A casual blether with Gaelic singer Christine Primrose led to Alasdair Fraser establishing a fiddle camp at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye. Since its inception in 1986 this event has become an annual fixture on the traditional music calendar and has helped to develop prominent talents on the Scottish music scene as well as becoming an oasis where players from Scotland, England, Ireland, the US and various parts of Europe can learn music without fear of failure – and have fun doing so.
The idea of a fiddle camp – Fraser prefers the term gathering – wasn’t entirely new to Scotland at the time. A week long summer school, where tutors included Shetland master Tom Anderson and Highland musical treasure Aonghas Grant, was already established at Stirling University. For Fraser, however, the location of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in a beautiful spot with its own sense of local history and its relaxed atmosphere was ideal for the kind of enquiry into Scottish culture with kindred spirits he had in mind.
From the beginning Fraser’s building blocks were the fiddle, language, Gaelic song, and dance. Having visited Cape Breton and seen the easy fluency musicians there had between Gaelic music and step dancing, he was keen to explore that aspect of the tradition and in the early years players including Buddy MacMaster were guest tutors on Skye. As a strong believer in language being key to personal musical phrasing, the Clackmannan-born Fraser, who has long made California his base for world touring, encouraged fiddlers to play as they talked and to develop a palette that could include Gaelic, Doric, lowland Scots, even a Baroque accent. The idea here is that, when playing the fiddle, the attack of bow on string produces consonants, sustaining the note produces vowels and each note is informed by the player’s personality, imagination and thought processes.
In the first year the camp attracted some thirty participants and as word spread that Fraser was fostering an environment that is inclusive, informal, playful, and non-judgemental and has no entry qualifications, numbers increased to the stage where the camp consistently operates at capacity. Among the one hundred and fifty participants annually are players of all levels and while some are simply there to improve their skills and enjoy the lessons and jam sessions that are encouraged to flourish naturally, over the years some of those attending as youngsters have shown particular promise.
Adam Sutherland of Session A9, Allan Henderson, who went on to play with Blazin’ Fiddles, and Breabach founder Patsy Reid are among the early attenders who have become established professionals and as Fraser’s duo partnership with cellist Natalie Haas took off, the cello was added to the camp’s repertoire of skills and has become a popular central part of the week’s activities.
As the founder of what is now just one element of an international fiddle camp circuit – he has others in Spain and America – Fraser says it has been a joy to see talent coming through and provide him with amazing musicians to play with, to share his sense of enquiry into Scottish history and culture, to develop into teachers themselves and encourage players to come along and “make a mess”. Mistakes don’t matter here might almost be the week’s motto as Fraser tells participants: “nobody can be you better than you can be you.”