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The guitar in Scottish traditional music


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"The psaltery, the sytholis, the soft sytharist,
The croude and the monycordis, the gittyrnis gay;
The rote, and the recordour, the rivupe, the rist,
The trumpe and the talburn, the tympane but tray;
The lilt pipe and the lute, the fydill in fist,
The dulset, the dulsacordis, the schalme of Assay;
The amyable organis usir full oft;
Claryonis lowde knellis,
Portativis and bellis,
Cymbaclanis [cymbaelanis] in the cellis,
That soundis so soft."

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 87



The guitar, the "gittyrn gay" of Holland, was different from the lute in many respects. It had a flat sound-chest like the fiddle, and indeed it could be called a plucked fiddle, for such nomenclature obtained in Spain where the two types of instrument were called the vihuela de penola and vihuela de arco. The sythol of the poets was the instrument known in England as the citole. It was pear-shaped and vault-chested, but its head was straight, not turned back at a right angle like the lute. There is a sculptured example at Roslyn Castle (15th cent.). Both the gittyrn and the sythol seem to have had four strings and, like the lute, was played with the fingers or a plectrum.

Ibid., p. 91

We have four instruments of the lute class delineated by Wood in his psalter (1562-66), all of which retain the ancient Oriental outline and mien. The first that occurs in the psalter's margin is a four string lute with its characteristic bridge-tailpiece or string-holder. The second instrument, with a smaller and hemispherical sound-chest, is probably a pandore. This also has four strings. The fourth instrument in the margin of the opposite page of the psalter might conceivably be the mandore, since its strings are not attached to a string-holder on the belly of the instrument, but seemingly to small pins underneath the bottom. All three instruments have convex sound-chests.

The "jocund" githorn of Burel was the same as Holland's gittyrn "gay" of the preceding century, and the similarity of the honorific adjective is passing strange. It had a flat sound-chest with incurvatures at the side like the modern guitar, which is its linear and lineal descendant. Again we read that the githorn was among the instruments of the students at St. Andrews in 1574. In the Donaldson Collection at the Royal College of Music in London there is a guitar which "is said" to have belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. The instrument itself reveals French workmanship although this does not necessarily exclude the Scottish queen's ownership of it. The gittern, gittyrn, or githorn also had four strings, as we know from Anthony Holborne's Cittharne School (1597).

Ibid., pp. 144-145

Closely allied to the lute were the mandore, pandore and gittern. The mandore, as we have seen, was a kind of treble lute mounted with four strings. Seemingly, the Skene MS. was written for this instrument, and it contains rules for "tuning the mandwr to the old tune [accordatura] of the lutt," from which we know that the lute formerly had four strings. The pandore was originally a long-necked instrument of the lute class, but by this time it was a flat-chested, large sized gittern, with incurvatures at the sides and mounted with 10, 12, or 14 strings fixed bicordally. Kellie, the Master of the Chapel Royal at Holyrood, when furnishing the palace musically in 1630-31, supplied two pandores. We know much about the instrument generally from Thomas Robinson's School of Musicke (1603). Its meaner brother was the gittern but, unlike the lute and mandore, it had wire strings, as Mace tells us in his Musick's Monument (1676), although the lower strings were of gut covered or "wreathed" with wire, as Lord Bacon describes them. It must have had wide approval in Scotland among both the masses and classes, since we find a master of the Haddington Sang School teaching it in 1610 to the bairns of the people at large, whilst music for it, in the Panmure MS., as Dr. Whillsher informs me, gives proof of its popularity with the leisured folk.

