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More on Early Scottish Music



... we begin at the close of the thirteenth century, the time of the earliest surviving traces of music in Scotland.

Kells pageFor more than two centuries Scotland had been a united if not unified kingdom: four peoples—Pict, Celt, Briton and Angle—had been growing together, originally under external pressure from England and Scandinavia but later by political expediency from within, until with the royal house of Canmore in 1057 a solid feudal monarchy was established. This royal house, often linked to that of England by marriage, witnessed the gradual infiltration of Anglo-Norman influences into Scotland, and with it the ultimate risk of English domination. Eleventh-century St Margaret's Chapel in Edinburgh Castle is perhaps the earliest and most significant symbol of this infiltration, and soon other Norman buildings began to rise, from tiny village churches to great ecclesiastical foundations like Dunfermline, St Andres, Jedburgh, St Magnus in Orkney, and Arbroath.

The Celtic Church had been founded as long ago as the late fourth century with the arrival from Rome of St Ninian, a contemporary of St Ambrose and St Augustine. What music accompanied the early Celtic liturgy is unrecorded, but was almost certainly related to one of the four great Western chants—Gregorian, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Gallican. Possibly it was a local form grafted on to existing musical styles, and not accepting the Gregorian until the Roman church became the official one in Scotland in 710, though even then the Scottish church did not conform entirely to the Roman system (as the English had done since Gregory's lifetime a century and more before). Extreme elaboration of Pictish Cross, Celtic manuscript illumination and metalwork of, say, the eighth century suggests a musical counterpart equally as elaborate as the Ambrosian chant. This highly florid vocal art had been derived from the music of the Eastern Church and introduced into Italy by St Ambrose, and it shows strong resemblances to the Mozarabic chant of Spain. If we were to look for modern survivals or parallels, perhaps we might find them in the elaborate melismatic vocal style of Greek chant, Spanish folk music, Celtic song, and even Gaelic psalm-singing, where the practice of performing simultaneously ornamented versions of psalm-tunes bears an uncanny resemblance to the ancient principles of heterophony, still practised today at Milan Cathedral, the last surviving outpost of the Ambrosian rite.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 7-8


Kells headLittle is known about the musical tradition of the Celtic Church, but some scholars have contended that its music was of Oriental foundation, in which case the 'harp' or rote (or crwth) had a place in it, for, as Henry Farmer has pointed out the Byzantine churches used the kithara, aulos and cymbals in accord with the psalmist David of old. The word psalm itself is derived from the Greek psalmos—a song sung to a stringed instrument. Psalms were certainly employed in worship in the Celtic church; Columba himself, according to Adamnan, his biographer, chanted psalms with a loud voice. As for the harp, both Bede and Giraldus testify to its use by the clergy.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 11


Kells beastsWe have only one example from Ireland of learned, written-down vocal polyphony—a tiny three-part morsel in discantus style—it is pre-Norman and certainly the work of an Irishman. It is at least contemporary with and perhaps pre-dates the earliest examples of three-part music which come from the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 31


Bird ornament The thirteenth-century Scottish musical theorist, Simon Tailler, studied in Paris, returned to Scotland, and settled with the Dominicans at Dunblane. He is said to have instituted several reforms of church music, probably embodied in his four theoretical works on music that were much admired by later historians, but which unfortunately have not survived. ... A musician like Tailler would have had all the necessary skill, experience and opportunity to compile such a collection as 'Wolfenbüttel 677', the famous manuscript of thirteenth-century sacred polyphony traditionally associated with St Andrews and now in the library of the Bavarian monastery of Wolfenbüttel. Compiled towards the end of the thirteenth century, but including older music, it contains mostly French compositions by Leonin and Perotin found in other Notre Dame collections. Some of the pieces, however, are composed in a different style and seem to point to a more insular origin, perhaps even Tailler himself.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 8-9


It so happens that this Wolfenbüttel manuscript has a domestic claim upon us because it originally belonged to the Monasterium S. Andreae in Scocia in the 14th century, but in the year 1553 it was acquired in a rather suspicious way by the eminent theologian Flacius Illyricus, that "writhing serpent" whom Melanchthon once flayed. Subsequently (1597), this precious manuscript found its way to the Wolfenbüttel Library. What is more, we know the very names of the men who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the "acquisition." Not only did the manuscript originally belong to St. Andrews but it is now considered a probability that it was either written at or for St. Andrews .... What strengthens these assumptions are some of the contents. Fascicle 3 contains two responsories for St. Andrews Day, Vir perfectus and Vir iste, both of which has been partly reproduced by Professor Handschin and Dom. Anselm Hughes. Other items in the earlier portion of the manuscript reveal a species of compsoition "so far only represented in insular [i.e. British] sources"

