Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Hello!

I am currently studying for a Masters in Scottish Ethnology at Edinburgh, and am writing a paper at the moment on the Scottish Folk Music Revival, focusing on instrumental music. I have discovered that the literature greatly leaves out instrumental music in preference to song, and have come to wonder if instrumental music was in fact part of the same ‘revival’ as song… or if it experienced a revival whatsoever. What are your thoughts on this?

Thank you!

Rosemary

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Not sure which revival you have in mind: how about

Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser & her daughter Patuffa on harp - 1900s or so

Tom Anderson & co on fiddle in Shetland - 1960s or so

Jimmie Shand on button box…..

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

I can help with this one, I was part of it, and still am. Can you be a bit more specific with your questions though ?
"… or if it experienced a revival whatsoever." Damn right it did.

Posted by .

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Many aspects of Scottish Instrumental Music didn’t really need reviving and was already part of a "living tradition". This was mainly centred around the Scottish Dance Band scene and the like.

As regards more "folkie" Scottish music, Aly Bain and a few others emerged during the time of the folk revival but it was mainly song which predominated.
Sessions began to take off in pubs but they attracted mainly players and afficiandos of Irish music especially with bands such as The Cheiftains, Bothy Band and so on coming to the fore. The Boys of The Lough also helped to popularise Irish music here too although Aly also had a Scottish/Shetland input.

However, it was the likes of Ossian, Battlefield Band, Silly Wizard, Tannies etc who eventually sparked the interest for Scottish music and eventually this led to Scottish music being taken much more seriously in sessions and so on.
Also, in the nineties, lots of courses and projects for youngsters and adults began to spring up and many musicians, budding and otherwise, were encouarged to play their own music. There was the second wave of Scottish bands which emerged then too including the likes of Blazing Fiddles, Deaf Shepherd, Session A9 , Fiddlers Bid and many more. who helped to keep the music vibrant and also encouraged younger musicians.

That’s just a very rough outline of how I saw things. Others might disagree and there’s a lot more which could be said.
Hopefully, the likes of Nigel Gatherer and Kenny will post their comments here too. Much more knowledgeable than me. :-)

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Hi again, and thank you for your insight!

Colin, I’m sorry I wasn’t more specific! My interest lies in the second half of the 20th century, particularly the 60s through the 80s - Johnny’s narrative really (thank you Johnny!).

Hi Kenny, I’m sorry again for the vagueness. I suppose what I was thinking there was what Johnny mentioned about dance band music - some accounts have expressed opinions that traditional instrumental music in Scotland did not experience a revival because it didn’t need one. I am aware however that there are many different strains of instrumental music and many different contexts beyond dance bands, including sessions, performance bands, festivals, etc. So, perhaps my question should instead address the differences between the song revival and the instrumental revival, and the motivations and influences (such as Irish music) that spurred changes in the instrumental music scene.

I am really interested to hear how people saw things, and what you experienced!

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More of an explosion than a revival: just SO many people now learning and playing instruments - just taking fiddles as one example - having just survived a very enjoyable weekend at the Scots Fiddle Festival (even as a non-player of fiddle!) In the meantime, on other forums there are people bemoaning that folk club attendances in some place are falling (not altogether true of all clubs), as more and more people want to get out and play themselves, in classes, workshops and sessions.
And not peculiar to Scotland either: very much a feature of the English folk scene too.

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Folk Clubs are important but they are by no means the whole story. Many of the posters on "other forums" don’t seem to get that.

In Ireland, folk clubs were much fewer and far between as there was really no need for them. Also, in Scotland, what was regarded as the instrumental scene *at the time* was still quite lively and song seemed to be the main thing in clubs back then. There is still a hangover to those days in many clubs and but singers continually bemoan the fact that instrumentalist are taking over. However, checking the listings of most clubs would contradict this assertion.

That’s not to say instrumental music isn’t popular. It is very popular indeed but it isn’t confined to the folk club scene. Young music groups are as likely to be found in Art centres, small concert venues, festivals and, of course, making their contribution to the session scene.

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No discussion regarding a STM folk revival can take place without mention of Jock Tamson’s Bairns. In my mind, they are to STM what the Bothy Band was to ITM.

