Thursday, 31 March 2011


Joining recent UK music tours, I saw a fiddle player's second violin left alone in his dressing room, that sight and resulting Haiku being the catalyst to this Blog.

Haikus are a form of Japanese poetry. Dubliners fiddle player John Sheahan writes these very well and his work has encouraged me to try some. Haiku are three line structures of five syllables, seven and five. Here, Haiku reflect the story of a fiddle waiting to be brought to life through music.

It could seem strange that the sight of an unattended fiddle could spark such creative reflection but “life can turn on a sixpence.” Things happen and as time passes by we can see events that took us off in new directions... Twenty years ago, working with the BBC, I went to interview the Dubliners. Having met up with them most years in between, in 2011, their arrival in Scotland coincided with a new chapter for myself as I very much reconnected again with the 'joys' of playing music.

Michael Howard (for Eamonn Campbell), Sean Cannon, Barney McKenna,
Me, Tom O'Brien (sound) and John Sheahan, Shona McMillan ©

Being with everyone, the supporting crew equally included by me when I mention the Dubliners, it was great to share old memories, enjoy the craic and for me especially, to be saturated again in music. Also, to feel encouraged to explore "the creative fun" in reading and writing poems - even to find the “FUN” in Shakespeare's sonets (something no school teacher ever inspired me to see). Times with friends, times enjoying creative interests, they provide insight in to what is important - that our most precious resource is time and that life needs to be fully lived and enjoyed. 

Grand Theatre Blackpool
For me, I've realised that my music needs to have a bigger place in my life than it’s had in recent years – that fact dawning on me some place along the “Rocky Road to Blackpool” travelling across country from the Dubliners gig in Newcastle, to Blackpool. A journey which gave me time to think. So later that evening, when I stood in the wings of a beautiful theatre in Blackpool (listening to the music and with my camera in hand) I felt very privilleged and pleased to be there at their concert.

Years back, almost in another life, I worked at the Vatican Museums and this theatre in Blackpool reminded me of the Sistine Chapel. I enjoyed working in Italy but, after many months working over there, when I came back I had lost all my music ‘residencies” and that space in my private life then got filled by doing a MBA in the evenings and ever increasing demands from my career. Playing music pretty much drifted out of my life  but in Blackpool, I knew there was a whole load of tunes that I wanted to learn. Complex tunes written by John (which I had needed to develop my musical abilities first before I could play them) plus heaps of trad tunes Barney McKenna had encouraged me with over the years. Then of course, all the other wealth of music that is out there and is always being contributed to.

Myself and Barney McKenna, , Shona McMillan ©

On a cold, rainy evening, Blackpool was an inspirational place. "The buzz" from so many people gathered together to celebrate music, sing songs and enjoy the craic. In contrast, the last time I was in the Sistine Chapel I was doing a Security Check, photographing Fire Exits, I had had to fight my way through crowds of tourists (in the Millennium Year 20,000 visitors a day could pass through the Vatican Museums). Squashed indoors, in the oppressive dry heat of a late Italian Summer's day, I had no wonderment for Michael Angelo's paintings above my head. In contrast, I fully appreciated this theatre in Blackpool, it was gorgeous to stand and look out at such a lovely place! The atmosphere seemed full of ghosts from performances past and even graffiti caused me to smile. Back stage some luvie had written "It is better to give than to receive" Oscar Wilde. Below, another had written "Even a handbag?" Yes, I was enjoying the gig but catching sight of water bottles on stage, it was very warm so I set off on a wander to find a cool drink of water for myself.

Barney McKenna, John Sheahan, Sean Cannon, Patsy Watchorn, Eamonn Campbell,
The Dubliners in Blackpool, Shona McMillan ©

Upstairs from the stage area, the place was very calm and still but Irish music seemed to fill the air. Melodic sounds from the gig and also from along the corridor where Dubliners' friend Padraig was playing a tune on his banjo. Pausing for a moment to listen to the tunes, it felt as if the whole of the theatre was full of music and creativity. 

Earlier on I'd been attempting 'sonet writing' and the beginnings of my first attempt was propted up on John's open fiddle case. I stopped to re-read my words but, as I lifted the sheet of paper, below in the case was his second fiddle. Weeks back, when the Dubliners had played in Glasgow, I had taken a photo then of this lovely looking fiddle left alone in the dressing room.

Now, so near to performing in this very beautiful place, instead the fiddle was destined to pass through the theatre without even a note being played - awaiting opportunity.

I have never knowingly heard this second fiddle. Maybe in years gone by but since Glasgow I knew it had been up North, to Ireland, to Newcastle and now again in Blackpool, its ability to entertain was sadly lost to the crowd. Like a skilled person out of work, no one would know of its capabilities...