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 60-61



ConsortThe thirteenth is also the century when a distinctive 'Scottish' literature first appears. Before that certainly Scots Gaelic (and possibly Scots Latin) poetry must have been sung—and some of its music may even survive today. Such a work as the romance Sir Tristrem must also have been sung, and not only sung but accompanied as well. The French romance is deeply rooted in Celtic traditions, and it needs little stretch of the imagination to extend traditional Celtic bardic performance to this type of composition, for there are numerous representations and references to the harp and other musical instruments in Scotland for many centuries before the thirteenth.

A song of the thirteenth century that has survived in a contemporary manuscript is Ex te lux oritur [Note 1.], the wedding-hymn of Princess Margaret of Scotland and Eric II of Norway in 1281. It appears in the same manuscript (now in Uppsala University Library) that records the famous hymn to St Magnus, Nobilis humilis, an example of parallel organum (one of the earliest polyphonic forms) in thirds probably composed in Orkney about this time in honour of the patron saint of those islands. The long through-composed wedding song in hymn form is recorded only as a single melody in the style of thirteenth-century trouvère songs. As with the songs of those Northern French composers (trouver = compose), it is written in plainsong notation; but also with those and with the songs for liturgical drama and pastoral play (for example, the exactly contemporary Jeu de Robin et Marion of Adam de la Halle [Note 2.]) a strictly rhythmical interpretation is possible according to the stresses of the text …

Musicians As for the vexed question of the manner of performance of such music, I am convinced that it would have been instrumentally accompanied. Now some trouvère melodies, such as C'est la fin and En ma dame, reappear as refrains in thirteenth-century polyphonic motets. Here we have evidence of how a contemporary musician regarded the adding of counter-melodies to an existing secular theme; then there is the taste for drones found on medieval instruments, and finally the example of thirteenth-century polyphony in general; much of which can be drawn upon to reconstruct a contemporary style of performing this song. If it were a question of presupposing an organ as accompaniment, this instrument had most likely been introduced into Scotland by the twelfth century, though in fact the earliest reference to it comes in a fourteenth-century account of a thirteenth-century event.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 9-10


Ere many decades had passed in this era, a new world of instruments had dawned. This was due to the peregrine minstrels to a large extent. Coming from many lands, even Moors from Spain, these wanders introduced all sorts of fresh instruments, or at least new models, as well as novelties in technique. It was the returning Crusaders who were responsible for some of these exotic instruments that they had found with the Saracens and Moors, and among them were the rebec, the fiddle, the lute, the psaltery, and the gittern. The rebec, i.e. the Scottish rybybe, was derived from the Arabian rabab, and we see its form, pearshaped with a vaulted back, in the 12th century in Europe. Jerome of Moravia (13th cent.), who was himself acquainted with Arabian music theorists, says that it was mounted with three strings. For centuries the European rebec retained its Oriental features.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 50-51



The fifteenth century saw internal struggles for power between crown and barons. Though England still absurdly claimed sovereignty, there was little direct attempt at asserting it and little direct fighting. Indeed the English seemed content to keep the Scottish monarch James I as captive from eighteen years from 1406, when he not only acquired a reputation as a skilled musical performer and composer, but also left tangible evidence of his literary gifts in the Kingis Quhair of about 1423, a major poem in the courtly love tradition of the Roman de la Rose. None of his music has survived, but it surely must have been conceived in the style of the English composers represented in the Old Hall manuscript (which was in fact compiled during the period of his stay in England), and perhaps even in the new consonant style of its most advanced composer, John Dunstable. When James returned to Scotland in 1424, with a new English bride, he is reported as having included Englishmen and Flemings in his entourage. This was the century when Flemish musicians were much in demand all over Europe and left their mark in composition in most countries. Between the Low Countries and Scotland commercial ties were close, and while there is some evidence of musical links too (some Scots musicians journeyed there to learn their craft), in Scotland itself other artistic spheres such as sculpture, wood-carving, painting and manuscript illumination show strong Flemish influence.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
p 12


