of anonymous composition and the work of the great fiddle composers of the 18th and 19th centuries – the Gows, William Marshall and Scott Skinner. Most of them also had, as they still do, the compositions of their own members.

Bill Cook, the genial leader of the SFO.

The idea of a national fiddle orchestra was born at one of the rallies of massed fiddlers which had been part of the Gaelic mods since 1970. The rallies themselves had grown out of the competitions for group fiddle playing organised by An Comunn Gaidhealach on the Saturday before the official opening.

When the Mod was held in Oban in 1970, George McHardy, the conductor, and Jessie MacLeod, the secretary of the Oban and Lorne Strathspey and Reel Society, had the idea of collecting all the competitors for a public concert in the Corran Hall on the Saturday evening. For this, somebody in the television world coined a new name: they called it a Fiddlers’ Rally.

Soon, Strathspey and Reel Societies all over Scotland were organising their own rallies, more often than not including other instruments besides the fiddle. In November 1979, after a rally organised by the Bearsden Society, Leslie Pratt, fiddler and then president of the Aberdeen society, which had been invited to Glasgow to take part, put forward the idea of an orchestra of fixed membership, giving regular concerts of fiddle music to the highest standards of excellence.

Instruments used in the orchestra

In spite of its name, the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra encompasses a varied array of orchestral instruments. This is in keeping with the evolution of the Strathspey and Reel Societies. Very few now consist of strings only, though there is always a heavy predominance of fiddle players. The SFO currently [i.e. April 1987] has 52 first and 43 second fiddles, 9 cellos, 11 double basses, 7 accordions, electric guitars, percussion, woodwind, piano and, for some performances, the concert harp.


The repertoire consists of traditional fiddle music orchestrated for concert performances, but the range of instruments permits it to be more experimental than an orchestra of massed fiddlers could be and to undertake longer works incorporating fiddle tunes.

John Mason’s own additions to the orchestra’s repertoire have made him one of Scotland’s most prolific and important contemporary composers.

John Mason – conductor and musical director

John is a lawyer in Troon. Born and brought up in Kirkwall, he was introduced to the fiddle at the age of seven by his uncle, John Muir. When John was 12, his father was appointed Sheriff Clerk in Wigtown, where country dancing was popular but fiddle players were few. John got together a dance band and spent his teenage years expanding his repertoire of old dance tunes and turning his hand to other instruments as required. When he was studying law at Edinburgh University, he gained further musical experience with dance bands and groups in and around the city.

In 1967, John settled in Troon and in the Seventies he was invited to join the Kilmarnock Caledonian Strathspey and Reel Society by the late Willie McCulloch, a fiddle player and founder member of the society. There were a few keen fiddlers in the Kyle and Carrick district of Ayrshire, including Betty Henderson and Reesa McGinn of Ayr, later to become duettists with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, and, from Prestwick, Willie and Bessie Dunlop. Willie became the SFO’s first leader. The late Jimmy Thomas, also of that area, was the SFO’s first piano accompanist.

Clearly, an Ayr and Prestwick Strathspey and Reel Society was needed, and its formation in 1972 gave John Mason an opportunity to develop his talents as a conductor. He had always been interested in composing, and his association with the Ayr and Prestwick orchestra and the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra has led to the creation of a body of orchestral music in the traditional fiddling style which could never otherwise have been produced in view of the limited commercial market and the high cost of printing sheet music.

The orchestra members

Betty Henderson and Reesa McGinn, talented duettists with the orchestra.

Most of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra’s members also play for a Strathspey and Reel Society in their own area. Some are musicians by profession, teachers or students. The rest represent the whole spectrum of Scottish society – housewives, physicians, surgeons, a miner, crofters, a policeman, an architect, an accountant, a shepherd, a butcher, a banker.

There are players of over 80 and youngsters still at school. A father plays second fiddle and his son double bass. Two other double bass players are John Mason’s sons. The orchestra’s bagpiper spends most of his playing time in the first fiddles, his daughter is in the bass section, and his 13-year-old son, in the second fiddles, is the youngest member of the orchestra. The family connections extend to the numerous spouses who help with the sale of records, copying music, looking after the music library and making travel arrangements.

Charitable donations

The proceeds of every public concert the SFO has ever given have been donated to charity. A single concert has raised as much as £11,000. Charities which have benefited so far have been:

  • The Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
  • The Cancer Research Campaign
  • The British Digestive Foundation
  • The Ileostomy Association
  • Quarrier’s Homes
  • War on Want
  • The Royal Blind Asylum and School
  • The Tayside Police Benevolent Fund
  • The Royal Scottish Corporation, and
  • Royal Caledonian Schools

A concert in Aberdeen made a contribution to the Cardiothoracic Unit at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and, in 1985, the SFO took part in a Classical Aid Concert at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow which raised over £160,000 for the Africa Famine Appeal.


The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra has made four long-playing records:

  • A Toast to Bon Accord
  • The Scottish Fiddlers’ Prom
  • Fiddlers to the Fore, and
  • The Tam o’ Shanter and Cutty Sark Overture (one of John Mason’s longer compositions)

John Mason – composer

John’s compositions are a fascinating record of people, special occasions and places.

The Reverend James Currie, chairman of the SFO since its inception, is immortalised in a piece, “The Arran Shepherd”, a reference to his frequent return visits to the island and Drumadoon Farm, where he was brought up. “Lottie and Chattie” was written in appreciation of two ladies serving in Oban’s Bridgend Bar, where fiddlers were wont to refresh themselves after the exertions of the Mod. “The Academician” is a polka written for the centenary celebrations of Ayr Academy.

