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.


Winter workshop dates for flute and whistle

Taking a break at the November workshopSaturday afternoon flute and whistle workshops in Edinburgh are set to continue following a successful Autumn trial, with a further three dates confirmed.

In addition, I will be directly in touch with those who have expressed an interest in beginner whistle classes and a slower flute and whistle workshop to explore date options. Please note that these will be on a Saturday.

Future dates will take place on the third Saturday of the month and will be announced once the annual FluteFling Weekend dates have been finalised. The monthly workshops will be limited to 15.

For further details, see the Workshops page.


  • Individual workshops:
    • Standard price: £22.50/ Concession: £17.50
  • All 3 workshops (see January):
    • Standard price: £60/ Concession: £45

Dates and technical focus:

  • Venue: Tribe Porty, 19 Windsor Place, Portobello EH15 2AJ
  • Time: 1pm – 4pm

November workshop roundup: a Galician waltz and an Irish reel with variations

The FluteFling November workshop was surprisingly sold out with as many as fifteen people attending, so firstly my apologies to those who were unable to make it.

It’s only the second of this new monthly series, but it has been well- attended and I am delighted with the level of interest. Plans are already being made for January-April and beyond.

The next FluteFling workshop will take place on Saturday December 17th and you are welcome to join us for a coffee or beer afterwards.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November's FluteFling workshop.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November’s FluteFling workshop.


We played long tones to begin with and help us warm up ourselves and the flutes. These tones were based on arpeggios associated with the tunes we were going to look at and get our ears and fingers used to the tonal centres and shapes within the tunes themselves.

An arpeggio is basically a broken chord, meaning the notes of the chord are not all played simultaneously, but one at a time. These arpeggios are to be found within the tune structures of all music genres, including traditional music. When learning by ear it is a useful and important skill to understand that, for example a tune in the key of G will feature phrases that include G, B and D with linking notes and runs of notes. So if your fingers are familiar with the relevant shapes and positions, then the melody can be anticipated and more readily picked up.

If you aren’t familiar with chord structures, then for our purposes all you need to consider is that a chord triad (three notes) consists of the first, third and fifth notes. (There are many permutations, but all we are concerned with here is understanding how a traditional tune may be structured and how we can use that to help us play by ear.) For a tune in G, the G is the root of the chord, or first note, A is the second and not part of it, so B is the third, C the fourth and D the fifth, giving us a pattern of G-B-D.

So for a tune in G, we would expect to hear phrases that incorporate these notes. Furthermore, these notes could be expected to feature prominently. This is useful in learning the tune as we can after listening hear and understand the shape of the phrases and try to translate this to our fingers and breath.


The tunes were the Galician waltz A Bruxa (The Witch) by Antón Seoane, which I had transposed into B minor and hung on B-D-F# and The Sunny Banks (The Flowers of Ballymote), a traditional Irish reel very much in D and hanging on D-F#-A. The sheet music for this can be found here and on the Resources page. Click on the links below for my recordings of the tunes or follow me on Soundcloud and access more that I have done.

We stood up, walked about as we played and felt the movement of the tunes in our legs and at one point had a number of us unconsciously swaying gently together like grasses in the wind. We also has a look at phrasing across parts of the tune, especially with the wistful descending phrases of A Bruxa, giving more air to the opening of the phrases than the conclusions.

Our setting of A Bruxa in B minor has an A# (or Bb) in the final phrase. This is fine with a keyed flute, but we looked at cross-fingering to flatten the B natural on keyless instruments and on the low whistles a half-holing measure was also found to be useful. Although tricky, this was better than a setting in A minor that had many F naturals and a G#. If you’re interested in how that might look or sound, there are versions on The Session web site, along with discussion of the title.

The original version was recorded by Milladoiro (official web site here), with hurdy gurdy player Antón Seoane being a founder member.

The tune has an Edinburgh history as there are recent musical connections between Edinburgh and both Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain.

The Easy Club recorded the tune in the 1980s, and The Tannahill Weavers did so later on. John Martin played fiddle with the former and has been with the latter for many years. One of the bands which gave rise to Shooglenifty in the late 80s and early 90s was Edinburgh band Miro, who included mandolin player Iain MacLeod, but also fiddler Simon Bradley (who plays with Asturian band Llan de Cubel) and at various times flute players Rebecca Knorr and Niall Kenny; Shooglenifty’s fiddler Angus Grant Jr., who sadly died recently, also appeared with them on occasion.

Another notable recording of A Bruxa is on Senex Puer by Lá Lugh, from Dundalk. You can hear a sample of the tracks on Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s web page and it is worth exploring the rest of the site to learn more about the group’s singer and flute player and her legacy.

The version I taught is here:

Flute player and teacher Kenny Hadden joined us for the second tune, an Irish reel called The Sunny Banks (also generally known as The Flowers of Ballymote and in Bulmer and Sharpley’s collection as The Flying Column).

Again, we looked at arpeggios for the tune and then learned the bare bones. We walked about and found our own acoustic spaces. A discussion then followed about how variations feature in traditional music, in particular in Ireland. The Session web page for The Sunny Banks includes a number of versions that show it is open to interpretation and variation, but it is still the same tune.

