My Weekend: Donald Stewart

Times Online, April 13, 2007

“He was a fiddler, and consequently a rogue,” said Jonathan Swift in The Journal to Stella, a collection of letters to Esther Johnson written between 1710 and 1713. The renowned satirist no doubt had little to fear from the fiddling collective in the 18th century, but were he writing today he would find that one of their number at least is cut from a rather more refined cloth. That would be Donald Stewart, a corporate partner at Faegre & Benson.

A glance at the firm’s website mentions only Stewart’s expertise in M&A work, corporate finance and the Alternative Investment Market, and not a hint of his interests beyond the law. This is a shame. The full Stewart CV makes for appealing reading: not only is he a fine exponent of corporate law dual qualified in Scotland and England, he is also a fiddle player par excellence.

“Fiddle playing and the law couldn’t be further apart,” admits the Edinburgh University graduate. But he couldn’t do without his fiddle – or, more specifically, the Scottish fiddle music that has been his life. “Playing, composing and being involved in fiddle music is a huge release for me,” he says.

In his university days, fiddle music was more than merely Stewart's release – it was a source of income. “My time then was divided between studying law and playing music,” he recalls. This continued to be the case even into his traineeship. “By the end of my articles I faced a tough choice. I was making as much money playing in bands as I was as a trainee solicitor. In the end, though, thoughts of long-term security prevailed. I committed to the law.”

Not to the exclusion of his love of fiddle music, though. Nearly 20 years on, Stewart runs London’s only dedicated Scottish fiddle music session at his house, on Monday nights (anyone who can play is welcome). He teaches, plays and composes, and that is a trustee of Feis London. “Feis” is Gaelic for feast or festival, and the group is devoted to promoting the movement south of the border.

Recently I had some experience of Scottish festivities of my own – the annual jamboree for Norsemen known as Up-Helly-Aa, which takes place on the last Tuesday of every January in the Shetland Isles. It was a riotous affair, about as far removed from corporate law as Lerwick is from Land’s End. An Orcadian described the event to me as “controlled mayhem,” and though I witnessed more by way of mayhem than control there was one group of people who held their nerve, refreshments and ability in equal measure: the fiddle players.

“Yes, the Shetland Isles is the home of one of the traditional variants of Scottish fiddle music,” says Stewart. On Burns Night this year, he played at a black tie event held at The Brewery on Chigwell Street by the Society of Scottish Lawyers (“it wasn’t your average black tie event,” he says).

Is it really true, that this man who advises corporate finance houses, stockbrokers, tech companies and entrepreneurs also plays the fiddle for Amazing Spootiskerry Ceilidh Band? Not to mention the Dalcassian County Dance Band and the Chiltern Accordion and Fiddle Club?

Well, they say that truth is stranger than fiction. Stewart’s lifelong love of this most stirring of musical forms is admirable and inspirational, but the truth is he is a fiddler first and a lawyer second.