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The Wednesday Slow Session

BMG Summer School: Celtic Mandolin

The History of the Wednesday Slow Session

In the summer of 1998, there had just finished a one-year "session" class in what was then the ALP Scots Music Group. For various reasons, it had not worked very well, and the talk was that it was going to be cancelled. I thought this was the wrong decision, so I took a proposal along to a planning meeting and put my case for trying a "beginners session" class. The committee were unsure, but ruled that they would give it another try, and eventually they asked if I would be interested in leading the class. I agreed.

The first year was experimental, but it started in good spirits, with excitement. In early 1999 we took our first steps out of the classroom into the wide world. Our first venue was in the basement of a local restaurant (INCA in Brunstfield Crescent), where the first slow sessioneers gathered and tentatively created a session. It was a good venue precisely because many of the participants didn't want to be fully exposed, and there was not much public engagement. It was also a bad venue for the same reason.

The next stage was The Nova Hotel on Brunstfield Links, a small hotel known by many in Edinburgh as "Chic Murray's". We were in with the public this time, and the session was becoming successful. After a couple of inexplicable decisions by the management ("If one resident wishes to watch football on the TV, there shall be no music."), the Nova's time had come and gone, and it was time to find pastures new.

The Castle Bar on Castle Terrace was our next home, and we had a good run there. Once Cathal McConnell came and played a couple of tunes. After the pub was sold, it was time to pack up our whistles, fiddles and guitars and head off into the sunset.

We went one night to The Tass Bar, and were welcomed with open arms. The bar went from a quiet Wednesday with a handleful of punters to a thriving, exciting place to be. Our music created a big buzz which attracted lots of people, including new session-goers. As usual during the summer I had a break from the session, but such was the popularity that the session carried on, with one newcomer being Cameron Gaskell. By the time I returned, the session had changed somewhat: it was faster, more challenging and, well, in my opinion, less inclusive. I felt it was no longer fulfilling my remit, for it to be a friendly, learning environment, less intimidating to the less experienced. I thought about what to do, and eventually decided that the best thing would be to leave this session to germinate its own character, its own ethos, so to speak. I'm happy to say that the Tass session continues to this day.

There had been an ALP session at The West End Hotel some years beforehand, and I sounded them out about hosting the new slow session; they seemed OK about us being there. It wasn't bad, and we had folk turning up, but we started being given the upstairs room. While it was at least a space, I felt it lacked atmosphere, and I yearned for a better spot.

I approached Bennett's Bar in Tollcross, who were very happy to give us a try. It was instantly a better place, tons of atmosphere thanks to the public who heard us play. The session has never looked back, open to everyone and popular with many. We've had visitors from Switzerland, Canada, the US, England and even Fife.

In 2009 Bennet's Bar installed a flat-screen television in the Green Room, hoping to attract football fans. Exit the Slow Session, and we relocated to The Borough Hotel, Causewayside for a year. When their Salsa classes started impinging on our session, we looked around once again.

Rumours were that Bennet's Bar's football experiment had failed, so in September 2010 we found ourselves happily back in the Green Room once more.

Because of its popularity we've sometimes had problems with increasing tempos and people who are not interested in the aims of our group. I will continue to try to moderate the tempo, but I think all in all we have a great collection of people who get a great deal out of the Wednesday Slow Session. Thanks one and all who have made such valuable contributions to our music-making on the one hand, but more importantly to the friendly, generous and enthusiastic crowd who gather once a week to mak' an affy noise.

Nigel Gatherer


Nigel Gatherer, Crieff, Perthshire | nigelgatherer@mac.com