Anna-Wendy Stevenson is a lecturer in traditional music at the Lews Castle College in Benbecula, Outer Hebrides. She has played fiddle with trio Fine Friday, the Bella MacNab Ceilidh Band, Dougie MacLean, Calluna, and currently Jock Tamson’s Bairns. Her solo album “Anna-Wendy Stevenson” and “Gowd and Silver,” her collaboration with her composer and pianist grandfather Ronald Stevenson, have both been critically acclaimed. In 2006 she was commissioned by the Celtic Connections Festival to write an extensive work for strings, percussion, piano and saxophone.
A recent summer tour of the West Coast of Scotland accompanied by James Ross on piano is an exciting new venture which has received fantastic reviews.
It's Tuesday morning and when I'm not on tour I wake up in Birnam in Perthshire after the Monday evening session which I led at the Birnam House Hotel's bar, The Tap. It's a beautiful location and a fantastic spot for a session with a bit of sightseeing to boot. Since Fine Friday's mega tour of Australia last year, the Monday session with overnight B and B is part of the experience for many antipodean friends who have come to visit.
Birnam and the surrounding area is home to many musicians of repute and the base for the pipe makers Hamish and Fin Moore. Last September Hamish asked me to run the Monday night session in the pub and come up with any musicians from Edinburgh. Of an evening we'll be joined by Hamish on the fiddle, Fin and Duncan on the pipes. The local singing group often turns up as well as a whole host of other musicians passing through.
The majority of the bar staff are fantastic musicians from Ireland and the MacKenzie boys from Cape Breton keep the bar's piano in shape. What's great about this session is there's a piano (in tune), plenty of space, no smoking and a wooden floor perfect for our step-dance outbursts.
Since we first started this session in September 2003 this place has been gradually building up so that now every Monday is starting to feel like a festival. Last night was no exception. You know when you play and the tunes that you didn't know that you knew keep coming -- and the ones you thought you had forgotten or even ones that you are just writing come to you even before you've finished the last -- you daren't stop -- even for the toilet -- well that was last night. The session went on into the early hours in the residents' lounge and we only hit the sack when we heard breakfast kitchens opening up. It's a joy. And a joy to be able to share these times with overseas friends.
Last night I brought Greg from Yackandandah, Australia to the Birnam session. Greg's a bazouki playing hand surgeon who was on the festival committee for the Yackandandah Festival 2003. When I booked that gig over the internet I couldn't believe that such a place name existed. It gets called Yack for short.
When Fine Friday recorded our first album, Gone Dancing, I had already done quite a bit of touring in the U.S. and Europe with a band called Anam. Australia felt as yet unconquered. I sent out loads of CDs and emails to prospective agents to no avail. So I typed www.google.com then “folk festivals + Australia”.
My life was utterly crazy for 6 months putting together a jam packed 2 month tour of Australia including every aspect - visas, flights, fees, publicity, accommodation, internal travel. It was a massive success and a major achievement with all the top gigs for the season -- the National Festival, Port Fairy and we met some of the most fantastic warm enthusiastic people. Greg is no exception here. He took us golfing and wined and dined us in his lovely house replete with palomino horses and peacocks.
Greg had spent plenty of time in Ireland and hadn't had the occasion to visit Scotland and now he was hooked. I managed to find Greg the best accommodation in Edinburgh. Tailored to suit -- he is staying in a flat just above Sandy Bell's pub -- the oldest home of traditional music in the city.
I started going to Sandy Bells in the early 1990s to join in on the occasional Sunday afternoon session with mouthie player the late Iain Grant. Then in the late '90s, Nuala Kennedy and myself hosted the Friday night session in Sandy Bells. Those sessions were often crazy and busy and very lively.
We decided to do something with the music that we loved and asked Kris Drever to join us in making a trio which we named Fine Friday. When we are on tour we tell people about how we started out -- sometimes they come and visit Sandy Bells though we are often away gigging somewhere else but we get little notes left behind the bar which we always keep. It's been a great connection to have. Greg is thrilled. He can get the music on tap and I don't think he is showing any signs of tiring of it.