The minstrel proper, who was of Anglo-Norman introduction, had by this time developed mainly into an instrumentalist pure and simple, and as such was still welcomed everywhere. Indeed we see the strolling class under invitation to the king's court. James IV (1488-1513) could call to his privy chamber (1508) a certain "Wantones [a female minstrel] and her twa marrowes [partners] that sang with hir," and patronize a "barde wife callit Agnes Carkhill" (1512). This music loving monarch evidently had no animus against the peregrine minstrel, whether a "rinner about" or not. What a joyous day it was to the town and country folk when a troupe of these wandering minstrels came at fair time to their permitted stance in the market place or village green, bringing music and dance of a kind that was new to their ears, for local music, with its narrow repertory of tunes, must have sorely tried tempers. One recalls how William Dunbar (d. c. 1520) complains of the monotonous strains of the Edinburgh pipers—

The former may be identical with The ioly day now dawis mentioned by Gavin Douglas (d. 1522) in his Virgil. Fair time was the occasion when the people at large made revelry, as we read in Cockelbie's Sow

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 82



Flanders was linked to Scotland by commercial ties, and this land also played its part in influencing the music of Scotland. The Netherlands School of composition was already swaying the world of music, and Scotland, like the rest, was sitting at her feet, as the solitary Scottish book which has been preserved on the didactics of music so completely proves. For practical instrumental instruction, Flanders was also the place for tutelage. In 1473, a certain Heroun, "clerk of the chapel," received money for his passage to the "scholis," seemingly in Flanders. We find a lutar of the court being sent there to "lerne his craft" in the same year. Another lutar journeyed to Bruges this year, whilst a further entry tells of a court minstrl receiving a gift while there. In the next year we read of the king's "litil lutar" being sent to the latter city, and in 1512 a "Flemys lutar," with so good a Scots name as Rankine, as well as "foure scolaris menstralis," all from the court, were in Flanders. It is worthy of note however, that there was some give and take between the two countries, since there is a record of three "joueurs de hautbois et sachottes [sacbuts?] ... venant d'Écosse" being employed at Malines in 1504-5. The fact that James II (1437-60) married a daughter of the Duke of Guelderland in 1449 may have strengthened ties with Flanders.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 67-68



During the second half of the fifteenth century Irish minstrels were frequent visitors to Scotland; and, in Dauney's Scottish Melodies there are given several items regarding the visits of our Hibernian musicians to the Scottish court, e.g. :—

Wm. H. Grattan Flood
A History of Irish Music
Dublin, 1906
pp. 82-83


In the dance, an art so intimately bound up with music, the French convention found ample expression. We have already seen in the old Cockelbie's Sow (15th cent.) how, among the old Scottish dance tunes, there peeps out such strangers as the Orliance (Orléanaise) and Naverne (Navernais), and in a work entitled The Boke Named the Governour (1546), the writer, enumerating the older English dances says, "In stede of these we have nowe Base daunces, bargenettes, pavyons, turgions," whose very labels bespeak their origin, just as do the Scottish paspay (passepied), sincopas (cinq pas), brawl (branle), and galyert (gaillarde). One recalls how the country folk in Christis Kirk on the Grene, throw aside the old tunes and cry to the minstrel to "blaw up a brawl of France." The craze for these tersichorean fancies lasted well beyond the end of this period, and so it is quite clear that in both the lighter forms of music and in the dance, Scotland owed a great deal to France. In the very nature of things, the debt could not be repaid in like for like, although Scotland did furnish Charles VII (1422-61) of France with a court minstrel in John Fary, and Henry IV (1589-1610) with two favourite lutars in James and Charles Hedington, whilst we learn from Tabouret's Orchésographie (1589) that the branles d'Escosse were "the rage" of the day, and they already had a place in the Danseries (1564) of Jean d'Etrée.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 70



LutenistDuring James V's minority French and English factions, represented by the King's French cousin John, Duke of Albany, and his mother, English Margaret, jostled for power. The young king eventually took up the reins of government in person in 1528 at the age of sixteen, and established a strong a vigorous rule at home. He was interested in the arts, especially in building—the royal palaces at Holyrood, Stirling, Falkland and Linlithgow display notable Renaissance features. He was patron to poets, including Sir David Lindasy who had cared for him from an early age—

The first syllabis thou didst mute
was Pa Da Lin upon thy lute ...

and was musical and musically educated—he had 'ane singular gud eir and culd sing that he had never seine before, bot his voyce wes rawky and harske'. He was passionate, gay, licentious, and the epitome of the Renaissance prince with a taste for low life, as the 'Gaberlunzie man' went about incognito among his subjects.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 20-21


James V (1513-42) was himself a performer on the lute, and, like his predecessors, he continued to shower favours on his court minstrels. The Italian and French minstrels were still prominent at court, and new instruments, such as the swesch, viol, howboy, and bumbarde were introduced from abroad

In the sang schools the youth of the country were taught singing, not only in the cathedral cities but also in the smaller towns, even as far north as the Orkneys. Aberdeen had the most famous of these schools, and it was here that the famous John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, taught.


