WHEN Sheila Sapkota, who was then teaching in the Scottish Borders, established Riddell Fiddles in 2003 it was just as “a wee fun group” at a time when there were no other comparable facilities in the area for learning to play traditional music. Twelve years on, through its inexpensive weekly group lessons, the organisation (named after an area near Selkirk) has introduced several hundred people from all backgrounds, generations and ability levels to traditional fiddling and the sheer delight of making music together. The group has toured at home and internationally and their website is a known traditional music resource the world over.
Sheila tends to attribute the organisation’s success to “the power of the community group”. As founder and organiser, assisted by guitarist Donald Knox, double bassist Tony Manning and group administrator Karen Hendry, she agrees that it takes up a large part of her time outside her day job – she is currently a learning support teacher at Selkirk High. The rewards, however, are great, she says: “We were playing recently at the Buccleuch Centre at Langholm, which was quite a big stage and audience, and I thought that here was this group of people, who had just picked up fiddles over the past few years, playing so fantastically together (with brilliant support, of course, from the guitar, bass and percussion backline).”
Tuition comes from Sheila and Donald themselves with support from various locally based musicians, such as Amy Geddes, Shona Mooney, Catriona Macdonald and Iain Fraser, while visiting fiddlers including Jenna Reid, Bruce MacGregor and Bruce Molsky have all been guest tutors.
“I started it as a wee fun group, because there was nothing then,” Sheila recalls. “Now there are lots of fiddle groups and quite a lot of our group go to other groups as well, which is good. We took a youth group to the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention (NAFCo) in Derry a few years ago. They were young people who had come through Riddell Fiddles and it was great for them to finish with that. One of them was going on to study traditional music at Newcastle, which was quite a thing for us.”
This year (2015) Sheila and company were taking another youth group to the Niel Gow festival in Dunkeld and Birnam. The festival is run by Birnam fiddler Pete Clark, who is Sheila’s fiddle tutor in the Applied Music Degree she’s currently doing with the University of the Highlands and the Islands.
Young players from Riddell Fiddles have been amongst those involved in the Cranston Fiddle project – a Lottery-Funded multimedia show built around Sheila’s fiddle, which once belonged to a William Cranston, who was badly injured during the First World War – the same conflict which killed four of his brothers. The show uses tunes written by Riddell Fiddles’ regular guitarist, Donald Knox, and is narrated by Haddington historian Bob Mitchell.
Sheila’s life has been a full one, to say the least. After graduating in science from Aberdeen University, she worked in Nepal with VSO and also with a medical trust, part of which involved injecting buffalo (from a safe distance, she stresses). She taught science in Orkney for four years, also playing fiddle in both school and community situations there, “which showed me how diverse and exciting traditional music can be”.
She didn’t discover Scottish fiddle music until she was in her teens, having been classically trained on the viola, and much as she appreciated that instrument’s tone, she wishes she’d been made aware of traditional music earlier. “I think that’s where my drive to teach fiddle comes from .If there had been all the fiddle groups and things like the Scots Music Group and the Youth Gaitherin when I was a child, it would have been amazing.”
Sheila played in Caberston Ceilidh Band with accordionist James Paterson from 1991 until his untimely death in 2010, and continues to play regularly at local functions as a duo with a guitarist.
Iain Fraser, who frequently works with the group, wonders whether Sheila ever has a night off – or what she’d do with it if she did: “She works tirelessly promoting fiddle groups, small bands, small trips, large trips and lots of fun learning situations for kids and adults alike. She is a very enthusiastic and motivational leader who has been very successful at finding funding from places some of us never thought of and for more unusual projects such as the recent very successful Cranston Fiddle show.
“I’m sure she has to deal with a large number of requests to play at community concerts and other events but she always seems to find time to get a group together and a rehearsal! The resulting impact on the community conveys a very powerful sense that traditional music is accessible, important, fun and inclusive.”