Part of the ritual for the Tuesday morning with friends is that we take the walk along the River Tay giving us beautiful views of Dunkeld. It's just stunning whether it's spring or autumn. There is always an atmospheric mist to watch rolling through the trees in the hills, or birds making their nests along the riverbank.
You can smell the seasons on the banks of the Tay -- the May primroses, mulching leaves of autumn, the end of winter snow drops and the heady wild garlic of early summer. This walk starts just at the back of the Birnam Hotel and wends it way down to the riverbank. Within a few minutes we are in view of the ancient Birnam Oak tree, reputed to be the oldest oak in Europe and it's held up by stilts at a couple of points.
Life at the moment seems to be all about connections -- lots of them: other countries, friends, friends of friends, connections to the past and Celtic connections. I tell Greg that this tree existed at the time of the brutal Battle of Dunkeld fought between the Highlanders and the Cameronians in 1689. And decades later the famous Scottish fiddler Niel Gow would likely have walked past, maybe after a session or after playing for some dance close to where we were last night.
Niel Gow lived just a couple of miles away. You can see his cottage -- it is still inhabited and has a plaque on the side telling the dates of his residence. Niel Gow's "Lament for the Death of His Second Wife" is one of the most poignant and beautiful airs in Scottish music and one I have just recorded on CD with my grandfather.
This year saw the first Niel Gow festival in March in Dunkeld with performances from various Scottish fiddlers an eventful and exciting weekend. I was asked to perform at the opening concert at the Royal Dunkeld Hotel. The concert was all solo fiddling and the acoustics were fantastic , CD out soon. Iain Fraser was dressed up in the famous Niel Gow attire -- the stockings, tartan breeches and tailed coat.
This great oak was part of the Birnam Wood made famous by Shakespeare's powerful Scottish play, Macbeth. An excerpt, or reference, to Shakespeare was a feature of many of my music lessons with my grandfather. Every weekend I'd go for a piano lesson and then he'd accompany me on the piano whilst I played violin -- except it wasn't ever just a music lesson.
My grandfather is a wonderful musician and scholar. He is known as a composer and concert pianist who is one of the world's experts on the music of Busoni and Percy Grainger. Grandad has lived a rich life of learning and teaching.
Being a conscientious objector in the 1940's his first tour was not of the concert variety, it was of the British prisons. He has made it his business to learn several languages in order to better understand other cultures and be able to communicate and research the music and fellow composers he has been involved with.
Each lesson was illustrated with references to books and letters relevant to the point he was trying to make. It may be about the delicacy of a passage of piano music which could be compared to the beautiful lacework of the Polish people or their national costumes which would then lead on to talking about the way that something can be delicate and complex at the same time. Cue for a history lesson about Paderewski -- the only concert pianist ever to have been a Prime Minister.
Grandad would produce some original correspondence between himself and Sibelius or Sorabji or Percy Granger and we'd talk about the handwriting and how the boldness of Sibelius' signature was a definite statement reflecting the intensely proud national feelings he had and then what chords in the piece I was learning related to these ideas.
Playing was only a small part of our lessons. It was all fascinating and I was truly privileged. Grandad treated me to the same information he would any adult. He never diluted it or simplified it. He was a total inspiration. He spoilt all his pupils and everyone of their lessons would only end when Granny intervened and said "Ronald, time to finish" after the one hour lesson had run into two.
Music was a fantastic medium for understanding history and other cultures and communication between people. I remember a few piano lessons with Shakespeare's Macbeth. Grandad had set one of the witches' spells from the play to music in the form of a round or cannon. He is so inventive.
I teach the "Frogs and Toads and Newts" to whomever I am with -- no matter the age -- at Halloween every year. Music should be able to cross all barriers and boundaries. This little number certainly does. I've come up with some accompanying rythmic word chants to sing the song against and tried it out with Fine Friday and on an audience in Cape Breton when we were performing at the Celtic Colours festival in Cape Breton a couple of years ago. They loved it!!
Our family has been very involved with children and adults with special needs. When I was growing up we'd visit the local residential house for people with special needs and give concerts for them every year. It would be a family affair with Grandad at the piano, myself on violin, Gerda my aunt singing and Savourna her younger sister playing clarsach. Savourna and I also played together. Frogs and Toads and Newts is dedicated to these people we met and Grandad wrote it for them.
