Fiddlers on the Road: NAFCo 2012

Guest blog by Stuart Eydmann
Music researcher and fiddler Stuart Eydmann travelled to the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention in Derry/Donegal in late June 2012 and here records some impressions from the trip.

Guest blog by Stuart Eydmann

Music researcher and fiddler Stuart Eydmann travelled to the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention in Derry/Donegal in late June 2012 and here records some impressions from the trip.

First held in Aberdeen in 2001, NAFCo has developed as a highly significant event in the fiddle calendar. All NAFCo gatherings feature a conference dedicated to aspects of the fiddle and related traditions and the 2012 gathering in Derry/Donegal had over 60 presentations from an international panel including some leading scholars. The papers will be published in due course but suffice to say that Scotland and Scottish music was very well represented through, among others, talks by:

• The writer (Edinburgh University: John Junner Collection)

• Ronnie Gibson (Aberdeen University: 18th century fiddle masters)

• Pat Ballantyne (Aberdeen University: music and dance)

• Emma Nixon (Australia: Scottish fiddle music in Australia)

• Caoimhin MacAoidh (Donegal: Donegal highlands)

• Sally Somerset Smith (USA: Cape Breton Repertory)

• Carley Williams (Aberdeen University: Cello in Scottish music)

• Jasmine McMorron ( Newfoundland: Cape Breton Piano)

• Pam Swing (USA: fiddle in Shetland)

• Catriona MacDonald (Newcastle University: Tom Anderson)

In parallel with the conference there was a dance convention, a massive programme of concerts and recitals and a youth fiddle camp. The last mentioned appeared to have a huge number of participants, if the number of young people walking around town with fiddles over their shoulders was anything to go by.

Being engaged in the conference I limited my late evening musical activities but I received many good reports of excellent informal sessions and staged concerts with stellar casts. However, I did manage a few afternoon shows including a moving celebration of the life of local fiddler and dancer Eugene O’Donnell, a recital of new compositions from Tommy Peoples and Liz Carroll and a talk/performance from Paddy Glackin of Dublin.

On Saturday, towards the end of a long week, I escaped the lecture theatres to participate in what looked like a potentially intriguing exercise in traditional cultural tourism. I joined one of two small coaches that left Derry mid morning, loaded with fiddlers, enthusiasts and other festival escapees. Each bus had a musical guide (ours was the excellent fiddler Martin McGinley) who provided a commentary in real time using words, fiddle playing and archive recordings appropriate to the places we passed as we drove through the Derry and Donegal landscape. This turned out to be a brilliant concept and, after only a few miles, others had their fiddles out too and tunes were being passed from player to player. At the roadside memorial to the Doherty family of fiddlers we were joined by members of the (in)famous Campbell family and tunes were played in the light drizzle before we set off for Glencolmcille to meet up with other players. That’s when the fun really started as the locals fired off story after story between tunes. This experience reminded me of travelling through Shetland on a bus to and from playing gigs with Tom Anderson, Peerie Willie, et al back in the early 1980s.

At the remote Atlantic village we were provided with a welcome lunch before everyone gathered in the tiny replica of an old thatched pub/shop in a ‘folk village’ similar to the reconstructed hamlets found in Sweden where I have experienced similar musical happenings. A fiddle was passed round and Scottish and Donegal tunes were played in turn. Bottles of the strong stuff appeared as if from nowhere and Margaret, the guide and host, graced us will a beautiful song in Gaelic.

From there we went to a local Oideas Gael cultural centre to view archive photographs and watch the well known documentary film of ‘John Doherty – Fiddler on the Road’ (viewable on Afterwards we adjourned to a local pub and the serious music started. Scotland’s Paul Anderson, who is clearly something of a celebrity in those parts, led off with a mighty set of strathspeys that had the locals calling for more. Several visitors swore to return for the annual fiddle festival held in the village.

Quickly finishing pints and packing away fiddles were soon on the coach again as we moved on to the Highland Hotel at Glenties. Here we joined the audience for an evening concert programmed around the history of the strathspey using musicians, singers and dancers from Donegal, Scotland and Cape Breton. Our own Mary Ann Kennedy and Maggie MacDonald (port a beul), Fin Moore (pipes), Paul Anderson (fiddle) and Caroline Reagh (dancer) comprised the Scottish contingent. After the show it was fiddles out in the bar before a long drive back to Derry in the very wee small hours, the in-transit crack continuing all the way with tunes giving way to songs as we neared the city. I headed to bed but some others managed to find an all night session!

Travelling back the Scottish participants wondered whether such a tour could ever work in our own country. The conclusion was that it might just be feasible in Shetland, the North East fiddle heartland’ or perhaps in the Borders using a ballad theme or Ayrshire with Burns. Anyone wish to take up the challenge?

Back in the city it was clear that Derry is working hard to perfect its image prior to becoming City of Culture in 2013. I noted one impressive touch at a cafe just inside the Londonderry city walls which is also the booking office for excellent guided walking tours. Every afternoon two young women sat by the window just inside the door playing clarsach and fiddle. Now, that’s something that would easily work in any town in Scotland!

Stuart’s photographs from the fiddle trip can be viewed here.