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Aberdeen has a strathspey and reel orchestra tradition which can be traced back well over a century. As long ago as 1903 a musical group known as the Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Association flourished in the city. Few details of this orchestra have survived to the present day. However, the photograph below was published in the “Press and Journal” in 1928 and generated correspondence which suggests in that in 1903 the orchestra rehearsed weekly in Donald’s Rooms in Silver Street and that Scott Skinner, the self styled “Strathspey King”, was known to visit and play occasionally. The photo shows that the orchestra was at least forty four strong and, as well as fiddles, included two double basses and three cellos. No accordions in those days though.
Of this association it is known that they performed a concert in 1903 in the Trades Hall, Belmont Street and a Burns Concert in the Music Hall in 1904. Few more details have emerged however and the likelihood is that the orchestra disbanded at or before the outbreak of the First World War. Although it is perfectly possible that some of the members of Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Association joined the present society when it was founded in 1928 no formal link between the two orchestras or continuity of membership has ever been conclusively established.
Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society as it exists today was formed on the initiative of Mr Alex Sim, a classically trained violinist who worked with the Post Office in Aberdeen. Mr Sim convened a meeting on 12 January 1928 at which it was enthusiastically agreed to form a group to be called the Aberdeen Scottish Reel and Strathspey Society with the aim “to encourage and preserve the heritage of Scottish fiddle music”. The group’s first rehearsal was held on 23 January and the first General Meeting on 30 January at which it was agreed to change the group’s name to “The Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society”, the name by which it is still known today.
The Orchestra performed its first annual concert at the Music Hall, Aberdeen on 21 November 1928 and was, at the time, along with The Edinburgh Highland Reel and Strathspey Society (formed 1880) and The Highland Strathspey and Reel Society (formed 1903) one of only three such societies in existence.
It wasn’t long before the Society had amassed an impressive array of patrons. By 1932 these included the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, The Duke of Richmond and Gordon, the Duke of Atholl, Lady Forbes-Sempill (who joined the orchestra as a harpist) Sir Compton Mackenzie and the renowned violinist Fritz Kreisler.
On the Air
From the very early days the Society forged links with the then fledgling BBC. The orchestra’s first broadcast took place as soon as 28 May 1928 from the BBC’s Aberdeen studio, then located at 15 Belmont Street. That was only 4 months after the first rehearsal but it must have been a successful performance as the orchestra was asked to play again on Christmas Day that year as part of a Scottish feature programme, this time for a fee of 10 guineas.
The orchestra was broadcast on the BBC on New Years Day 1931, then again on 11 August 1934, the later broadcast being the first complete programme of dance music. The association continued when the Society was asked to take part in the opening ceremony for the BBC’s ‘palatial’ new premises in Beechgrove Terrace, Aberdeen on 9 December 1938.
One notable collaboration took place in April 1969 when the BBC made a recording of a fiddlers’ rally in the Music Hall featuring the combined orchestras of the Aberdeen and Banchory Societies. The highlights of this performance were subsequently issued on one side of an LP record with highlights of that year’s National Fiddle Championship on the other. A few years later, in 1976, the Mod Fiddlers Rally was held at the Music Hall on 9 October and televised by the BBC the following Wednesday.
In 1985, the BBC changed the format of their Hogmanay shows from studio recording to live before an audience. The first was broadcast from His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen with the Society playing live on stage on Hogmanay with guest artistes provided by the BBC – to an estimated audience of 1.5 million viewers!
In 1988, the BBC celebrated its 50th anniversary of broadcasting from Beechgrove Terrace and 25 members of the orchestra took part in a live broadcast to mark the occasion. The first tune played at both the opening in 1938 and the anniversary in 1988 was J Scott Skinner’s ‘the Bonnie Lass o’ Bon Accord’. Three orchestra members: Gordon Morgan, John (Ian) Smith and Minnie Anderson took part in both concerts – 50 years apart. And the orchestra again featured when the BBC moved from the old office and studio in Beechgrove Terrace to a new building on the site of the former ‘Beechgrove Garden’. On that occasion 20 members took part in a broadcast from the old Studio One to recognise 62 years of broadcasting from the site.
The Society saw further television appearances in Grampian Television’s series Ceol Na Fidhle broadcast in 1993 and 1994, a landmark series featuring the music of Strathspey and Reel Societies and fiddle groups from throughout Scotland.
From those first performances in 1928 to the Society’s most recent appearance at the Dickson Hall, Laurencekirk in March 2020 (if the coronavirus has allowed the Society to perform since, please forgive the Editor for failing to update this page), the orchestras of the Society have taken part in concerts and performances both at home in Aberdeen and far afield. These have featured the full orchestra and at times smaller groups to suit the occasion. Venues have ranged from the magnificent to the mundane. But every performance has been, and continues to be important, no matter how large or small the audience. The following is a flavour of the activities of the Society over the years.
As one of Aberdeen’s principal music venues, the Music Hall has played a significant part in the history of the Society. Many important occasions have been marked at the Music Hall: the orchestra’s first annual concert in 1928, the retiral of conductor and founder Alex Sim in 1950, the Society’s Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1953, 1978 and 1988 and many annual performances and rallies over the years, including a quite remarkable evening in 1990 when the orchestra was joined on stage by renowned jazz fiddler Stephane Grapelli.
The Society’s most recent appearance at the Music Hall was the Fiddlers’ Rally of 2014, before the building closed for renovation. Since then, Rallies have been held in the refurbished Tivoli Theatre – a superb venue with a magic all of its own.
Aberdeen Strathspey and Reel Society were heavily involved in the Fiddlers’ Spectaculars held at His Majesty’s Theatre biennially over a number of years between 1977 and 2011, lavish productions often featuring several costume changes during the performance. These Spectaculars typically featured the combined orchestras of the Society along with one or more other societies and played host to the cream of Scottish musical talent.
Over the years the Society shared the stage with stars like Deirdre Adamson, Paul Anderson, Aly Bain, Mark Boozie, Mary Cameron, Duncan Chisholm, Alastair Fraser, Anne Lorne Gillies, Ron Gonnella, Gordon Gunn, Russell Kostulin, Lisa Milne, Peter Morrison and Meston Reid – to name just a few. Presenters have included Henry Auchinachie, Johnny Beattie, Jonny Bogan, Colin Campbell, George Duffus and Robbie Shepherd. Sadly these fantastic shows no longer run but they hold a fond place in the memories of all those involved – and the audiences too.
To be continued…