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The Full Story of the bass fiddle


Listen to Tom Anderson & Bill Hardy discuss the Bass Fiddle via Tobar an Dualchais

Luthiers in Scotland

Apart from literature and iconography, we can also account for the presence of cello in historic Scotland because there were many active luthiers making ‘cellos. Thanks to David Rattray’s fantastic book ‘Violin Making in Scotland’, we know that Edinburgh and Aberdeen in particular, were both home to many cello luthiers including Daniel Dewar, Alexander Forrest, Peter T. Gallacher, David Stirrat, Thomas Hardie and many others. The presence of vast swathes of cello makers certainly shows how common place the cello was in Scotland during the golden age of fiddle music. If we attempt to classify ‘musical genres’ within Scotland according to our modern day understanding of ‘art music’ (classical) and ‘folk music’ we may find trad basslines a slight anomaly, something that doesn't fit squarely in the classical camp or the folk camp. Basslines my not feel particularly 'traddy' to accompaniment players nowadays, in part due to the fact that most tune books provide tunes with chords, rather than basslines. However these genre distinctions between folk music and classical music may start to feel arbitrary when considering the musical landscape of the golden age of fiddle music in Scotland. Research by Dr. Aaron McGregor and Dr David McGuinness show good evidence to suggest musical genres were far less distinct than they are now. With this in mind and putting genre aside, the large presence of cello luthiers during the golden age of fiddle music shows an appetite for cellos to be made and sold, suggesting the cello was a key component of the Scottish music scene.

Gavin Greig on Tradition;

Gavin Greig describing Scott Skinner’s composing of Strathspeys;


‘He has not broken with the past – no true artist ever does; but, conserving its best traditions, he has enlarged the scope and message of the Strathspey… that challenges effective comparison with the best achievements of the past’. (Harp and Claymore Foreword).

John Gunn on genre defying practice


Despite scholarly omission and the absence of the cello from the headline stages, a narrative of esteem and accomplishment seems to surround the cello and its use in Scottish music if you go back far enough. Scottish musician John Gunn (c. 1765 – c. 1824) was a teacher, of both flute and violincello who left behind a legacy of instruction on both disciplines. Gunn makes clear his intent for designing a musically satisfying ‘perspicuous’ method of cello tutelage. He steers us towards the Scottish Air (a slow melody), as a safe place that will bestow the learner cellist with “the advantages of an easy, pleasing and progressive practice”. Unlike many tutor books of the time (that used repetitive scalic patterns within short studies for improving and practice) Gunn provides us with the comfort of a satisfying melodic Air, within which the challenges of both technical playing and improving sound quality can be practiced. He writes that refinement of tone and expression are admired qualities in a cellist, and mastery of this will lead to the cello’s ‘other great property’ – it’s use as an accompaniment instrument. Gunn describes the study of melody as being vital to ‘fine and expressive accompaniment (The Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violincello (1789 p.3). This is important as he firmly states the cello’s role both as melody player and accompanist, and defines this all within the boundaries traditional music in Scotland; namely his interpretation of the slow Scottish Air.


When describing the practice and study of learning the cello, Gunn goes further and actively encourages the learner to seek out all kinds of music to enhance ones playing, and one notes his earlier reference to the Sonata’s difficulties (…“the time, accents, and meanings whereof must be to a beginner, to say the least; comparatively more obsure”). Gunn explains that the learner should not be confined only to the Airs but might also consider practicing “the best music that can be procured, in every variety of stile, in two three or more parts”. This, he goes on to say, “will be his surest and shortest road to excellence”.

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