Ibid., p. 201



The guitar seems to have overtaken the lute and, like it, was an instrument of the classes rather than the masses, as the frontispiece to Bremner's Instruction for the Guitar (Edin., 1758, London, c. 1762) so amiably reveals. It is also figured in the pages of Corri's Select Collection of the Most Admired Songs (Edin., c. 1779). Although James Oswald published The Pocket Companion for the Guittar: Containing ... Italian ... and Scots Songs (Lond., c. 1755), Bremner's guitar tutor was probably the earliest of its kind in English, and he himself says that the guitar was "but lately introduced into Britain." The craze came from Italy, but the instrument was rightly called the "English guitar" since it was practically identical with the old cittern, as we know from John Playford, which had fallen into disuse a half century earlier. Dalyell assures us that this English guitar "long continued in repute in Scotland," and that its practice "was a regular branch of female accomplishment." Frank Kidson looked upon it was "the feminine substitute for the German flute." Corri's picture of the instrument presents it with five double strings. On the other hand, the guitar in the lap of Mrs. Henry Erskine (Christian Fullerton) in Willison's portrait (c. 1772) has twelve tuning pegs, eleven of which are visible (Fergusson's Henry Erskine, 1882), and Preston's arrangements was an accordatura of C E G c e g, the two lower strings being single, and the four others double, although Longman's and Broderip's Compleat Instruction for the Guitar (Lond., 1780) makes all the strings double. That the instrument found acceptance well into the 19th century is apparent from the fact that almost every piece of sheet musci published in Scotland from about 1780 to 1810 had appended an arrangement for the "guittar," and even Bremner's Songs in the Gentle Shepherd (1759) was issued specially for this instrument.

The Spanish guitar was also to be found in Scotland in the 18th century, although in England, according to Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1940), it did not make its appearance until 1813-15. It was known in England so early as the Musical Entertainer (Lond., 1737-38) of George Bickham. In Scotland, Joshua Campbell of Glasgow was teaching it in 1762, and we see the instrument in the hands of Lady Caroline, Fourth Marchioness of Lothian, in her portrait painted by Allan Ramsey (d. 1784), now in the National Gallery of Scotland. Unlike the pear-shaped English guitar, the Spanish type had a contour somewhat similar to that of the violin but with the belly and back quite flat. Another dissimilarity from the former was that there was no bridge, the strings, which were five, being fastened to a combined bridge-tailpiece as in the lute.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 286-287



Scottish traditional music has been played on the guitar for well over two hundred years, at least that is, since the publication in Edinburgh of Robert Bremner's Instructions for the Guitar of 1758. Not only does this little gem of a book contain technical instructions on how to play the 18th century guitar, it also contains many traditional tunes, some of which are still being performed in folk and traditional music clubs throughout Scotland, and indeed, the world today. ...

The guitar as used by Robert Bremner in many ways resembles a modern folk cittern as used by Scottish groups such as the Battlefield band as well as many Irish groups, and was in that day often spelled guittar. It has ten strings—four unison trebles and two single basses, that is, six 'courses' in all. (A course can be single or double, although the 17th century cittern had up to four strings to one course.) The string length from nut to bridge, i.e. the playing length of an open string, is generally around 42 cms, compared to a modern guitar's average of around 64 cms. The tuning from the bass upwards is CEGCEG, that is, two major triads, the second an octave higher than the first, which gives a very warm, resonant sound, ideal for Scottish traditional music which, in Bremner's day, rarely if ever ventured from its home key. ...

A short list of tunes from Bremner's Instructions will give a good impression of the contents: 'Lochaber no more', 'Tweedside', 'Port Patrick', 'The Birks of Endermay', 'Up w'it, Eli, Eli' and many others. The C major tuning of root, third, fifth, root, third, fifth would be difficult to reproduce on the modern guitar with changing the strings.

Rob MacKillop
Scottish Traditional Music for Guitar
The Hardie Press, 1999
pp. iv-v



Gabriel Metsu,Dutch, 1629 - 1667,'Une Femme Accordant Une Guitare' Although Smollett refers only to the men, women were no less active. Some played the flute (like the young Susannah Kennedy, later countess of Elgin), or even the violin (like Suphy Johnston), and of course the spinet of virginals and harpsichord. But the pear-shaped 'English guitar' was very fashionable with young ladies at this time; the Spanish 'guitar' is also mentioned, Daniel Dow advertising to teach it.