The word "revival" is particularly appropriate when talking about the literal revival of bellows pipes beginning around 1979-1980. Colin Ross, Hamish Moore, Gordon Mooney et. al.

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Masters degrees must be easy if you can get everyone else to do your research!

BT

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I think the ’60s revival was due in no small part to the media - White Heather Club on the telly and Take the Floor on Radio, Jimmy Shand, Ian Powrie et al. What’s happened since I don’t see as a revival so much as an evolution. We’ve ditched the big accordions for little button boxes, swapped the snare drum for a bodhran and we like to think that makes things ‘more traditional’ . But in reality I don’t think it is a revival of something that happened in the past so much as a lot of influence coming across the water from Ireland.

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I’ve been out of academia a while now, but we weren’t even allowed to use Wikipedia as a source. Can you now use a bunch of random — and generally anonymous — strangers on an internet message board?

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BT has obviously never worked for a Master’s Degree!

C J Brownbridge MA.

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

"BT has obviously never worked for a Master’s Degree!
C J Brownbridge MA.
# Posted by Ebor_fiddler 26 minutes ago."

I have the wisdom not to make assumptions or the pretension or to be so insecure to resort to use"letters "after my name

BT

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

To be fair, I think Rosemary is just looking for a few pointers.
There are one or two books about this and I’ll maybe mention some of them if she wishes.

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I don’t think it was ever in need of revival in recent times. The ceilidh dance scene was pretty strong as I was growing up. Plenty of piping and Gaelic singing too, though I’m only referring to the West Coast. In this part of the country I think the emergence of Border/Reel pipes on a widespread scale has made a big impact. With pipes being the most commonly played instrument here it’s provided many more opportunities for sessions, and with many pipers now also playing flute or whistle. There’s has certainly been a huge increase in the number of sessions which is exposing a lot more people to traditional music. There are lots on non-players who would rarely have gone to a ceilidh, or maybe who seen trad as a bit twee, who love the whole thing now.

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There was a Cape Breton connection too…. Scottish fiddlers ‘rediscovered’ Cape Breton at one point, and the to and fro from both ends has never stopped.

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Back when I was in academia, we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone.

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It poses a very interesting question, "was there indeed a revival?"

Thinking of Highland piping, it seems to be booming in Scotland (perhaps even more so in Northern Ireland) with piles of great young players coming along.

But a revival?

For sure there was an enormous growth in the number of players during the 19th century.

In the 18th century and earlier piping was solo of course, and piping seems to have been fairly uncommon, and run in particular families.

What seems to have changed everything was the evolution of the Pipe Band.

Jeannie Campbell writes in Highland Bagpipe Makers:

"In 1900 it was recorded that there were 12 pipe bands in Highland battalions, 8 in other Scottish regiments, 20 Militia bands and 40 to 50 bands in the Volunteer battalions. In addition there were large numbers of cadet, school, and Boys Brigade bands plus all the civilian bands in towns and villages throughout Scotland."

That’s well over a thousand pipers serving in the military.

Then the Great War increased the demand for pipers exponentially.

For example the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders expanded from two to 27 battalions, the number of pipers serving in that single regiment increasing from around 24 to well over 300.

I think it’s safe to say that in sheer numbers Highland piping reached its zenith during the War.

The time of the Folk Music Revival was also a time of drastic reductions in the number of pipers in the army.

Yet, the Highland Piping scene feels vital. The number of military pipe bands has shrunk, but there seems to be as many civilian pipe bands as ever, and the overall level of play is possibly the highest it’s ever been.

One could choose to consider Highland piping irrelevant to the Folk Music Revial but it seems to me that the two are intertwined, what with The Battlefield Band, The Tannahil Weavers, and many other influencial groups.

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I’d suggest that a difference between the Scottish and Irish experience that might be worth exploring is that in Scotland, revival (it seems to me, who was not there to see it) happened on an instrument by instrument basis, whereas in Ireland a lot of effort went into promoting the "scene" as a whole.

I also wonder what could be said about the influence that commercialisation and professional performance had on the music, in terms of repertoire, performance practice, transmission, etc.

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Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Hello!

