Scotch Mary and Peter Pan

A danger of running an event on the third weekend of the month is that eventually you get to December and meet Christmas head-on. When that happens, it’s hard to know what to expect. So when Kenny Hadden said he would come down that weekend, I jumped at the chance to get him to also do some teaching alongside me and it became something bigger than usual.

Flutes at The Dalriada: (l-r) John Corbett, Malcolm Reavell, Sean Paul Newman, Kenny Hadden, John Crawford. (c) Gordon Turnbull

John Crawford and Malcolm Reavell were also there, also from Aberdeen, and we went for a flutey session afterwards at The Dalriada with Sean Paul Newman welcoming as usual and providing accompaniment. Later that evening Sharon Creasey came along with Cathal McConnell  to play at The Captain’s Bar. All in all a bit of a mini flute festival.

Sharon Creasey and Cathal McConnell at The Captain’s Bar, Edinburgh

The workshop began with a slow tune to warm up: Caol Muile (The Sound of Mull), the air to a Gaelic song (Youtube link to a version sung at Plockton School). I have a version with some harmony parts and added another myself, so we had some fun trying them out. Grace notes and breathing came up as we added expression.

I followed this up with a reel that seems to be from Donegal and presented problems in pinning down a definitive version. We had one for the day and Kenny and I also had some variations. Scotch Mary can be found in various collections and with various titles. Irish Molly is one, Ireland Green is a title given by PJ Hayes and Martin Hayes too. Flute players John Skelton and Kieran O’Hare recorded it on whistles on their great CD Double Barrelled (link has a clip of the music).

The tune actually exists in three main versions, as two parts: A+B, B+C or three parts: A+B+C. To confuse things, the A and C parts are similar, there are different changes in other versions and key shifts too. The version I taught includes elements of these. Here’s a closely related Donegal version on Youtube played by Paddy, Seamus and Kevin Glackin. It’s the second tune in the set.

Kenny Hadden with others walking and feeling the rhythm while playing at the December FluteFling workshop.

Kenny took over after the break and kept the festive theme by teaching and sharing some tunes by Johnny Cunningham that were originally for a musical theatre performance on Peter Pan. Johnny and brother Phil studied at local Portobello High School so it was doubly apt for the location.

The first tune, Two is the Beginning of the End, not only had a strange title, but was in an enigmatic scale that served as a useful warm-up piece to get the ears tuned in. As it has actually been a good while since I found myself learning a tune by ear in a workshop, it was good to have the tables turned and be reminded of the experience.

The second tune Kenny introduced was more traditional, but recorded by Johnny Cunningham. The Celtic Society’s Quickstep (music and background can be round at the Traditional Tune Archive) is a dance tune first published in Kerr’s Merrie Melodies of the 1880s, but in existence since at least 1820. A delightful tune with some interesting jumps and straightforward runs that can be played with some bounce. It doesn’t seem to be played very much and could benefit from more exposure.

Resources for the tunes are to be found on the resources page for 2017. Two is the Beginning of the End doesn’t feature for copyright reasons, but those who attended will have something to work with. I will add The Celtic Society’s Quickstep very shortly.

Here’s Johnny’s version of The Celtic Society’s Quickstep, as recorded on Fair Warning:

Kenny has a YouTube channel with some rare archive video and TV footage, particularly of music from Scotland, that is worth exploring.

Finally, a wee plug for the Scottish Flute channel on YouTube, which has evolved out of the FluteFling workshops and sessions. Set up and run by volunteers and supporters in the Aberdeen area, there is some footage from the Aberdeen weekend in November and more can expected both from the archive and as more events occur.


Mullindhu: an ambiguous tune

September’s workshop looked at a version of Mullindhu, which translates as The Black Mill. A Scottish tune with Highland origins, there are a few different versions and spellings about in the main collections (Skye, Fraser and Athole are ones I regularly refer to). A reel in A Dorian, our version is slow and stately, more like a march, and was recorded by Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

Resources for this and the two other tunes we looked at (PDF, ABC and MP3 formats) have been added to the Resources Page.

