Alistair McCulloch
Alistair McCulloch celtic fiddler

Highly Strung

Fellside, 2000

Highly Strung

Why not listen to some selected tunes from this album?

Here's what the reviewers had to say about 'Highly Strung':

This is Alistair's first solo recording and is long overdue. Alistair has surrounded himself with some of the finest musicians in the folk scene and his arrangements on nine of the twelve tracks reflect this. The other three tracks are just Alistair and Morag Macaskill (on piano) playing solo fiddle music with piano accompaniment. Pure connoisseur stuff here with Morag displaying why she is one of the most sought after accompanists. Simple, sympathetic playing and considering it was played on an electronic piano - very pleasant.

Apart from Morag, Douglas Whyte also takes piano/synthesizer duties, while Dougie Pincock adds bagpipes, small pipes, flute and whistles to the mix.

In the material there is something for all tastes - from North American reels, Back Up and Push and Crazy Creek two tunes I first heard the late great Graham Townsend play. Douglas Whyte shows off his talents to the full on this track.

Alistair has also included a few of his own compositions including the soulful slow air Helen M. McCulloch, which has a nice combination of the cello of Lyndsay Mowatt and the clarsach of Karen Connor, dedicated to his mother, and the catchy 2/4 march Morag Macaskill of Milngavie, written for the aforementioned lady.

This album will appeal to musicians and listeners alike and if this is Alistair Highly Strung, I'd love to hear him totally relaxed.

Box and Fiddle

Though this is fiddler Alistair McCulloch's first solo recording, he has a long history as a soloist, session player, and leader of Coila for the past seven years and has just joined Canterach, which features ex-members of Capercaillie, Tannahill Weavers, Ossian, and Iron Horse. McCulloch's fiddle style is very precise and traditional in nature, much in the same way that Alasdair Fraser plays. This all-instrumental recording features both traditional pieces and McCulloch's own compositions. Arrangements range from ensemble pieces with guitar, bouzouki, whistle, percussion, Dobro, and drums to others where he's accompanied by just a cello, harp, or piano. He offers up a nice variety of material, rich in melody and wonderfully arranged and played. This recording should help to bring much-deserved attention to a very skilled and exciting performer.

JLe, Dirty Linen

I was keen to hear the recorded output of Alistair McCulloch. (Highly Strung - Fellside FECD154). It's a good album strong fiddle playing, good tune selection (from Bluegrass to Strathspey) and he's obviously a nice lad because he's composed and named one of the tracks for and after his mum. {The musical equivalent of waving at TV cameras, I suppose.)

Before I run out of space, other albums of note that I have enjoyed in the post ¾ months have been Gaelic Women -Ar Canan 'S Ar Ceol (Greentrax CDTRAX 172) and from the same label, Birlinn from Rod Paul (CDTRAX 179) who plays his own tunes and plays all manner of un-bowed string instruments plus keyboard and drum programming.

Trevor Hyett, English Dance and Song

Alistair McCulloch opens this, his first solo outing, with an exciting set of reels including 'The Silver Spire' and 'Doolin Reel'. As on virtually every 'solo' album that's ever been, here he is joined by a collection of friends, including Steve Lawrence and Dougie Pincock. A list of his performing experiences and his discography make for impressive reading - from fiddle orchestras to ceilidh bands and I await his next project with interest. A band called Canterach, formed from ex-members of Ossian, Capercallie, Iron Horse and the Tannahill Weavers - sounds promising. But for the present, here he shows his versatility and capability on a variety of tunes which although predominantly Scottish in origin are not exclusively so. This makes for quite an interesting collection, though not all necessarily to my taste. Slow airs may require great instrumental accomplishment, but several on one album is in my opinion over-egging the cake a little. Still, for anyone interested in Scottish fiddle playing in particular, I would say that Alistair is certainly one of the best and as such, I would recommend him to any aspiring players.

PHu, Folk on Tap

Fiddler Alistair McCulloch is a performer, teacher and session musician who plays with Coila and the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. His first solo album contains a remarkable display of virtuosity, whether playing Strathspeys and Reels, self-penned slow airs, or American waltzes and reels. McCulloch plays with an assured, relaxed technique and a cheerfully crisp tone: you can hear him smiling behind his fiddle, if one may be permitted such a daft observation. Accompanied by assorted worthies including Ross Kennedy, Stevie Lawrence, and Dougie Pincock, he rings the changes on the arrangements with careful use of piano, pipes and whistles, cello, clarsach, guitars, dobro and percussion. The aplomb with which he tackles the various styles of music is guaranteed to raise a smile on any listener. Each of the tracks is a cracker, even if they don't always sit too easily next to each other: the stylistic transitions from hornpipes to country to Scottish slow airs to ragtime and bluegrass to Irish jigs ala Tannahills sometimes jar just a little. Nonetheless, a tremendous first album from an outstanding musician.

