Abby Newton is a cellist of unusual versatility who has long been associated with two of Scotland's premier musicians: singer Jean Redpath and fiddler Alasdair Fraser. She has composed cello parts for over fifty recordings by a variety of folk artists on both sides of the Atlantic, and has made it her mission to re-establish the cello in traditional Scottish music, bringing the instrument back into the fold in her many concerts, recordings, and masterclasses. She writes for us about her musical travels and the beginnings of the trio Ferintosh, featured on Thistle.
Castles, Kirks, & Caves is a CD that I have wanted to make ever since I became enamored with Scottish music. It is the culmination of three decades of travel, concerts, recordings, and association with Scottish musicians.
I first met Jean Redpath in 1974 at a folk festival in NY state and shortly thereafter she asked me to play on her first US release. This was the beginning of a musical relationship that has spanned three decades, sixteen CDs and many concert tours both in the US and Scotland. I learned the history of Scotland through its songs, and they remain very close to my heart.
My exploration of the fiddle music of Scotland began in 1978 after a visit to the Shetland Islands and many evenings of music with Tom Anderson, the legendary champion of Shetland fiddle music. Tom, Jean, and I performed a series of concerts the following summer which commenced at Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, Perthshire, Niel Gow's community.
We stayed with Alec Barbour, the factor of the castle, and researched tunes from The Atholl Collection of Fiddle Music in its unpublished form. Alec was careful to put the old manuscripts back under lock and key in the castle when we were finished with our program.
My most remarkable memory of that concert was the chiming of the grandfather clock (out of commission for many years) in the key of D just as we were playing a Gow tune in D. Niel Gow's eyes seemed to have a playful glint in them as they surveyed us from his portrait. He was surely with us that evening.
It was in Blair Castle during the concert series with Jean and Tom that I discovered the importance of the cello in Scottish traditional music. There, I saw for the first time a reproduction of the oil painting in the National Gallery of Niel Gow with his brother Donald on the cello playing for a country dance.
When I returned home from Scotland I heard from a cellist friend that he had just bought an English cello which had the inscription on the label "made for Nathaniel Gow", Niel's son. I was excited to learn of all the historical contexts in which the cello was used as a folk instrument.
For example, in My Life and Adventures, James Scott Skinner mentions being employed by Peter Milne, a renowned pre-Victorian fiddler, to play cello in his dance band. "I received simple instruction in the art of vamping on the 'cello, which in those days was called the "bass fiddle." The orchestra generally consisted of small fiddle, bass fiddle for vamping and an octavo flute."
In the mid 1980's Jean hired Alasdair Fraser to join us in a performance on Prairie Home Companion and this grew into many subsequent recordings and concerts. Alasdair has a rich historical understanding of Scottish traditional music and I recorded my first cello CD Crossing to Scotland on his label.
In addition, I taught Scottish cello at Alasdair's music camp, Valley of the Moon, for many summers. My research into the role of the cello in Scottish music was something I've been interested in passing on to my students.
The initial idea for the CD project, Castles, Kirks & Caves, was suggested by a friend I met at Valley of the Moon in 1997. Rod Cameron is a veritable encyclopedia of Scottish history and geography. He suggested a trip through Scotland to play and sing in the ancient spaces which abound in that beautiful landscape. We made the journey in the spring of 1998, recording on a hand held DAT machine. Along the way we met with old and new friends and gathered information and inspiration for the CD.
Our first stop was a visit to the home of John and Bar Purser on Skye. We discussed music, recordings, Scottish composers, landscapes, and our personal histories (Bar and I met at music camp in the US while we were in high school). When we left they presented me with a copy of the thirty-six programs John had recorded for the BBC on the history of Scottish music. This was a valuable gift as I spent the next few months exploring Scotland's musical history in depth.
Through these lectures I discovered the composers of the 18th century, particularly James Oswald. Learning about Oswald reconfirmed the role of the cello in Scottish traditional music. David Johnson, a contemporary composer and editor of 18th century Scottish music sent me several quotes which highlight Oswald's role as a cellist. One was a poem to James Oswald published in the Scots Magazine in October 1741. It was written by Allen Ramsey as a fond farewell to Oswald when he left Edinburgh for London.
"...Alas, no more shall thy gay tunes delight...
No more thy solemn bass's awful sound
Shall from the chapel's vaulted roof rebound"
(Bass=cello, awful=awe inspiring)
In addition, Charles Burney, writing of his life in London in 1748 wrote: "During my connexion (sic) with Drury Lane Theatre, I became intimately acquainted with Oswald, the Scotish (sic) Orpheus, the Celebrated performer of old Scots tunes on the Violoncello, and maker of many more."
Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter, "To the Right Honourable Lord Kaims of Edinburgh, ...the old tunes do not need, and are rather confused than aided [by the artificial harmony of accompanying parts]. Whoever has heard James Oswald play them on his violincello will be less inclined to dispute this with me. I have more than once seen tears of pleasure in the eyes of his auditors..." June 2, 1765.
Oswald's music is well represented on Castles, Kirks, & Caves. His compositions and settings of the old tunes exemplify the synthesis of traditional and "classical" baroque music common to that time period. In the traditional vein, Oswald published a twelve volume collection of Scots fiddle music. It was called The Caledonian Pocket Companion and combined traditional tunes with some of his own.
He also arranged a number of volumes of tunes for fiddle and cello, again many of which he wrote, in his collections of Curious Scots Tunes. After moving to London and opening a publishing house, he composed the Airs for the Seasons, ninety-six short sonatas in the Italian Baroque style using traditional Scots tunes as the basis for many of them. All are named after the flowers, trees and shrubs of the British Isles.
After our visit with the Pursers, Rod and I traveled to the outer Hebrides where we recorded in St. Clement's Chapel, home of the MacLeod Clan for six centuries. Then we went back to the mainland the next day and north through two four hundred year old stone pillars marking the way into the ancient wilderness of the highlands, past Ben Klibreck and Loch Loyal.
We finally reached our small inn in the middle of nowhere and prepared for a trip the next day to Smoo Cave with fiddler and tune master Alex Sutherland. Alex was extremely helpful in directing me to tunes related to Scotland's history. I'll always remember him hauling my cello into the innermost depths of Smoo Cave with the water dripping all around. I found a dry rock to sit on and wailed away on the tune Roslyn Castle.
In the spring of 2000 fiddler David Greenberg and I traveled to Scotland to record the music for Castles, Kirks, & Caves. We set up room microphones in Magdalen Chapel, in the center of Edinburgh which dates back to 1547. Corrina Hewat, the Scottish harper, joined us and we recorded for four days while it rained heavily nonstop.
From there we traveled north to Hatton Castle in Angus, a lovely old place renovated in the 1950's. It is now home to Mike Lean, Annie Anderson and their wonderful family. We recorded there for the next five days, with Mairi Campbell and Dave Francis. Our hosts graciously remembered to close the heavy castle doors very quietly during recording hours. The weather cleared up and the days were golden for the rest of the tour.
After finishing most of the ensemble pieces, Scott, my recording engineer, and I drove to Dunkeld to record the solo pieces in the grand Cathedral overlooking the River Tay. Once again I found myself on Niel Gow's home turf. His body lies in the Chapel graveyard next door to the Cathedral.
From there we were off to the Island of Mull and Fingal's Cave. Iain Morrison took us out in his orange rubber boat over the waters of the North Atlantic to the Island of Staffa and Fingal's Cave. The cello bounced on the waves that struck the bottom of the boat but it was packed into two sleeping bags and well-protected. We motored far into the cave, docked and unpacked the cello.
Fingal's cave is well-known for its acoustics. In the liner notes for the CD John Purser mentions that its Gaelic name is actually "Uamh Bhin" meaning musical or sweet sounding cave. It was a thrill to hear the sound of the cello reverberating around me. I felt as if I was playing within a bigger and more glorious instrument.
Our last stop was the Island of Lismore where we stayed with Alasdair and Valerie Livingstone. The Livingstone family has been on the island for many centuries and Alasdair has inherited the title "The Baron of Buchuil." It was fitting that we spent the last of our time in Scotland in the home of such an old and venerable family. Alasdair regaled us with a wonderful account of the island's history. The CD cover photo was taken at the ancient ruin of Castle Coeffin on a beautiful hill overlooking the water behind their house.
I mixed the CD in a studio in the Catskills Mountains in the summer of 2000. Two sets of tunes needed to be rerecorded due to excessive outside noise or sheer tiredness on my part. David Greenberg (fiddle), Fred Hand (guitar), and Kim Robertson (the harper from my first CD) joined me for this final recording. The musical chemistry at that session was excellent, prompting us to perform a concert of the CD's material at the community center in nearby Woodstock, New York. The audience response at that concert affirmed our own feelings -- that this was a band worth keeping together. We're calling ourselves Ferintosh.
(David Johnson's seminal book, Music & Society in Lowland Scotland, first published in 1972, was re-issued in paperback by the Mercat Press in Edinburgh in June 2003. The new edition will include an update section on James Oswald, and will incorporate the evidence given here by Abby Newton for Oswald being a pioneer and player of Scots tunes on the cello. Johnson concludes: "That the cello was an important part of Oswald's life can also be seen from the continuo parts of his compositions, which are always beautifully conceived for the instrument, and a joy to play. It seems sad that he did not write cello sonatas." )