Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Visit to James Strachan's house – the fiddler called Drumnagarrow

James Strachan – fiddler - Drumnagarrow

This tale begins many years ago when I bought a book called Albyn’s Anthology volume 1 published in 1816. I had always wanted to get hold of this song collection and a friend of mine, who worked in an antiquarian bookshop at the time, told me a copy had just come in to the shop, so I agreed to purchase it and she sent it to me in the post.
When it arrived it was a very large volume and I discovered that not only did it contain Albyn’s Anthology but many other books as well. These had been bound into one personal collection by a Captain John Grant in 1847.
In addition to Albyns Anthology was a rare copy of Donald MacDonalds “A Collection of the Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia called Piobaireachd and performed on the Great Highland Bagpipe” and a handwritten collection of Captain John Grant’s (1799 -1869) own favourite fiddle tunes as well as many extra and interesting tunes he had stuck into the book.
I enjoyed playing through the hand written fiddle tunes and one of them had an interesting note written on it “The tunes here have been sent to me by Drumnagarrow June 1844.” This intrigued me and I looked up Drumnagarrow to see  if I could find any more information. I found the tune Drumnagarrow (or Drumnagarry) and that Drumnagarrow was a well known fiddler called James Strachan (1783 - 1847)  from Glenbuchat, Strathdon. 

 It is amazing that this characterfull portrait of him has survived.


He lived at 53 Drumnagarrow Croft high up on the hillside above Blackhillock farm in Glenbuchat. 
I went to see James Beaton, the librarian at the National Piping Centre, to ask him about Captain John Grant and the Donald MacDonald Collection. He was very helpful and we spent a few hours looking up Captain John Grant and Drumnagarrow and gathered some of the information here.
James Strachan’s daughter Mary married William Hardie whose son was one of the Scotland’s most famous violin makers, James Hardie. The composer of the tune is a bit ambiguous from the information available - the tune has been attributed to Scott Skinner though in a note on the Glenbuchat website he is said to have attributed the tune to James Hardy with input by Drumnagarrow himself. The tune is also known as The Fisher’s Rant.
I found a photo of the cottage on the Glenbuchat Heritage website and the cottage was still intact but with no water, electricity or even a road to it.

The once huge steadings were ruins. The cottage has a most beautiful view over the surrounding glen

In February 2016 I was in the Strathdon area and I thought it would be good to go and see if the cottage was still there. I was staying with friends and asked if they had heard of this cottage which was about five miles away, and they had not. However the lady who kept sheep on my friend’s land came from Glenbuchat so we asked her if she knew about the Drumnagarrow croft and to our surprise she said yes and that she owned that croft and Blackhillock farm and to come over and have a look. She was actually selling the farm and 53 Drumnagarrow!

The next day we had an expedition and went to see where James Strachan the fiddler lived and it was all still there as it had been for two hundred years! It was a beautiful walk up to the house and the situation was amazing. There must have been people living there not too long ago as there were remains of furniture and even washed dishes on a stand in the kitchen.
 I took my fiddle up to the house and played the tune Drumnagarrow outside his door on a beautiful sunny day in February and it seemed a fitting tribute to the man who lived there nearly two hundred years ago.

I do hope the new owners of this house learn the history of James Strachan and keep his memory alive there.

I have enclosed some photos taken in February of Drumnagarry's house and a portrait of the man himself from the informative Glenbuchat website: http://www.glenbuchatheritage.com/picture/number675.asp

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Neil Gunn's Fiddle

Neil Gunn's Fiddle

I have always had a fascination with antique fairs, street markets and car boot sales.
When I was a music student in Glasgow I often used to frequent a famous market there called “The Barras” where there was an old man who had an instrument stall but mostly of violins and bows. The prices ranged from the equivalent of 50p to about £50 and this seems amazing today. I do still own one of the 50p violins I bought which is a lovely handmade three quarter size with a good tone.

However this story is not about that violin but about the one I play today.

On relocating to the north of Scotland I still made forays to auctions and antique fairs but it was not so easy and required a lot more traveling. One day I attended an antique fair in Strathpeffer, Ross-shire and one of the stall holders had several violins for sale. They weren’t really very nice ones but I got talking to the him and he said he had a few more at home including one in particular that he had recently bought from an old lady. The lady told him she had bought it at the house auction held at the Scottish author Neil Gunn‘s house after his death in 1973 (this story is around 1985).Neill Gunn wrote well known Scottish books Highland River, The Silver Darlings and The Grey Coast amongst other novels.

Neil Gunn lived in many places in the North Highlands and at the time of his death was living near Dingwall close to Strathpeffer. He was, like Robert Burns, a customs and excise officer before his writing took off and he did a lot of traveling around the Highlands.

I said I would like to see this violin as Neil Gunn was a popular author in our house and the dealer said he was glad I had heard of him as when he bought the violin he had thought the provenance would help him sell the violin but so far I was the only person to say I had heard of him!  I also mentioned I had some surplus furniture I was interested in selling and he agreed if I liked the violin then maybe we could do a deal.

The following week he came to my house with a few fiddles including the one owned by Neil Gunn. The violin was very dark and dirty, and as it was not strung up I couldn’t try it but it did look interesting and old. It came in a battered old case with a label that said Lybster, N.M. Gunn Esquire, Customs and Excise and it had postage frank marks on it where it had obviously just been sent to various places by general mail!. Inside was a label “Fait par Jeanne - Robert Chibon, A Paris 1784”

We agreed on £20 and a surplus piano stool I had and we were both happy with the deal.

I got some good strings and cleaned it up and it was very exciting trying it for the first time.
It sounded fantastic and it is still the instrument I play today. I still have the case too.

I looked up information on Neil Gunn and his life and found an article describing him playing at many ceilidhs in the north and he was described as a good fiddler in this account.
I also looked up Jeanne - Robert Chibon and he turned out to to be a well known 18th Century violin maker in Paris. For me this was a wonderful opportunity to acquire a much treasured violin with a history and I know I was very lucky.