John S.

       The Fiddle in Early Modern Europe

     Imagine a summer evening in Eighteen Century Ireland. You proceed down the dirty street toward the local tavern. Music and voices can be heard inside. Inside, the life of the community goes on their daily life. Men sit around the tables, drinking and gambling with their friends, wagering their meager pay. Guests come off the main road and begin to settle into their rooms for the night. Servers bring drinks around for the guests, with pints of ale being clinked by cheering groups. People of all walks of life are present in the tavern. Families are there to enjoy a meal, as well in some places, prostitutes also make their way around the room. One of the most prominent scenes in the room is the fiddle player, who walks around the room, playing the most popular tunes of the time.

The Fiddle is an instrument that became popular in Scotland and Ireland by the 1700s.  Along with the Pipes, the fiddle was the most popular to be played.  The music created by the fiddle served many purposes.  The jigs and the reels could be used at parties, celebrations, and weddings.  The music that was played by the fiddle also served to tell stories of the past and to remember the colorful and often tragic history of the Scottish Highlands and the gentle rolling hills of Ireland.  The slow airs of the fiddle are used for the slower dances and telling tragic stories of lost loves and lost lives.  The fiddle in Early Modern Europe is important to daily life as it was an avenue for the people to express themselves.

The fiddle became popular in Scotland by the 1600s, and soon followed popularity in Ireland.  Reporting of his trip to Ireland in 1674, Richard Head remarked that he noticed a fiddle in every field while in Ireland.[1]  By the end of the Eighteenth Century, the fiddle was one of the most popular instruments in Ireland and Scotland.  The fiddle was one way to get away from daily struggles. This past semester, I spent some time at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia.  I took some time to look at the 1730s Irish farm and the 1700s Irish Forgery located on the property.  Learning about the work done on the farm and in the forgery showed the hard life the average Irish family lived through in the Eighteenth Century.  Later in the semester, I volunteered at the Museum and worked around the English farm.  After about two hours of working on the farm, I understood how the simple music given by a fiddle could be a pleasing interruption from the daily life of a worker.

The fiddle first came out of Italy in the mid-1500s and spread throughout Europe.  They varied in sizes and how many strings were on the fiddles.  The fiddle can also be identified as a violin, as both are structured the same.  The fiddle is created with two types of wood.  Sawn spruce wood is used to create the front part of the body of the fiddle.  The front is then attached to the other half of the body, which is made of maple.   The neck of the fiddle is made of maple, as is the very end of the neck, where the pegs are located.  The strings are attached to the pegs, and are tightened and loosened by the pegs.  The players turn the pegs to loosen or tighten the strings to tune the fiddle.  The strings of the fiddle is made of horse hair, tightened by the bow which is tightened by a nob on the end of the bow.  The fiddle makes music as the bow is struck across the strings.  Each string is slightly thicker than the next, identified as the G, D, A, and F.  The G string has the deepest sound, while the F string is the highest sound.  The fiddle was able to be played slow and fast.  The only difference between the fiddle and the violin is how the player uses the instrument in matter of meter and melody.  Generally, the fiddle is played much faster.

Fiddles were popular to play in taverns.  They became the most popular instruments along with the pipes.    Taverns were the social centers of the towns, usually the one of the first buildings built in a town.[2] Taverns served as meeting halls for some groups and festive celebrations. Some were friendly for families and often serve a source to disperse news. Taverns were a booming business where ever you set one up. Taverns were often used as motels where people could stay the night before continuing their trip. Songs were written in the taverns, with tales of love won and loss, of womanizing, and of course, of drinking.  Women of loose morals were often present in these taverns.[3] While some taverns contained subjects of naughty nature, taverns were also one of the few businesses a woman could run and be accepted.[4]

Among the classics song in many taverns as “The Parting Glass.”  This song was sung by the people in the tavern as closing. “The Parting Glass” is an example of the slow airs played on the fiddle.  Other popular tunes include the “Whiskey in the Jar,” a song describing a man stealing from a tax collector, whose wife later turns him in to the same collector.  The song is first seen in 1728, and develops from a story in the Seventeenth Century.  Tavern music was not just focused on songs of debauchery or drinking, but anything that came to the mind of the patrons. Though the fiddle was famous for the energizing jigs and reels of the day, the fiddle could play the slow airs to tell the stories of the past.  “The Girl I Left Behind” and “The Bonnie Banks O’ Loch Lomond” are two pieces of music that became popular in Ireland and Scotland in the late part of the Early Modern Era.