Thank you all very much for your insight! I have read all of the relevant literature on the subject (though would be happy to hear any suggestions, thank you Johnny!), but was not there, so am keen to hear from those who were.

Thank you again,

Rosemary

Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

I like to think the effect of Gordon Duncan’s untimely death played a part in the drive to establish a financial foundation for the contemporary Scottish pipe scene to grow and remain solid. It appears to have been a wake up call that muddling through wasn’t going to keep the talent coming through and that a different approach to the professionalization of the folk scene was needed. Then there was the Nationalist backing that the Scottish folk scene received during the independence debates and earlier the huge effect of European Union funding, in the creation of a new model of pipe manufacturing in the country, when McCallum got the grants which really launched that business.

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Including Simon Mckerrell’s PhD thesis?

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I have to confess Steve T I can’t agree with your points there. I don’t think the GD financial foundation has made a significant difference, I would say the Trad music schools such as Plockton and Glasgow, as well as the Feis movement, have had a much greater effect. Also re Nationalist backing - it’s really the other way round, the vast majority of folkies seemed to back independence but I can’t see any effect that has had on the music. The scene as we know it was well established before 2014

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While a small majority may have been in favour of Indy, I reckon it was more evenly divided than many think. Most No folkies kept their views to themselves.

As for Nat backing, the SNP have done no more than previous administrations to support Trad music although they have invested plenty of money in Gaelic road signs.
There were Pro Independence Groups such as Trad Yes but, as Bog man says, it was the other way round. These were grass root movements and not Nat funded.

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Ok, the trad music schools have been mentioned, but also there was the recognition and introduction of Trad Music as a subject for senior school Standard and Higher Grades (roughly, but not exactly equal to, O and A levels in England.) Then there are the Trad Music Degree courses, the various traditional music awards, Hands up for Trad, BBC Radio Scotland Young Trad Musician of the Year, etc. Not looking to re-open any debate about the merits or otherwise of trad degrees and awards, as these have been done to death in very polarised discussions before, again and again, ad infinitum ad nauseam, but I do think they have undoubtedly inspired others to dust off old, or take up new, instruments.

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The wire harp actually did experience a revival (as it was said to have "died out"). Maybe look at clarsach (or rather the Scottish spelling of it) from POV of Scottish tradition?

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Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

I agree with Trish that courses in traditional music have been very beneficial albeit the content is inevitably narrow at times and is dictated by the current thinking of those who are responsible for devising the syllabus. Of course, this applies to all forms of education.

One thing I’ve noticed about musicians who have attended establishments such as The Conservatoire, Newcastle and so on is that the majority will go on to to their own thing anyway and aren’t restricted by what they have been taught in such establishments. Of course, the knowledge and and experience, collaborations, and contact with other musicians stand them all in good stead for the future.

I find that this is less so with adult organisations such as SMG, GFW, and so on where the students tend to be more faithful to what they have been taught there. They also tend to continue the ethos of these organisations and tend to form "groupings" where they get together to play their own music either for social reasons but often within the community. Generally, but not exclusively, these players seem to be less likely venture into the wide world or to be found at regular music sessions and so on. A minority do but most seem to be happy with their own arrangements. I’m not saying that this is right or wrong, good or bad, or whatever but it is a phenomenon I’ve observed in recent years and shows how traditional music can develop in different circumstances. When I was beginning to learn to play and sing traditional music, the only real entry was though folk clubs or the pub session. Both of these were more or less welcoming depending on where you were and who you knew. There are many more opportunities nowadays, I’m glad to say.

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In Ireland in the sixties singing was far more prevalent than instrumental music in my experience, and I wonder if what happened in Scotland ran somewhat in parallel with this?

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I don’t think so, in my experience, naomhóg. When it came to dance music, it was mostly tunes. I think the big change is that tune sessions have proliferated. There are still the odd song session and many have a song or two but I think most Scottish sessions are tune led. Though I can only speak for the west.

To be honest I’m quite surprised singing was so prevalent in Ireland, were dances not popular or was it mainly song led dances?