As it happens, Kenny Hadden had posted a YouTube clip of The Cheiftain’s playing it, with a Matt Molloy solo for the reel. They precede it with a slip jig (9/8 time) entitled Top it Off, which is a version of the same tune.

Here’s the clip:

Quoting Cathal McConnell, Kenny made the point that once you learn a tune it is yours and you can do what you like with it. Variations are your way of expressing what you enjoy about the tune and for me I would say that exploring variations is like turning the tune around and viewing it from different angles in order to know it better. It embeds it in your mind and you become more comfortable playing it. I would say that a tune existing as both a reel and a slip jig is another example of somebody somewhere and at some time trying out variations, too.

Here are some of my variations:

I generally agree with Kenny that this is more common and accepted in Irish music. However it also exists historically in Scottish music in the form of set variations of tunes published in the 18th and 19th Centuries and in the Highland and Lowland piping repertoires. Fiddler Alasdair Fraser also commonly plays variations on his recordings.

November workshop

flutes and whistles

Flutes, whistles and fife (c) Gordon Turnbull

Only two weeks to go to the November workshop, but if you’re thinking of coming along, there are just 5 places left. I know a few people have shown interest but have yet to sign up, so don’t be disappointed.

For the first part we’ll be looking at phrasing and the use of Bb on an unkeyed D instrument in a tune. Don’t worry, it’s a slow melody and if you have a Bb key on your flute you’ll be fine. We will also think about F naturals and G# using the same melody transposed.

I have yet to decide on a tune for the second focus, but the use of pulse and variation are likely to feature.

I hope you can make it and can also join us afterwards for a tea, coffee or something stronger at a cafe/ bar around the corner.

October workshop roundup

FluteFling October 2016 workshopThe FluteFling Autumn workshops got off to a great start with ten flutes and two low whistles exploring a range of techniques while learning an air and a reel.


We looked at issues around jumping octaves as both of our tunes begin with E-e octave jumps. On the flute, don’t overblow, but use your embouchure to get the upper notes – a fine air stream is required and raising the jaw for the upper notes will push your bottom lip forward very slightly to help achieve this. On the low whistle, ensure breath support is strong to avoid going out of tune.

We looked at using the diaphragm for breath support.

We explored using flat surfaces such as a wall to provide an acoustic mirror and help with understanding our own sound.

Decoration and pulse is used to help emphasise the rhythm. By giving more air to notes on the beat we bring out the colour of the tune. The decoration we looked at began with cuts (single or multiple grace notes from above), strikes (grace notes from below) and rolls (multiple grace notes typically formed by a cut followed by a strike).

The breath can be used as the voice in traditional singing, to provide inflection and context. In the slow air Tha Mi Sgith for example, the breath can be increased and decreased over a phrase or section of the melody

The tunes

A revised PDF of the music we played can be found here: FluteFling_oct_2016_tunes. I recorded them both but have not been able to upload Sweet Molly to Soundcloud due to technical problems at Soundcloud. I will update it when it becomes possible. However Tha Mi Sgith was successful (see link below).

We had a look at two tunes: Tha Mi Sgith is a slow air that is often played as a strathspey, a march and even a polka. In a modal key, it is the melody of a lullaby commonly played in A Dorian (two sharps), but occasionally in E Dorian (two sharps), which is how we played it. By transposing it down, we brought out the sonority of the flutes and whistles.

Here’s a version I recorded on a whistle previously:

And here’s the version I played in the class on the flute:

According to TuneArch, the strathspey first appeared in the Athole Collection and the Skye Collection of fiddle tunes, both published in the 1880s. There’s some interesting archived discussion at the Mudcat Cafe web site, which includes various translations at a suggestion that it is a fairy love song, with a published version in the 1870s. Marjory Kennedy-Fraser seems to have had a hand in making it popular with her influential Songs of the Hebrides.

I first heard this tune played on Silly Wizard’s Wild and Beautiful, where Phil Cunningham played on a low whistle at a time when the instrument was still relatively unknown. There is a discussion on That Mi Sgith on The Session web site. There’s a recording and some background archived at BBC Alba and the same again here at Learn Gaelic; both sites take you line by line through the song and help with pronunciation.

The second tune was Sweet Molly (or Hopetoun House), published in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland as The Youngest Daughter. The Tap Room is another closely related Irish reel and the opening of Sweet Molly is very similar to the well-known Drowsy Maggie. It appears in various collections, including Kerr’s Merrie Melodies for the Violin, which every Scottish musician should own. Nigel Gatherer has indexed Kerr’s collections and transcribed some of the tunes. Take a look at the alternative titles and variants cited at the Tune Archive website.

Scottish band Sprangeen recorded this in the 1980s as a slow reel, with Ann Ward playing the melody on the flute.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore this tune deeply, but the breath can again be used here to bring out the jumping rhythms of the first part. After some technical issues uploading the file, here’s the recording I made at the end of the workshop:

Thanks are due to Anna from TribePorty for making us so welcome and for sharing the photo.

The next workshop will take place on Saturday November 19th 1-4pm. The following one on Saturday December 17th 1-4pm. Please note that places for both of these will be limited to 15.