Bob Walton, Folk Roots

Alistair McCulloch has a first-class honours degree in music - but can he play fiddle? The answer is a triumphant 'yes he can'. As is to be expected, Scots tunes are in the majority on this CD, and are played most stylishly with strong, crisp fingering and clean, rhythmic bowing - he is very much more a fiddle player than a violinist. He throws in a couple of the soupy slow airs which are much-beloved up there and these are played with sensitivity and style. The accompaniments are also strong and excellently played, and include such luminaries as Ross Kennedy on guitar, and ace piper Dougie Pincock. The tune sets have been thoughtfully put together and the arrangements add consistent variety. My only reservation is in some of the American material, which doesn't sound quite as convincing as it does in the hands of American. A minor cavil at an entertaining, enjoyable and successful album.

Paul Burgess, Folk Write

If you like fiddling and Celtic music, then you'll like this first release by McCulloch, although the material is not all Celtic in origin and a great deal of it is original. Highly Strung is a showcase of Alistair's talent, its wide range of material showing exactly how readily adaptable to any style of fiddling McCulloch is.

According to the liner notes, Alistair studied music at the University of Strathclyde, graduating with first class honours in 1998. He is a very, very busy musician, having appeared on over twenty albums as a session musician, and he is also a soloist with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. He has toured Europe and North America extensively, both picking up and writing some new material along the way. Alistair is also a member of the group Coila, who have achieved widespread acclaim.

A number of musicians joined McCulloch for this recording: Ross Kennedy (guitar), Douglas Whyte (piano, synthesizer), Stevie Lawrence (bouzouki, mandolin, dobro, percussion), Morag Macaskill (piano), Lyndsay Mowat (cello), Dougie Pincock (flute, whistle, bagpipes, small pipes), Karen Connor (clarsach), David Cowan (bass guitar), James Taylor (drums).

My favourite track on this CD is a well-known one. "Listen to the Mockingbird" is a traditional old-time fiddle tune. According to the liner notes, Alistair first heard this from the playing of the late Graham Townsend. He has added his own variations to the arrangement including a number of birdcalls. This tune brings back many memories for me, over a number of years and incidents, and is a fiddle classic.

Alistair composed "Waltz for Susan" for a friend's 21st birthday. It is an American-style waltz and very lovely. This one proves Alistair' ability as a composer of something outside of the Scottish tradition.

"Dargai/Maggie Cameron/Pumpkin's Fancy" is another piece I have to mention. According to the liner notes, Dargai is a pibroch-style air, commemorating the famous heights in India, which were taken by the Gordon Highlanders in 1897. It was written by J. Scott Skinner. The second piece is a pipe strathspey and a classic competition piece. But for me it is much more than that, for my dear Grandy was named Maggie Cameron, and there are family ties to the song. The third piece, "Pumpkin's Fancy", is a popular reel composed by Terry Tully of the Laurence O'Toole Pipe Band from Dublin. This track is rather long, being 8 minutes, but invigorating and delightful.

For anyone who loves the fiddle, this is a must-have for your collection. It can be enjoyed by young hearts and old alike.

Green Man

This is an excellent debut album - fresh, fiery, and full of fun. In a little under fifty minutes, Alistair McCulloch covers a wide range of Scottish tunes old and new, plus a few Irish and American favourites. Alistair plays fiddle and whistle, and may be familiar to you from the band Coila. He's also been around the Scottish massed fiddle scene for a while, but this is definitely his first solo album! Track 1 sets the tone for a CD which could be subtitled "Never a Dull Moment": two well-known \ traditional reels interleaved with two of Alistair's own compositions, played with energy and style over a sensitive backing. Admittedly, there are a few scrapes and squeaks, but that's what you expect from a real fiddler! Track 2 is a total contrast, a lovely gentle slow air composed by Alistair for his mother and arranged for pastoral strings. A couple of heavyweight pipe marches follow, with cuts and gracenotes galore, and then a ragtime fiddle showpiece, with Alistair's own amusing variations. With barely a pause for breath, we launch into a medley of old Scots tunes given a very traditional treatment and then the mood changes again to a Newgrass/Cajun waltz with a side order of dobro. Next comes my favourite track, the mesmerising air, 'Dargai' followed by one of the big strathspeys and a frivolous little reel by ace piper Terry Tully. Smashing stuff with a full band sound. And so it goes on: hornpipes, more Strathspeys, another beautiful slow air (which Alistair says was inspired by a stream, but just happens to share its name with a whisky distillery - which would you go for?), a couple of classic old-time fiddle toons, and finally a set of catchy jigs ending with a Scottish, piping classic. Alistair handles all of these with ease and flair. Ably assisted by the likes of Dougie Pincock, Ross Kennedy and Stevie Lawrence. The bottom line is, it's a cracker. More power to his elbow, indeed! Every track is a goodie, and the eight McCulloch compositions sit happily beside some of the best tunes of the last few centuries. Definitely worth the price of a few pints, I'd say, and theres likely to be a lot more good stuff from this lad in the future.

