FIONA'S STORYFiona Driver is a fiddler/violinist, composer and music teacher from Orkney.
Her parents moved from the Cotswolds to the Orkney Island of Hoy when she was a toddler. Her three younger siblings were born in Orkney and all four were home educated. They moved from their tiny shoreside cottage to Harray, on the Orkney Mainland, when Fiona was nine and then finally to Newtonhill, a small farm on the hillside near Stromness.
For years the family had no electricity, no bathroom and, for a time, no running water indoors. They grew their own vegetables, kept animals for meat, milk and eggs, and hunted for rabbits to eat. School work was done by the light of candles and Tilley lamps, and the toilet was a composting loo at the bottom of the garden. In Stromness, an ancient Lister Start-O-Matic generator would be fired up every few days to power the twin tub washing machine - the property was the last on the Orkney Mainland to be connected to mains power, after Fiona had left home:
'It was just normal life to me. You only realise how odd it is afterwards, when it dawns on you how everyone else lives. I think when I started teaching and visiting other people's houses I gradually came to realise just how much I had missed out on - the social skills and friends my own age, and of course the Orkney accent which I never quite picked up - but I don't regret the lack of electricity or bathroom because it was a unique experience and made me who I am today.'
Fiona moved to a cottage in Rendall aged eighteen, where she spent the next twenty years with luxuries like lights and a fridge before moving to the Scottish Highlands recently, where she has experienced, for the first time, a washing machine inside the house.
'I still go and watch it turning. You've no idea how much effort it takes to do it in the bath, or even an old twin tub! Electricity really is a miracle.'
Fiona returns to Orkney regulary to care for her four acre long term woodland project in her field in Rendall, where she first planted trees as a teenager.
Fiona taught herself to read music and play the fiddle at the age of fourteen, after discovering her great grandfather Percy Driver's fiddle and bow in the barn in Stromness. Prior to that, her only musical experience came from an out-of-tune recorder given to her aged five, although her parents' Jazz and Classical collections were often on the cassette player, and she discovered Scottish Dance Bands through 'Take the Floor' on Radio Scotland when she was very young.
Fiona's progress was extremely fast, as she went straight into advanced fiddle tunes with no teacher and no idea what was meant to be difficult. She practised up to six hours per day, developing excellent ear skills as well as sight reading - a bonus of having no school was the time she could spend practising:
'I was up there in my room for hours, rewinding a cassette on a battery powered cassette player, over and over, until I got every note right. It did wonders for my ear skills, as if I didn't have the music written down, it was the only way to learn a new tune! Mum would be banging on the ceiling from downstairs, and telling me to come down and eat.'
Percy, her great grandfather, had spent his life as a professional gardener, which was a career that included growing orchids for the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace over a century ago. He was a well known musician and breeder of working terriers in his small village of Haresfield in the Cotswolds, and when he died the fiddle was passed down from Percy to his grandson, Fiona's father, who ignored it entirely until Fiona started asking to play the fiddle and it was re-discovered. It turned out to be a nice German antique, and after being Fiona's main instrument for many years, it is currently (2023) undergoing a full restoration, which is very exciting (and expensive!).
From the age of fifteen Fiona played with the local Strathspey and Reel Society, which gave her the opportunity to play in a large group, play solos, lead the group at times and also to enter competitions, encouraged and accompanied by Jean Leonard. She won many competitions for her playing and composing, including the Senior Orkney Young Musician of the Year Competition at sixteen - quite an achievement when she had only been playing for a couple of years. As well as winning every playing competition she entered, she also won the Ronnie Aim Memorial Trophy for Composition, twice.
Starting to write tunes the year after she began playing, composing was almost an accident and she has so far written around 300 tunes:
'They just popped out. I had to take them to someone and ask what kind of tunes they were - but they were complete, and fully formed. I've no idea where they came from and still find it surprising when an original melody comes to me.
Fiona's tunes are so popular with players that they now appear on many albums and are also featured in a growing number of tune books, including 'Tunes from the Women', which features 150 tunes from 100 female composers across the UK:
'The book includes "Suilven," about the iconic Assynt mountain, and "Neuketineuks," a hornpipe in C that is fiendishly tricky. I'm so happy to be included, because other folk choosing my tunes among the countless great melodies out there is just the biggest compliment.'
