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Catriona Macdonald
Fiddler Catriona ("Katrina") Macdonald was tutored on by the late Tom Anderson, who instilled in her a deep love for the music and traditions of her Shetland Island home. An award-winning young folk musician, she also studied opera at the Royal Academy of Music.

Fiona met Catriona in Edinburgh, Scotland to talk about the legacy of Tom "Tammy" Anderson, her operatic training, her leadership of the String Sisters project and to enjoy selections from her passionate solo release, Bold, which harks back to her roots and also displays an innovative musical outlook.
(This interview was recorded in Edinburgh in 2000.)
Fiona:
 
I'm very glad to welcome Catriona Macdonald to our luxurious studios here in Edinburgh to chat about music, and Catriona's music. A sensible place to start would be to get a little background about you and your musical beginnings.

Catriona:
 
Well, I was a kid that always wanted to play the violin. I don't really know what happened, but when I was given the chance to do music through the lovely hearing test system that we have over here -- I don't know if you're aware of that, but if you can identify high and low notes you can pretty much get a few lessons on whatever you wanted.

When I was about 9, I was allowed to have these lessons and I don't know what made me think the violin was what I wanted to play. I don't think I'd even heard one. I must have seen a picture of one or something. Anyway, I went and studied that for 2 years, doing classical lessons.

At the end of it, the last tune I learnt was a tune called "Cock Of the North" which traditionally is one of the most easy tunes you can ever learn. I don't know, but I kind of lost the feeling of wanting to do it any more. It seemed like a long way to get to playing a "Humpty Dumpty" kind of tune, so I gave it up at the age of 10.

Then what happened was a friend of mine was going to have some fiddle lessons at the school. I met her one weekend and she told me she was going off to have some fiddle lessons with this guy called Tom Anderson.

I don't know what made me think I want to do it but I asked "can I come along with you?" She said "OK" so I went home, got my fiddle and had my first lesson with Tommy Anderson. From the first moment of meeting him, we both totally adored each other. It was just fantastic. There was no stopping me.

Fiona:
 
What age were you when you made that connection?

Catriona:
 
Eleven years old.

Fiona:

Let's talk briefly about him. He is now sadly the late Tom Anderson, a legendary figure in Shetland. This is where all this story is placed as well. To back track, the Shetland Islands are effectively halfway between Scotland and Norway and traditionally a hotbed of fiddle music.

Catriona:
 
It is one of the strongest fiddle traditions in Scotland today. Apart from a small lull in the '50s and '60s it's pretty much a living tradition. There hasn't been too much of a break in it. Nowadays there are hundreds and hundreds of kids learning to play. It's a really vibrant style. People do it from playing once a year at Christmas to playing concerts. Anything goes!

Fiona:
 
It's got this influence from Scandinavian music which comes into the essentially Scottish Shetland music and gives it a different character.

Catriona:
 
I think one the most amazing things about Shetland sometimes, is that you'd imagine in a community like that which is far off, people imagine we all live in caves and wear furs on our back. But Shetland has never been inward. Its not like living in the middle of a mass of land where you tend to get people not going so far. Shetland is such a tiny place, surrounded by sea.

For all the years that it has been an island it has been invaded by Vikings and had fishing and whaling, People have always been coming to the islands to trade. Shetlanders have been away whaling and fishing, meeting lots and lots of different people. Through that, there was always a fiddle on board the boats.

You can see in the ledgers there was 3 ounces of bacon and a fiddle or a string at the bottom of the ledger. That was their form of entertainment. I suppose meeting with various people, other sea people, they learnt it from that. It's a real hodge podge of a style.

Fiona:
 
It's always had this great heritage of music making but the modern-day popularity of Shetland music, particularly among young people, can almost be traced to the inspirational character that was Tom Anderson.

It's amazing to say that you can hook that onto one man's legacy. Isn't that held to be true because of his teaching and his involvement in the schools?

Catriona:
 
Yes, but it wasn't always so. It has to be said that Tommy was an incredible man. I'd like to paint you the picture of him as you'd imagine -- larger than life. Characters always are. When I met him at 11 years old he was a massive man. Huge big stomach, huge hands, everything about him was this huge giant of a person.