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Onlooking from the outside, my take is that ‘traditional tunes’ - anonymous or with known composers, older or newer - have for very long now been been firmly espoused in Scottish traditions of teaching three specific instruments: violin/fiddle, Highland bagpipes, accordion. I don’t know when large accordions first appeared in Scotland - before WW2 or after - but it was certainly well before the period that interests the OP; and fiddle and bagpipe traditions and tuition go back, of course, into the deep past.

Learners of these instruments were, and still are, routinely started off on them as kiddies, growing up with them through years of methodical tuition and practice to attain maybe professional standards. The educational infrastructure supporting tuition in these instruments is long-established, respectable and mainstream.

My take (to continue) is that this fiddle/accordion/bagpipe world could seem a bit of a closed fortress to those outside it, who had a hankering to play the music but who hadn’t started young / found ‘mainstream’ off-putting / had never aspired to play in the Army, an orchestra or an accordion band / didn’t actually like accordions or the bagpipes… and that the 60s folk revival was a key factor in the extension of confidence to ‘outsiders’ who began to get the hang of various melody instruments and often went on to frequent sessions and festivals.

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Sorry bogman, can’t agree that, at least in my area, Edinburgh, Lothians, Central belt of Scotland. "most sessions are tune led". In my experience most are mixed sessions, supporting both tunes and songs, with a larger proportion of songs to tunes, however. But there are plenty of "mainly tunes" and "mainly songs" sessions if you care to search them out - not all listed in the sessions list on this site.

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Sadly, what Trish says is true.

There are tune sessions in the Edinburgh and surrounding area but as the song says "Not as many as there was a while ago". Perhaps it’s because many musicians gravitate towards the West of Scotland what with the already long established Irish scene and, on the other hand, the abundance of younger players who have settled there many of whom attended The Conservatoire or participated in other music courses.

Of course, there are some tune sessions in Edinburgh but the better ones are small and compact, some might say cliquish but I think that’s as much to to with the lack of space as opposed to the players being unfriendly.
There are also those tune sessions which have emerged from The ALP (Or SMG as some like to call it). These tend to feature more of a musical mix. Mainly Scottish but from various countries. While OK for a night out, they do tend to be a little large and unwieldy at times and the musical standard varies.
There’s also sessions and music in some of the more "touristy" pubs which are OK for…tourists… but I’m not usually keen on the set up in such places.

As for singing, it’s very strong through here although you still get people complaining that there are too many tunes. Of course, it’s not all traditional song and you get many mediocre singer songwriters floating about too.
Part of the reason for this is that there was already a strong tradition of singing in te smaller local folk clubs, The local TMSA branch is very pro song and is very active. Also The SMG has always been very keen on singing classes and many have emerged through this route. In recent years, there has been an explosion of community choirs of all shapes and sizes. Many of the participants, especially in the more folky choirs, also get together to organise their own sessions.

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Trish, I made it pretty clear I as only talking about the west.

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Hi Bogman,

I think it’s likely to be true in many other parts of Scotland too, as far as sessions go.

Edinburgh and the surrounding area is probably unique and, on my travels, I’ve encountered more predominantly tune sessions although songs are not always discouraged.

However, the music varies depending where you go. In some areas, particularly The North East, there is still a strong fiddle and accordion element which spills over into the sessions. The West Coast(As opposed to The West Central belt) is usually a little more laid back and piping plays a strong part.

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Yes, I agree Johnny Jay. When it comes to trad, Scotland is very regional. Also, I think our own perceptions can be influenced by your social group and the people you play with. If you play fiddle or pipes you’re likely to end up with mostly tune players and maybe prefer tune led sessions, if you sing you’d maybe want to be at a session with not so many tunes.
Certainly I know that in my part of the world pretty much all the sessions are tune led, though the odd song is welcome. Songs seem to fit better at ceilidhs, folk clubs etc, (in relation to sessions) as pub sessions can be noisy and not always the best environment for songs. Not always, but often in my experience.

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"In….. The North East, there is still a strong fiddle and accordion element which spills over into the sessions." - not at all true, in my experience.

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It seems prominent at Keith Festival these days and, I believe, the likes of Kirriemuir. I’ve been to such sessions in Dufftown(Regular Monday) and some in Angus etc.