Alex Monaqhan, The Living Tradition

Alistair McCulloch is a Scottish fiddler best known for his stint with the band Coila. "Highly Strung" is his debut solo album and features guest appearances from Ross Kennedy, Dougie Pincock, Stevie Lawrence and Karen Connor among others. "Eamon Gilmartin's Session kicks into life with all guns blazing while "Helen M. McCulloch" shows his command of the slow air. A goodly proportion of his tunes are rarely heard and several original pieces including "Waltz For Susan" and "John Daly of Killeshandra". McCulloch's playing is full of energy and technical skill but possesses a warmth and maturity both endearing and noteworthy. "Highly Strung is as fine a debut album as one could wish for.

Rock and Reel

The debut solo album Highly Strung is a delightful collection featuring Alistair McCulloch, one of our best-known and most in-demand fiddlers. Soloist with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, member of Coila, and Honours graduate of Strathclyde University, he demonstrates with ease his unchallenged mastery of the instrument in numbers as diverse as a Pibroch, Strathspey and Reel set and North American reels that fairly shout "hoe-down".

Accompanying Alistair and enhancing the musical effect are Ross Kennedy, Douglas Whyte, Stevie Lawrence, Morag Macaskill and Karen Connor to name a few.

The Scots Magazine

This is an excellent debut album from one of the busiest fiddlers in Scotland today. Apart from playing with his group 'Coila' and being soloist with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, he has graduated with honours from the Scottish Music course at Strathclyde University. His playing on this CD reflects his cosmopolitan taste in music and he imparts a fine lively style to each track. Most young fiddlers can batter through the fast stuff but the real test is in the slow airs. Alastair has included five here and plays them all with feeling. A fine debut from a fine young man with a great future in traditional music.

Scottish Memories

I've come across a great many fine solo fiddle albums from Scotland in the last year or so. There seems to be a very healthy and vibrant scene happening with lots of new tunes being written and individual treatments of traditional tunes. This CD from Alistair McCulloch is no exception.

This is his first solo album and on it he is joined by nine other musicians playing various instruments from the usual guitar and bouzouki to cello, bass and drums. A member of the group Coila, McCulloch appears to be very busy as a session musician, teacher and performer. His playing is precise and confident and the album makes for very pleasant listening. I would single out his tunes Helen McCulloch and Waltz for Susan as particularly good, the first dedicated to his mother, the second written for a friend.

The faster tunes are full of spirit and make for a well-rounded album.

Phil Berthoud, Shire Folk

Happy as I am' to be still trying to play English-style fiddle, I do take great delight in listening to other styles. On this CD I encountered a wonderful display of the Scottish styles by a recognised master. Although Alistair is supremely confident, sometimes playful, occasionally emotive, he never resorts to mere flashiness.

He also has the good sense to gather around him genuine talent for the other instruments. Apply the appropriate - superlatives for the guitar, slide guitar, clarsach and cello particularly.

The tunes are an expert choice from the tradition, some ascribable (J. Scott Skinner, Nathaniel Gow) blended with modern (Terry Tully, Ronnie Cooper) and a liberal sprinkling of Alistair's own compositions (which are first-class and right in the style of their neighbours).

Though I treasure no dreams of emulating Alistair, I will be listening to this for some while. Just listening to the simple joy in music-making that this CD exudes. And lifting (in the nicest possible way) some tunes, I dare say.

Flos Headford, Shreds and Patches

A fine first solo album from this busy fiddle player who divides his time between being a soloist with Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, performing with the band 'Coila' and teaching the fiddle. He also finds time to do session work and has appeared on over twenty albums. Most of the tracks have a predominately Scottish, but having said that, still offers good variety. From pipe marches, through to strathspeys and reels to a couple of beautiful slow airs, one of which is written by Alistair for his mother. Accompaniment is supplied by piano, mandalin, bagpipes, percussion and bass guitar and some fine clarsach played by Karen Connor as well as some jazzy guitar chords from Ross Kennedy on a couple of tracks. Above this excellent accompaniment, Alistair's fiddle playing always shines through. There is everything here for the Scottish music fan. If you want more, a few Irish tunes are included as well as a frantic set of American reels sounding very Steffan Greppelli-esque. I felt that no one track particularly stood out for me, but all tracks were of a high enough standard to keep this CD close to my turntable (and often on it).

Jed Mugford, Traditional Music Maker


text and images © alistair mcculloch leader of one of the top Scottish ceilidh bands