Nigel Gatherer's Mandolin Diary
Tuesday 16th September, 2003
Here's my musical history... First instrument was a ukulele, my parents mistaking it for a toy. As I warbled out "Early One Morning" early one morning dodging cushions, peanuts, Action Men, I realised that music, while dangerous, might be better than work. And even in my pre-pubescent state, it occurred to me that it might be a good way of getting to know girls.
Teenage years, and two elder brothers were guitar players exploring Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band. They say that a sure way of getting kids interested in playing the fiddle is to stick one under a bed and tell them that on no account must they touch it. Worked with me, sneaking into my brothers' rooms and ruining my fingers trying to work my way through The Beatles Complete (where did they get those chords?). I imagined myself on stage, thrilling audiences. And I thought it might be a good way of meeting girls.
I picked up the penny whistle round bonfires in the woods whilst pretending to be a hippy. It was whistle, flute or bongos, and it was more to do with feeling, man, than music. I think I was also trying to be a jazz aficionado at the time; why I thought whistle would help I can't say. Soon after I learnt a few Irish tunes in the manner of the time. An influential friend took me aside and said "Listen, you don't want to be playing this Irish stuff. Seek out some Scottish music..."
As a student one summer all my friends went home/took jobs/travelled the world and I was alone in Dundee. In Dens Road Market I unearthed a tattered copy of 'Kerr's Merry Melodies Book 1' and thought I'd discovered treasure. I couldn't read music, but I knew some of the tunes, so by sheer brutality, trial and error and perseverance I worked out how to read the dots. Kerr's Collections remain one of my top reasons to be cheerful.
As I discovered more Scottish tunes, I felt the whistle wasn't versatile enough. I was buying records of fiddle music and saying "I want to play that", but playing a B flat tune on a D whistle isn't fun, so I got frustrated. One of my older brothers had a mandolin lying about at home, so I started picking that up. I didn't care that it was a mandolin; all I cared about was that I could now play practically all the Scottish tunes available. I'm glad my brother didn't have a piano accordion or else the world would be a very different place.
I get sad when here in Perthshire, one of the strongest areas historically for Scottish fiddle music, all people want to hear and play is Irish music. I think things have changed, and are changing, thanks to some wonderful teachers, players and organisations, but it's a struggle. (Off your soap box now, Nige.)
I still play the whistle, and have great affection for it, especially in sessions, where I don't have to clatter through pub doors trying to get it in, I don't have to find space for its case, and at the end of the night I can just pop it into my pocket and forget about it. What do you mean lazy?