Donald Riddell was one of the great tradition bearers of Scottish fiddle music, a player with a superbly expressive fiddle style, a fiddle maker of wide renown and a teacher whose former pupils are among those at the forefront in taking Scottish traditional music forward in the twenty-first century.
Donald was born on December 22nd, 1908 in Wales where the family were living while his father was working there. His father played the fiddle and the bagpipes and Donald was to follow suit. The family returned to the Highlands, to live just outside Inverness, before Donald went to school and he recalled being fascinated even then by his father’s fiddle, which Donald was forbidden from touching at that young age. So he made his own fiddle from a cigar box and began to play tunes on it by ear.
When his mother heard him playing, she immediately handed Donald his father’s fiddle. Lessons were arranged for the youngster with Alexander Grant of Battangorm, who was a great friend of the Strathspey King, James Scott Skinner, and after Donald heard Skinner give a concert in Inverness, he became a devotee of his music. Grant was also a fiddle maker and Donald learned much about fiddle making from him, as well as playing in the Highland Strathspey and Reel Society, which Grant organised.
In his teens Donald took up the pipes and when King George V died, in 1936, he was invited to be one of the pipers at the royal funeral. He later composed a lament for the king, which has been recorded several times by fiddlers including Bruce MacGregor, of Blazin’ Fiddles, a pupil of Donald’s. Then, when the Second World War broke out Donald joined the Lovat Scouts as a pipe major, serving in Italy and in the Faroe Islands.
Returning to Kirkhill, Donald worked on his croft and took pride in his work as a cabinet maker. He continued to make fiddles and gave fiddle lessons to hundreds of pupils, many of whom joined him when he reformed the Highland Strathspey and Reel Society in honour of Alexander Grant in Inverness in 1973.
Although as a teacher Donald was very strict, being a stickler for the correct bowing patterns in Highland music, his pupils remember that lessons were charged at a flat rate of £1 for one hour or if Donald had nothing important to do afterwards, however many hours they lasted. In these elastic sessions many of Donald’s tunes, which he wrote for local people who had done him a service or members of his family, would be handed on. When he finally agreed, after much persuasion, to publish a collection of his tunes, the persistent Mrs Jean Cameron, who’d convinced him to go ahead, was thanked with one of Donald’s best loved tunes.
Donald’s services to music were rewarded while he was still alive with a CBE and in 2002, ten years after he died, three of his former pupils, Duncan Chisholm, Bruce MacGregor and Iain MacFarlane recorded an album, A Highland Fiddler, in his honour. The music and techniques he shared with so many young players before telling them to out and play, “not like Donald Riddell but like yourself, remain very much alive in musicians including his last pupil, Sarah-Jane Summers and Duncan Chisholm, who dedicated his first solo recording, Redpoint, to the late, great Donald Riddell.