His native Orkney is naturally well represented in Mason’s work. “Nellie Inkster’s Peedie Polka” is dedicated to his mother-in-law who has attended concerts as far away as London, though she lives on the island of Stronsay. “Brenda’s Box” is dedicated to Brenda Maxwell, an accordionist from Stronsay, with whom touring members of the SFO have played many a tune. “The Reel of Kildinguie” is the name of a well on Stronsay, reputed to cure the ills of those who drink its water.

The SFO on radio and television

The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra was less than a year old when first invited to play in the New Year on Radio Scotland’s Hogmanay Show on 31 December 1980. By the following year, the SFO was part of our Hogmanay celebrations on television and, in 1982, a tricky situation developed when BBC Radio and STV both asked for its services.

In the final hour of that year, as Glasgow revellers were heading home for the bells, stragglers were astonished to see coaches carrying the entire orchestra and instruments proceeding at top speed through the city centre flanked by police vehicles eith flashing blue lights and wailing sirens.

The high-speed dash was unavoidable because BBC Radio had over-run to four minutes past eleven and STV had the orchestra scheduled for an 11.30 start on their show.

The Fiddlers’ Express

SFO fans follow the orchestra as eagerly as football fans follow their teams.

The progress of the annual “Fiddlers’ Express” from Glasgow to London sounds sedate by comparison unless you are one of the crowd of orchestra fans who make the journey every year, as much for the night-long feast of music on the train as for the concert in the Royal Albert Hall.

Jimmy Cannell describes the scene: “There can’t be another experience like it anywhere. As the train pulls out, an impromptu band will be playing and it won’t be long before there are groups of musicians coming down the corridors and popping into compartments to play requests.”

A group enjoying the sun before the morning rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall. On the right, waving to the camera, is SFO secretary Dr Gerry Crean

“It’s an addiction,” explains Gerry Crean, a consultant physician at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, who plays in the first fiddles and acts as the orchestra’s secretary. “We play in the dressing rooms, on coaches, in the train, in concert hall corridors, at the ceilidhs which follow all our concerts: everywhere. We swap tunes the way other people tell each other jokes or the latest news – ‘Have you heard this one?’ ‘What do you think of this – I picked it up from an old sailor?’ ‘My goodness, it’s years since I heard that one!’

After a strenuous night on the Fiddlers’ Express in July 1983, the orchestra were taken aback to arrive at their London hotel around midnight to find that newly-installed computerisation had made a shambles of their room reservations. When the whole company had done several rounds of opening room after room and discovering, like Goldilocks, someone in their beds, there wasn’t much left of the night for sleep. Nevertheless the orchestra was in fine musical form the next day at a concert in the Royal Albert Hall.

Singers associated with the SFO

A number of our best-known performers have appeared with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra including

  • Anne Lorne Gillies
  • Helen MacArthur
  • Bill McCue
  • Peter Morrison, and
  • Andy Stewart.

The orchestra also has its own regular guest singers, Mary Sandeman and James Nicol.


The cost of transporting an orchestra of this size inevitably restricts the SFO as far as touring beyond the mainland of Scotland is concerned. However, sections of the orchestra have managed to respond to invitations to the Western and Northern Isles and, in 1981, farther afield to Texas.

Returning from a tour of the Hebrides, the orchestra pose for this happy picture.

The most recent trip to the Western Isles was to Barra in 1985. They dances they played for were packed to the door of the new community hall and, at one of them, the density of the crowd that took to the floor for a rousing Highland Barn Dance led one of the fiddlers to remark that, from his viewpoint on the platform, the scene resembled “a pun o’ mince going round in a big pan.”

Travelling in Orkney involves much loading and unloading of luggage and instruments on inter-island ferries.

At one concert, the local priest, Father MacLellan, was visibly moved when the orchestra struck up John Mason’s composition in his honour, “Callum MacLellan of Barra.”

Tours of Orkney are trials of endurance, involving crossing the Pentland Firth from John o’ Groats; evening sails from one island to another in small boats; negotiating slippery piers in the darkness clutching precious instruments; and playing far into the early hours at sessions in private houses with local fiddle enthusiasts. John Mason recalls stopping the bus as they were on their way from Kirkwall at the end of the tour. The halt was at Holm post office where the owner, fiddler, composer and founder of the Orkney Strathspey and Reel Society, the late Ronnie Aim, was waiting at the roadside to present the players with a tin of sweets for the southward voyage.

The popularity of the SFO

What accounts for the wide popular appeal of an orchestra which has become a national institution in its comparatively short existence?

The Rev. James Currie says, “From the first notes of our signature tune, ‘Fiddlers to the Fore’, to the final bars of ‘Caddam Wood’, with which we always finish, everyone is united, young and old, audience and players, in glorious sound.”

Audience appeal is something John Mason takes very much into account when he reflects on the future of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra: “Our development will depend on what audiences expect of the SFO – and I believe that will always be traditional Scottish music played on the concert stage.

“We take our national heritage seriously and the changes we can make are therefore limited, but at the same time I feel we should give performances that are lively, entertaining and moving and pass on to our listeners our own love of Scottish music. Someone once described us as ‘Scotland’s Other National Orchestra’.

“We are fortunate to have emerged at a time when Scottish traditional music is growing in status. Not very long ago, only classical music was taught in schools. Now fiddle classes are part of musical education and in the last few years junior fiddle orchestras have been established.

“If the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra continues to attract young people with the abilities and enthusiasm of those we have in the orchestra now, the popularity of Scottish fiddle music will be assured for many years into the future.”

That’s something we all look forward to.