I’m using "Fiddle and Accordion" in the broadest sense here as opposed to "F and A clubs". So that would include fiddle societies, Scottish Dance band musicians and so on.

Kenny, you say "Not at all true" but, perhaps, you just avoid these types of session? They do exist but maybe there’s not that much of a cross over as I thought.

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I think that these different experiences go to show that "Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland" is a bit of a misnomer. Where it’s thriving in one place it may be going through a dip on others. In some areas there may not be much of a dance tradition so an increase in instrumental music may seem like a revival but in other places that word wouldn’t be appropriate.

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There are a lot of sessions in most parts of Scotland of the type which Kenny (And to be honest, so do I) prefers where you will encounter good Scottish and, often, Irish traditional music.

However, there are also the others which feature many varieties of music and song…… Having also been involved in Fiddle Societies, I’m also "au fait" with a lot of the repertoire there which differs to some extent from that of what is common in the type of sessions mentioned above although many of the tunes are interchangeable, if not always the musicians. However, I find that I can usually fit in fairly well in "F and A" type sessions… Again, I use the term very loosely.

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The OP was about the beginnings of instrumental revival, but we seem to be talking more about recent years. Having first got interested in STM in the 1970s, my impression is that before that and to some extent afterwards, instrumental music was played and heard by three or four very diverse constituencies who rarely had much to do with each other. The way most people heard music was at Scottish Country Dancing or ceilidhs (or radio broadcasts of Jimmy Shand, Ian Powrie and the like), and that music was dominated by accordions and pianos. There was quite a big overlap with Fiddle and Accordion clubs and Strathspey and Reel societies. By contrast, piping took place in pipe bands, the army or among solo pipers and pipers hardly ever played with other instrumentalists. There were areas (e.g. Shetland and the Western Isles) were the music scene was more integrated, but by and large my impression is that things were very divided.

When it started the folk scene had scarcely any connection with piping or dance music. It was very influenced by the American folk revival and Irish groups like the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers. Music in the folk clubs was predominantly songs, and I think that is what audiences mostly wanted. Commercial groups (e.g. Corries, McCalmans and others) mostly sang songs, and though they might have the odd mandolin or fiddle it was mostly to add a bit of variation to what was predominantly guitar accompaniment. A major change came (in the 1970s) when bands came along who integrated other melody instruments like pipes, fiddle, clarsach, whistle, flute and so on into their repertoire. I remember being blown away by bands like Ossian, Battlefield and Kentigern, whose sets were roughly 50% instrumental, who played very competently and brought in many tunes that were not really well known to audiences. It helped that pipers who had received traditional training were willing to join other instrumentalists but now had other instruments available like chamber pipes, Lowland pipes, or smallpipes, that did not drown out other instruments. A later development was when Silly Wizard and Ally and Phil showcased the accordion, an instrument which had often been despised by many folkies. Another factor was the festivals run by the TMSA at places like Kinross, Newcastletown, Auchermuchty, Keith and elsewhere. The competitions for instrumentalists really encouraged many players to come out and play in public, and often stay on for sessions. So I think that fifty years on there are far more connections and influences between what were once disparate strands of music. However, the repertoire seems to be changing substantially, though that’s maybe something for a separate discussion, which I’d be happy to join in. I must admit that I didn’t dare get into discussions on STM before now since the Session enjoins us to discuss only ITM, but there doesn’t seem to be another place for us Scots to go …

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Good post, Borderer. A little similar to my first post but much more comprehensive. Sums things up up very well.

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Thanks, Johnny Jay. I agree with everything you said in your previous post. I just wanted to flesh things out a bit and add a couple of things from my own experience.

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…… which is much the same as mine, so happy to confirm "Borderer’s" post above.
I do disagree with this statement, however , and I stress that this is only my own experience :
"So I think that fifty years on there are far more connections and influences between what were once disparate strands of music".
With the noteable and welcome exception of pipers being able to join in sessions through the development of various forms of "cauld wind pipes", I don’t think things have changed very much. I still don’t see much musical communion between the folk clubs [ sadly depleted in number compared to the 1970s/1980s ]. the TMSA [ "Traditional Music & Song Association [ of Scotland ]", and the fiddle and accordion clubs and strathspey and reel societies. I concede it may be different elsewhere in Scotland, but that’s my perception of it in the North-East.