Primitive as they were, the old fiddles, with their limited range and thin, scratchy sound, were once good enough for royalty: "April 19, 1497—Item, to the tua fithelaris that sang Greysteil to ye King … iv s." King James IV's payroll also included three other fidlers, the first whose names have survived, Adam Boyd, Bennet, and Jame Widderspune.

A "fidlar" called Cabroch was emplyed by James V, but he may have soon been out of a job unless he was versatile, for James began ordering viols, the new favourite, from an English maker, Richard Hume. The viols had a more pleasant sound than the fiddles, and would have been easier to play in tune since they had lengths of gut tied round the fingerboard which, like guitar frets, could help stop the string accurately.

By 1538 fiddlers had been completely displaced at court by continental "violers".


The Franco-Belgian School had taken up the theories of the English so effectively that they actually left their mentors far behind. Political circumstances led to a close union between France and Scotland, and French influence began to make itself felt very markedly at this period. In mere externals, such as language, the influence was quite considerable. Institutions also became affected. Architecture and literary forms at this period reveal French styles, and we must expect to find the stream flowing into music. In a work of 1546 entitled The Boke named the Governour, the writer, enumerating some of the ancient dances, says: "In stede of these we have now Base daunces, bargenenethes, pauyons, turgions, and roundes." Here the French influence is clearly discerned. We see the same thing in the Complaynt of Scotland, a contemporary work. French minstrels were employed at the Scottish court during almost the whole of this period. Instruments of French origin show themselves in the viol, hoyboy, curtall, cornett, and batterie.

Flanders, which was allied to Scotland by commercial ties, also influenced Scottish life. The court minstrels were even sent to Flanders "to learn their craft". The solitary Scottish treatise on music which has come down to us from this period is now in the British Museum (circa 1540). It relies mainly on the authority of the German Orthinoparchus and the Franco-Belgian Josquin des Près.

Yet we must bear in mind that if France sent minstrels to the Scottish court, the compliment was returned. The composer to the French court of Henri II (1519) was William Costeley, whilst the two favourite lute players of Henri IV (1553) were James and Charles Hedington, all of whom have been claimed as Scots.


With the supremacy of Presbyterianism and the disruption of Civil War and Commonwealth, the performance and dissemination of part-music must have declined throughout the land along with the fall in prestige and influence of the song-schools, though there are many records of solo instrumental playing at this time. One of the few surviving musical sources of the mid-century is the fascinating Commonplace-Book of Robert Edwards. Part of it is a selection of European songs going back to the early sixteenth century and including some unique Scottish material, another part contains cittern music, and another keyboard. ... Harry Maule, third son of the second Earl of Panmure and much about the court, engrossed into one of his English violin books of about 1680 a set of Scots native airs (such as Kathren Oggie and Green grows the rushes for solo violin with characteristic division or variation, the first of many such collections that were to prove so popular in publication of the eighteenth century.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
pp 44-45


Neither can the dance forms be ignored, for it was these that produced the more extensive rhythmic variety in these days, and it was in their measures that the great composers, Byrd, Robert Johnson, Bull and Farnaby, wrote most of their music. Among the Scottish national dance forms of the 17th century were the hornpipe, jig, reel and lilt. The hornpipe or sean triubhas may have been a relic of an old Celtic dance. In Playford's Apollo's Banquet (1687) there is a New Scotch Hornpipe. There is a horn-pyp in the Leyden MS. (c. 1692), whilst an English gentleman, Edward Sadler, composed a Scotch hornpipe in 1693 (British Museum MS. Add. 22098). Scotland was also acquainted with the English variety, since A Lankishire hornpipe appears in the Guthrie MS., (c.1675-80), which might have been Scottish (=Lanarkshire). We also know what the Scottish jig was like at this period since we have Binny's jigg and Hopton's jigg in the Blaikie MS. (1683, 1692), and another in the Leyden MS. From English sources we have a Gigue (Scotch) in the British Museum (Add. 15118). Of course the English had long been acquainted with the Scottish jig, and Morley, in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597) shows that it was something unique. "I dare boldly affirm that, look which is he who thinketh himself the best discanter of all his neighbours, enjoin him to make but a Scottish jygge, he will grossly err in the true nature and quality of it." Shakespeare appreciated this jig, as we know from Much Ado about Nothing (c.1600), where he makes Beatrice say:—"Wooing, wedding, and repenting, is as a Scotch jig, a measure and a cinque pace; the first suit is hot and hasty, like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical."