I have gone on to work with children and adults with special needs through Fine Friday's work with Live Music Now - an organisation set up through the Yehudi Menuhin Trust. Which gives us another link. Yehudi commissioned a violin concerto from my grandad which he then conducted. A series of workshops in schools accompanied the debut. I had the honour of spending a day with Yehudi Menuhin on these workshops with Granddad and I played parts of the violin concerto with Grandad to illustrate his ideas.
Grandad has made some of the most beautiful arrangements of traditional Scottish music and after I returned from Australia last year it was straight into the studio to record an album of Grandfather and Grand-daughter. It's a treasure and we've decided we want to record more. Some of the most beautiful arrangements of Gaelic song are his arrangements of the South Uist folk songs collected by Margaret Fay Shaw.
Back at the River Tay, looking across to the other side we can see the white hotel on the corner next to the Taybank hotel. The Taybank is a famous spot for traditional music sessions originally opened by local artist Dougie MacLean.
In my mind this takes me to another music pub -- the Navaar House Hotel where I attended my first ever folk music concert. I was 13 and I had just had an appendix op. Dad had picked me up from the hospital after his work and taken me straight to the gig at the Penicuik folk club, Navaar House Hotel. I was totally blown away into the land of adults, beautiful music, freedom, history and travel tales. Dougie was funny and I remember bending over in agony as I realised that I couldn't laugh at his stories without risking my stitches. Dougie Maclean became my pin up guy and I wished I was Bonnie Bessie Logan with his poster hung up beside my bed until I left home.
My Dad is a fiddle maker and restorer and has a fantastic shop in Edinburgh. We came to be at the concert because Dougie had just come back from a tour of Australia and his fiddle had been smashed to smithereens in the aeroplane's hold. Dad said some of the bits that he had to piece together were the size of a 1p piece.
I was also blown away by my Dad that night because when we spoke to Dougie afterwards I could see not a single join on Dougie's fiddle. Dad has restored some of the most important violins and fiddles in Scotland including one Niel Gow played, and on one occasion I remember him taking a Stradivarius to bed with him because he wanted to keep his eyes on it.
That night at the Penicuik folk club I couldn't keep my eyes off Dougie's fingers as he played the fiddle sets and instrumentals in the middle of his songs. I played violin but not fiddle. I wanted to play fiddle music now. This February -- 18 years after the Penicuik folk club evening I was invited on stage at the Zwolle theatre in Holland as Dougie's special guest. We played to a full house and it was one of the most special moments. The recording of the gig with my new favourite song "You can fall but you must not lie down" made the perfect birthday present for Dad this year. I was bursting with excitement but managed to keep the CD for 5 months till his birthday.
I love Dougie's fiddle compositions. They are so melodic and true. I still think one of the classic albums from Scotland is Dougie Macleans album Fiddle. The tunes are also fantastic for teaching because of where the fingers fall on the fiddle and Dougie has such a rich heritage and understanding of the fiddle tradition he belongs to.
I'm teaching on a new project called the Lochgoilhead Fiddle Workshop. Playing music for a living is a wonderful way to lead your life. I'm chuffed at the wonder that Greg is feeling at the view and the history and stories that are all linked on this small walk and the session from the night before. Greg is now thinking about changing his flight and I'm bursting with trying to work out the logistics of how I can include him in my Lochgoilhead jaunt.
Lochgoilhead Fiddle Workshop takes place on Saturdays (when I am not touring). Lochgoilhead is in Argyllshire 1 hour fast driving west of Glasgow along the west beach of Loch Lomond and left at the Rest and Be Thankful into more rolling mists in winter, stunning brooks and rich colours of heather, brackens and Scots pine trees. The road is windy and you really feel that you are in a different time zone when you arrive there. It's a stunning spot and close enough to Glasgow maybe we can get Greg's stuff from the flat by Sandy Bells and bring it with us to Lochgoilhead and then he can fly out of Glasgow. If only I was tour manager I could sort the whole thing out. In a sense I feel that I'm becoming a tour manager and I love the feeling of sharing my country and music.
