I’m learning more highlands, and I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions for fiddle players who play highlands in an exceptional way. Open to all suggestions…

Re: highlands

Having a good listen to Altan would do no harm at all.

Re: highlands

Aidan O’Donnell and Ciaran Mooney - both donegal fiddlers…lots of highlands ;)
I think they have a CD out together as well ?

Re: highlands

sorry, the correct spelling for Mooney’s name is: Ciaran O’Maonaigh (handier to find their CD and youtube videos that way I guess)

Re: Highlands

In recent years the strong rhythm typical of highlands has been rounded off severely by some fiddlers in Donegal. Altan’s playing of highlands are a case in point, their highlands have a much less Scottish sounding rhythm than was typical of fiddlers I knew from the Rosses. Far too many younger players have followed this trend, which seems to have originated with and been popularised by Paddy Glackin and Tommy Peoples. (If you want to learn to play highlands, avoid these guys.)

To hear old style highlands get your hands on “The Brass Fiddle: Traditional Fiddle Music from Donegal” (featuring 4 fiddlers from south west Donegal: Francie Byrne, Con Cassidy, Vincent Campbell, & James Byrne). [published by Ceirníní Cladaigh]

Another good recent CD is “Con Cassidy: Traditional Fiddle Music from Donegal”

You can find both these CDs here: http://www.donegalfiddlemusic.ie/recordings.htm

A CD from RTÉ, “The Donegal Fiddle” includes some highlands played by Mickey Doherty (who played in the Rosses style), as well as Francie Byrne.
I’m not sure it’s easy to get hold of any more. Here’s a review so you can see what the cover looks like: http://www.irishmusicreview.com/donegalfiddle.htm

And any CDs of John Doherty will also have lots of good highlands. I would recommend in particular “Bundle and Go” and “John Doherty: The Celebrated Recordings”.

Re: highlands

Um, that "rounding off" is what Irish players typically do to Scottish tunes—it’s been going on for generations. Maybe they’re just now getting around to the highlands? Anyway, I think it’s up to each player to choose their influences. If you like the Scottish sound of highlands, listen to Doherty and Cassidy, or better yet some good Scottish players. If you want a more Irishized sound, Altan, the Glackins, and Mr. Peoples are excellent sources.

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Re: highlands

James Byrne was the man for the Highlands. He used to pick a highland and play it maybe ten times. Unfortunately there aren’t many recordings of him out there, but definitely get his only solo recording The Road to Glenlough. There’s a few highlands on that. Try to find some archival recordings of him too.

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Re: highlands

I like what Gerry O’Connor does.

Re: Highlands: Traditional Style

Will Harmon wrote:
"Um, that "rounding off" is what Irish players typically do to Scottish tunes—it’s been going on for generations. Maybe they’re just now getting around to the highlands?"

I never claimed that the highland rhythm is the same as that of the Strathspey as played in Scotland. If recommendations for good Strathspey playing were what was requested, I would have recommended Scottish strathspey players.

If you look at Danny O’Donnell’s sleeve notes to “John Doherty: The Celebrated Recordings”, he said that the Donegal highland had a less aggressive rhythm than the strong dotted quaver/semi-quaver rhythm that you get with Scottish Strathspeys (especially in North-East fiddlers such as James Scott Skinner). So the rhythm of traditional style highlands is already diminished compared to that of the Scottish Strathspey styles, toned down certainly but definitely not eliminated. If you listen to the older generation of fiddlers from the Gaelic heartland of Donegal fiddle (and the rest of us who play in the traditional way), the Scottish kick in highland-playing is quite unmistakable. If you want to learn to play highlands in the traditional way these fiddlers are the ones to listen to.

Occasionally, here on TheSession.org, it is asked how to tell highlands apart from hornpipes. This is because the highlands are now being played without any snap rhythms, without any dotted rhythms, without any swing whatever. If you listen to highlands played in the traditional way you could never confuse them with hornpipes, or anything else. Increasingly the highland repertoire is being played without any swing, in the style of the Austrian folk dances that were all the rage in the early 20th century in non-Gaelic-speaking east-Donegal. This music is bland and (because of its influence on unsuspecting enthusiasts for Donegal music, particularly outside Donegal) it is killing traditional music in Donegal.

As I said, if you want to learn traditional highlands listen to the recordings of the older players. If you only want Irish-music-lite, what Will Harmon calls “a more Irishized sound”, then “Altan, the Glackins, and Mr. Peoples are excellent sources.”