Such is the instrument held by Lady Caroline, fourth Marchioness of Lothian, in the portrait of her by Allan Ramsey, son of the poet. The vogue of the English guitar was so great that harpsichord and spinet makers faced economic difficulties. It is said that one of the Kirkmans, English harpsichord makers, broke the vogue by supplying cheap guitars to milliner girls and street ballad singers whom he taught to accompany themselves. G. Jones, article 'Music' in Encyclopedia Londinensis, 1810-29.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 44

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The following extract from Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (published 1785), describes events taking place on the Isle of Skye during Dr. Johnson's 1773 tour. The area mentioned in Sleat (the southern part of the island) is now the location of the Gaelic college at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Tuesday, Sept.28.—... We set out about four. Young Corrichatachin went with us. We had a fine evening, and arrived in good time at Ostig, the residence of Mr. Martin M`Pherson, minister of Slate. We were received here with much kindness by Mr. and Mrs. M`Pherson, and his sister, Miss M`Pherson, who pleased Dr. Johnson much by singing Erse songs, and playing on the guitar.

James Boswell
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

guitar rule


Lutenist At Banff by the far-off Moray Firth around 1783 Isaac Cooper provided for a distinguished clientele in the traditional dual role of musician and dancing master. In publishing his collection he observes that the public had been 'so much imposed upon by people who have published reels, and called them new and at the same time they were only only reels with new names'. He advertised himself as the teacher of an impressive list of instruments—the harpischord, violoncello, psaltery (viol), clarionet, pipe and taberer, German flute, Scots flute, fife 'in the regimental style' and hautboy; and of

'... the Irish Organ Pipe, how to make flats and sharps and how to make the proper chords with the brass keys. And the Guitar, after a new method of fingering (never taught in this country before) which facilitates the most intricate passages.'

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 62

guitar rule

Woman with cittern An account of their singing at a slightly later period, in about 1760, has survived:

The ladies of Edinburgh used to sing those airs ['Lochaber no more' and others] without any accompaniment (indeed they scarce admitted of counterpoint, or any but a slight and delicate accompaniment) at tea and after supper, their position at table not being interrupted as now by rising to the pianoforte.

Mackenzie was born in 1745 and wrote these memoirs in 1831. The 'delicate accompaniment' may have been a cittern, which could easily be played sitting at table.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
p. 17



An Aberdeen newspaper of 1758 reads:

A Glasgow advertisement of 1762 says with naïvete:

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 325

guitar rule

Date: Wed, 8 Jan 1997 02:11:12 +0000
From: dan.mozell@NASHVILLE.COM
Subject: Guitar In Celtic Music

From the messages on this topic it seems a few folks might not be familiar with the use of the guitar, or the history of fretted instruments in general, in Irish and other Celtic styles. Some of the oldest written examples of Scottish music are in manuscripts for fretted instruments. One example is the Skene manuscript written in tablature for lute and viheula. While current, so called Celtic music, is mostly derived from more recent periods, this music is certainly an ancestor. I have a book about music in Colonial Massachusetts that includes a photocopy of late 18th century sheet music for "Haste To The Wedding." One of the settings on the sheet is for "guitar." Paul Wells pointed out to me that this might refer to the "English Guitar" which is really a cittern. It's mostly melody with just a few harmony notes, suggesting it's a "flatpicking" arrangment. The "English Guitar" was a wire strung instrument.

There are excellent recordings of Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton flatpicking. Check out Arty McGlynn, David MacIsaac, Chris Newman, and Dick Gaughan for examples. The list is growing. My website (address below) includes some gifs of flatpicking arrangements and info about my book on the topic.

Dan Mozell
http://www.nashville.com/~dan.mozell/d-mozell.htm
(Home of "The Incomplete Celtic Guitar")
Quoted (by permission) from the IRTRAD-L list


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