Alba Low whistle in D (c) Gordon Turnbull

The story I originally heard about this melody from Edinburgh fiddler Doug Patience (now in County Clare) was that the mill in question stood on disputed land between two rival families and was burnt down by one of the sides. The composer was local and diplomatically wrote a tune that could be seen as either celebratory or in lament, depending on the point of view of the listener.

On The, a discussion on the tune quotes a story from Cape Breton Island about the Mill as a clandestine rendezvous for romance that similarly divides opinion:

Apparently, on Cape Breton Island the tune/song was not allowed to be played in certain parts because it was so closely associated with the MacDougalls of Margaree, who apparently were extremely touchy about hearing it played within their earshot! It appears that one line of a stanza of the puirt a beul set to the melody goes “Tha nead circe fraoiche ‘s a’ mhuilean dubh.” (In the black mill is the heather-hen’s nest). The offense to the Margaree MacDougalls was due to a joke that was told about hens at the expense of the clan, and they were so sensitive to any reference to the joke that they could not tolerate mention of poultry of any kind, and took the playing of the tune to be a veiled insult against the clan.

More on the tune background and stories can be found at the Fiddler’s Companion, including one story that includes devilish dealings.

I was pleasantly surprised that a bit of playing about with the tune reveals it to be a version of The Oyster Wives’ Rant, a reel I have known for many years but not often played. We also had a look at this in the workshop. The Fiddler’s Companion informs us that the earliest printed version is in Bremner’s Collection of 1775 and that it is part of a family of tunes and variants from Scotland to England and Ireland — so our Mullin Dhu connection is no surprise.

In searching about for a possible companion piece, I came across the distinctively titled An Oidhche Bha Na Gabhair Againn (The Night We Had the Goats) in the Athole Collection, a book which handily orders the tunes by key. This is in the relatively rare G major and I have adapted it slightly to my playing style. We didn’t have time to look at it properly, but it bounces nicely off the Ds and Gs and lends itself to short sharp spiky rolls. Interestingly, it resolves on to A, which lends it a whistful, inconclusive feel to my ears.

While it is described as a pipe tune, and printed versions may go back to 1795, the origins may be in puirt-à-beul. The odd title might be explained by another translation, The Night the Goats Came Home.

Here’s a version played a few years ago by then 17 year olds Hannah Stockley and Brad Murphy at the Gaelic Society in Sydney, Cape Breton.

After the workshop, myself and Malcolm Reavell rounded off the day by walking along to the Dalriada in Joppa and joined in the regular Saturday afternoon session for a couple of hours. Thanks to Sean Paul Newman (guitar) and Robert Chalmers (concertina) for their hospitality.

Reminder: FluteFling workshops take a break in October, but goes on the road in November with a big Aberdeen weekend featuring tutors Davy Maguire, Sharon Creasey, with a concert and sessions. And to keep the momentum going, regular Edinburgh workshops resume in November and December.

FluteFling Aberdeen Weekend 3-5 November

FluteFling goes on the road this November as traditional flute playing in Scotland focuses on Aberdeen. Following 4 years in Edinburgh, the successful format of weekend workshops, concert and informal sessions over 3-5 November will give you and your music a boost ahead of the winter months. Come and join us on the excursion to the first FluteFling Aberdeen Weekend and be part of the traditional flute revival in Scotland!

The weekend’s tutors will be Davy Maguire from Belfast and Sharon Creasey from Dumbarton. Davy has a wealth of music from Ireland, including the northern tunes that cross over into Scotland and music from the distinctive Breton tradition.

Davy is in great demand as a teacher, from Belfast to Brittany and Italy — he will arrive immediately after teaching and playing in Brittany — while Sharon is one of the foremost exponents of traditional music on the Boehm flute in Scotland and returns with her Fermanagh, Irish and Scottish repertoire. Regardless of the type of flute you play, you will be in excellent hands.