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Re: Instrumental Folk Revival in Scotland

Kenny,

I agree with your observation that there is still a big lack of communication between various organisations, certainly at an official level. However, it’s my experience that there are individuals albeit low in number who are involved in more than one of these.

I could name a few people I know but, speaking for myself, I’ve been involved in folk clubs for many years but I’ve also attended my local S & R societies and participated in fiddle rallies and so on. For me, it was a good way to extend my repertoire even although I’m not always that enamoured by the playing style. On and off, I’ve also been a member of The TMSA but have lost interest as my local branch seemed to focus more on the song side of things. I like songs and singing too but that’s not my main interest.
As for F & A clubs, I’ve visited some and even met some known "folkies" there but I’ve not actually participated myself. The policy in most of them is to encourage people to do "spots" on the stage but I’d rather things were a little more informal.

There have been attempts over the years to bring "these strands" together but, as you say, it doesn’t seem to have worked so far. Arguably, it maybe doesn’t matter and perhaps an "Each to their own" approach is actually a good thing? It’s one thing to appreciate different styles and forms of music but not necessarily always good to change or dilute it with outside influences.
Of course, the music has always been subject to outside influences and there has been lots of innovations good and bad by the younger players. However, this trend seems to stand on its own to a certain extent and the musicians involved often tend to find their own sessions, venues etc and don’t necessarily feel at home within the more traditional organisations either.

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Speaking as someone who has played in Pipe Bands for 40 years, it seems to me that yes the piper who ventures outside that world into the "folk music" world are very much the exception, rather than the rule.

Pioneers, one could say, like Dougie Pincock, Ian MacDonald, and Rab Wallace remain outliers to the main stream of the Highland piping scene.

Glad to see Kentigern mentioned. One of my favourite all-time albums! I never got to see them in person, sorry to say.

I’m not sure where a band like Whistlebinkies fits into it all. A bit more classical than folk, they strike me as, more or less, a Scottish version of The Chieftains.

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You are probably right about the pipe band thing as far as the majority of pipers go, Richard, although there have been some occasions in Scotland where the pipe band scene has teamed up with "folkies".
I remember when Battlefield Band used to organise Highland and Lowland "circuses" and piping played a strong part including local band performances. Also, the likes of Shotts and Dykehead have recorded and perfromed with Battlefield Band and others.

More recently, Haddington Pipe Band have organised folk festivals "Trad on The Tyne" within the town featuring a wide variety of folk, traditional, and other related musics. Although they did one or two spots themselves, it was very much a "folkie" event. Sadly, the festival is no more as one the main organisers passed away and the others felt unable to continue. A shame though, as this was a beatiful albeit small event on the annual calendar.

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We shouldn’t overlook the effect of recording upon the masses. After WW 2, the explosion of cheap playback devices had a profound effect upon the reach of Traditional music, reaching a zenith in the 1980s and 90s. This "new" route extended the reach of Trad. music far beyond the areas of earlier influence. Making the revival/renewal reach far flung shores added to it and it continues to this day.

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Apologies to bogman for expressing myself poorly: I meant that my impression was that over here in the far east of Scotland, the majority of sessions were not tune led: I was not disputing what you said about your situation in the west, so I should have said "different" rather than "don’t agree".
I can’t let all the comments about the TMSA go unanswered: our Edinburgh & Lothians branch does not do as many events as we’d like to, owing to having very few volunteers to run them, and even fewer willing to serve on committee, so I wouldn’t say we are "strong" but verging on the precarious, although we do have a strong and enthusiastic leader! We don’t do just song: true that one of our bigger events is a "Muckle Sing", or "Singers’ Gathering", but the other, the annual "Northern Streams Festival" encompasses song, tunes and dance. We dropped our monthly sessions a while ago, for a combination of reasons, and it was made clear that tunes were as welcome as songs, though those who prefer tunes-only sessions tend to seek them out, in preference to mixed sessions. The current monthly "Traditional Song & Tunes" session is not a TMSA event, although we did collaborate with them for the recent "Carrying Stream Festival" session.