Only a northern song

Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser is on a mission to revive a beautiful but forgotten heritage

Alasdair Fraser, with what some Presbyterians might call “kindling.”

Alasdair Fraser, with what some Presbyterians might call “kindling.”

Live!: 8 p.m. Saturday, October 19, at the Placer High School Auditorium, 275 Orange Street in Auburn. $15 in advance, $18 the day of the show. With Paul Machlis.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World, a recent book by Arthur Herman, opens with a passage about John Knox, the dour Calvinist who led the Scottish people to boot the Catholic Church out of Scotland in the 17th century. Knox was a legendary party pooper who frowned on dancing, card playing and fiddle playing. Something of his austere character turns up in the hard-headed attitudes of contemporary American Protestants courtesy of their Presbyterian forebears: There’ll be no foon to be had here, laddie.

Ergo, having sprinted away from my own Scottish heritage for far too many years, it was with great trepidation that I approached the music of Alasdair Fraser, a native of Clackmanann in east-central Scotland. Fraser has lived above Nevada City on the San Juan Ridge for the past two decades; the fiddle-playing former petroleum engineer discovered Northern California after working on Alaska’s North Slope.

What, pray tell, could be worse than dancing-dwarf music of Celtic origin—a genre turned into a malevolent Las Vegas cartoon by the likes of Irish-American dancer and choreographer Michael Flatley—shaped, and not in a nice way, by the notoriously Spartan aesthetic sensibilities of the Scots?

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

“It was called ‘the cultural cringe,’ ” Fraser said, in a soft brogue, of an attitude endemic to many Scots, particularly those who came of age in the 1960s. “And it comes as part of a low self-esteem, a taking-for-granted of your own culture. Mostly, low confidence in knowing who you are, and preferring to get cultural stimulus from without, rather than enjoying your own language and your own tongue.”

It’s understandable. For the past 300 years, Scotland has been occupied by England, its neighbor to the south, and people under domination sometimes disavow their own cultures. Fortunately, however, something of a Scottish rediscovery has taken place in recent decades, capped by Scotland getting its own parliament. Fraser’s personal journey has dovetailed nicely with that.

“By following the fiddle,” he said, “and asking a lot of questions, I gradually became aware of this incredible … what I call a ‘dark blanket’ that was lying over the country. And I did my little bit to try and lift the blanket, to pierce some holes in it and let some light in.”

That he has done. As evidenced on Legacy of the Scottish Fiddle, Volume One, an album he recorded with pianist Paul Machlis (who will be appearing with him on Saturday) and released on his own independent Culburnie label, Fraser has divined the lyrical heart of these songs. Many of them had been forgotten, some of them spirited away to Nova Scotia to protect them from roving Presbyterian preachers, who would hunt down sheet music and stray fiddles to kindle their bonfires.

“The thing about these tunes is that they are very resilient,” Fraser said. “They can reinvent themselves and kind of stay appropriate, you know—have fun and make people dance when they weren’t expecting to, and also be there for you when you’re trying to express some kind of solace. The music is there.”

That music, for Fraser, has been expressed in a variety of contexts, such as his solo work and duets with Machlis or guitarist Tony McManus; and his participation in Skyedance, a sextet that specializes in a trademark Celtic fusion of various genres from around the globe. That group’s most recent disc, last year’s Live in Spain, featured Basque, Asturian Galician, Catalonian and other Spanish performers. Fraser’s fiddle playing also has graced several film soundtracks, including Titanic and Last of the Mohicans.

But, it’s in what he calls the journey of the fiddle for the last 300 years, through a variety of regional dialects, that Fraser seems to have found his true calling. Legacy, Volume Two is ready for release, and he has more up his sleeve.

“I don’t know how many volumes I’m going to make,” he said, “but I’m going to keep having at it.”

If what he’s found so far is any indication, he’s going to melt an awful lot of chilly Scottish hearts.