The Scottish Fiddle Makers behind the traditional ceilidh band

Chronologically, the story begins with Matthew Hardie who was born in Edinburgh in 1755. The probability is that he trained as a cabinet-maker and studied violin-making with a fiddle maker by the name of John Blair. Hardie developed a violin-making and repair business , finding sufficient time to pass on his skills to the younger generation of Scottish violin-makers, in the traditional expert and apprentice situation that was prevalent at the time, also teaching Thomas Hardie (his son) and Peter Hardie (his full cousin). Thus the family connection continued.


This instrument all manually handcrafted, and the importation of cheap German factory-made fiddles seriously affected the business, and eventually destroyed his business, him ending up in the debtor's jail. He died in St. Cuthbert's Poorhouse on the 30th of August, 1826 and was buried in Edinburgh's Grey-friars' Churchyard. A rather sad story of a business being destroyed by competition, which is common enough occurrence nowadays, but doesn't normally end up with such dire consequences. I guess that's the advantage of the welfare state. But life was hard back in the 1820s, much harder than it is for today's Scottish ceilidh bands and instrument makers.


The fiddle I play in the Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band is in fact made by an excellent violin maker in South Wales. Not Scottish then, but Celtic just the same. I play this instrument in all the counties of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Shropshire that we do Scottish Ceilidhs in.

Hardie generally copied the Amati and Stradivari styles of violin, using a spirit varnish which ranged in colour from pale amber to yellow-brown or yellow-red but which has now mostly dulled to a brownish colour.


Here is a comment on Hardie's violins made his Scottish Violin Makers: Past and Present (1910), William C. Honeyman writes:

It is evident that the graceful lines of his violins and the perfect contour of his scrolls have come intuitively from the man's brain more than from his patterns. ... in every one of his violins there is apparent in every line that subtle something which no one can define but which is seen as clearly in the roughest work of Joseph Guarneri (del Jesu). It is the same with the tone. The trained ear at once notes that it is not a commonplace tone, though it sometimes takes a firm hand to show its real grandeur.


Moving on through the family history now, Matthew's son Thomas Hardie was born in Edinburgh circa 1804. Note that this is an East Coast family, and if you remember me saying earlier, the East Coast attitude to a Scottish ceilidh is that everything has to be perfect and just so. This of course is an excellent mentality for a violin maker, because instrument making is absolute precision in wood. This would be a very different situation to the instrument maker I described earlier, who lived in the wilds the west coast. I wonder if the sound of the instruments they made was different because of this, just as the sound of the Norwegian variant of the violin, the Hardanger fiddle is different from the traditional violin, reflecting the wildness and wide open spaces and mountains and fjords of Norway in its sound?


Back to the subject! His apprenticeship began the surprisingly early age of ten and continued for twelve years until father's death in 1826.

Thomas Hardie's work is characterised by craftsmanship of a high order; (is this east coast Scottish thing again!) Vision instrument and a distinctive pale yellowish varnish. Despite his copying of the same Amati Stradivari models as Matthew Hardie, his instruments cannot be favourably compared to with his father's best instruments.


Peter Hardie, the son of an army surgeon, was born (probably abroad) circa 1775, but most of his life in the Dunkeld area of Perthshire. Generally known as "Highland Hardie" he was man of imposing appearance and powerful physique, making the most of the Scottish style as one sees to such great effect with images of Victorian Scottish fiddle player Scott Skinner, who looks positively fearsome. The Scottish ceilidh whether a figure like that at the helm would be quite an event I'm sure, quite different in appearance to the soft and friendly check shirts and casual trousers that are the usual attire these days.


Hardie was a pupil of the then famous Niel Gow and became a in the traditional style. (Note this, that he was a composer of 'traditional' music, and this is typical of Scottish'folk music', where much of it is formally composed rather than being music that has come from an oral tradition. While studying at Edinburgh University he was able to spend time in the workshop of his cousin Matthew Hardie and it was from this master craftsman that he himself learnt the craft of violin-making. In turn, Peter Hardie, passed on his expertise to Willie, the so-called Queen's Fiddler, and to his grandson James Hardie. So yes, a real family business.


He developed his own style instrument, which he is a cross between that of Stainer, the German fiddle maker whose instruments but very distinctive, having a very curved top at, indeed I have a copy of one, and the much flatter Amati. One description by a writer of the past, a Mr W Honeyman states"The Scroll", , "is turned sharply out at the edges in the style of Joseph Ruddiman, whose instrumentsHardie had probably seen and admired. The violins are all neatly purfled, and the tone is large and mellow."


It was with Peter Hardie's son William Hardie (1787 - 1884) that the family moved (around 1830) from Perthshire to Aberdeenshire (note here, still the east coast of Scotland) in the north-east of Scotland. The move initially was to Sauchen Tree near the village of Methlick, and subsequently (c. 1835) to Aquhadley, near Ellon. The family finally put down roots in the Methlick area where Hardie became a tenant of the croft of "Auchencruive".


William Hardie married Mary Strachan (1805 - 1910) the daughter of another celebrated northeast fiddler John Strachan "Drumnagarrow". (So the little business and the ceilidh and music business was a family concern even into marrying into other people in the same line of business. This is much like royalty, and of course ceilidh musicians were treated as royalty in those days, though the tradition is regrettably dying out. At a traditional Scottish ceilidh, when it comes to food, the band always get fed first. When the band arrive, the are formally welcomed with a drink. The band and the caller are a vital part of the evening's entertainment, without them there would be no ceilidh. There was, and still is to a large extent in Scotland, a polite tradition of welcoming guests, a more formal tradition on the east coast a very informal tradition on the West Coast. It doesn't just extend to events like ceilidhs and welcome the ceilidh band, but just in everyday life. When I was living on the West Coast, you never popped in to see somebody without getting at least a cup of tea and a piece of cake, and very often a wee dram. One always had to have cake available, just encased any neighbours or friends popped in, because without offering the cake you will be regarded as just one of those Sassenach's with no manners.)