The song “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond” or “Loch Lomond” for short, is a tune that became popular to play on the fiddle.  The song was written following the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.  Although the song didn’t become well known for almost 100 years, the song was no doubt sung long before its first publication in 1841.[5]  The source of the song is often debated.  There is no official author to the song, and the year of its creation is not known.  The song has no definite origins, though all theories revolve around prisoners.  Both theories are based around the Jacobite Rebellion.  The story goes that two men were captured during the Jacobite Rebellion, most likely captured at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  The prisoner awaits their fate as thoughts turn to home and love.  The British troops would play games with the prisoners and eventually the prisoners are told that one of the two would die, while the other was to return home.  The song then is the condemned singing the song.  The most famous of legends based around the song is more of a love story.  A young man was captured during the Jacobite Rebellion and is condemned to be killed.  His sweetheart from home came south from Scotland to see her lover one last time.  As the soldier came out to the scaffold, he saw his lover.  He looks out to her and says “Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland before you.”[6] The chorus is the prisoner talking to his lover, who is there to witness his final moments.  His words are carried into the chorus of the song:

“Oh ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road

An’ I’ll be in Scotland afore ye

But me and my true love will never meet again

On the bonnie, bonnie banks O’ Loch Lomond.”

The chorus describes the that the prisoner will take the low road.  The high and the low road are the two ways home to Scotland.  The “high” road is taken by those on Earth.  The average person would take this route.  The “low road” is the other way to Scotland, but can only be taken by spirits of those who died away home.  In this case, the soldiers who died far away from home would return by the low road. This is the road that a Scottish soldier will take home to Scotland and will be there immediately.  The mournful tune is one of the most recognizable songs in the world.  It also shows the different way a fiddle was used as storytelling and remembering the past.

The fiddle was an important part to Early Modern European culture.  The fiddle offered to the people a break from the mundane cycle of life, and gave them pride.  It formed an important part of tavern life and provided musical accompaniment to the lively atmosphere.  The music told the stories of life and history of the country. It was also one of the many things that has survived to this day as one of the classic instruments in any genre. The fiddle helped to form a part of the evening life of many people in Early Modern Europe.


Example of an Italian made fiddle,

To hear “Loch Lomond” played on the fiddle, follow this link,

To hear “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” played on the fiddle and accompanied by the accordion, follow this link,







Work Cited

Crews, Ed. “Tavern Music.” CW Journal, Winter 03-04, <>

Hawkins, Philip. “Bonnie Banks,” In Britain, Vol. 13, Issue 4, (Aug./Sept., 2003). JSTOR.

“Loch Lomond Song,” Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, <>

Rockman, Diana Diz. and Nan A. Rothschild, “City Tavern, Country Tavern: An Analysis of Four Colonial Sites,” Historical Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 2, (1984), 113. JSTOR.

Vallely, Fintan. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, (New York; NYU Press, 1999).

[1] Fintan Vallely, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, (New York; NYU Press, 1999), 123.

[2] Diana Diz. Rockman and Nan A. Rothschild, “City Tavern, Country Tavern: An Analysis of Four Colonial Sites,” Historical Archaeology, Vol. 18, No. 2, (1984), 113.

[3] Ed Crews, “Tavern Music,” CW Journal, Winter 03-04, <>

[4] Rockman and Rothschild, “City Tavern, Country Tavern…”, 113.

[5] “Loch Lomond Song,” Friends of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, <>

[6] Philip Hawkins, “Bonnie Banks,” In Britain, Vol. 13, Issue 4, (Aug./Sept., 2003), 42.