Because he had such a strong character, he ruffled a lot of feathers. He wasn't the sweet little old man kind of thing. He really had to jostle to get the Shetland people to realise how good the tradition was and it should be heard.

Every where else in Scotland, and in England I suppose as well, in the '50s and '60s, rock and roll was the greatest thing everyone had ever heard. Shetland was no stranger to listening to radio. Radio was a big thing in Shetland. So when that came in, to sit and learn old tunes from older players was not what you wanted to do if you were a cool kid.

So in my mother's generation, which is Aly Bain's generation -- the fiddler from home, he was one of the only people who took it up. It was really unusual. So there was this generation gap that totally missed out on it.

When Tommy arrived in the '70s he had just finished being an insurance man. He used his job to collect tunes from the people he gathered insurance from. When he retired instead of putting his feet up he decided to go for an interview for a job as a violin instructor. So, instead of going in and saying "I'll teach classical violin," he went in and said "I should be teaching the music of these islands, it's too important."

The man in the education department just went "Oh, OK," which was a good thing. In 1977 he started teaching kids in the schools and I'm a product of that, as are a few generations I suppose since then. It has got to the stage that there are five instructors up there, hundreds of kids learning. The tradition now is so solid that it would take more than rock n' roll to stop it now.

Fiona:
 
It's aware of itself. Shetland seems to know now it has a rich heritage.

Catriona:
 
Well there was the time when it was rejected and it was uncool but now it's definitely cool and the chance of losing it will never happen again.

Fiona:
 
You mentioned in your parents generation Aly Bain was the only person. He learned from Tom Anderson too, didn't he.

Catriona:
 
Yes, that's right.

Fiona:
 
He was one of the few people you can think of who took it up afresh. So if it hadn't been for Tom Anderson going to the education department and pushing his idea on them, do you think it might have fizzled out?

Catriona:
 
I think so. It really was in dire straits there for a while because people didn't really care. Tommy started it in the 70s in the school but it really wasn't until Tommy was 80, which was about 9 years ago and the year before he died, that I saw him getting his civil lunch and people in Shetland coming up to him in the street and saying you're doing a great job.

There were a number of years when he'd be asked what do you think you're doing and why do you care. It took a strength of character to keep saying "just wait, I'm going to bide my time. People will realise what we've got here needs to be kept."

Fiona:
 
I have to say with pride that on my graduation from Stirling University in Scotland in 1981, with my Bachelor's degree, there was Tom Anderson receiving an honorary Doctorate.

Catriona:
 
Fantastic! I never knew that.

Fiona:
 
In 1981, I suppose that was quite progressive of the university back then because his legacy was really yet to be stamped.

Catriona:
 
In 1977 he got an MBE, the Queen's medal, and also he got his Doctorate with people outwith Shetland. It's like everything, you're a prophet in your own land, people think you're nuts. Elsewhere, people realised that what he was doing was a valuable thing.

For Tommy the biggest thing for him was when he was 80 to get that appreciation from the folk at home. He was on cloud nine I can tell you.

Fiona: So were you one of his latter pupils really.

Catriona:
 
I would say that I was one of the mid set of pupils. He'd been teaching for about 10 years when I started. It was 1981 in fact! There were some pupils like Trevor Hunter and Davey Tulloch who some people might have heard of. They were his first students. I was the next wave of students who played in his group, like 'Tommy's Peerie Angels' and the young heritage he went on to develop. I was that older generation.

Fiona:
 
Yes, it's a wonderful connection to have. It comes through very strongly that you have retained this sense of closeness to him and his memory.

Catriona:
 
I was lucky, partly because of my own family situation. My father died when I was 13 and Tommy took over the mantel of being my male guardian, to be quite honest. So I had an incredible upbringing with him. I spent a lot of time in my teenage years over at his house. We would have nights that we would sit there and we would have record upon record playing. We'd have Bluegrass to Shetland stuff to old archive tapes. It was a weird childhood.

When most of your teenage friends were going to the disco, you were listening to fiddle music. People thought I was mad, I'm sure! It was a fantastic education and it opened my ears to lots of different styles. Also, I suppose, rubbing off from him, was the love of the old traditional Shetland tunes.

