The oldest Scottish fiddle: Dean Richards with his fiddle labelled Robert Duncan, Aberdeen 1740.
by Alan Sim
The geographic range of the readership of the Leopard never ceases to amaze! Following the publication in June 2005 of my article concerning the history of fiddle-making in Aberdeen, Leopard received an email from Dean Richards in California.
I had commented that the oldest known Scottish fiddle, which is now in North Carolina, was dated 1742 and had been made in Aberdeen by Robert Duncan. In his email, Dean asked if a fiddle he had just acquired, and labelled Robert Duncan, Aberdeen 1740, could be the genuine article.
After a detailed review of his photographs and consultation with experts in the field, the conclusion is that Dean is indeed the proud owner of the oldest known Scottish-made fiddle – constructed when Stradivarius was still alive and when Guarneri del Gesu was at the height of his powers.
Dean’s fiddle has seen something of the world. It was purchased in 2005 at an estate sale in Winnipeg from a man who had bought it in the 1960s from someone who said he had acquired it in Scotland at a car boot sale. A car boot sale seems unlikely – a local roup is more probable. Perhaps someone remembers clearing an attic and disposing of a seemingly modest, locally-made fiddle?
Robert Duncan is thought to have worked between 1730 and 1780 and to have lived in Margaret Leith’s Court, Upperkirkgate. It is probable that he supplemented his income as a musical instrument maker with other work and that he may have been the Robert Duncan recorded as a porter at Marischal College around this time. He was most likely the teacher of Joseph Ruddiman, who is the best known of the Aberdeen violin makers.
This 1740 fiddle has a sycamore back and ribs and a pine front. The front is slab cut from the log as opposed to the more usual quarter sawn which results in straight grain lines running the length of the body. The neck and scroll are unfortunately not original and were probably replaced in the mid/late 19th century to accommodate strings of new lengths and higher tension, which were becoming popular.
The fiddle has no decorative inlay, or purfling, which is usually set in from the edge on the front and back. As well as being ornamentatal, purfling helps protect against splits and similar damage. In spite of this, the instrument is in a remarkably good state of repair. The arching, the carved shape of the front and back, is fairly high and rises abruptly from an almost flat border, more in the style of the Amati school of makers which preceded the innovative flatter designs of Stradivarius.
As cello made by Duncan and dated 1736 is owned by the University of Aberdeen. The oldest British-made cello to survive in its original state, it shares many of the characteristics of the fiddle, the most notable being the varnish and details of the corners. Both were constructed using wooden locating pins in the back and front to align the plates with the side ribs. This Italian method of construction is not found in all instruments of this period. It is reasonable to suppose that Duncan was either taught by someone with Italian connections, or he had seen and copied Italian instruments of the mid-17th century, as opposed to those made in Germany or Holland.
It was owned by Professor James Beattie of Aberdeen and bequeathed to Marischal College where it remains to this day. It is possible that it has never left the city in which it was made.
Stradivarius and the other famous makers of the time worked for orchestral players in the European courts, but Duncan is likely to have made this instrument cheaply for a local amateur player. In his lifetime he probably made hundreds of similar instruments, but very few have survived the rough and tumble of playing in pubs and at dances and family gatherings.
It is quite remarkable that two instruments from the same small workshop in Upperkirkgate should exist today as the oldest and most unique of their kind.
Dean is planning to set the instrument up with a tailpiece and other fittings which are more historically correct, and he will play with a Baroque-style bow which would have originally been used. He is a member of the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers, so Duncan’s fiddle will be coming full circle to play the music for which it was designed.
ALAN SIM was born and educated in Aberdeen. Following a career in the oil industry, he became BP Professor of Engineering at RGU. He then joined Scottish Enterprise, taking early retirement in 2001. He now makes and restores violins.Tweet
This is an article from the September 2006 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.