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Trad Cello in Scotland

market of clay pots

The cello has a unique history among traditional instruments in Scotland. It was central to dance music in the ‘golden age’ of Scottish fiddle music in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Performers such as James Oswald, Nathaniel Gow, and James Scott Skinner were cellists as well as fiddlers; famous fiddlers regularly performed in duos with cello players, and virtually every published collection of the time included ‘a bass for the violoncello’. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the cello had disappeared from traditional music in Scotland. It is only over the past three decades that the instrument has been revived within the mainstream traditional music scene, trailblazed by performers based in North America, such as Natalie Haas.

So what of the national heritage of Scottish traditional cellists.. is there anybody out there?! Well, that’s where James Scott Skinner comes in. He was recruited for ‘Dr. Mark and his Little Men’ apprenticeship band, and interestingly entered the prospectus of 1860 not as a fiddler but as “Master James Skinner, from Aberdeen, Highlands, 11 years of age, a cellist” (Alburger, Scottish Fiddlers, p.174). Skinner himself also references the context in which the cello was used for barn dances for which he played as a young boy, with Kincardine O’Neil fiddler Peter Milne. Specifically, Skinner notes that the cello was used for vamping (Alburger 1996, p 172) and he often struggled to stay awake playing the repetitive basslines as a boy of 8, late at night after a weary trudge through the Aberdeenshire countryside with cello in tow!

The lack of presence of the cello in Traditional Scottish Music throughout the 20th century means James Scott Skinner essentially bookmarks the end of our historical timeline of cellists and the cello in the historical Scottish tradition. Over his lifetime, the introduction of pianos in the domestic home, and increasing accessibility of instruments such as accordion and guitar meant the cello was soon superseded as the accompaniment instrument of choice (Alburger, 1996, pp.195).

In the foreword of the Harp and Claymore, Skinner’s editor Gavin Greig describes the earlier general practice of basslines for the ‘cello and harpsichord as ‘the precursor of the modern pianoforte’. It is interesting even here, that despite his clear appreciation and reference to the ‘romantic and patriotic past’, the front page describes a volume of music for voice, violin, bagpipe, pianoforte etc, void of any mention of the cello. By the time of publication in 1904, cello doesn’t make the front page, and seems to be categorised together with the harpsichord as ‘historic’ and of an older style. Despite this, there are basslines to be found in the collection written in sustained fifth chords (perfect for barring with the left hand across the strings on the cello), implying these were written with cello in mind, rather than the piano (piano does many things extremely well, but it suffers when it attempting a sustained bagpipe-esk drone!).

One of the most promising leaps forward in our understanding of historical cello in the Scottish tradition in recent years was the AHRC funded research project ‘Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions’ at Glasgow University. Their subsequent compilation of the online resource www.HMS.Scot (Historical Music Scotland) means we now have digital access to over 200 printed collections that specify a bassline for violincello. Dr David McGuinness of Glasgow University explains that typically, basslines for the violincello would include repeating notes and strong cadences at the end of each part of the tune, a convention dating from the 1700’s well into the twentieth century.

These basslines, performed on cello and harpsichord, not only outline harmonies but also offer a pulsing, driving rhythm. Few people have written about how this sounded, or better still, recorded it. But all is not lost, Skinner’s small notes on accompaniment in ‘A Guide to Bowing’ and the dots themselves preserve an exciting treasure trail for today’s performers, and one of the best things we can do to gain an understanding of that sound world is to get our cellos out and play these basslines. Patsy and I absolutely love this historic sound of North East Scotland, imagined with Skinner’s early cellist years in mind. Here’s to Skinner raising the roof with driving basslines, underpinning timeless melodies from the North East of Scotland.

Alice Allen March 2022


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