A Braw Breeze: the emerging flute revival in Scottish Traditional Music

Not that long ago, I think I may have actually known or been aware of almost every traditional flute player in Scotland – not because I was out playing everywhere, but simply because it was an unfavoured instrument and we kindred spirits would gravitate to each other.

But recently I was struck by the numbers of younger players coming through and the examples of pipers, following the likes of Dougie Pincock and Iain MacDonald, doubling up on the flute as well as the low whistle. It seems that something is in the air.

Wooden simple system flutes, with similar fingering to whistles but demanding a more involved technique, have long been associated with Irish music. However, a few lone Scottish voices such as Phil Smillie and Kenny Hadden have been there since the 70s, researching and rediscovering a sound that was once popular until the mid-19th Century, but was then lost for reasons that remain beguilingly obscure today.

Others in this small scene have continued to provide inspiration, including Rebecca Knorr, Sharon Creasey, Niall Kenny, Claire Mann, Nuala Kennedy and Calum Stewart. A groundbreaking weekend in Aberdeen in 2001 organised by Malcolm Reavell saw the biggest gathering of trad flute players in Scotland for over 100 years. There weren’t that many, but it lit a fire.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when flute players started coming to my whistle classes almost 20 years ago. Fast forward to 2017 and I am involved in organising the 4th annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend in Edinburgh, which began as a multi-workshop day with sessions. When Nuala Kennedy ran a house concert alongside it one year and then in 2016 Tom Oakes organised a big charity concert to partner the weekend, the excitement, interest and appetite for the flute became clear to all.

Last year’s concert saw over a dozen flute players performing to a respectably-sized audience and provided a snapshot of the many possibilities, from the strict traditional to the more experimental.

The revival is still in the early days, but the small steps have taken us a long way and, I say it cautiously, it now begins to feel healthy. Boehm and wooden flute players alike are all trying to rediscover an authentic Scottish voice on the flute and forge a new sound. If you play Scottish traditional music on the flute, you are part of this important revival.

Gordon Turnbull runs monthly FluteFling classes in Edinburgh and is involved in organising the annual Scottish Flute Weekend with Kenny Hadden, Sharon Creasey and others.