The Continuing Relevance of Strathspey and Reel Societies

Ronnie Gibson from the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society shares some thoughts on the history of the Strathspey and Reel Society movement:

 “I recently became conductor of the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society, a fiddle orchestra established in 1928 to perform Scottish dance music. 2018 will mark our ninetieth anniversary, a milestone that has prompted me to consider the changing fortunes of the Strathspey and Reel Society movement over the course of its long history. (All views are my own).

The continuing relevance of Strathspey and Reel Societies (SRS) is perhaps surprising in this day and age, given the seismic changes within traditional music in recent decades. Admittedly, their heyday is long since passed, and their tartan brand of variety entertainment seems couthy and sentimental to modern tastes. Yet, they remain popular throughout Scotland and abroad among players and audiences who share an enthusiasm for the repertoire of national dance tunes and airs.

The history of the SRS movement stretches back almost 150 years, with the earliest ‘fiddle orchestra’-type amateur performance society forming in Dundee in 1869 (The Dundee Scottish Musical Society). The oldest society that remains active today is the Edinburgh Highland Reel and Strathspey Society (est. 1881), and at least five other Societies were established before 1914, with the Glasgow Caledonian SRS (est. 1888) the first to use the SRS soubriquet. The 1920s and 30s were something of a golden age, seeing a great many societies established, and the regular broadcasting of Societies’ performances over the wireless by the fledgling BBC.

New societies have continued to be established (or revived after having gone into abeyance) in the time from then to now, but it was the advent of the Fiddlers’ Rally in the early 1970s that rejuvenated the SRS movement, which had been at a low ebb for a generation previous. The rousing effect of massed fiddles performing lively dance music was always bound to please audiences, and the opportunity for members from different Societies to meet was also very important. A consequence of this new cultural form was the founding of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra in 1980, distinguished from other Societies by requiring members to audition. Around the same time, other ‘fiddle orchestra’-type groups were established that adopted less formal titles, the ‘[Place name] Fiddlers’ format being most common, and junior orchestras were introduced to cater for the increasing number of children who were learning fiddle (or, violin) through county instrumental music services.

In the early years of the movement, when the performance of dance music in a concert setting was a new thing, Strathspey and Reel Societies played an important role in championing the repertoire in this now-familiar context. This was significant because it changed the status of Scottish dance music from being functional and ephemeral (an accompaniment to dancing) to being a culturally significant canon worthy of attentive listening. 

Societies have continued to champion the repertoire ever since, but the diversification of traditional music that accompanied its increasing professionalisation from the late 1980s presented audiences with a broader range of listening options. Groups modelled on pop music formats achieved great success – whether by incorporating drum kits, electric guitars, and synthesisers, or emulating boy bands with an energetically choreographed front line – and while old tunes continued to be played, new compositions were a key feature of such groups’ popularity.

In the face of such diversity, diminishing representation in mainstream media, and ageing audiences and membership, the future of the SRS movement might seem in doubt, but it’s not. Societies actively raise awareness through social media, and membership levels have been buoyed by the many adult learners being brought on by continuing education initiatives such as the Scots Music Group (Edinburgh), Glasgow Fiddle Workshop, and SC&T (Aberdeen). Sadly, most peripatetic instrumental tutors remain woefully unaware of (or, in some cases, prejudiced towards) the solid training available to their students at SRS junior orchestras. Nevertheless, the high levels of inter-generational music-making in Societies is encouraging, with sometimes three generations of a family playing side by side.

The individual histories of each Society afford a unique perspective on the movement as a whole, a definitive history of which will hopefully be written one day soon. However, in the short time I’ve been involved with the Aberdeen SRS, I’ve come to realise that while the artistic side of thigs remains of the utmost importance, members show up week after week to be among friends and part of a warm and inviting community. I’m excited to join them, and look forward to celebrating not just our ninetieth anniversary in 2018, but our centenary in 2028!

 Please visit Ronnie’s website if you’d like to comment or give feedback