To continue! They had a family of no fewer than fifteen, several of whom were subsequently to distinguish themselves musically. William himself, like his father before him, combined the talents of composer and player, although he was probably more of a specialist on the 'cello than the small 'fiddle.


James Hardie, son of William Hardie, was born at Aquhadley on the 1st of January, 1836. At the tender age of nine the young James received his first lessons in violin-making from his grandfather, Peter Hardie. He went on to make his first complete instrument when he was fifteen years old and eventually set up business in Edinburgh where, in a long career, he produced over two thousand instruments. He died in 1916 at the age of eighty.


Although he also worked to Guarneri and Stradivari models, his best instruments were undoubtedly those based on Maggini. These are often characterised by use of double purfling and ornamentation on the back. His varnish has a fossil-amber base and is of a golden amber or golden red colour. Hardie's talents as a luthier were complemented by considerable practical skill as a player of strathspeys and reels. James Hardie's work has received considerable critical acclaim.


Born at Aquhadley, Charles Hardie (1849 - 1893) was the son of William Hardie and brother of James. A carpenter by trade in the city of Aberdeen, he was considered "one of the best violinists in Scotland in his day". J. Scott Skinner (who I mentioned earlier is having a grand and fearsome Victorian Scotsman image, who was obviously not a shrinking violet in other ways. I have a book of his music, with a fearsome picture of him on the front, and the modest statement made by him underneath which goes something like "talent does what it can, genius does what it must ", presumably the genius was the very modest Mr Skinner!)


Charles Hardie's talents were accorded the official recognition of his being invited to play for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle. (You see, Scottish folk music in Scottish ceilidh is was high-fashion, the stuff of the Royals, not just music for the humble people. In some ways it was stolen from the general population. And I suppose in some ways, Irish music has slightly similar if not more ancient history and is heavily based on the fiddle, as a cheap instrument to make in a home workshop, just needing some wood and a LOT of skill. It is regarded in Ireland as dance music of the people now, and doesn't have the same Victorian connection with the aristocracy as Scottish folk and Scottish ceilidh music has, that if one goes back even further in history to the iconic Irish folk harpist Turlough O'Carolan who was around from 1670 to 1738, he was a regular performer at Royal Courts all around Europe. So there's a bit question of how folky is folk music?


On being informed of his untimely death at the age of 44 the Queen is said to have expressed her own personal feeling of loss at the passing of this talented musician. It's sad that he died so early, because playing a musical instrument is normally very good exercise and quite physically hard work, so it tends to keep musicians fit, but obviously not so in his case!

William Hardie Jnr. (c. 1856 - 1944), son of William Hardie and brother of James and Charles, was born at "Auchencruive". A good exponent of the slow strathspey, dance strathspey and reel, he was a man whose talents, far in advance of the average country fiddler were much in demand at local dances and functions, i.e. Scottish ceilidh is.


Following the death of his youngest child Annie — she died of meningitis at the age of 9 — he was so grief-stricken that he gave up the fiddle for a period of some twenty years. (I can understand this, as music is an emotional activity, being a way of expressing one's own emotions and creating emotions in other people. If one isn't happy inside, is difficult to play happy music for others, and Scottish ceilidh is about enjoyment and happiness.) Time however is a great healer and he eventually returned to his music, continuing to play right up to his death in his 88th year.


Grandson of William Hardie Jnr. and son of John Hardie, an Aberdeen engineer, Bill Hardie was born in Aberdeen in 1916. His enthusiasm for the fiddle was first kindled by the playing of his grandfather at "Auchencruive" and this, together with the playing of J.F. Dickie and the recordings of J. Scott Skinner, can be cited as his principal influences. (You can hear some of Scott Skinner's original recordings on YouTube, and it's interesting how nostalgic and to our modern ear, rather sickly, some of his playing is, but this is only a matter of changing styles and expectations.)


Bill Hardie achieved competitive success at Aberdeen in 1937 by winning a challenge cup for the performance of J. Scott Skinner's strathspey and reel compositions. Again in 1951 he won the slow air and march, strathspey and reel classes at the Banchory and Mintlaw festivals. (So this was a competitive business with festivals and so on, much as with the Welsh Eisteddfod and the American folk music contests, where traditional folk tunes will be stretched and developed into a standing complexity.)


Other significant activities include innumerable broadcasts for the B.B.C., (the first broadcast was at the age of sixteen, quite something), recording, adjudication, teaching and, from 1965 - 67, the conductorship of the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society. Of particular interest is his lifelong friendship with J. Murdoch Henderson (1902 - 1972), whose Scottish Music Maker (1957) testifies to a highly fruitful collaboration between collector and player.

The picture emerges then of a family's emotional and prof

essional involvement throughout a wide range of the art and craft of music. The work of these men and the tradition which they represent has been sustained by convictions of social usefulness and artistic value.

So this brief look at one particular dynasty of Scottish ceilidh band musicians and instrument makers, shows that it is something much more than just music of the common people spontaneously invented and created in communities, it is a come pleat business enterprise whether skills are both playing music and making instruments were passed on through the generations much as the skills of stonemasons were passed on through apprentices and entry into the Guild. To how different is it to the music of Mozart and other classical composers who plied their trades through family lines, was supported by royal patrons and continued their classical traditions, which are now used more generally both on the classic FM radio station and by our string quartets and harpists playing for church wedding ceremonies and civil wedding ceremonies and the wedding celebrations thereafter. Perhaps not much difference, as a matter of fashion.

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