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Speyfest founder James Alexander mourned


By Alan Beresford

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TRIBUTES have been pouring in for Speyfest and Fochabers Fiddlers founder James Alexander MBE.

Speyfest and Fochabers Fiddlers founder James Alexander.
Speyfest and Fochabers Fiddlers founder James Alexander.

Mr Alexander passed away at the weekend aged 66 after a long battle with illness.

An inspirational fiddle teacher who passed his love of the instrument and music in general to generations of talented local musicians, his sad passing has been widely mourned.

In 1995 he founded what was to become the international music phenomenon known as Speyfest, an organisation with which he held various leadership roles. Originally comprising a single tent holding 300 people, the festival has grown to a 1500-capacity tented village welcoming visitors and families of all ages, from pre-school children to senior citizens.

Paying tribute to Mr Alexander, a statement from the Speyfest committee said: "It is with the heaviest of hearts and a feeling of immense loss, that we share the news that our founder, long-term chairman and dear friend James Alexander has passed away, following a bravely fought sustained period of illness.

"The thoughts of everyone at the festival, and the wider Speyfest community, are with James’ family at this difficult time.

"The impact James’ love for music has had on all of us cannot be understated. He leaves a lasting legacy as a talented musician, teacher, mentor and friend to many and will be sorely missed. We have no doubt that the passion, skills and joy he has shared with those around him will be felt and treasured for many, many years to come.

"James gave generously of his time as a performer, both locally and nationally, and was best known as leader of the Fochabers Fiddlers. We know that there will be many sore hearts among the group.

"James's remarkable and unique musical contribution to the local and wider community was recognised in 2011 when he was awarded an MBE for services to traditional music and in 2017, he was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.

"In due course and in consultation with the family, we will share plans for a fitting tribute to James as part of our 25th anniversary festival this July."

Having played with the Fochabers Fiddlers and a number of Scottish trad bands, Mr Alexander realised what a spectacular setting Fochabers would be for a summer event showcasing traditional music, dance and crafts. The festival was founded on the premise that it would give keen young musicians a chance to meet and learn from the best known musicians on the scene while they were in town.

With help from the local Fochabers Gala Committee, some fellow musicians, the local headteacher and pupils of Milne's High School and many others, Speyfest became a reality.

A skilled multi-instrumentalist, Mr Alexander played and taught fiddle, keyboard, accordion, guitar and cajon and has performed at venues like Dumfries House and Buckingham Palace. He also adjudicated at The Royal National Mòd, Elgin Fiddle Festival and Aboyne Highland Games.

In 1980 he formed the Fochabers Fiddlers, a group of school aged pupils from Milne’s High School who went on to tour America, Canada and across Europe.

Mr Alexander was also well-known and respected in political circles and was a long-time supporter of the SNP.

Moray SNP MSP Richard Lochhead said: "James was a friend to me and and a friend and an inspiration for so many.

"I and everyone who had the privilege to know James will sorely miss him. An outstanding musician, teacher and wonderful man. He was also a big supporter of Scotland’s cause.

"My deepest condolences to his family."

Moray Council Convener Councillor Shona Morrison (SNP candidate for Fochabers-Lhanbryde) commented: "Love and thoughts with all of James's family at this sad time. What an incredible legacy he leaves behind, a world richer for having had him in it."

Council leader Councillor Graham Leadbitter (SNP candidate for Elgin City South) said: "It's so sad to hear of James' passing.

"An inspirational musician and teacher to many, many young people learning traditional music. Also a long standing and active SNP and independence supporter.

"He will be sorely missed by many for different reasons but what ran through everything was his passion, enthusiasm, genuine interest in others and unstinting support.

A life well lived and a huge legacy for us to celebrate."

Buckie SNP councillor Sonya Warren added: "Such a sad loss of a tremendously talented man that's left us with a phenomenal legacy.

"It was a privilege to know James and enjoy his musical talent. Thinking of Clare, Susan and all the family at this sad time, keeping you all in our thoughts and prayers and sending deepest condolences."

Mr Alexander was born in 1955 at Hillhead Farm, near Buckie and later attended Buckie High School. He first took up the fiddle at the tender age of eight at a time when there was little in the way of tuition in the area, something his mother was determined to rectify.

He recalled: "My mother had the idea that there should be, so she wrote and asked if it was a possibility to learn to play the fiddle in school."

His first and main violin teacher was Steven Merson from Buckie who was "a great influence" and taught him for around 10 years until the time that he left school.

Mr Alexander had an interest in Scottish music from a young age, and despite not playing it in his lessons with Mr Merson, he practised Scottish fiddle music at home and learned tunes and technique from fiddle books, watching other people playing on the television, listening to radio and meeting other players.

In addition to his Scottish fiddling, he played in string quartets and in school orchestras.

He also grew up with some very good players of around his age, such as the well-known Scottish fiddler and violinist, Douglas Lawrence, with whom he used to play for long periods on an almost daily basis. Mr Alexander also had lessons from Hebbie Gray to help reinforce the Scottish aspects of his playing, and went on to study classical violin with Hugh Bean from London and then Peter Mountain.

His decision to learn Scottish fiddle was mainly down to the fact that he was learning the violin at school and liked Scottish music.

Mr Alexander began to get more intensively involved in Scottish fiddle playing when, at the age of 12, he started to enter some of the competitions at the fiddle festivals which take place annually in Scotland such as at Banchory, Kirriemuir and Elgin.

He was to credit these experiences as introducing him to a wide range of different people after which "a kind of rapport built up, a sort of camaraderie, as it were."

WATCH James doing what he did best with this moving performance of Hector the Hero at Speyfest 2018 www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuZS0XwJIBw


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