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Traditional Scottish flute playing

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    An Introduction to Scottish flute playing

This is a brief introduction to traditional flute playing in Scotland, which is growing in popularity. There are significant Irish influences, but also many from the tin whistle and Highland piping traditions.

Flute playing in Scotland is by no means as popular as it is in Ireland and this is sometimes a surprise to the outsider. Although it was more common over 150-200 years ago, for reasons that appear complex and are not entirely clear, it fell by the wayside for a long time. It survived in pockets in community and sectarian flute bands that have the fife as their main instrument. The simple-system, eight-keyed flute has only really been taken up again in the period since the Folk Revival.

This broken tradition means that the flute has had to undergo a re-establishment process that is still ongoing. However, there are signs of a new confidence amongst Scottish flute players that are promising and it can only be a question of time before a solo Scottish flute recording is made that reflects the current music scene.

Roy Williamson of The Corries appears to have been the first to record Scottish music on the flute in recent times (to accompany songs). In more recent years the flute has featured on Scottish recordings and in band line-ups, growing in popularity to the extent that it can sometimes be seen in Scottish sessions. It still has a long way to go before it can claim to be at the heart of Scottish music, or make its mark on the music as has happened in Brittany, but the signs are currently healthy.

In December 2001 an historic gathering of flute players from around Scotland took place in Aberdeen and I doubt that this could have been possible until then. Since then, a number of smaller events have taken place regularly, with visiting teachers at various events, such as the Summer school at Saimhal Mhor Ostaig on Skye and The Border Gaitherin' at Coldstream. Many of these teachers are Irish flute players, but the fact remains that 20 years ago these types of events simply couldn't have taken place due to a lack of demand.

Main influences

The tin whistle has been popular in Scotland for a long while and the low whistle is a natural extension of this, being arguably more popular than the flute in Scotland. Many Highland pipers in particular seem to have taken to it as a second instrument. The logistics of this make it an understandable choice.

This means that piping and tin whistles have a large influence in terms of repertoire and technique. For more information on the whistle in Scotland, Nigel Gatherer has written an introduction to styles and history. As most flute players are likely to also play the tin whistle, there is an obvious overlap here and a small number of Highland pipers do play the flute as well as the whistle. This relationship can also be seen in Ireland, of course.

The influence of Irish flute paying cannot be overestimated, particularly given the large cultural and population crossovers between the two countries. Many of the Scottish flute players who have recorded originally began playing Irish music.

This can cause confusion even to musicians in Scotland, who sometimes don't understand why Irish music is played in Scottish sessions at all. This has its roots in the session scene itself though, which tends to be Irish-dominated for historical reasons.

Furthermore, Irish flute-playing role models were once the only ones available to flute players in Scotland and a generation made regular pilgrimages to Ireland to learn and develop their art. Most flute players in Scotland are likely to have a significant Irish repertoire as a result. Developing a Scottish repertoire came on the back of this experience for these players, helping lay the foundation for more recent developments.

A generation of Northern Irish players coming to prominence has resulted in lesser-known tune types being recorded and many of these have close and obvious Scottish ties. Strathspeys, Highlands and Schottisches played with clear expertise by such players as Frankie Kennedy, Harry Bradley and Desi Wilkinson has shown that there are further possibilities for Scottish music on the flute and have served as an inspiration to many.

Northumbrian music also has much in common with Scottish music and flute players there have presumably had to work to integrate their instrument into the tradition. However, a two-octave piping tradition that is frequently tuned to D will have helped and I feel that there is something here that Scottish flute players can learn from.

The Scottish flute today

Scottish music has been governed by institutions for over a hundred years - the military (piping), fiddle and accordion clubs, country dance societies and so forth. Since the folk revival and particularly since the 80s, it seems that the traditional music scene in Scotland seems to have almost self-consciously tried to throw off the restraints of cultural institutionalisation in order to rediscover itself.

This has led to all sorts of innovations and ideas, some more successful than others, from cross-over influences with jazz and dance music to seeking affinities with other traditions. However, this is the climate in which the flute in Scotland now finds itself and as such is well-placed to reclaim a position that it last held 150 years ago or more.

There is some further discussion on the Scottish flute on The Session web site, with a comprehensive account of its revival in Scotland by Kenny Hadden and some contributions by others. The list of flute players below has been expanded to take in some of the comments

Notable Scottish players (please note that not all of these have recorded) include:

    Rebecca Knorr (Calluna)
    Chris Norman (Skyedance and solo)
    Phil Smillie (The Tannahill Weavers)
    Claire Mann (Tabache and solo)
    Nuala Kennedy (Fine Friday, Harem Scarem, solo)
    Niall Kenny (solo)
    Dougie Pincock (The Battlefield Band, solo)
    Ann Ward (Sprangeen)
    Iain McDonald (Ossian, The Battlefield Band)
    Alan McDonald (solo)
    Roy Williamson (The Corries)
    Frances Morton (Kinnell)
    Eddie Maguire (The Whistlebinkies)
    Peter Boond (Ceolbeg)
    Calum Stewart (solo)
    Dan Houghton (Cantrip)
    Munro Gauld (solo)
    Kenny Hadden (solo)
    Hamish Napier (Back of the Moon)
    Jimmy Young (Rua)
    Sean O'Rourke (JSD Band, Alba)
    John Gahagan (The Battlefield Band)
    George Jackson (Ossian)
    Billy Jackson (Ossian)
    Brendan Hyde (Malin Head)
    Malcolm Reavell (solo)

Notable Irish players with a Scottish influence or Northern repertoire include:

    Frankie Kennedy
    Cathal McConnell
    Paul McGrattan
    Desi Wilkinson
    Marcus O Murthu
    Harry Bradley
    Gary Hastings
    Michael McGoldrick

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Flutes at Aberdeen
Scottish Flute players at the Aberdeen gathering, November 2001. Flute players include Kenny Hadden (centre), Ann Ward and Rebecca Knorr (right). Photograph by Malcolm Reavel.

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