Memories of ground breaking fiddler Scollay

Leonard Scollay doing what he loved best at the 1995 Shetland Folk Festival. Photo: Jo Redman

FORMER bandmates have led the tributes to fiddler Leonard Scollay, who died tragically after the scallop boat he was working on hit a rock and sank yesterday morning.

Described by BBC Radio Scotland DJ Tom Morton as “one of the best fiddle players I’ve ever heard”, Scollay made his name as a founding member of both Rock Salt & Nails and Bongshang in the 1990s.

Members of both groups have talked of their sadness at his premature passing – including Rock Salt & Nails front man Paul Johnston, who shares his recollections below.

Only 40 when he lost his life, Scollay spent much of the 1990s touring with the two groups.

Bongshang’s JJ Jamieson described him as “one of the most determined and accomplished musicians I have ever met”, adding: “I am proud to have played alongside him.”

Another bandmate, Bryan Peterson, said it was a “tragic loss” and described Scollay as a “firebrand” player.

“It is a real tragedy whenever someone is lost at sea,” Peterson said. “Leonard was a good friend of mine; I have worked with him for a number of years and I played in a lot of bands with him over the years.

Local music promoter Davie Gardner recalled Scollay being “one of the first new-style Shetland fiddlers”, keeping a close eye on old traditions while bringing “a whole new, dynamic slant to it”.

Coming through at the same time as Fiddlers’ Bid, Gardner credited Scollay with being one of those who helped “make it cool” to play the instrument. “He was a fantastic showman as well, and that was new at the time,” he added.

Jamieson recalled first meeting a teenage Scollay, who was already an “extremely accomplished” musician in the band Sheep Dip, when he first moved to Shetland in 1989.

“It was evident that he just practiced and practiced and practiced. He was a devoted player, and it clearly showed when you listened to it.”

Bongshang, with Leonard Scollay on fiddle, performing at Bressay Hall in 1995. Photo: Jo Redman.

Scollay was one of four finalists for the BBC’s UK-wide young traditional musician of the year award in 1993.

It was around that time that Jamieson and Scollay branched away, amicably, from Sheep Dip to form Bongshang.

Scollay played fiddle on their debut album Crude, and he also toured Europe with the band, appearing at several music festivals in France. After joining Rock Salt & Nails he later returned to the Bongshang fold and appeared on their third album, 1999’s Vy-lo-fone.

There was also a solo record, Lean to the Bone, which majored on Scollay’s strong affinity with tradition Shetland music.

“He loved listening to Aly Bain and Mark O’Connor,” Jamieson said. “But his main influence was Shetland fiddler and composer Ian Burns. Leonard was one of Ian’s protégés.”

Scollay was also thrilled to get the chance to appear on TV with Bain, one of his heroes.

He worked various day jobs including as a joiner and a landscape gardener and was known to be a very keen angler, as well as a proud father to daughter Lisa Simpson.

Rock Salt & Nails frontman Paul Johnston shared these memories of Scollay with Shetland News.

“February 1991 and the fire in the small Swinning cottage was burning brightly as three guys with a love of Shetland music, bluegrass music and a real want to play sat for hours trying out new tunes, new arrangements and old songs in different ways.

“The three guys kept playing and ended up getting their wish, recording various albums and racking up miles in transit vans and minibuses. A young, highly driven Scalloway boy was one of the three and after he had honed his Shetland-learnt skills in new and diverse ways he added his individual playing style to this new band, and on to other innovative bands that would end up playing round the world. That was Leonard, a young guy with a want to play that never stopped.

Scollay performing with Rock Salt & Nails.

“Leonard’s skill and style defined our band Rock Salt & Nails in the early days and his energy would drive countless nights of wild music in the Booth, The Scalloway Legion, Lerwick Boating Club and loads of other Shetland venues.

“After leaving to try out other styles he came back to Rock Salt & Nails with even more vigour and with even more desire to play, so the band obliged and he stepped up to fill the stage in numerous European and worldwide stages.

“The stories were legend and so was the music that Leonard played. He played on the first ever Rock Salt & Nails album and on their fifth – wowing the hard-to-please producer Calum Malcolm with his vitality and different slant on playing either traditional tunes or adding original lines to the band’s songs.

“Individuality and power, with a strong awareness and pride in his heritage, whatever he played was always guaranteed to add to the music, wherever and whenever he played. He will be missed by everyone that knew him.”

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