by Stewart Hendrickson

see: Pictures of Ireland & Scotland

On June 11th  my wife and I left for a month-long visit to Ireland and Scotland.  Just as Seattle was warming up to summer, we encountered the wettest June and July on record for the northern British Isles. But we didn’t go for the weather, we went for the scenery, the wonderful people, and the music. Rather than bore you with a travelogue, I will concentrate on the traditional music.

We flew into Derry (Northern Ireland) on a rainy day. In an ultra-compact Fiat rental car I tested my driving skills (keep left!) and my wife’s navigation skills to find our B&B in this interesting and historic walled city. Contrary to press reports of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland (mainly Belfast), Derry is a friendly city with many interesting historical sites.

After a day recovering from jet lag, we drove into the Inishowen Peninsula of Co. Donegal, north of Derry between Loughs Foyle and Swilly. Inishowen is the most northern part of Ireland, with a rocky northern coast, some sandy beaches, small fishing ports, abundant wildlife and nature, and much history and ancient archeological sites. We chose the small village of Culdaff on the NE coast as our base to explore this area.

We booked a room in McGrory's of Culdaff, a guesthouse, bar, restaurant, and music venue. This proved an excellent choice, not only for its accommodations and good food, but also the music. We arrived on a Friday, and that evening I took part in one of its two weekly (also Tuesday) traditional sessions in the Front Bar. That consisted of a fiddler, a harper, an accordion player, a whistle player and myself on fiddle. They were a talented group of local musicians who graciously encouraged me to join in and also lead some tunes. McGrory’s also hosts some of the best traditional Irish musicians as evidenced by pictures on the walls, including one of Seattle’s Martin Hayes.

After Culdaff we had planned a trip to Tory Island, off the north coast, but had to cancel due to gale-force winds and no ferry service that day. Instead we stayed at Bunbeg, a small fishing village with a beautiful harbor. I had planned to go to a session at Teach Hiudi's pub in Bunbeg, run by Francie, the father of Mairghead Ni Mhaoinaigh (of the Irish band Altan). I was told this high-caliber session was on Monday nights, but instead it is now every Tuesday night (so much for the best laid plans!).

We then spent a couple of days in Glencolumbcille, a beautiful valley on the west coast of  Donegal where St. Columbcille (Columba) roamed, spreading Christianity in the 6th  century before he left for Iona in Scotland. One of Donegal’s best traditional fiddlers, James Byrnes, lives in the valley and leads a weekly session at Roarty’s Bar in Glencolumbcille Village every Wednesday evening. Again, this was a missed opportunity since these sessions began in July and we were a week early! One can also arrange fiddle lessons from James, something I will try and do the next time I visit.

Donegal fiddling is different from other Irish styles in its attack and aggressiveness. It is more straight (unswung) in the playing of jigs and reels (though hardly ever completely straight), and relatively sparse in ornamentation, similar to the Cape Breton style of Scottish fiddling. That is not surprising since there is a strong connection between Donegal and Scotland.

After ten days in Donegal we returned to Derry and a short flight to Glasgow, Scotland, where we picked up another rental car, this time a more comfortable-sized Peugeot. Compared to Ireland (with many one-lane roads and occasional passing places, the ultra-compact was an advantage there), roads in Scotland seemed king-sized (except for some on the western islands). The western coast and highlands of Scotland were more touristy compared to Donegal, where we saw few Americans or other tourists.

We spent ten days driving along the western coast (Oban, Isles of Mull and Iona, Fort William and the steam train Jacobite to Mallaig, and Skye), and the Highlands to Inverness. There was little music since most traditional sessions begin in July (this was the end of June) and we avoided the touristy sessions with bagpipes and kilts.

On our way from Inverness to Edinburgh we stopped by chance at the charming village of Dunkeld, once the ecclesiastical center of Scotland (and also on the trail of St. Columba). This is home to the Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean. Here MacLean’s “Real Music Bar,” The Taybank, is a Mecca for visiting traditional musicians. It consists of a small intimate bar with a piano, fiddle, and guitar for visiting musicians; a music room; and five overnight rooms upstairs. MacLean’s Art and Music Gallery in town has a great selection of his and other’s music.

The Taybank has a fiddle session every Thursday, but this was Wednesday (sigh!). Nevertheless, I was encouraged to bring my fiddle since other musicians might drop in. We came for dinner – a “Stovie” (a savory stove-simmered dish of potatoes, meat and vegetables) and a “Cloutie Dumpling” (Scotland’s answer to Plum Pudding) for desert.  Afterwards I played my fiddle for almost two hours (no other musicians appeared) to an appreciative audience of about a dozen regulars and visitors. It was great fun.

We then spent our final five days in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a great walking city with much to see and enjoy. For traditional music there are sessions every night at many venues. At Sandy Bell’s, a small bar just off the Royal Mile on Forrest Road, there are sessions most nights and also Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I dropped in on Saturday afternoon with my fiddle and joined a small session of regulars (three fiddle players, a guitar player and a singer). They were excellent musicians and I was encouraged to join in and lead some tunes. The singer was an older woman with a low, smoky but strong voice, who sang some beautiful Irish ballads. Another venue for nightly sessions and home to the Wee Folk Club is The Royal Oak, a small bar off the Royal Mile on Infirmary St.

A nice surprise in Edinburgh was On The Mound, a coffee and tea cafe off the Royal Mile on N. Bank St. Also started by Dougie MacLean, “it aims to bring music, coffee and interesting snacks together in a relaxed and comfortable setting in the historic ‘old town’ of Edinburgh. We extend a special welcome to musicians of all styles to come, meet and play in our acoustic music cafe', where there is a lovely piano and a violin for visiting players.”  After stopping for tea and scones one afternoon, I mentioned I played fiddle and was invited to play the resident violin, which I did for about half an hour. It was a very nice fiddle, and an enjoyable experience; I returned a couple of days later and did the same. They also had a guitar and bodhran (mercy!) available.

I’d like to comment briefly on Dougie MacLean’s two venues. They are places where musicians can drop in at any time and are welcome to play their music with some instruments provided. Non-musician patrons can also enjoy the spontaneous live music as well as scheduled concerts and sessions. They are focal points where musicians and others who enjoy music can gather in a friendly, informal and relaxing atmosphere. McGrory’s in Culdaff is similar. Such a place would be welcome in Seattle.

Next door to On The Mound is CODA Music, a great source of Scottish traditional and folk music. There I purchased a CD – A  Highland Fiddler, The Clunes Collection of Donald Riddell (SKYECD20, Macmeanmna, 2002), featuring fiddlers Jonny Hardie, Bruce MacGregor, Duncan Chisholm and Iain MacFarlane with Rory Campbell and Brian MacAlpine. This is a beautiful example of Scottish Highland fiddle music.

Although chilled by the rain and cold, we were warmed by the friendly people, music, and stark beautiful scenery of Ireland and Scotland. I encourage others to experience this, hopefully in better weather, and would be happy to give any advice.

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, September, 2002.