We read of the reel at the extraordinary trial of witches (1591) with which James VI was acquainted. Here, it was averred "Geilles Duncan did go before them playing a reill." Its character may be seen in To dance about the Baillzeis dubb in the Skene MS. (c.1616-35), and The bony brow and New Hilland ladie in the Leyden MS., although none is called a reel there. A slower dance was what was then known as the lilt, of which many examples exist in the above named Scottish manuscripts, notably in the Skene MS., in both triple and quadruple time. In the earlier Rowallan lute MS. is one named Gypsyes lilt, which leads us to the reminiscence of those Egyptians that "dansit before the King [James V] in Halyrud House," the same ruler who favoured, in 1540, Johnne Faw, "Lord and erle of Litill Egipt," whose name must have prompted the later famous tune of Johny Faa, or the Gipsie Laddie (cf. British Minstrel, 1844). Perhaps it was these people of Yetholm, or those "Saracens or Gipsies" that were in Galloway a century earlier, who were responsible for the Morris dance.

The Morris dance was known quite early, and it runs into a line or two of Christis Kirk on the Grene (15th cent.) where "Auld Lychtfute" did "op the Moreiss danss." In the Skene MS. there is Ane alman Moreiss, i.e. a German morris dance, in common time. According to the above poem in which it is called "counterfeited Franss," it would seem to have been borrowed from Scotland's Gallic partner. Those who know Scott's Fair Maid of Perth will remember the description of the Morris dancers at the door of Simon the Glover. Today, the Glover's Incorporation of Perth still dispplays the bell furnishings worn by the Morris dancers when Charles I was greeted by the town in 1633.

... France, as we have seen already, was the determining factor in polite society in Scotland, and her trippings with "the light fantastic toe" were in Gallic measures. The Skene and Straloch MSS. are replete with music for the pavan, gaillard, brawl, buffon, courant, cinque pas, saraband, alman, bergomask, pantalon, and canary. Many of these bear the names of royal, noble, or other eminent patrons, e.g. the Queen's Almone, Horreis [Herries] Galyiard, and My Lord Hay's Currand. Not all of this music could have been of exotic origin since it is most likely that many were of Scottish facture, especially those that carry the names of patrons from the "Three Estates," just as those reels and strathspeys of the fiddlers of the 18th and 19th centuries were dedicated by hundreds to the same classes. It is all quite rhythmic and melodious stuff, most of it not traceable elsewhere which, in itself, rather favours the above conclusion of its indigenous production.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 231-233



Joseph Nash (1808-1878), St. George's Hall, 1848 Scotland has never scored many points for suitability for classical music. Poor; geographically remote from the rest of Europe; lacking classical-music traditions; everything has told against her. General poverty in a country does not prevent classical music flourishing if the country is feudal and the aristocracy are prepared to bleed the lower classes to death—as in some eighteenth-century German states where the royal opera company consumed an eighth of the national income; but in Scotland the aristocracy were not interested in spending their taxes on music.

This was so because Scotland had no suitable centres for classical music to concentrate in. Her court life came to an end in 1603, and was only briefly resuscitated for Charles I's Scottish coronation in 1633, and in 1680, when the Duke and Duchess of York spent the winter season at Holyrood. Prince Charles Edward Stuart also held court at Holyrood, temporarily, towards the end of 1745, and some royal French refugees stayed there in 1790. After that the next royal visitor was George IV, in 1822. Clearly, not much patronage can be expected here.

There were no religious centres in Scotland after the Reformation of 1560.




Note 1.
A recording of this piece played on the Gaelic harp can be found on Queen of Harps by Ann Heymann (Temple Records COMD 2057). Back

Note 2.
This is the first known reference to Maid Marion in the Robin Hood legends, and a French one at that. She does not appear in any of the early English ballads. Back




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