Musicians who have played and recorded Fiona's tunes include Troy MacGillivray, Shane Cook, Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty, Katherine Wren, Sarah Deere Jones, Manus McGuire, David Chadwick and many more.
In 2012 Fiona had the opportunity to study for a degree, when the UHI began their Applied Music course, which allowed students to study from home. With no formal qualifications, Fiona was accepted on an audition, studied part time and graduated from the University of the Highlands and Islands in 2018, receiving a BA (with Distinction) in Applied Music:
'It was the only way I could study without leaving all my own pupils behind, which I didn't want to do. I knew I could play, write, and compose - but I had no qualifications at all and I wanted the piece of paper that confirmed it. I'm very happy I did it and I met some good friends along the way.'
Over the years, Fiona's musical tastes have been varied, which has led her to play all kinds of music. From the Strathspey and Reel Society, she then joined a Western Swing band, 'Lone Star Swing, and was a member for fifteen years, which included touring Scotland, Shetland, Orkney and Ireland with The National Theatre of Scotland, performing the sellout show 'Long Gone Lonesome', the story of a talented Shetland crofter and fisherman who recorded himself singing and playing the guitar, inspired by records brought back from America by relatives. Fiona recalls her first Western Swing performance:
'Western Swing is about as far from the Strathspey and Reel Society as you can get. I loved it - its freedom, improvisation, that swing. It felt ALIVE in comparison. I had to learn pretty quick, but thankfully I'm happy with new styles so I picked it up quite fast and my first performance was the BBC Radio Orkney Children in Need Fundraiser, when I was only fifteen, appearing with friend and bandleader Duncan McLean on guitar and vocals. I still have a recording - it was wonderful!
I was however traumatised that night by being taken to someone's house afterwards, where there was a cream sofa, white walls, cream carpet - it was bright and immaculate, and I was living with no electricity on a muddy farm and didn't have a social life, and I remember being sat there in this white room, just frozen with anxiety, feeling totally out of place!'
As well as traditional music and swing, Fiona found herself joining Orkney Orchestra in her twenties, where she ended up leading the second violins. This led to an invitation to join Orkney Camerata a few years later, where she was a front desk second violin for many years:
'The first time I joined Orkney Orchestra, I was so nervous I lost the ability to read music at all, and just sat there in terror! Everyone was so kind, and gradually I figured out what I was doing and became more confident. It has been wonderful to experience playing all this fantastic classical music, both in Orkney and now in the Highlands where I'm doing similar things. I teach a mixture of styles too, so most of my pupils learn classical along with the fiddle tunes.'
Fiona's musical collaborations with accompanists began when she was 17 and recorded a solo album with Orcadian pianist and accordionist Billy Peace and guitarist Stewart Shearer. Later, her second album features Orkney drummer and guitarist Graham Simpson, a long term friend and duo partner who she describes as 'the perfect accompanist form my sometimes quirky compositions'.
Shetland fiddler and pianist Trevor Hunter has been a regular accompanist in recent years, and Fiona has also been delving into deeper harmonies when composing, writing rich layers for two or more fiddles, plus various other instruments:
'I am best on the fiddle, by miles, but I also play mandolin (not bad), guitar (ok), whistle/flute (pretty awful), the piano (hmmm), and recently have gone mad and taken up the bagpipes (you don't want to hear it yet) as well as the cello!
Because I sometimes need to record the accompaniment myself, I have developed a style that's born out of necessity rather than anything else - I'm not great on the piano so I keep it simple and have found it is sometimes rather effective.'
Fiona teaches five days a week, with pupils from age 7 to 70, and from one-to-one pupils up to large groups. She specialises in teaching adult beginners, and this is very successful. Other creative time is spent writing music, publishing tune books, recording, and playing in orchestral groups.
Aside from music, Fiona is a gardener, knitter and hiker, and loves climbing mountains with a camera as well as messing around on the water on boats and paddleboards and swimming in lochs and sea.
- “Immensely accomplished and stylish” - FiddleOn Magazine
- “Totally captivating” - Folk World
- “Simply stunning fiddle playing” - Reading Folk Club