Heck, I was only coming to get a bottle of water but... I felt a pang of sorrow for the fiddle so I tried at least to pull straight the lose string I could see. But no, the fiddle needed to be lifted out properly and tuned. Slack strings can so easily snap when tightened - I didn't want to risk it. It looked lonely and in need of a friend, love and attention. I thought of my own fiddles, in need of new strings and a good clean to bring out the shine of their varnish. And, I wondered why so much time had passed by without me attending to them as I used to. Forgotten fiddles, potential unknown.
John Sheahan - "The Poet"
Shona McMillan ©

In the UK, John had been using his other fiddle and “when not working” his free time seemed full of his hobbies like poetry and wood carving. Myself, recently my creative focus had very much been on photography and writing, passionate to learn new skills. Only recently was I becoming aware of a growing need to return again to playing music.

My poor fiddle, I loved my violin like any other old friend but in our many years together it had become more than a bit ‘battered’ through some of the times and adventures we had shared. For example, the really awful time as a child when it had seemed like it might be a good idea to try and clean off the sticky rosin on the front of my fiddle with nail varnish remover... indeed it cleaned off the rosin and so much more - eg: the top layer of varnish! (oh the tears I shed!!!) Then, some years on, another terrible accident happened when someone visiting my house decided to have a wee shot of my violin without asking and then, distracted by the doorbell being rung, they laid the fiddle on the floor where it was then walked over.

The terrible break to the fiddle's neck saw it confined to its case for many years until I finally found someone with sufficient skills to repair it. The years that passed by before then, I still wanted to play the violin but without the fiddle I loved, I didn't want to play another violin but wanted to wait instead for the first one to be repaired, so that we could both resume our musical journey together. Happy tunes, sad tunes, the knowledge and skill that comes to our musical interpretations as we mature. Instruments reflect those that play them and of course, there are also the times in life when music just fades away and silence descends. Like a Radio Station - to play music you need to be tuned in to the right frequency. 

I never learnt to play the fiddle at school, nor in a structured way by reading music and understanding the theory - I just loved the sound the instrument made and FINALLY mum gave in and bought me a fiddle which I learnt to play by ear. Listening to tapes of tunes and then, more often than not, 'performing' them to my mum as she would be in the kitchen, making some meal or doing the washing - busy but ALWAYS with time to be enthusiastic and encouraging of whatever tune I was bursting to share with her!' Yes, I hadn't really 'felt' much like playing since mum passed away and my parents were gone from my life but, seeing that lonely fiddle, I so wanted to put it back together again and hear it played from the heart. "On behalf of Forgotten Fiddles" ;-) at the end of the gig, I spoke to John to point out the lose string. I smiled to hear that he'd already noticed and written a poem. So, I hope he will forgive me for sharing it here and in reply, I follow his Haiku with my own attempt.

John Sheahan an' me, Shona McMillan ©

Lonely Fiddle, John Sheahan ©
Unmarked ebony
Mute Strings yearn for roisned bow
A lonely fiddle

Lonely Fiddle No More, Shona McMillan ©
Fiddle case open
Bow rosined and strings in tune
Heart set free to sing

To finish, I post another of my favourite poems but one I first discovered many, many years ago. The verse I had on a poster, in my teenage years, placed in my wardrobe, on the door inside. Opened every day, in this position of prominence, it caught my eye on a daily basis. Read many hundreds of times over I've never grown tired of it. At one point in Blackpool, I recalled it again. Hearing John play one of my favourite tunes I went to investigate, following the sound of his music "as surely as if my name had just been called out loud!" Walking in to the dressing room I was amused to see John had opened my case and was playing MY fiddle (a great treat for my fiddle and lovely to hear my violin being played so well)...

John Sheahan, Shona McMillan ©

John has an amazing style, quite like nothing I have ever heard before. Classically trained he finally moved away from ‘the establishment’ who had too often corrected him for adding his own interpretations to the music (composing as they called it). In Trad it is quite accepted that people will interpret and play tunes differently, that is part of the joy and love for the music but certainly, John’s classical training has enabled him to brilliantly play incredibly complex tunes (Jazz, Ragtime, Traditional, whatever). Yet, his own tunes are often quieter, very beautiful, almost classical at times – his waltzes being some of my most favourite tunes of all time. Yet, not all of them are widely known because (in the great scheme of things) John's priorities have not been to record or publish them all (tho’ I have tried my best to capture them at every opportunity!). Will they ever even be written down and compiled into a book? Who knows but, since I can't really share unpublished work here, instead I will just have to sneak in a Trad tune that I recorded in Blackpool.

