Aly Bain – Paying a Price for Success

7 Aug 2003 in Music, Shetland

JANE MONCRIEFF found ALY BAIN in revealingly reflective mood on a visit to his native Shetland.

The great fiddler, who tours this month with Phil Cunningham, talks frankly about his life and music.

THE RAIN is pelting down the window drenching the Shetland landscape, obliterating the view. Aly Bain is in melancholy mood. “Nae chance o getting to the troots da day.” That’s for sure, you would need flankers just to venture outside. 

Now Scotland’s most famous fiddler, Aly was born here in Lerwick, Shetland’s main town. He and Phil Cunningham have just completed a mini-tour of Spain then Shetland  – ‘direct from Bilbao to Baltasound’ – as they’d quipped on-stage (they will be on tour again later this month). Phil is off to the local high school to deliver workshops to the hordes of accordion students. Aly has decided to take a break, hoping it would be good enough to go trout fishing in Shetland’s many lochs.
Phil and Aly are Scotland’s musical equivalent of The Odd Couple. “He’s a lot younger than me – so it’s amazing we agree.” He acknowledges the fact that they have something special. “When we first started to play we were very different but we’ve both given way on things over da years. The relationship has surprised me completely!” It almost seems like a marriage of sorts in the way he describes the partnership.  “It is a musical marriage for sure, plus great companionship, sense of humour and we both feel very, very lucky to be doing it. Folk see da flippant side on stage but the music is deadly serious to wis both.”
Aly looks tired today. Not surprising, as it’s a punishing schedule when sixty is snapping at your heels. “It’s a terrible thought that! It hit’s you all of a sudden – you realise that time is running out,” says a reflective Aly.  The man has brought home world-wide recognition for Scottish and Shetland folk music and culture. He smiles ruefully, “If you telt me I wid have ended up doing this for a living when I wis young I widna hiv believed it!” Chronically shy as a young man, it still seems bizarre to him that he had ended up as a famous and feted performer. 

Although he has played and recorded all over the world, and regularly appeared on television over the years, playing live in his home islands is still the biggest bête noir for Aly. “I build up everything in me mind aboot playing at home. I feel folk is judging me. It’s a psychological thing and I make everybody else nervous. I’ve tried all me life to conquer it.” But he feels that it’s only recently that he has begun to get over the crippling nerves he suffers every time he takes the stage at home. And he has no need. As a duo he and Phil sell out every time they appear. 

His lack of confidence, he explains, goes back to when he was a boy. “I had a terrible stammer and it was a humiliation to go to school. I wis a bit slower picking things up, but once I’d learned them, it did stay.” Ironically the man who now holds several honorary doctorates, failed the old eleven-plus exam. He feels that the education system was far too restrictive at that time.

“It’s taken me all me life to come to terms with it. Childhood is very important, to grow up wi confidence is a great thing.” Aly’s stammer left him as soon as he closed the school gates for the last time He went on to serve his time as a joiner, but left to try his luck as a musician in Edinburgh.

He does realise that he is now regarded as a musical pioneer, but denies that he had any sense of that status when he was younger. He insists he just didn’t want to be a joiner, and wasn’t at all sure about leaving Shetland’s shores for Auld Reekie. “I left me return airfare in da bank, joost in case!”.

Success did come, but slowly, and at a price. It wis a gradual process he says, eventually meeting up with other like-minded young performers such as Donal Lunny, Christie Moore and Archie Fisher.  They were an active part of the folk revival and the whole sixties experience. “In America too, it wis a whole global thing  – simple is better, Vietnam an all that – all protests trying to bring things back to reality.”

“Noo I’m getting aulder I realise whit a remarkable life I’ve hed…  the amount of folk I’ve met…really good people.” Surely they couldn’t all be good? “No” he laughs “Larry Adler wis a bastard. Actually… so wis Grappelli as a person. That was really disappointing as he wis my hero. I wid have loved to be able to play like him. Mind you… he wis an old man then.” 

Touring took Aly away from home for long stretches and the price he paid was the breakdown of his home life. “Withoot a doubt I wisna aroond enough of the time when the bairns (Annalese, 25 and Jessica 24) were peerie [small]. I mind my midder’s words when I telt her I wis getting married, she said, ‘Du’s already married tae dee music’, and she wis right. It’s very difficult to hae a relationship when you’re living a musician’s life.” These days Aly lives alone, preferring, he says, to be able to close his door with a clear conscience.

However, eight-year old Sophie, Aly’s youngest daughter, has given him a second chance at fatherhood. “Sophie’s been a great surprise and a great focus for me ootside music. The down side is – I might not see her growing up – but with a bit of luck I might. It helps keep you young!”

Much as he loves his native island, he has no plans to retire here. “No I don’t think I’ll come back tae bide. I don’t think you can go back. I think your life is whare your bairns are. But I do come home to see me sister and close friends. I’ve travelled all me life and I’ve niver seen anywhare as beautiful as dis. And I will come back more wi Sophie. She is living in Sweden, wi a Norwegian mother and has a Shetland father to help her understand, realise dat she has a very rich heritage.”

Despite feeling the tiredness of touring in his late fifties, Aly does believe that there is a case for,  ‘The aalder the fiddler the sweeter the tune’.

“You have to understand that [as a young musician] in twenty years’ time you’ll be a far better player, as the emotions and experiences of life change how you play.” He feels that a good fiddler is at his peak in his fifties. “You’re wiser, it’s like life itself – you’re wiser – but no dat wise. Always learning.”

For Aly it’s the quality of projects that attracts him now, not the quantity and after a life of hard slog he is able to pick and choose the work he wants to do. So for the foreseeable future it’s touring and recording with Phil and Aly intends to use the Shetland music archive more in future. He feels that it’s a great resource for all but he wants to record the music in a way that will be attractive to the young players. “I want all bairns to grow up with a sense confidence and pride, in themselves, their culture and history,” he says passionately.  The shy little boy with the fiddle and stammer would surely agree with the sentiment.

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