Whaling away;Arts in Scotland

1st May 1998 at 01:00
Entering class after morning break, Primary 4 pupils from Westerton school, Aberdeen, discover a burly long-haired stranger and a collection of odd-shaped cases.

During the next hour, their casual curiosity turns to fascination as their visitor transforms their room into the seafaring environment of another time - a merchant clipper, tossed on stormy Atlantic seas; a Greenland-bound whaling vessel, spearheading Aberdeen's original (whale) oil boom; and a wooden warship, the pride of Nelson's navy.

Following his lead, they mime the ancient rites of hauling anchor and raising the sails, their movements measured by newly learned sea shanties, which they roar out with enthusiasm.

Through simple storytelling, song and a range of ethnic musical instruments, modern-day wandering minstrel Simon Spalding brings local history to life for children throughout the world.

Focusing on the sea - the original superhighway - he demonstrates the important role of sailing in linking the people, ideas and treasures of diverse cultures in an intricate world-wide web, and shows how the actions of their own ancestors had a profound global impact.

Spalding, an American musicologist with a gift for portraying musical historical figures in their authentic dress, visits Scotland every year, weaving his magic in schools, museums and historic visitor attractions, at the invitation of the local authorities.

Aberdeen has become one of his favourite stop-offs, since he "discovered" the city while taking part in the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race in 1992, and he enjoys sharing stories of the north-east traders, whalers and naval sailors who made their mark in far-off lands. Other ports of call include Dundee, Burntisland, Cromarty, Lairg and Ullapool.

"I grew up in San Francisco, close to the bay, and the sea has always been important to me. I would often listen to the tales of the fishermen, and the local maritime museum was a place of fascination. I was able to combine my love of folk music and history by studying ethnomusicology at the University of Berkeley, and now I have managed to marry music, history and the sea, in the variety of work I do," Spalding says.

Children and adults alike are enthralled by the musical instruments he brings with him. These include the fiddle, banjo and Chinese erhu - a stringed mallet-like instrument made of bamboo, snakeskin and horse hair.

"I try to use instruments which would have been played by the seamen. By acting out the motions and singing along, the children get some idea of what life was like for these fascinating people."

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