Forgotten Music of the Travelling Violin

Violin made by John Smith of Falkirk in 1905, acquired by Falkirk Community Trust in 2004 with an NFA grant of £956.

The story of this violin takes place over two continents, made here in Falkirk but sold in Canada in 1919, two years before its maker John Smith emigrated there; only to find a home in Falkirk again in 2004 after it was purchased from the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra which sold it to raise funds.

Violin made by John Smith

Violin made by John Smith, Falkirk, in 1905

The violin was one of the first objects I encountered in my role as Assistant Curator at Falkirk Community Trust. Presented in its original crocodile skin case with a blue velvet inlay, along with bow and spare strings, I couldn’t believe its age; it looked brand new as though the case had never before been opened. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the instrument. It is made from a variety of woods, the back and ribs are made from maple, the front is alpine spruce, with Brazilian rosewood pegs and ebony details. This violin has been finished with amber varnish which Smith would leave to dry for one month to give it a glass-like finish and strength which would prevent warping in warmer climates. Smith’s skill as a violin maker meant that he was producing high quality instruments that were suitable for export and good enough to be played in orchestras.

Detail of John Smith violin

Detail of John Smith violin

The thing that most intrigued me about this object was its maker and the story of how the violin ended up in Canada. I wasn’t aware that Falkirk had a reputation for producing violins of this quality and after some research I discovered I was not alone; it would seem that Smith and his violins had almost been forgotten. Smith was in fact one of the foremost Scottish violin makers of the twentieth century, winning an award for his work at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901. Smith and his skills are much better known and celebrated in Canada than his native Scotland. This is reflected in the fact that this violin was so sought after that it was sold and shipped halfway around the world to be loved and cared for in Canada for almost 100 years. It had several owners there including three violinists and two orchestras before finding its way back home to Falkirk and into our collection.

Nicola Wilson
Assistant Curator
Falkirk Community Trust



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