Re: highlands

Heh, I’d like to see someone tell Tommy Peoples or Paddy Glackiin to their faces that they’re playing "Irish music lite."

Highlands aren’t strathspeys, or if they were in a previous incarnation, they’ve become highlands. And you can play them Scottish, or you can smooth them out (as many dearly traditional Irish players like to do). It’s not devolution, just two different ways of playing the same sort of tune. Much as hornpipes can be played highly swung, slightly swung, or straight.

Geesh, next thing ya know, someone here will claim "Germans" are to be played in a pure, strictly older "Irish" style. 😉

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Re: highlands

Last year I was in a few sessions with James Byrne in Kilcar, not many months before he passed away. He played some highlands. If only I’d had my recorder with me … 🙁

"If only" - saddest words in the English language.

Re: highlands

Danny O’Donnell was reputedly a fantastic player of highlands. A friend who was involved in ‘The Brass Fiddle’ project - https://thesession.org/recordings/display/274 - recalls witnessing Danny play a whole stream of highlands during recordings of the album at the aptly-named Highlands Hotel in Glenties. Sadly, Danny refused to appear without piano accompaniment so did not appear on the final release on which all four fiddlers (Francie Byrne, James Byrne, Vincent Campbell and Con Cassidy) play highlands.

Indeed, commercially available recordings of Danny playing a highland are scarce. There are none on his album ‘The Donegal Fiddler’ - https://thesession.org/recordings/display/3337 - because apparently the album’s producer wanted the widest appeal possible so, to quote Caoimhín Mac Aoidh ‘thus there was a good deal of re-cycled Sligo 78s and O’Neill’s sourced material’. There’s only one highland on Danny’s ‘Ón tSean-Am Anall’ (https://thesession.org/recordings/display/1709) and the only available CD version of one of his 78s appears on ‘Milestone at the Garden’ (https://thesession.org/tunes/8267).

However, though it’s no help to anyone but those who have access to the British Library’s Sound Archives, there are some tremendous examples of Danny’s highlands on ‘Passing the Time: An Anthology of Donegal Fiddling’ which was the unreleased second album linked to ‘The Northern Fiddler’ project. This was never released by Topic (and was supposed to follow John Doherty’s ‘Bundle and Go’ - https://thesession.org/recordings/display/344) for the simple reason that Danny withheld his approval. Again, so the story goes, he wanted piano accompaniment.

There’s some other tremendous highlands on that album from James Byrne, Simon Doherty and Con Cassidy (and, of course, Con too was a tremendous exponent - https://thesession.org/recordings/display/2660 - and his album should be at the top of anyone’s Donegal shopping list.

On which subject, the three volumes of ‘The Fiddle Music of Donegal’ issued by Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí - http://www.donegalfiddlemusic.ie/recordings.htm - feature several fine examples of highlands.

But for me, James Byrne was the highlands man. I took him a copy of ‘Passing the Time’ a few years back and discovered that at first he was completely unaware of the recordings and had no recollection of signing a recording contract. However, after jogging his memory and mentioning the recordist’s name he did recall being paid a tenner and a few pints for some tunes!

By the way, there’s not a chance that Topic will issue the ‘Passing the Time’ album. It’s a contractual nightmare since all of the participants are now sadly dead and, if Danny didn’t want his unaccompanied tracks to be publicly available, who are we to countermand his wishes?

Re: Highlands - Donegal Style

will harmon writes:
“Highlands aren’t strathspeys, or if they were in a previous incarnation, they’ve become highlands. And you can play them Scottish, or you can smooth them out…”

I never said that Highlands were Strathspeys. I was careful to distinguish Highlands from Strathspeys. As I said, the traditional Donegal Highland rhythm is less a aggressive rhythm than the Scottish Strathspey. But the traditional Donegal Strathspey does have a discernable swing and quite pronounced snap bowings, so that the dotted rhythm (reminiscent of Scotland) remains. But it is Donegal style not Scottish!
In saying that this style is “playing them Scottish” (compared to “smoothing them out” in a supposedly “Irish” style) shows a sadly typical attitude towards the Donegal musical tradition, that it is not really Irish music. These Highlands are Donegal tunes and we play them in the Donegal style, the traditional way.

As for telling “Tommy Peoples or Paddy Glackin to their faces that they’re playing "Irish music lite.” There’s really no need, they already know!