Until quite recently a lot of people got into what I would call the modern Shetland tunes, your dance band type of things. People would go "I love French-Canadian music." I love French-Canadian music, too, but when you've got some of the most gorgeous old tunes from your island, play them! Let the French-Canadians play their tunes.

Fiona:
 
Yes, it must have been difficult to lose Tom Anderson, but you've been very involved in ensuring that his legacy is remembered. That's been an important part of your renown if you like, as your name has come out more and more around Scotland and beyond. It is a reminder of what Tom was able to offer.

Catriona:
 
Definitely. But I'm one of many of his students. There's a lot. The best ones are all starting the next generation off. That was his idea. There was nothing better than having the next generation of mothers as fiddlers. That's the way to get it going!

Fiona:
 
You left Shetland to develop your musical career, didn't you. Tell us about that decision and journey musically.

Catriona:
 
It was really quite difficult for me because when I was 16 or 17 at school there was no degree I could go and do in Scottish music at that time. Luckily there is now. At the time I was taught by Tommy and really loved playing the fiddle. It was my life. So if I wanted to go away from the island and study some more I would have to find a music course I wanted to study. I looked around. Nothing came to mind.

I wouldn't have got in as a classical violinist because I'm not one. Luckily, it was a real chance happening. I ended up page turning for a woman called Margaret Murray MacLeod, who's a classical musician in Edinburgh, at a posh concert in the town hall. I couldn't really keep up with her and she kept turning the pages back. It was mortifying!

She came to visit me at my fiddle lesson the day after the concert. She told me she taught at Napier University in Edinburgh and suggested I should go there, saying "we'll teach you to play something else. Use it as a stepping stone."

I did and within a year I found I had a classical voice, an opera kind of voice. In a year I was down at the Royal College of Music in London. From Shetland! It was a fantastic experience. A total different world to what I was used to.

Fiona:
 
So you pursued your music degree in voice?

Catriona:
 
Yep! When I first went away to music college, Tommy, as you can imagine, was "Oh, classical music!" He was of the opinion that fiddlers and classical violinists -- you can't be both. There are some who do it really well. But I never felt in my heart that I wanted to play violin. So he was quite happy I could go away and do something else.

Voice was off in this little box and my fiddle remained pure. I would go home in the holidays and he would start at the beginning of the session, "Play me this one". I'd play it and he'd say "That's not too bad. You've not forgotten much about that".

He definitely was worried that I was going to turn into a classical player. I never did. He was very proud when I got through the course.

Fiona:
 
How did that training affect your fiddling and your broader musical sensibilities?

Catriona:
 
It was a weird, you'd think it would open up the world to make you feel broader as a musician but I only found that when I had left college, because when I was at college, I was a schizophrenic music person. I'm not kidding. People I went to college with thought I was an opera singer. They didn't know I played the fiddle. The folk I played gigs with at the weekend had no idea I was an opera singer.

For about five years my head was just swimming. I had no idea how to put them together. The year before I left college I took a year out. Unfortunately, it was the year Tommy took ill and died. I also won the BBC Young Musician Award. It's amazing how all these things conspired together at one time. So I'd actually had a year off playing fiddle. In my last year at college, by then the teachers all knew about it, they wanted me to play for things in the college. For my last year I felt "thank goodness I can be one person."

Fiona:
 
You were able to bring those identities into the one.

Catriona:
 
Yeah, which was good. By then I had decided I definitely didn't want to be an opera singer. To do that kind of level in classical music you have to be totally focused on that the one thing. It's not in my soul. I'm a fiddle player and always have been. It was nice to go away and learn something else. I never had that focus on singing you needed really. I was just happy to get back to doing what I really love.

Fiona:
 
Any chance of revisiting singing, perhaps even not in such a highly trained and highly structured way as the world of opera?

Catriona:
 
People are always saying "why don't you sing?" There are two reasons. For one, I've got a classical voice. I never sang before I found out I had a voice, apart from singing along with the radio.

Fiona:
 
In the shower!

