Farming country, deep in the rural north east of Scotland was where James Alexander grew up. Born in 1955 at Hillhead- his parent’s farm, he was surrounded by music from the start. His mother, father and brother were all musical, he cites hearing his mum play the harmonium at the local Sunday school as one of his earliest musical memories.
Young James started playing aged eight. With such a musically rich home life there was no way he wouldn’t. His mum wrote to the school to seek out a fiddle instructor and in 1963, he started learning with Steven Merson of Buckie, who’d teach him until he left school a decade later.
His home area is well known for its traditions of music, song and language. The cultural soil was rich and fertile. But this was never the subject of his lessons. He says: “The particular teacher didn’t really like teaching Scottish music. In fact, he had a certain idea that maybe playing Scottish traditional music was bad for the technique and tried to sort of channel us away from that”.
The music was readily available though: In the community, in books, on the radio and television. The remnants of the bothy tradition existed on the farms that surrounded Hillhead, and through these he was able to find a way to the tradition, recollecting: “There was a farm down the road where there was still a kind of bothy tradition, and one of the guys there played the accordion and again that’s another thing that got me playing Scottish music”.
A passion was ignited. His studies of classical music continued, but at the same time he started attending festivals and competitions in surrounding Banchory, Kirriemuir and Elgin. There, performing and competing, he was immersed.
Leaving school he continued his classical studies, completing a diploma with Trinity College. After a stint at the farming, he took what was supposed to be a six month post as a string instructor with the Grampian council. What transpired has been far from temporary. Over the intervening forty years, James Alexander developed a far reaching and far ranging involvement in the Scottish music scene, doing much to cultivate and nurture the tradition of his North-East home, not only as a performer but also an organiser, enabler and teacher. He was recognised for his great contributions to traditional music in 2011 when he received an MBE.
He is a founding member of Fochabers’ renowned festival Speyfest. Running now for over two decades, it has become one of the institutions of the Scottish festival circuit. Well known for its varied programming, the annual event sees a number of local and up and coming artists sharing the bill with some of the scene’s biggest names. Now chairman of the committee, his vision continues to be at the core of the festival’s ethos. He says: “My hope is that Speyfest will continue to encourage and promote the very best in traditional and music. We aim to be inclusive and hopefully provide something for everyone”.
Alexander’s skills and experience have been called upon to guide the flourishing of traditional culture and music in academic settings. He has an active role in the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University, was an advisor in the development of the University of the Highlands and Island’s groundbreaking new Applied Music Degree, and served as syllabus coordinator and adviser to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Traditional Graded Music Exam project.
In 1980, he set up the Fochabers Fiddlers. The group of around thirty five, all students of Milne’s High School, was created to encourage young musicians to play and take interest in their home traditions. A group like this certainly didn’t exist when he was attending the school years previously. His aim has certainly been successful. Now, twenty seven years later, the group have released five CDs, toured in Germany and America, as well as across the UK, at venues including the Royal Albert Hall. Indeed, at Speyfest this year members past and present filled the stage, representing an age difference of nearly 30 years.
Mhairi Marwick, professional musician from Fochabers and former member of the Fochaber’s Fiddlers said this about her former teacher: “James has been and continues to be a huge inspiration and friend to all that know him. His dedication to music in young people is astounding. Everyone who knows James or has been taught by him has immense respect and admiration for all that he does. The Fochabers Fiddlers has encouraged hundreds of young people to play fiddle throughout his years of teaching and offered so many amazing opportunities. He has given generations of people the gift of music in their lives -it’s a gift that keeps on giving”.