The test is easy. Listen to the old players and then listen to the bland, no swing, de-rhythmified, ‘lite’ version. There is no comparison. A lot has been lost because these guys have, for no good reason, gained an influence over the direction of Donegal style that they should never have. You might think that this dross is an improvement on traditional Donegal music (such as the music found on the CDs I recommended), but you are going too far in saying that their new style of playing is really Irish whereas ours is really Scottish.

Re: highlands

I said ‘Donegal Strathspey’ instead of ‘Donegal Highland’. Oops!

Danny O’Donnell said that even when John Doherty played tunes he identified as Strathspeys, he still played them as highlands. I think that’s probably right.

Re: highlands

Forgive my ignorance on this but are highlands specific to Donegal or are they frequently played all over ireland?

Re: highlands

They were not confined to Donegal, at least not while the dances accompanied them, but they held on longer in the North, as too did the dances. That loss of connection, and the before mentioned ‘rounding off’, lead to them finding new life as reels, more often as single reels. The dances belong to the same swung family of tunes ~ barndances, Germans, schottisches, sharing the same basic steps, though there were many variations of stepping used for the highland fling/schottische…

whistleblower and Floss have offer good comment ~ go out and at least buy "The Brass Fiddle", for a start… Let your ears guide you, and if you can get someone to teach you a highland, the dance, take that opportunity too… The couple dances associated with these tunes are now getting their due attention, mostly, it seems, amongst the set dancing community…

As a dance there were dances for 2, couple dances, 3 and 4, and there were even sets of quadrilles (square sets / set dances) that used the tunes and steps…

The classic second ending in the B-part was also in the dances and was more usually four step-hops / pivots / called by some ‘doubling’…

The 4th figure of ‘The Cashel/Castle Set’ is one hold over that in its structure better suits the 16 bar highland fling than 32 bar hornpipes…

Re: highlands

Thanks for all the replies. I have an idea of what to look for now. I will try to get a hold of "The Brass Fiddle" for sure.

Re: Highlands: Peculiar to Donegal?

Bogman asked:
“…are highlands specific to Donegal or are they frequently played all over Ireland?”

Good point! I’ve been talking about Donegal Highlands. Highlands are generally associated with Donegal, where they are the most plentiful, but you do get highlands elsewhere. Tyrone, Fermanagh, & Derry have highlands, but I believe that the pronounced Donegal-style rhythm rarely found in the highlands there. Tommy Peoples’ being from east Donegal, right on the border with Derry could explain why doesn’t play highlands in the style universally found in the Donegal Gaeltacht. In the rest of Ireland people occasionally play ‘flings’, which often have their origins in Highland Schottisches rather than Highland Flings (which is what Donegal highlands tend to be); “The Keel Row” (a Schottische, known in Ireland under dozens of names) is for instance played widely in the south west of Ireland (as well as in Scotland, Northumbria and England). Altan play it in a fairly straight schottische style, whereas I am more familiar with it with a fairly sprightly Highland rhythm. Among others, Willy Clancy recorded a few flings.

I’m told that the Schottische came into Irish music around the same time as the 19th century Europe-wide polka craze. (Though the term means ‘Scottish [tune]’ it originated in Europe and has no relationship at all with Scotland, and they’re found all over Europe. They are for some reason often called Highland Schottisches in Scotland.) I would like to know whether Highlands in the counties east of Donegal come from Schottisches (whether they’re more like the southern ‘flings’) or whether they have a closer relationship to Strathspeys, as do most Donegal Highlands.

Re: highlands

The dance is a good place to get your head straight on this, rather than the sometimes misdirected notion that the form is centered in one geographic location, though there is no doubting or question fo the influence of how certain influential musicians play a thing and how that gets also identified with an area. The 3-hand highland fling was danced across Ireland in basically similar forms, and the highland fling was the chosen tune to accompany that, but there were versions and stylistic differences there too. While living in Ireland I dances one version or another of that in Donegal, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Antrim, Armagh, Dublin, Galway, Clare, etc… All to the same basic 16 bar family of dance tunes, whatever one may have chosen to call them…

They and the tunes sometimes also called ‘highland schottisches’, are tied to the strathspey, while the barndance / German has a closer association with the generally 32 bar schottisches, also accounting for why they often end up in collections of hornpipes while their shorter cousings get sped up and flattened into reels…