Q & A With Fiona
This article is reprinted from the September, 2001 edition of HEMISPHERES, the in flight magazine of United Airlines. Fiona produced several programs for the airline’s audio entertainment channels, and Randy Johnson, HEMISPHERES editor, interviewed her to launch the first Celtic contribution to United’s Rhythms of the World.


For over 20 years, Fiona Ritchie has been the first lady of Celtic music. For millions of fans worldwide who listen to the weekly Thistle & Shamrock radio show, she gives global voice to the rich rhythms and melodies of this resurgent musical tradition.

Text: Randy Johnson

When Fiona Ritchie went to the United States to attend college in 1981, she had no idea her 10 years there would make the musical heritage of her native Scotland the focus of her life. Her stay in North America eventually bought her back to Scotland, but not before Celtic music - a genre significantly popularized by her efforts - had become a globally resurgent musical tradition.

Before Fiona Ritchie, there probably wasn’t a Celtic music section in your local store. Ritchie helped change that with The Thistle & Shamrock, a program launched over 20 years ago at Charlotte, North Carolina, National Public Radio station WFAE. She tested the waters with some local Celtic music programming and Thistle caught on with the station’s audience. NPR headquarters noticed. The show debuted nationally as a weekly program in 1983 and today is heard in all 50 of the United States. It’s one of the country’s longest running and most popular NPR offerings. And it’s carried globally by National Public Radio Worldwide and Cable Usen 440 in Japan, among others.

Fiddles and bagpipes are widely appreciated, so perhaps it’s not surprising that, as Ritchie says, “People can listen without feeling like they need an established knowledge. It’s just good music. It seems to attract people on a fresh, open level.”

“It’s easy to underestimate Fiona Ritchie’s achievement,” says Murray Horwitz, former NPR vice president for cultural programming. “It’s increasingly fashionable to use radio to drive people apart, but she bridges seemingly disparate audiences and does it with impeccable musical taste, good writing, solid production, and an irresistible personality. She is the living embodiment of what is distinctive and valuable about public radio.”

Today Ritchie lives in Perthshire, Scotland. Her show’s administrative headquarters are in Charlotte, and whenever possible, she travels back and forth between Scotland and the Carolinas with her family.

Beyond the captivating cadences of the music, a bit of the appeal for listeners of The Thistle & Shamrock is the rich sense of place imparted over the airwaves by Ritchie’s melodic Scottish accent.

In an increasingly vibrant world music scene that’s more attuned than ever to the rich contributions that come from all over the planet, Ritchie’s efforts are evidence of the inordinate influence and appeal of Scotland.

Q: Why preserve Celtic music?
A: Because it’s an ancient and living tradition. It’s not only about protecting, but it’s also about projecting, if you like – taking the music forward and nurturing the quite contemporary music that we hear today.
Q: Does that kind of connection have added meaning today?
A. Celtic music really is a window onto something very old and very real that speaks to people as no other art form can. There is nothing quite like folk music, because it explores the intimate nature of everyday like and celebrates the trials and tragedies of regular people. The history books talk about huge movements of people and powerful individuals. They don’t always speak for the common person. And that’s something that I think is very worth preserving.
Q. Do you have to have a Celtic background to appreciate it?
A: Celtic music appears to have a universal appeal, but so does music from all sorts of other cultures. People hear plenty of music created with commercial potential in mind. But when you hear something that sounds like it comes from someone’s heart, it speaks from the heart to the heart. We listen to music that sounds like it’s made by people who care about that music, people who have passion and a sense of pride in the music and want to celebrate the place it’s from. Celtic music does that.
Q: Does that explain the emerging popularity of world music?
A: It may. People want to connect with something that sounds like it’s from somewhere. So many of us feel rootless. Our families move around. Or maybe we just travel a lot. Music like this gives people an opportunity to connect with something that transports them home.
Q: How does the music on The Thistle & Shamrock differ from Celtic music you heard growing up?
A: When I was growing up in Scotland, television had a very prettified version of our heritage. It was tenors and sopranos with their hands clasped, singing the songs of Scotland with backdrops of heavenly hillsides. Let’s be honest – that was some programmer in London deciding how to represent Scottish culture.
Q: How did that change?
A: It took a while for people who appreciated the cultural importance of the music to actually get control of the ways of sharing it. When I was in my teens, there was an emerging sense of renewed pride in and awareness of our real music. But you didn’t hear or see it in the media. You’d have to find it for yourself at folk festivals.
Q: Did you keep up with the reemergence of Celtic music back home when you came to the States?
A: Being away from Scotland gave me the desire and the distance to explore my heritage. It gave me a niche and a different perspective. I was also returning to Scotland annually at Christmas, which gave me a chance to listen to the changes in the music. It was an opportunity for me to perceive what was happening in both places.
Q: Did you have trouble finding music for the program?
A: When I first started, there were a limited number of recordings. Since then, there has been an explosion of this music. And something else wonderful happened. We started receiving lots of records and tapes from people who were putting out music themselves.
Q: Did that inspire you?
A: It gave me an increased appreciation of what my culture’s contribution had been. When I went to Alaska, I realized the native people had picked up fiddle music from trappers who had been hired by Hudson Bay Company back it the 1800s. These Scots from the Western Isles of Scotland taught songs and dances to the native people. They very consciously know here it came from, this music. And they came up and said, ‘We’re one dancer short. Can you fill in?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m not sure about that. I don’t know your dances.’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll pick them up.’ And to my amazement, it was so remarkably close to what I had grown up learning. Times like that, I do think I have the best job in the world. And I’m always thinking in terms of my program as one that’s serving audiences across the United States, but we’ve heard from Uruguay, and Croatia, and Korea. We got a CD from Celtic musicians in Japan.
Q: Do you do a similar program in the UK about Celtic music?
A: One thing I did in the UK is play American music that I thought I would never hear over here. I rarely heard indigenous American music, Cajun, or bluegrass. Whenever I was doing programs here, I tried to find American music that shared a sensibility with our own. I get the most enjoyment out of introducing people to music they’re not getting a chance to hear – American regional music like the sounds of the Southern Appalachians.
Q: What inspired that?
A: Let me tell you about my first trip to the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina, North America’s largest Scottish cultural event. There is a genuine link between Scotland and the Carolinas, older than, say, with Canada. But when I was asked, ‘Are you going to the Highland games here?’ I was like, ‘Highland games, here?’ So I put on my cutoff denim shorts and my white T-shirt, and off I went. And truly I was one of the few who were from Scotland, and there I was walking around looking like an American, while all the Americans were walking around looking quite authentically like Scots.
And then I had a really powerful experience. I saw a family who didn’t look like they were of great means. Certainly they couldn’t afford to get themselves out in all this expensive Highland regalia. The children were sitting quite reverentially as their father was recording the sound of all these pipe bands with this little tape recorder. They looked as if they were from the mountains. You could see it just meant so much to them to see all this and to hear the music. And I felt moved by them and by what they obviously thought was a connection to their roots. That made it real and important for me, that family trying to catch something that they could take away. I realized that magical musical connections exist between my part of the world and many others. It was an interesting door that opened for me.