IT WAS only meant to last for four concerts but now Bruce MacGregor finds himself looking ahead to Blazin’ Fiddles’ 20th anniversary celebration at Celtic Connections with a mixture of enthusiasm, anticipation and surprise.

The surprise element comes not so much with Blazin’ Fiddles still being very much a thriving entity, with a recently released album, The Key, launched at the prestigious Kings Place venue in London last month. What has surprised MacGregor is his colleagues from the original line-up asking about rehearsals as they plan to mark the different stages of the band in the Celtic Connections concert, beginning with the current line-up playing The Key in its entirety and then being joined by old Blazers.

“In the old days we were lucky if we got a run-through with everybody present the night before the first gig of a tour,” says MacGregor, who combines his role as senior statesman in Blazin’ Fiddles with presenting BBC Radio Scotland’s Travelling Folk programme and running the Northern Roots festival on the family farm at Bogbain near Inverness.

Loading article content

“It shows just how much everybody is up for this get-together that they want to be sure of all the tunes, although nobody ever fell out with the band. People left for various reasons. Some of the guys had families, or businesses or both, and didn’t want to tour so much. For others it maybe wasn’t full-time enough. But there were never any musical differences and as someone said when we first talked about the reunion, once a Blazer, always a Blazer.”

The Blazers came into being after MacGregor became concerned about the perception he encountered of Scottish fiddle music being dead. He’d been over to the Valley of the Moon fiddle camp in California, which is run by one of Scotland’s fiddling greats, adopted Californian, Alasdair Fraser, and heard it suggested that no young people were coming through to continue the Scottish fiddling tradition. Back home, MacGregor would turn on the radio and hear fiddle music but it was all Cape Breton or Irish music.

“I knew there were great players my age who were playing the Scottish styles and accents they’d grown up with and I thought, why are we not promoting this better?” says MacGregor. “So, in 1998, I went in to see Alastair MacDonald, who was running the Highland Festival at the time, and talked to him. He liked the idea of bringing someone from the west coast together with a Shetlander and some Highland players, and I suppose I was closer to the East coast style, to present a fiddle showcase.”

The original idea as MacGregor, Catriona Macdonald from Shetland, Duncan Chisholm, Aidan O’Rourke, Iain MacFarlane and Allan Henderson set off to play their first gig at Strathy Hall in Caithness, with guitarist Marc Clements as their accompanist, was for each fiddler to play two solo features and then for everyone to join in a big stramash at the end. All went to plan but by the end of the fourth and final concert the big stramash at the end had developed into a hoolie of major proportions.

“It fairly quickly became what everyone was there for, to be honest,” says MacGregor. “We had such a good laugh that we all said we can’t stop now. So we put Blazin’ Fiddles on the road and with the help of a former minister and born diplomat, Gordon Webber, who became our manager, we became a band. Gordon was a great help because keeping us all in order must have been, as someone said at the time, like herding cats.”

Under the surface madness, there was a serious purpose in Blazin’ Fiddles. The name marked not only the figurative sparks flying onstage but also, for MacGregor, the idea of the fiddle rising from the ashes of the instruments that had been burned by the church during the Reformation so that only voices could be used in praise. But aside from that, MacGregor wanted to honour the teachers who had passed on their skills and knowledge to all the fiddlers involved.

“This was particularly important because we had Catriona, who had learned from the great Tom Anderson in Shetland,” says MacGregor. “Allan had learned from Aonghas Grant, the wonderful Highland fiddler, and Iain, Duncan and I had learned from Donald Riddell, who used to tell me stories about fiddles being burned in the Highlands. We felt we owed these teachers everything and by playing the tunes they taught us we were keeping their teaching alive.”

In time, Blazin’ Fiddles themselves would become the teachers, individually and collectively, with Iain MacFarlane going on to teach at the Traditional Music Centre of Excellence in Plockton, Catriona Macdonald becoming senior lecturer in fiddle at Newcastle University and Allan Henderson teaching on the UHI course in Benbecula. The band’s annual fiddle school, Blazin’ in Beauly, has now been running in the Highland town for 17 years – they also briefly ran one in Boston, Massachusetts – and has been responsible, at least in part, for nurturing one of the current line-up, Rua MacMillan.

“We kept largely the same personnel for the first 10 years, although we lost Duncan along the way and Andy Thorburn came in on piano alongside Marc to form the rhythm section,” says MacGregor. “And we marked that first decade with the With Strings Attached concerts, with Justin Currie and Eddi Reader and extra string players, which were quite successful. So we’d had a good run. We’d released an album every couple of years and done a lot of touring and when Aidan and Catriona and then, later, Iain and Allan dropped out I was ready to call it a day.”

Jenna Reid, who had stepped in to maintain the Shetland fiddling connection and the Mk 11 rhythm section, guitarist Anna Massie and pianist Angus Lyon, persuaded MacGregor that he would be mad not to continue with Blazin’ Fiddles. So Orcadian Kristan Harvey and Rua MacMillan, from Nairn were invited to bring the fiddling contingent up to four (in fact five as Massie plays fiddle as well as guitar).

“It was appropriate that Rua came on board, although when I discovered he’d attended Blazin’ in Beauly when he was 12 I felt suddenly old,” says McGregor. “Rua gives our idea of passing on what our teachers gave us a direct sense of continuity because of that connection and with Jenna in the band we have another great teacher and tradition bearer, Willie Hunter, being honoured.”

MacGregor laughs as he recounts how, in a recent Blazin’ in Beauly quiz he was royally thrashed by MacMillan, who turned out to know more about Blazin’ Fiddles’ history than MacGregor did himself, thus adding to the younger man’s Blazer credentials. And as he prepares the repertoire for the band’s 20th anniversary concert he has another younger Blazer, Anna Massie, to thank for organising the pdfs of tunes that the various past band members have been requesting.

“I’m hopeless with technology,” MacGregor concedes. “And between them asking about rehearsals and looking for sheet music ahead of the gig, I could be tempted to think the old guys are just showing off. But I know they’re really just showing their commitment and want to make the concert a success.”

Blazin’ Fiddles 20th anniversary concert takes place at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on February 1.