Catriona:
 
Yeah! So, my voice is trained. It's not a folk voice. Also, I see singing maybe as I get older, as another kind of music that can be informal. I love playing. I play fiddle formally and informally. Sometimes I feel that that could be an avenue that I'll enjoy singing a few jazz songs as a bit of relief for whatever else I might be doing. I haven't found that place for it yet. I'm so busy anyway, it's finding time to do it. But it's not out of the question.

Fiona:
 
Maybe it gave you the opportunity to leave Shetland for a while and have this different perspective. And maybe you come back into your tradition refreshed. Even although you weren't feeding the fiddle, you were feeding yourself.

Catriona:
 
Yes. This is something I'm always telling the younger students that I teach. I'm not a great believer in this: if you're really talented at 16, go and play in the folk festivals immediately. No way. To me there's a long life out there as a musician. Go away, find out, do something different. Nobody can take that away from me. OK, so I don't sing opera any more.

But I know about opera and I've seen a different kind of music life. I suppose I bring some of what I learnt there, like stage skills and I can write harmony and music down. Which has been invaluable if you want to play with other musicians apart from folk musicians, to be able to put over your arrangement ideas or whatever. So I've got no regrets about doing that at all.

Fiona:
 
And you probably know how to apply really dramatic make-up?

Catriona:
 
Oh yes. Wear big dresses and really bad hair do's and stuff like that!

Fiona:
 
Now, I think round about that time you made a duo album with Ian Lowthian which got a lot of positive attention. Tell us a bit about that.

Catriona:
 
Yes, well this was when I left college. I made this album with Ian Lowthian who's this fantastic accordionist from Scotland. He had a similar background. He'd been to the Royal Academy of Music. I'd been to the Royal College of Music. We met through a girl I know who went to the Guild Hall in London. She's a half Shetlander and half American actually. She put us together and the meeting was just fantastic. We were just in a corner, nobody could separate us. We knew we had something there that was really strong.

So we played some festivals together and we were approached by a record company looking out for young talent. We recorded this album, it was called Opus Blue. It did well. It got to some strange places, like Mark Knopfler hearing it and putting it as his greatest album of whatever year it was in Mojo magazine.

For me it was oooh, this is crazy that you can put an album out there and people you have never met are going to listen to it. And I worked for a lot of years with Ian until relatively recently.

Fiona:
 
I suppose it gave us a hint of what you might want to pursue with your music. It was very inventive and experimental in some ways, wasn't it. With the arrangement and bringing together those two instruments.

Catriona:
 
Yeah! Ian and I always laughed about it from the beginning. The fiddle and accordion culture in Scotland is such, well to my mind, one of my least favourite combinations. When I was growing up my teacher was so against accordions, like, don't ever play with an accordion!

For a lot of accordion players it's very metrnomical, all about precision and that kind of thing. Totally everything against what Tommy ever taught me. So it was so weird when I first got in touch with this guy. This is in my heart, I just love the sound of his playing, it's just brilliant playing together, but he plays an accordion! Oh no!

But we both laugh because what we would then try to do... Well visually people would see us, fiddle and accordion and think Da, da de da, like you were going to play some kind of Scottish dance band music. And of course we thought let's do the complete opposite. Let's do what your instrument's not supposed to do and do what my instrument's not supposed to do. That's the way we did it, stretching what each of us played. Which at times sounded totally bizarre. But it was great, we enjoyed it a lot.

Fiona:
 
And it was very bold of you, we should say. It should have been our clue, as you have gone on, some years later it has to be said, to bring out a solo album which is called Bold. And it is, musically it is very bold. Also you have been bold in your packaging and release as you have decided to do it as a self-release album. A bold move too. Tell us about what went into this album musically and what you are trying to achieve with it.

Catriona:
 
Right. Well, as I was saying earlier, I believe in the long burn of music. For me it's not about having my face on every folk magazine this year, being the hit of the season and then going away and nobody has ever heard of you again. I really respect people like Liz Carroll, my own teacher. People who look at music as a long kind of thing. They are not making albums until they feel there is an album to be made. There is nobody saying to them you have got to make an album this year because our company want you to do it.

Because of the experience I had with my first album with Ian, I got into a really bad record deal which kept me out of the market for making another album. That's why there has been such a big gap. It basically burnt my fingers. I'm always saying to younger people that even if you are desperate for a record contract, don't sign it. Get somebody to have a look at it for you and make sure you are being represented.