A concert on the Saturday evening will be headlined by Davy Maguire with support from many others including Kenny Hadden, Sharon Creasey, Malcolm Reavell and Gordon Turnbull. And there will be plenty more music too with sessions on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday — a great opportunity to let your hair down and catch up with everyone. We hope to see you there.

Tickets for the weekend and the concert will go on sale in the next day or two. The event’s web page has further details, including links to tickets.

Davy Maguire has taught with Belfast Trad since its inception and teaches and performs regularly both in Ireland and abroad with various groups and as a solo performer. A frequent visitor to Brittany, Davy has toured and played at the Festival Interceltic de Lorient and the Festival de Cornouaille in Quimper with several different line-ups, including Dealán Dartha and Commonalty as well as in duo with Jamie McMenemy. In Ireland he has been adjudicator for several county Fleadhanna Cheoil and has recorded a CD of music for traditional set dancing along with the cream of Northern musicians.

As a taster, here he is (extreme right hand side) with Harry Bradley, Michael Clarkson, Tara Diamond and Brendan O’Hare at the Gradam Ceoil Irish Traditional Musician of the Year Award 2014:


4th Annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend dates announced

Very early news of the 4th Annual FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekend. We’re looking at 16th/ 17th/ 18th June. Please pencil this in your diary.

This is going to be just as unmissable as before and the volunteer team of Kenny Hadden, Tom Oakes and Gordon Turnbull are working hard on organising the details.

Stay tuned and if you haven’t already done so, sign up for the newsletter for a timely announcement right to your email.

December workshop roundup: Seasonal Basque and Shetland tunes, exploring breath control

This month we looked at some seasonal tunes, including Gabriel’s Message, taken from concertina player Paul Hardy’s Xmas tune book (available as a free PDF download) and the Shetland slow air Da Day Dawn. We also explored some flute technique, in particular breath support – also useful for any wind player – and embouchure.

The next workshop will be 21st January. Details will go the the website and be announced in the newsletter very soon.


Notes below the range of the flute

We played long tones on Em (E-G-B) to warm up and then learned Gabriel’s Message by ear. The tune features a B below the range of our instruments, so we looked at strategies for accommodating it. In this case we settled on playing the B in the low octave – i.e. an octave above what is written – but when we then played the melody entirely in the upper register, we played the same B. Other options include playing a low note that harmonises, such as E or F#. Keeping it low respects the feel of the melody.

It is not uncommon for traditional tunes to drop to G string on the fiddle. What strategy is adopted depends on the tune and how those notes feature.

Breath support

We looked at a few ways of employing the diaphragm for more efficient use of air in producing a sound. This included exploring playing the flute while lying on our backs, as described by Ciarán Carson in Last Night’s Fun:

Playing the flute while lying on your back encourages use of the diaphragm. Photo: Alan Chan

We included a refinement that brought us closer to the Semi-Supine position in the Alexander Technique.  Bringing the feet up the body and supporting the head. This may be helpful in developing good posture while playing the flute.

We thought about extinguishing a candle flame with directed and controlled breath and keeping it spluttering. We also looked at keeping a piece of paper to the wall using breath:

Flute exercise

Eileen demonstrates pinning a piece of paper to the wall using the breath. This helps to develop stamina while training the embouchure to focus and be efficient. Photo: Alan Chan

We explored whistle tones to find the embouchure sweet spot (see Jennifer Cluff on this) and tried singing and playing to open up the throat. Flutecolors lists some of the benefits in its extended techniques pages. Larry Krantz’s web site also includes an exploration of technique.


Books that were brought in or mentioned and look at extending technique:


The tunes we covered and some others are on the Resources page. The written music will follow on. Gabriel’s Message is a Basque carol but SW England song collector Rev. Baring-Gould translated the lyrics and it is widely sung, here by Sting:

The other tune was Da Day Dawn, which I have written about previously. Mairi Campbell’s version and recording of the modern song is here.

Finally, I recorded a version on the Bb flute: