I’ll tune my fiddle, and I’ll rosin my bow, And I’ll be welcome wherever I go.
The words of the Irish pub song Jug of Punch could have been written for Calum MacKinnon. From playing concerts and jam sessions in community halls on his home island of Tiree to competing, recording, teaching and entertaining throughout the USA, Calum has carried his fiddle for decades. He grew up in a musical family and counts himself lucky to have been taught Scottish fiddle tunes and classical violin as a boy. When he moved to America 50 years ago, Calum immersed himself in the expat Scottish world and became one of the foremost fiddlers on the continent. In 1988, he was runner-up in the US National Scottish National Fiddling Competition. Throughout his adult life, he has been in demand as a fiddle player and is still playing and teaching in his 70s. He and his wife Edna live in Edmonds, Washington, and he still finds time to return to his beloved Tiree and play for the islanders who remember him and his family.
I was born in Glasgow in February 1939, and in May my mother took me up to Tiree. It was obvious the war was going to start, so she took me up during the summer to my granny’s in Tiree and she left me there.
When the war was over, I came back to Glasgow; my father worked in the shipbuilding business for Harland and Wolff. We lived in Crosshill and I went to primary school there, and then on to Allan Glen’s High School after that.
My mother and father spoke Gaelic and, when I was five years old, I had more Gaelic than I had English, then when I came to Glasgow I lost it all. There was a Clan MacKinnon Society that my parents dragged me to, and the Highlanders’ Institute was in Elmbank Street and we would go to dances there. The Tiree Association would have concerts, so there were a lot of Gaelic friends and family and acquaintances in Glasgow.
I got my first fiddle from a neighbour called Willie Kemp, he lived across the landing, and he gave me a three-quarter size fiddle. I was only eight when I started. He taught me fiddle tunes while, at the same time, on Saturday mornings the headmaster of Cuthbertson Primary School gave violin lessons. I was very fortunate I got violin and fiddle instruction at the same time.
Of course, the violin teaching taught us light opera and light classical music. My parents being Highland, all they wanted to hear was the Heilan’ songs and the teuchter stuff.
I became an apprentice at Rolls Royce in Hillington and worked there for about 10 years. In my middle 20s, I decided that I really ought to come out to the United States for a couple of years and I moved to Phoenix. It didn’t suit me. The weather was bad enough but there was a lot of terrible stuff, race riots going on, in 1966.
The thing that bothered me the most about Phoenix, and I’m surprised that it happened, I was too far from the sea. It didn’t strike me until we went on a tuna fishing trip with the office to San Diego one day. I got on the after-deck of a big tuna boat and thought ‘that’s what I’m missing’.
So, after a couple of years in Phoenix I came up here to Seattle and worked with Boeing and I’ve been here ever since.
In Seattle, we’ve got the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, the Caledonian Society and the Gaelic Society, so it was easy to slip into things. I got involved a lot with the Scottish country dancing just as soon as I arrived and over the years had several bands.
I started off playing with the Scots and for the Scots but, as word got out that I might be a half way decent fiddler, I started getting invited to teach at summer schools. Then I got immersed with the bluegrass folk, and the Irish folks, and the Cape Breton folks, and I branched out. There are plenty of summer schools throughout the country where all different genres of music are brought together. I imbibed in that as much as I possibly could, I just loved it.
The Scottish accent was always a big plus. You have to play to the right audiences of course but I always felt welcomed when I played. Then when I started getting a little more busy and travelling around the country doing concerts and dances, judging competitions, I spent a lot of time at Highland Games all over the place.
People would come to the summer schools not just for Scottish but they would take in an Irish fiddler in the morning or bluegrass in the evening and they would get a variety of styles. Some of the people that came to these classes were superb musicians.
I got around a lot of the United States with that, and with my job at Boeing, not just the United States but around the world. I was running a big programme for Boeing. I was the chief engineer for many years and the programme manager, and it was coming to a close and I was in my late 50s, and I knew I’d never have that much fun again in my life.
My individual retirement account was looking good, and the Boeing version of the golden handshake came up – we called it the aluminum high-five – so I decided to change professions and become a full-time musician.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been slowing down a bit and I’ve come to the stage where I don’t have to make a name for myself any more. I don’t need to go to gigs that would provide me with a little extra money or a little more experience or exposure, I just pick the things that I’m going to have fun at.
Yes, I miss Scotland and I’m going back in May. I love going back there and take every opportunity I can. The highlight is seeing my friends and relatives up on the island. It was where I grew up and both sides of my family had houses and I knew everybody. The part I love most is going back and I’m amazed that people still remember me, or at least remember who my family was.
One of my premier students is doing postgraduate work at Glasgow University just now. She’s studying medieval Scottish history, so when I go back she’s going to tag along with me on my trip to Tiree.
We’re going to give a wee concert in the local hall, and at the Farmhouse Cafe that’s owned by friends of ours, and I’ll show her round the island. I don’t think of it as a gig, as much as meeting all my friends and they’ll all bring their instruments, their accordions, and there’ll be a mini concert plus a jam session.