Aly Bain is Scotland’s master of the fiddle

Aly Bain is one of Scotland’s most popular entertainers.

No New Year is complete without Aly – and musical partner Phil Cunningham – bringing in the New Year.

The musician tells Scottish Field about the influences on his life.

I was born in Shetland, in a house on Market Street in Lerwick, down by the sea. My father was a cooper who made barrels for the herring industry.

The house I was born in was next door to Tom Anderson, who was a well-known fiddler on Shetland. Tom told me that whenever he played the fiddle, I would crawl from next door to sit on his knee.

When I decided I wanted to learn the fiddle at the age pf 11 I went to Tom. My parents bought me a fiddle – it was a lot of money, more than a week’s wages for my dad.

I left school just before I was 15 and got a job as a baker – a lot of my family were bakers. But the bakery went bankrupt, so I got a job as a joiner.

When I was 18 I got into The Lounge, a bar in Lerwick. I was playing with Ronald Cooper, who was the piano player. We had some amazing sessions up there.

I was playing a lot at concerts and we did a BBC radio programme called Ben Lyons on Tour, which used to go around Scotland. So we played on that and I met an Aberdonian fellow called Arthur Argo who worked for the BBC but also ran a wee agency. Arthur said I should take my fiddle and go to the mainland and that he would help me get work. At the time, it was only me, Billy Connolly and Barbara Dickson on his books.

Billy Connolly and I became friends and when I moved to Glasgow, he was one of the first guys I looked up. He showed me the ropes, he showed me the buses and he showed me the Scotia Bar, where we always ended up playing. I would play with him, sometimes in the Humblebums. We’d go to gigs on a motorbike and sidecar, which was hilarious.

Phil Cunningham is a lot younger than me – 14 years, in fact. But as he got older I got to know him. Later, I was in London playing in a concert at the Festival Hall and I didn’t have anyone to accompany me. I bumped into Phil in London and asked him to play that night with me and he did.

We began touring. Our first tour was 10 days in the Highland sand that went on to become 40 days, and that’s been going on for 27 years.

When I was on Shetland I had a motorbike. It was a Royal Enfield and it was a wreck. I’d have a fishing rod on my back and would set off on my bike. It was a great feeling of freedom.

I still go back to Shetland regularly because my sister lives there and I have lots of relations there. I have a favourite spot, but nobody would know where it is. That’s where I rest and get my brain back.

My favourite place for fishing is Orkney. I love Harray Loch – for me it’s the best fly-fishing loch in Britain. If I get the time, that’s where I go.

India really knocked me out. We played in Bombay and it always sticks in my mind. When you’ve been to India, nowhere else compares with it.

We went to Kalgoorlie in the Australian outback. This guy called ‘The Gentleman’ came to see us with these Aborigine pipes that he’d made. He had a flat nose and cauliflower ear beacuse he was a bare-knuckle boxer. He was from Fife, and had been fighting in Burma when he had an awful experience and wanted to get away from human beings – so he lived in the bush.

I like all kinds of music – country, jazz, blues, and of course traditional music. I listen to music on shuffle, so it goes wherever it goes.

As you get older, your ideas about music change. I used to like playing really fast music but now I’m more interested in slow music. I find much more beauty in it. I don’t ride fast motorbikes any more either – a walk is fine.