This blog post is written by Aaron McGregor, who is currently undergoing his PhD research at the University of Glasgow on ‘The violin in Scotland from its beginnings to 1750’. Aaron gave some insight into his work with Concerto Caledonia by teaching some 18th-century Scottish dances at the EAERN colloquium. He also played for the workshop alongside his bandmate Alison McGillivray.
This blog post is a follow-up to David McGuinness’s musings last month on the ongoing Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band project with Concerto Caledonia. Over the past two years, the ensemble has been exploring the musical world of the Scottish dance band of the late 18th century, bringing together performers from across the spectrum of period performance, traditional music and dance. We use gut-strung fiddles, cello, and Scottish small-pipes, recreating the sounds and techniques of the 18th century, and utilising the vast and relatively untapped resource of hundreds of printed collections from late 18th- and early 19th-century Scotland. These volumes offer a real insight into historical practice, not only presenting tunes, but including accompaniments in the form of bass lines, and in several collections, country dance instructions.
In 2015-16, we recorded an album and gave a handful of performances and radio broadcasts, but what really struck me was a relatively small aspect of the project: we taught a few dances to unsuspecting audiences at the Cottier Chamber Project in Glasgow and in London’s Café Oto.
My background of accompanying social dancing has predominantly been with modern ceilidh bands, so the experience of performing without amplification was an eye-opener. The two-part texture and stark, rhythmical bass lines of 18th-century collections suddenly made complete sense. The range of details possible in performance is completely different according to venues and dancers: in our quadrille ball at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms in January, the natural amplification of the musician’s gallery (and the social etiquette of the dancers, who largely danced in silence) gave space for more intricate details and harmony parts, but these would have been completely redundant in the hustle and bustle of our Òran Mór ceilidhs.
It also struck me that most of my experience performing for period dancing has been with dancers with a relatively large amount of prior expertise – events were well-rehearsed, and largely performed and appreciated in silence (apart from the music). There is plenty of iconographical evidence for 18th-century dances which look nothing like this, where social dancing more closely resembles a modern ceilidh. No doubt dances differed according to venue, but we know that country dances at events such as penny weddings sometimes brought together people from across the social spectrum.
We focused the second wave of the dance band project entirely on social dancing, with a series of historic ceilidh nights at Glasgow venues Òran Mór and the Glad Café in early 2017. The challenge was to combine the sociability and format of a modern ceilidh – complete with a caller who teaches the dances with 18th-century dance instructions, style, and repertoire. We invited historical dancer Steve Player and ceilidh caller David Munn to help us interpret the original dance instructions and present these for a 21st-century audience. After much experimentation, we came up with a format which begins with figures familiar to the regular ceilidh dancer, and gradually introduces more complex movements. The original dance instructions contain only the figures, and don’t indicate stepping – what the feet are doing going from figure to another, or what to do for improvisatory sections labeled as setting or ‘footing it’. We incorporated some of the steps given in Francis Peacock’s 1805 treatise, including the basic travelling step, the kemshóole, and the setting step the kemkóssy (you can see the latter in the video below).
Already the ceilidh nights have moved beyond historical reenactment, to a constantly shifting experience, as new and regular audiences, and our collective of performers get to know the repertoire of dances and ways of working with an acoustic ensemble on period instruments. Personally, the dance band has been a chance for me to bring together the various strands of my own working life as a musician and researcher, and I have developed new expertise as a caller for 18th-century country dances. This has offered new insight into the multi-faceted world of 18th-century fiddlers, whose careers often combined the roles of performer, teacher, and dancing master.
Concerto Caledonia – Ceilidh Night
Featured Image: The Cross Well of Edinburgh, from Robert Bremner, A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (1757-61)