Mary McDonald: A world of Scottish fiddling

Mary McDonald is well known as both a dancer and a musician in the Wellington Scottish Country Dance community.

Mary plays regularly in a number of bands for dances in the Wellington region, as well as travelling widely to both perform and attend music workshops, as she pursues her love of Scottish music and dance.

Mary at the right with Lynne Scott and Anne-Marie Forsyth at the Johnsonville September Tartan Night in 2015 Photo: Loralee Hyde

Mary also shares that love of Scottish music and dance with a more general audience through her Family Celtic Dances held in Plimmerton each year. 2019 marked 20 years of these annual dances, which encourage anyone aged 8-80 to give Scottish dancing a go. 1

The band at the 2016 Family Celtic Dance Photo: John Patterson

It’s only in more recent years that Mary’s been part of Johnsonville Scottish Country Dance Club’s musical scene. Her name is first listed on a tartan night programme poster on 28 September 2015 when Mild Heather (Lynne Scott, Anne-Marie Forsyth and Mary) played for the club’s Tribute to Wellington Devisors, showcasing dances by 11 of the Region’s many fine dance devisors.

Since then Mary’s been a regular performer at our tartan nights, sharing her music and the joyful experience of dancing to live music. Long may it last.

Read Mary’s story of her Scottish fiddling around the world below.

Kristin Downey

Mary on the left at the rear with Lynne Scott and Heather Elder playing The Australian Ladies at the Johnsonville April Tartan Night in 2019 with tutor Rod Downey appreciating the fine efforts of our dancers! Photo: Loralee Hyde

My Scottish fiddling journey

A born and bred Wellingtonian, I have lived all my life in the Wellington area, apart from four years that my husband Duncan and I spent in London. The daughter of a meteorologist and a teacher, I was raised in an environment which fostered both arts and science. My heritage contains the surnames Borthwick, McLaughlin and Fletcher, and my husband is a McDonald whose ancestors came from the island of Mull off the west coast of Scotland.

My early childhood musical memories are of my mother playing classical piano pieces, the notes rippling effortlessly under her fingers. After a year of recorder lessons at about age seven, I was allowed piano lessons. No matter how hard I concentrated (in that one year!!) I could not achieve the beautiful sounds Mum was producing, so I was happily redirected to the violin, taking over the 3/4 size instrument now outgrown by my older sister.

With two of us learning the violin we shouldn’t have been surprised when, in recent years, my younger sister admitted that the reason for her taking up the trumpet was to drown out the noises of us practising!

Throughout my primary and secondary schooling, the orchestras were held together by pairs of sisters from three families who were all friends and learned violin from the same teacher. Hence the orchestral environment was a very friendly and supportive one, and so established the delights of group playing – listening to all the parts which contributed to the whole, and working with other musicians, not just alongside them.

The orchestral involvement continued at Victoria University, Wellington, in the days when the orchestra was open to any student, not just those in the Music Department – I was in the Science Faculty studying subjects such as Geology, Geophysics and Maths. I have to admit that my violin was mothballed during the latter university and family years.

Alongside the music was a love of dancing. Ballet lessons were (just about) every little girl’s dream back then, and I was lucky enough to learn during my school years. The school curriculum in those olden days included Folk Dancing. In retrospect I realise that we were actually doing Scottish Country dances, which I adored. Music and dancing were inextricably woven into my upbringing.

A coincidental meeting with Lynne Scott caused the dusting off of the violin, and it was she who introduced me to the Hutt Valley Orchestra. This was followed by an invitation to play for some Scottish Country Dancing at Island Bay Club. As I only had music for a few sets, I was encouraged to dance the rest. As my competence grew, I was welcomed onto the stage by Peter Elmes, to play behind John Smith, learning from him and gaining great encouragement into the world of Scottish fiddling.

I have attended many dancing and fiddle schools here and around the world, with exposure to Scottish music styles ranging from the Scottish Outer Hebrides to Shetland; West Highlands to Cape Breton, with its mix of Irish, Scottish, French and First Nations; American-Celtic to Australian-Scottish.

Particularly memorable were two week-long schools held in Scotland, organised by Anne-Marie Forsyth, one in Haddon Castle near Perth, and the other in Foyers Lodge on the banks of Loch Ness, learning from local fiddlers.

There have been many more highlights on the path to my developing as a Scottish fiddler.

I attended the Musicians Class at the week-long RSCDS Summer School at St Andrews in Scotland, which culminated in playing on stage in the hallowed Younger Hall for the Final Night, seated next to the young Scottish piano and accordion player James Gray.

Being one of four fiddlers on the TAC (Teacher’s Association of Canada) Music Course in Denver, unexpectedly invited to play the whole night with Scottish fiddlers Keith Smith and Judy Nicholson, was a fiddler’s dream come true.

Duncan and I spent a month in Edinburgh playing with the Shetland Fiddlers (Hjaltibonhoga) in the Royal Military Tattoo (26 performances) on the Esplanade of Edinburgh Castle, and I had the honour of being chosen from their number to perform at Holyrood Palace for Prince Charles and Prince William (the first time they had attended the tattoo), and to speak to both of them.

Mary at the left with Prince Charles and Prince William

Kiwi Kilties – Sharlene Penman (keyboard), Duncan (drums) and I played for dances put on in our honour in Grenoble and Lyon in France, and on Manhattan Island for the Scotia Dancers of New York.

The Kiwi Kilties: Mary with Sharlene Penman and Duncan McDonald

I have enjoyed playing for numerous dancing classes with Lynne Scott, and we were asked to provide music for the sound track of the New Zealand film about Sheila Natusch, No Ordinary Sheila, that reflected her Orkney heritage.

I play in a number of bands. Wild Heather (Lynne Scott, Sharlene Penman, Anne-Marie Forsyth and I) played as the headline band at the Nelson Summer School, when the overseas musician was forced to pull out. As part of the Wellington-based ceilidh band Schiehallion, I had an immense amount of enjoyment playing for a visiting group of Scottish Reelers in the ballroom of Larnach Castle in Dunedin.

The Schiehallion Ceilidh Band on the steps of Larnach Castle in February 2020

In establishing my Saltire Scottish Dance Band last year, I have had to rapidly develop band leadership skills, and the ability to arrange sets of music which assist and energise the dancers.

I am very grateful to the many people who have encouraged and assisted me on my Scottish fiddling journey, and so allow me to share a love of music, dancing and things Scottish with others.

Mary McDonald
20 August 2020

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  1. Find out more about the Family Celtic Dance by Johnsonville member Désirée Patterson, who attended the 2016 Family Celtic Dance and wrote about it in her blog, with photos by husband John.[]