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Rare and unusual early portrait of Scottish folk musician acquired by Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Patie Birnie, the Fiddler of Kinghorn (d. in or before 1721) by William Aikman (1682-1731). Oil on canvas, 76.20 x 63.50 cm. Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

EDINBURGH.- A rare, early portrait of a Scottish folk musician, the celebrated eighteenth-century fiddler Patie (or Peter) Birnie, has recently been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and is on public display for the first time.

This charming portrait by the Scot William Aikman (1682-1731), who portrayed many of the leading political and literary figures of his day, was probably painted in the period between 1715 and 1720.

A memorable and welcome addition to the Gallery’s collection, it is a significant example of a portrait by a prominent Scottish artist in which the sitter, who is clearly identified, comes from the lower ranks of society, rather than the ruling élite. It complements other renowned portraits of musicians in the collection, such Sir Henry Raeburn’s portrayal of the fiddler Niel Gow, painted in 1787, and also provides a compelling contrast with the Gallery’s other portraits by Aikman, which are primarily of aristocratic subjects.

In the striking and unusual composition the famous musician is shown laughing, and is identified not only by the fiddle he holds, but also by a painted inscription which describes him as ‘The Facetious Peter Birnie / Fidler in Kinghorn’. Although the word ‘facetious’ is generally used in a derogatory sense today, in the eighteenth century it meant ‘gay; chearful [sic]; lively; merry; witty.’ (Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary)

Most of our information about Birnie comes from Allan Ramsay the Elder’s Elegy, published, presumably shortly after Birnie’s death, in 1721, which states that Birnie was present at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679. The Elegy was later used by the Rev. James Granger in his Biographical History (1769):

‘Patie Birnie resided at Kinghorn, on the sea coast, about nine miles north of Edinburgh, where he supported himself by his consummate impudence. Not by honest labour, but by intruding upon every person who came to the public house… He then fell into the utmost familiarity… his… exploits [involved] showing a very particular comicalness in his looks and gestures; laughing and groaning at the same time. He played, sung, and broke in with some queer tale twice or thrice e’er he got through the tune; and his beard was no small addition to the diversion.’

In addition to performing in such a memorable manner, Birnie is reputed to be among the earliest composers of strathspeys (a type of dance in 4/4 time). His fame was such that a number of engravings after Aikman’s painting were made, an example of which is in the Gallery’s collection. The painting was formerly in the collection of the Earls of Rothes, at Leslie House, Fife (where it was recorded in 1839) and was acquired by the Gallery from the London dealer Philip Mould

Speaking of the acquisition, Christopher Baker, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, said: ‘This is an especially attractive and endearing addition to our eighteenth-century collection: Birnie was a man renowned for his music and vivacious performances and Aikman commemorated him in a wonderfully appropriate, informal and engaging manner.’

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