I got out of this record contract and for a couple of years just thought I'm going to wait and see what comes into place, musician wise, of the people I wanted to play with. Ian Lowthian got married and decided he didn't want to tour so much, which was fantastic for him. I felt that our development, being students, we'd come to a happy kind of end to our duo. Through the years before that happening, this layer of different people started to emerge quite naturally. Like Conrad Ivitsky and James MacIntosh, the base and drummer from Shooglenifty.

I'd been playing with them with Ian at various festivals. Two years ago in Cape Breton at Celtic Colors I met a boy called David Milligan who plays in a band called Bachue, a duo. He plays the most incredible jazz piano and suddenly we were doing a concert together. There's a man who plays organ on it, a Norwegian called Iver Kleive. I've loved his playing so much. Tony McManus, played various well he's on everybody's album I see. Tony, I will be on your album!

Fiona:
 
His answering machine says "Hello, this is Tony. I'll do it"!

Catriona:
 
Oh it wouldn't surprise me, wouldn't surprise me!! And Ian obviously was a development to keep a little bit of the sound I had done before. Basically, by the time it came to do this album I was in the position to look around to see if I could find a record company I would want to go with. At the time there was nobody I thought really better than setting up my own thing and also with being burnt the first time around. There is that feeling of keep a little bit of control of what you're about. If you've got hopefully a long career there you want to be able to put it in whatever direction and not have all these other constraints put on you by record companies, etc. That was why I did it. And I have done it!

Fiona:
 
And you're excited about it.

Catriona:
 
Oh I'm so excited about it, yeah!

Fiona:
 
It's a super album and there's a lot there. It would be nice to say let's stop and play it all end to end. Lots of different tracks come to mind. Any you'd like to finger for us and say give this a listen?

Catriona:
 
I was speaking to someone who has been listening to it quite a lot recently trying to find a definitive track of it. It was actually the editor of "Folk Roots" over here. And I was going "well, maybe this track". He said he had been listening to it a lot and thought the tracks were very different from each other. Obviously I'm in most of them, well all of them in fact. There is a different feel on a lot of the different tracks.

One of my favorites is a track, a tune that Ian Lowthian wrote for me, called "The Shetland Fiddle Diva". It has to be said that it was totally tongue-in-cheek. If you know Ian, it was definitely tongue-in-cheek. And I did it with a Brian Finnegan tune called "Purfy's". When we were in the studio it took an epic proportion because Mr MacIntosh on the drums decided he'd get out a tom-tom. A very low tom. It sounds just like timpani, like orchestral timpani. I really like it and it's one of my Mom's favorites as well.

Fiona:
 
Catriona Macdonald is with us. She's the Shetland Fiddle Diva, I suppose, mentioned in the name of that tune there. It's from her album Bold which we've gotten around to talking about now. A great album, and given you the chance to collaborate with a lot of artists whose work you admire. What are your hopes for the album? You'll be hoping it gets over to the States and gets distributed there.

Catriona:
 
Definitely. It's actually being released in June by Compass Records who are based down in Nashville. I 'm so lucky in life, I count myself lucky. I've just met so many gorgeous people as I have been going along and Compass -- I actually met Gary and Alison when they came to the Shetland Folk Festival when I was little. So there is another kind of connection there.

Fiona:
 
That's Alison Brown?

Catriona:
 
Yeah, and Gary West her husband. They were really interested in taking the album. I'm so glad I've got it with them. It feels good, feels there is a connection there. So it's out in June as I said and I hope to be over in the States and do some touring. Play it live. That will be great.

Fiona:
 
That will be great. We look forward to that. I want to just touch on some of your other projects because in addition to working on this album, you were also working on cooking up a fabulous meeting of the fiddlers at Celtic Connections this year, called String Sisters. I have to say, and I've said this to many people and I'm glad to say it to you - it was the best concert I'd attended in a very long time. For the energy levels , as well as the music and the visual. It was great. Tell the folks about what you did there on stage.

Catriona:
 
Well, it was an idea I'd come up with 2 years previously to it. It was one of those mad ideas you come up with. It's all very well to put it in a sentence which was to bring together some of my contemporary female musicians.

