The former national fiddle champion also teaches at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland in Glasgow and is widely known as one of the city’s keenest folk advocates.
For several years Alistair was a soloist with the renowned Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, performing at major concert halls in the UK and overseas. He has also released three solo records, plays with the Coila Ceilidh Band and has appeared as a session musician on scores more.
We recently spent some time with him to hear why Scottish folk and roots music is a constantly evolving tradition and why education has been key to keeping the scene alive.
How did you first get started in music?
I’ve been doing it professionally for over 20 years. My interest in traditional music came from my family. I started violin lessons when I was about nine, growing up in Ayrshire, south west Scotland. My dad plays the fiddle and the bagpipes so he always encouraged me to play. There was a lot of music in the house. My late grandmother used to play violin too. I suppose I was encouraged from her as well. She gave me a fiddle to start on.
Did you learn in school or was all your music education happening in your home life?
I learned classical violin through school and took all the exams. But all the while I was playing traditional music at home. I studied music at university, graduating in 1988. Since then I’ve been making a living as a performer and tutor. I’ve never had one job, I do a variety of things.
What was the city’s folk music scene like when you first started out? How has it changed?
It’s changed a lot in that it’s become much broader in terms of the genres of music. When I first went to university the idea of earning a living as a folks, roots or jazz musician was quite unusual. There had always been a bit more focus on classical training. In the past 15 years that’s all changed. If you look at the courses the Conservatoire now offers, it really tells a story. Now they have a jazz course here, alongside a Scottish music degree.
The number of young people playing around Glasgow has rocketed. It’s a really vibrant scene. There are sessions every night of the week. Professional players, amateurs and students will get together all across the city to play together. The birth of Celtic Connections festival has really encouraged that, together with the whole Gaelic arts movement – that’s all kicked in relatively recently.
I think it’s all been pretty positive. You’ve always got to maintain an open mind and remember folk is an evolving tradition. If you let it stand still then it will stagnate. It’s such a wide sphere of music – you have pipe bands, fiddle orchestras, dance bands – which are all fairly traditional in style and convention but then they all have their underground scene too.
The modern folk scene, largely through Celtic Connections and other festivals – is very welcoming of musicians who are pushing the boundaries and fusing folk music with other styles. I think it’s really important.
So who are ones to watch out for in the scene?
Take guys like the Treacherous Orchestra or Donald Shaw’s Capercaille or even older bands, they were pushing the boundaries 15 years ago. And now you’ve got more and more young bands showing up now. One thing that’s become apparent is the quality of musicianship has improved a lot. When I was younger, I think I was the only person in my entire school that played the fiddle and people found it slightly odd. But nowadays there are lots of folk musicians who are highly trained, skilled players so the association with old men and grey beards sitting in the corner sawing away has gone. Obviously there is still an element of that but it’s really changed, thanks in part to the degree programmes available to young musicians in Glasgow and the Highlands now.
Do you see the city as a national stronghold for traditional music?
Yes, I’d have to say it is because the only Scottish Music degree course in the world is here in Glasgow and there’s a lot of competition to get on the course. There are further education colleges in the city where you can study folk and traditional music too. It’s a very vibrant scene and you’d have to say that Glasgow shines a torch for folk music in Scotland.
How important has education been in maintaining that?
It’s highly important, but obviously I would say that because I’m a tutor so I’m slightly biased. I didn’t have any formal instruction in traditional music until I went to university when I was around 20 so really I learned most of my craft from being in orchestras and folk ensembles, and going to sessions. I picked up a lot by watching performers. These days you have the Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award, which is quite a big deal. You have the BBC 2 Folk Awards, the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship.
Nowadays there are so many opportunities for young players to learn in a supportive environment. There will be people who criticise that to an extent, because there are two arguments to this. Should you really formalise traditional music and take it into the classroom? It’s an aural tradition so you have to bear that in mind. But in terms of musicianship and the skill levels of players, I think education is vital at any level.
There are so many workshops in Glasgow from various organisations and pitched at every level of ability, covering a range of instruments. A lot of people will do that as a hobby, they’re not necessarily looking to become professional players.
You’ve played in various bands, collaborated with loads of people, taught students and completed three solo albums. What aspect of your career so far has been the most satisfying for you?
That’s a very difficult question! I’ve always enjoyed gigging. I have to gig – it’s a drug. But gigging comes in many forms. I’ve played in Ceilidh bands for the past 25 years. We started that at school! That’s bread and butter functions but I also have a trio which is more of an occasional thing that gives me more pleasure. It’s more challenging because we’re playing sit-down concerts and festivals. That’s more rewarding.
I really enjoy teaching at fiddle camps. I did the Boston Harbour Fiddle Camp this summer and I’m going out to the Southern Hemisphere International School of Scots Fiddle in New Zealand in April. I’m also going to a big festival in North Carolina next summer called the Swannanoa Gathering. There will be an element of performing but my main role is that of tutor. I’m specifically there to teach Scots fiddle playing. I’m there to pass on my expertise to them.
Do you work much in the classical sphere?
Nowadays it’s surprising how many classically trained musicians are becoming interested in the art of fiddle playing. In some respects the two genres are very different but in other respects they are really similar.
You mentioned earlier that there’s international demand for what you do and I’ve noticed that among many of the Glaswegian musicians I’ve been talking to from many different genres. How do these connections come about and why are people looking to Glasgow?
For me personally, I think it’s because I’m a fairly well known fiddle player and tutor. Also people are coming to Scotland as a whole looking for recommendations and people who are schooled in what they want. So I’m not sure it’s specifically Glasgow, but I suppose indirectly it is.
Certainly in terms of folk and traditional music, there are a lot of expatriates in various countries around the world, so it’s an enormous market.
With a lot of folk musicians, if you are making your living solely through performing, you might want to look outside Scotland if you really want to do well. For example, there’s huge potential in the States.
Interestingly a new market for traditional Scottish music is China. There are so many state-of-the-art concert halls to play the fiddle in – it’s a real experience.
What’s the pub and club circuit like for traditional folk musicians in Glasgow? Is there a lot of support?
A lot of students, young players and local musicians can easily find like-minded people to play with – there’s plenty of opportunity to do that. There are loads of folk sessions at places like Waxy O’Connors or the Flying Duck or Duke Bar or the Ben Nevis. That’s just a few, there’s many more. For these venues it’s as much about the social aspect and educational benefit. A lot of young players will go to sessions because they have the chance to play with more experienced musicians who they know and respect. They learn repertoire and tunes from them. For most sessions there will be one or two who are employed to be there and make sure the session happens. That’s the grassroots level and from there loads of bands have formed and evolved and become really successful. I know it’s the same for lots of other genres in Glasgow too – just look at Oasis in King Tuts!