Fiddling with words 1 : Bumming

The specific words and language used to talk and write about music can tell us much about attitudes to fiddlers and fiddling, both now and in the past. Ronnie Gibson has written on the implications of the terms “fiddler” and “violinist” and this has, in turn been taken up by David McGuinness on the Bass Culture project blog. I hope to add some thoughts to that thread in due course but meanwhile offer the first of a number of brief posts of my own on the language of fiddle music.


Today I visited the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and was delighted to see on display the portrait ‘The Facetious Peter Birnie/Fidler in Kinghorn’ which I had recently noted was being offered for sale by Bonhams. This picture is attributed to William Aikman (1682-1731) and was previously in a private collection although familiar to readers of David Johnson’s where it is reproduced on the rear dust cover. Well, it seems it was bought for the nation (£10,000 well spent!) and can now be enjoyed by us all, close up and in colour for the first time.

index     V0006994 Patie Birnie, a fiddler. Wash drawing.

Patie was a professional fiddler who made part of his living by entertaining travelers arriving off the ferry from Edinburgh at Kinghorn, Fife. We hear of Patie in the often quoted but rarely published in full ‘The Life and Arts of, or An ELEGYon PATIE BIRNIE, The Famous Fiddler of Kinghorn’ [Allan Ramsay. Edinburgh : Printed for the author, 1720], a text which commentators on Scottish violin music have come to use somewhat condescendingly as an illustration of the low-status fiddler of times gone by to emphasise how far the modern art of fiddle playing has developed. The verse:

When Strangers landed, wow sae thrang
Fuffing and peghing he wa’d gang,
And crave their Pardon that sae lang
He’d been a coming;
Syne his Bread-winner out he’d bang,
and fa’ to bumming.

has been read by one modern writer as indicating that the musician in question was “playing without taste or skill” (i.e. prone to “bum notes”) and by another commentator who suggested that he was a mere busker who ‘bums’ money in return for his music. Both interpretations are unfair and plainly wrong being based on more modern usage of the verb to bum. Bumming is clearly the old Scots term for droning. Bees bum, as do bagpipes, spinning tops, peeries and crowds of people. So, what we really have here is a perfectly appropriate and adequate description of the aural effect of his traditional style of fiddle playing which might have been typical of the time. While Ramsay’s poem can be read as poking fun at the musician it is undoubtedly written from a position of respect and affection, the poet marking the passing of a real character and musician of skill. The verse contains other clues to the traditional music making of the time such as accompaniment of solo step dancing and to singing while fiddling:

Whas laid the Stick out o’er the String
With sic an art;
Wha sang sae sweetly tae the Spring
And rais’d the heart.


When I first saw the painting Fisherman playing the violin by Frans Hals in the collection of the excellent Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid I immediately thought of our Patie. This shows a lively violinist (left handed) on a sandy shore with a Scottish towerhouse-like building on elevated land in the background, a scene that reminded me of Seafield Tower just outside Kinghorn. There are also distant walkers and a boat, a ferry perhaps?

delcampe-Kirkcaldy-Seafield-Tower  Seafield Tower

For a moment, before checking the wall label, I wondered if this could be an illustration of the Ramsay poem. Also, the violin did not seem right to me, being rather sophisticated for the 1630 and for a fisherman (although I suspect the Netherlands of the time had many wealthy fisherman/entrepreneurs who enjoyed that nation’s Embarrassment of Riches).

I have given it little thought since but, in writing this, noted on the museum website that that there has been doubt surrounding the painting in the past and that:

The background landscape is not particularly common in Hals’ work and it has been suggested that the artist may have collaborated with Pieter de Molijn, who painted the dunes, beach and sky in a less vigorous manner. It has also been suggested that the setting may be the outskirts of Zandvoort near Haarlem and that the building on the left is one of the lighthouse towers in that area. Two further versions of this composition are known, neither of which are considered to be autograph.

Could this be a much later painting made for a Scottish client in the style of Hals? Did a Dutch artist visit the Forth where he met the famous fiddler? Did Patie have a blue feather hat?


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