09 January 2017

The World’s Largest Ever Fiddlers’ Rally?

Scottish traditions and culture feature in various ways in the Guinness World Records:

  • ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is one of the most frequently sung songs in English. Some of its words were written by Robert Burns himself.

The term “Fiddlers’ Rally” was coined in the early 1970s.

It was used to describe the public concert held during the annual Gaelic Mod for the competitors from the various fiddle societies from across Scotland.

The idea behind the SFO was that, by forming a fiddlers’ rally of fixed membership, you had scope to widen the repertoire and achieve the highest standards of playing excellence.

The SFO has a current membership of 98.

Being an orchestra, the SFO features instruments other than fiddles. Of the current membership, 72 are fiddlers. An average size of orchestra for an SFO concert would consist of around 80 players (of whom about 60 play fiddle).

We noted recently that there does not appear to be a world record for the largest ever fiddlers’ rally, or equivalent.

Our trawl of the internet has not revealed any records of that nature to be in existence.

Having exhausted digital methods, we resorted to more analogue means of research. Specifically, various SFO members searched through their vinyl record collections from the 1970s and 1980s, when fiddlers’ rallies were at their height.

The SFO’s own Yla Steven won the inaugural Golden Fiddle Award in 1976. Recordings of the concert/rally, held on the Saturday evening after the competition was finished, were released on 2 separate LPs.

Here is an excerpt from the sleeve notes for the 1976 Golden Fiddle Awards LP.

They came from the Shetland Isles, from little Border towns, from the East Neuk of Fife and the Western Isles. They stayed the night with friends, took a chance on finding a boarding house, or booked into a select a hotel… For they represented every sphere of activity and every strata of income.

Bus drivers, doctors, engineers and labourers… Schoolchildren, teachers, accountants and shepherds…

All united by their love of Scotland’s fine traditional music.

And on a late May evening in 1976, they combined in the finest and biggest fiddle orchestra ever assembled.

On the specially mounted stage in the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, they played some 250 strong before an audience of 3,000. The drums, the piano, 6 violas and 6 cellos, 14 basses and 9 accordions. All the rest were fiddle players.

This was the Daily Record Golden Fiddle Festival 1976.

You could argue that violas should reasonably be included (along with violins) in the definition of “fiddles”. For the purposes of identifying a possible record for the largest ever fiddlers’ rally, that is how we are approaching it.

The number of fiddlers totalled 219, accordingly.

The SFO’s President and Leader, Bill Cook, also took part in the 1976 Golden Fiddle Awards Rally and his memories of the logistics of the occasion are interesting.

I was actually there at that rally. I had not long taken over the Stirling Society and a bus was hired and several members and their wives went through to take part in the show in Glasgow. The size of the orchestra made things a bit difficult. One side of the stage couldn’t hear what the other side was playing, the orchestra was so big. Part of Scotland’s fiddling history, though! It certainly was the biggest assembly of players that I have had the experience to be involved with.

They say that records are made to be broken.

Maybe you know of a rally which has featured a larger number of fiddlers, sometime in the last 40 years. If you do (and see also below), we would love to hear from you.

[EDITOR’S NOTE – The above article first appeared in the SFO Newsletter of December 2016. Since then, we have received further information which suggests that the largest ever gathering of fiddlers in this format may in fact have been at the Golden Fiddle Awards Rally of 1982. Some reports of that Rally put the number of players – on a specially-extended stage at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow – at possibly as high as 500. It seems that the size of orchestra may have been the main motivating factor for the organisers, on that occasion. As a result, the sound quality for the audience may have suffered. Certainly, our understanding is that the Golden Fiddle Awards last took place in 1982).