Teaching: It's absorbing and tiring and also energising. Going to Lochgoilhead - leaving at the scrake of dawn in winter and driving west is a long way but totally worth it. I wouldn't feel the same if I didn't get the chance to think my way through the landscapes on the journey. It's kind of therapeutic and I've resolved several dilemmas on that road. This community are all now playing the fiddle -- even the policeman comes to my afternoon class, all dressed up in his uniform with his walkie -talkie. Sometimes he needs to pack up if the road is needing cleared.
Young and old, all abilities from the surrounding area attend. Begun by the locals Linda and Mark Murpurgo, this fiddle workshop has been running only one and a half years and they provide Saturdays full days of classes including the best mixed instrument group ever! It's fun and amazing to see what fiddle playing has done for this community.
Whether or not we make it to Lochgoilhead, Greg's keen to get some more tunes on the go. As we come to the steps along the path that take us over the river Tay we decide the next stop is the pipe-making workshop of Hamish and Fin Moore. Hamish is always up for a tune and loves to sit there planing away with someone playing a tune. The rural setting is idyllic. Even when it's the height of summer Hamish has the stove on -- a wood burning variety that emits traditional smells.
I'm sure these things influence the creative process. Going to Hamish's workshop is like going home to Dad's workshop. The smells are the thing. Planed wood -- if I could bottle it, it would send me to sleep better than any lavender oils I'm sure. Maybe it's endorphin releasing. But I can just sit and be in either of their workshops. The first time I came to Hamish's workshop was to put a set of tunes together for a week of gigs in Barbados with Fin Moore on pipes, Fiona Moore on fiddle and Will Lamb on bouzouki. It was a great band, though we never released a CD, yet the material was cracking and the band was the best craic. Only problem was we couldn't think of a name for the group.
With our herb teas in hand we are reminiscing about the last night'session and the I have a shot on Hamish's fiddle which is hanging on the wall. Greg's got the bouzouki out and we are playing some old Scottish tunes I found recently in the Atholl Collection. Every time I look in that collection I find another tune that seems to be best tune ever.
Greg is staggered by the amount of tunes that I know and that all of us know. How do we remember and the hand surgeon is busy telling me how amazed he is by the speed of our hands and fingers and memories. I'm amazed by Grandad's memory. I am thinking of the branches of the Birnam oak and of all our experiences that lead to us arriving at this point.
We all have our own musical journeys we make. I started off playing classical music and went to college to study violin and piano. The traditional music which was a love of my violin maker father's and which has been a great subject for my composer grandfather is how I live my life now. After completing my music degree I went on to study Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University.
The previous year I had been on a music scholarship to study in Texas and had come across the anthropology department. West Texas was so different and I decided that studying anthropology might give me a better chance of understanding the culture and the history of the South. It was great.
Now I wanted to combine my new interest in Anthropology with music. For my masters degree in Anthropology I looked at identity and Scottish traditional music. Of course all my field-work took place in The Ceilidh House and Sandy Bell's sessions in Edinburgh. A year of playing virtually every night and I had to get an extension on my thesis. The playing was taking over and I was finding myself joining bands and playing and recording with Anam and Calluna. This was now my living.
Last year during salmon spawning season I took a few of our guests up to the Hermitage, one of the most beautiful spots in the River Tay, where the river narrows and becomes very steep.
Someone said the salmon that leap up the river at the Hermitage never get up. I'm not surprised. It's rocky and very steep. From our viewpoint of the folly overlooking the big jump we stand there mesmerised, hypnotised. They don't give up easily. Maybe they were meant to stay. Maybe Greg is meant to stay.
Everyone who visits feels that way and they leave saying they have to come again. Maybe they're not trying to leave but trying to stay. I'm just waiting for the return visits now. The new wave of antipodean friends. My good Boston friends Cathy and Louis did the best thing. They came for 3 months and I took them round my life, my Scotland and even came on tour with me to Switzerland.
Hooked, they come back every Hogmanay dividing their time between Edinburgh and Birnam. They are the best groupies ever for the Bella McNab Dance Band. This is the ceilidh band I'm in. We do a famous dance every year in Birnam which is always sold out and lasts 2 days including first footings and sessions in friends houses. And, of course, we do the walk along the Tay past the Birnam oak looking over to Dunkeld and up by the bridge.
More information about Anna-Wendy Stevenson can be found at www.annawendy.com.