But my initial need to do it was because I never meet these people because no festival is going to book an entire festival of female fiddlers. Quite often we're passing, meet and go "Hi" and you never see them again. So I thought it would be lovely to get together. Instead of , as you get in these super concerts when you get these so-called well known people up on stage together, there's that element of everybody trips on and does there little thing and then at the end there's this horrible stramash. I've been involved in so many which in my mind never work. I hate that idea of getting top class people on a stage and 5 minutes before you go on 'What tune do you want to play?'

It always comes to the lowest common denominator as regards tunes because usually people do not have the same repertoire. So you end up playing naff tunes. I just thought, wouldn't it be so fantastic to have everybody bring a musician to the pot so that there would be a really exciting band there. To have loads of time to rehearse before the gig so that the tunes are all class A tunes. And that's what happened.

Colin Hynd from Celtic Connections decided that he would take on the financial side of it, which to put on that kind of production was incredible. There was myself, Annbjorg Lien, Natalie McMaster, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh from Altan, Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles for this outing of String Sisters.

Fiona:
 
So you were representing Irish-American tradition, Shetland Scottish tradition, Irish and Norwegian. Fantastic.

Catriona:
 
Yep. We had hoped to get Winnie Horan and Eileen Ivers for the gig but we're keeping our fingers crossed it might just happen next year! That would just be fantastic if it did. We were terrified as we'd to learn 30 new tunes, every single one of us. None of us felt in a space that we felt used to being in, which was doing your usual set. Everybody had their little area of "what is happening here." I think what came over on the night was because of that, the energy was strong. There was that kind of buzz you don't often see on stage, I think.

Fiona:
 
Yeah. From the audience point of view it was great to, as you say, not to see a succession of people coming on to play on their own or in little duos and the jam at the end. You were all up there all the time. Different members were taking the lead at different times but you were all playing. The energy level and the visual side of that too was fun.

Catriona:
 
One of my ideas was to create a kind of show that meant that it wasn't about people doing their party pieces, that it was all very supportive. There was never a case when somebody did a piece and stopped. Everybody did a small solo but it came out of an ensemble piece or it would start an ensemble piece. It had a real flow instead of a small snippet here or snippet there. You know those kind of concerts, you've been to so many before. It gives a great chance to work on arrangements, working on harmony is a big thing I'm in to.

Fiona:
 
The arrangements were very exciting and the word flow describes exactly what it felt like. As an audience member you were drawn into one tune from the next. There was an ebb and a flow and it was great fun. So, it sounds like there is going to be a Part 2.

Catriona:
 
Definitely. I see the String Sisters thing as an umbrella thing. It is always difficult when putting these kind of shows to say this is the top of female fiddlers.

Fiona:
 
There's no need to do that.

Catriona:
 
It's an umbrella banner which can take on many combinations. That was just one kind of outing of it. It could be a different lot next time.

Fiona:
 
And the Brothers who were your back-up could be an interchangeable set as well.

Catriona:
 
Absolutely. They were incredible. That really made the gig for all of us as well, to see how they all gelled together. It was interesting, they were men we all took. We all took one musician. It didn't have to be a man, it just ended up it was. It was a fantastic bunch of people. I really enjoyed it.

Fiona:
 
It was very exciting and enjoyable and we look forward to it again. We wish you every success with Bold, Catriona Macdonald's solo CD which I'm glad to hear is going to get that distribution it deserves in the States. And we look forward to hearing the results of your various projects as they emerge over this, as you say, long slow burn of a career. We should also mention to people that you and I share a connection.

Catriona:
 
Yes, we do. We share the blabbing connection.

Fiona:
 
Yes, Catriona and I have both...well, I started a program called Celtic Connections on BBc Radio Scotland and I suppose you picked up the mantel a couple of presenters down the line. A fun way for you to get in behind the musical world you're part of out front.

Catriona:
 
And to realise the skill it takes to do radio. It's not as easy as it looks folks! I can tell you that. But fun.

Fiona:
 
It's been great to make this connection and to talk about what you've been doing and we've enjoyed playing it on the air. We wish you all the best with it and keep in touch!