I learnt "The Dawn" from John and Barney in our first session in 1991 and it was great to hear it again in 2011. Maybe next time, I may hear it performed on that lonely fiddle, dusted off, free again to sing and entertain. Whatever, on my return to Edinburgh, my violins have been getting lots of love and attention and it’s been great to be playing again! Poetry, music and all such creative things - they nourish the heart and soul. Indeed, I wonder how much more happiness and enjoyment there would if we all took more time to encourage and develop the creative voices within us all. My mum used to say she believed EVERY person had a special talent, something they could really shine at 'if only' time and effort was spent to educate and encourage them to fulfill their potential.

The Dubliners in 2002: Hear Part 1 and
Part 2 of an interview with Brian Morton

The broadcast recorded by Ronnie Drew and John Sheahan
The programme made in celebration of the band's 40th anniversary

I am fortunate and indebted to the people who have helped me with my hobbies. Accordingly, I hope I always do what I can to pass on whatever skills I have to others who may be interested and to remember that in life, it is not some end destination that we should set our sights on but the importance of enjoying our journey. Playing music for me is not to try and be some incredible fiddle player, nor is my photography to try and make me some greatly respected photographer - that's not the point. Creative pursuits are about doing these things to have FUN and to better enjoy the fullness of the journey through life. Accordingly, I so appreciate all those who have given me their time so that I can learn and develop my creative passions. In my music, photography, writing and painting – I say a BIG thank you to all the friends who help me! And leave you with my favourite poem which says so much on so many levels.

The Touch of the Master's Hand, by Myra Brooks Welch
'Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
"Who will start bidding for me?
A dollar, a dollar" - then "Two!" "Only two?
Two dollars, and who'll make it three?
Three dollars, twice;
Going for three - " But no,

From the room, far back, a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then, wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening the loose strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet
As sweet as a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said, "What am I bidden for the old violin?"
And he held it up with the bow.
"A thousand! And who'll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice;
And going, and gone!" said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
"We do not quite understand
What changed it's worth?" Swift came the reply;
"The touch of the Master's hand."

And many a man with life out of tune,
And battered and scarred with life,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,
Much like the old violin.
A "mess of pottage, a glass of wine;
A game - and he travels on.
He's "going" once and "going" twice,
He's "going" and almost gone."
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul, and the change that's wrought
By the touch of the Master's hand.

John Sheahan, Shona McMillan ©

To hear beautiful music, a link here to South American Bells
by Michael Howard, played here by him and John

Click this link through to my Youtube Channel
to hear my favourite John Sheahan poem Signatures

And, this link to Two Fiddle Poems
again by John Sheahan and copyrighted by him

Lastly, I'd like to mention in 2011 the Dubliners were presented by Brian Hand, who I first met in 1991. Well done Brian on your great work as ever on the tours. (And, sorry Dean & Gary O'Brien escaped my 2011 pics but hey, next time).

To find out more information about the Dubliners, tour dates, merchandise etc - please visit Patsy Watchorn's site

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


Sounds from the sea shore
Waves marking passage of time
Music of my soul

Misty in Edinburgh today, the city seemed hushed by a low lying blanket of cloud which settled over the Firth of Forth. Hidden from view, as sunset approached night fall the day's light faded without the sun ever breaking through at all.

Foggy days, when our familiar landmarks are hidden from sight, other senses can be heightened if we take time the to explore them. For example, as a child, in unusual weather or at unusual times for a family outing, every now and then we would all set off on an "adventure" - a moonlight picnic after midnight or a "dawn patrol" at first light to watch the sun rise over the sea.  Or, the ocassional walk along the seashore in thick fog, waiting for the sun or wind to clear away the clouds but enjoying the disorientated feeling of mist swirling around us. The chilling touch of tiny water droplets on the face, the gentle taste and smell of salty sea air and muffled sounds of seabirds calling out to each other, hidden from sight in the rolling banks of fog moving in from the sea. 

My parents wanted to teach me about nature, the environment and how to get around safely in different situations. From her fishing family background my mum's forefathers had certainly earnt their living through the closest understanding and respect for nature. In small boats, with no radio or radar, a fisherman's safety depended on 'reading' the weather with the full respect the changing conditions required. Of course, out with my family, we were never in any danger but all these "adventures" nurtured in me a 24/7 appreciation of the environment. Being outdoors was more than some "sunny day trip" to the beach. This grounding seeing me embrace, as much now as then, the experience of walking alone along a deserted beach at dawn.

Today's mists reminded me of a snowy trip I made some weeks back when Scotland was in the full grip of winter. Then, in a sudden and heavy fall of snow I sheltered in my car, waiting as I watched the falling snowflakes begin to sparkle - caught in rays of silvery light as the sun broke through the clouds. No rays of sun light today but still, a chance to appreciate the sounds of nature painting pictures all around me.

Swirling shrouds of mist
A new vision of nature
Four senses to three