CHARLIE Stewart had no intention of entering the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2017 but the fiddler from Glenfarg is glad that the competition’s previous winner, Mohsen Amini persuaded him it was a good thing to do.

After taking the title against all his expectations in February, Stewart has gone on to register a whole list of experiences that he couldn’t have predicted. There was a tour of Spain with Capercaillie, whose music he grew up listening to, and another trip to Brussels with Craig Irving, the guitarist and singer with Gaelic folk-rock band Manran. Then, in July, Stewart appeared at Edinburgh Jazz Festival in a band he formed with the current Young Jazz Musician of the Year, bassist David Bowden.

So many opportunities had arisen, he says, that by the time he was due to resume studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where, just to confuse matters, he’s on the jazz course as a double bassist (he was playing bass on the Capercaillie dates), he was worried that he might not be allowed back due to being late.

Loading article content

“It’s been an amazing year,” he says. “I remember playing with Mohsen a few days before the deadline for entries to the Young Trad and he kept saying I should go in for it. So, when I got home, I thought, OK, there’s nothing to lose and it turned out there were lots of people I knew entering.”

The experience, once he’d progressed to the final, turned out to be a lot of fun. Simon Thoumire, the organiser and a musician himself, has developed a way of helping the finalists to relax over the weekend of rehearsals leading up to the final itself. For Stewart, it felt more like a series of workshops with a concert at the end, although he nearly relaxed just a bit too much after he’d played his allotted 15 minutes in front of the audience at Glasgow City Halls.

“As soon as I got offstage, I thought, that’s great, I don’t have to play again,” says Stewart. “So I had a couple of drinks and then when my name got called out as the winner I realised I had to play something and thought, oh no. But I was OK. I think.”

Within a few weeks of the final, his career had taken a step up with the release of his group Snuffbox’s first album, Playing for Free. To promote it they went on tour and it soon became apparent what a fillip winning the Young Trad can bring as the presence in the trio of the Young Traditional Musician of the Year boosted attendances and added to the attention the album received.

“We’d planned to release the album anyway,” he says. “But the timing turned out to be good. It was great to go out and play that music in front of an audience because, although we were pleased with the way it sounded at the time, we’d recorded the whole album in two days or less and when we went out on the road we found that some things worked better than others. Just little things that you notice as you play them night after night. Next time we’d tour the music first – in fact we played some new tunes on the tour – and then record it, but these are things that you learn as you go.”

Growing up in Glenfarg with folk music-loving parents it was almost inevitable that Stewart would take up traditional music. The village in south Perthshire is home to a long-established folk club and a folk festival that dates back to the 1970s and his parents played music at home constantly.

As well as hearing Capercaillie, he was familiar from an early age with the lyrical fiddle playing of Duncan Chisholm, Martin Hayes and Aly Bain, and when his parents took him along to the local folk club for the first time at the age of nine to hear fiddle music “in the flesh” Stewart was hooked. Soon afterwards he began taking violin lessons with a teacher, Elizabeth McClay, who encouraged him to transfer the melodies he was hearing on his parents’ CDs onto the fiddle via the Suzuki method.

The expressive style that won him the coveted Young Trad title was born in these early lessons and was further enhanced when, at the age of 16, he attended the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s junior course, studying for two years with Lauren McCall, herself an award-winning fiddler and member of fiddle quartet Rant.

On leaving school Stewart enrolled in the RCS’s B Mus (Traditional Music) course, taking fiddle as his first study and double bass as his second instrument. He has since switched courses, moving to double bass primarily with Mario Caribe on the Conservatoire’s jazz course but continues to study fiddle with the renowned Scottish Dance Music player and recording artist Marie Fielding.

Stewart credits all three of his teachers with instilling discipline and technique into his playing and cites the friends he has met since moving to Glasgow as the musicians who have giving him playing experience and opportunities to develop. Having played regularly at home with his guitar-playing brother and bodhran-playing dad, he has continued to play informally whenever possible. As we speak he is recovering from a session the previous night.

“I hadn’t played on a session for a while and it’s good to do them because a lot of the situations I play in have started informally like that,” he says.

The duo he formed with piper Ross Miller, which won a Danny Kyle award at Celtic Connections in 2016 and went on to appear at Glasgow’s Piping Live! festival the following August, and the duo with harpist Becky Hill, which reached the semi-finals of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards in 2016, both came out of the session scene. He and Miller are shortly to release an EP and he has two further recordings on the way, one with the traditional band Dosca and the other with drummer Iain Copeland’s techno-trad band Sketch.

Before these hit the streets, Snuffbox have gigs at the Trad Awards and Celtic Connections and are concert guests at the upcoming Scot Fiddle Festival in Edinburgh, an event Stewart well remembers attending as a young fiddler.

“It’ll be weird going back to actually play onstage because, before, I always went as a participant, taking part in workshops, or to watch some of the great players who have come to the festival over the years,” he says.

Touring with Capercaillie showed him that he is going to have to get used to this change in status as suddenly he went from listening in awe to Capercaillie fiddler Charlie McKerron and piper flautist Michael McGoldrick on recordings to sharing a dressing room with them.

“I tried not to be seen watching to closely as Charlie warmed up for the gigs but it can be quite hard not to be too obviously a fan,” he says. “The Snuffbox gig at Celtic Connections is supporting Mike McGoldrick with John McCusker and John Doyle, so I’ll have to try and be cool this time. I’m not sure that I’ll manage, though.”

The Scots Fiddle Festival takes place from November 17 to 19. Snuffbox appear at the Queen’s Hall on Friday 17th. For further details, log onto scotsfiddlefestival.com