Burns and the Fiddle

We know that Robert Burns loved the fiddle and learned it himself. We also know that he used lots of contemporary fiddle tunes as the melodic inspiration for his songs. But what did these tunes sound like to Burns and his peers? This resource presents eight of the tunes most famously connected with the poet’s songs. Fiddler Aaron McGregor and cellist Alison McGillivray are performing from the original published fiddle collections that were contemporary to Burns.

View a list of the fiddle performances

Burns and the Fiddle

The work our editorial team has been undertaking on Burns’s songs for James Johnson and George Thomson as part of ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ has really broadened our understanding of Burns’s engagement with musical culture in his own time. We’ve been able to explore these early musical sources and to bring them back to life through the Period Songs and The Jolly Beggars performances. It is already well-known that many of the tunes Burns used to inspire brand new songs were part of a published and actively-performed fiddle tradition, which experienced something of a Golden Age in the latter decades of the 18th century. This tradition has been examined by the late David Johnson, by American scholar Mary Anne Alburger and also by Katherine Campbell (who has recorded some songs for our project – Handsome Nell, McPherson’s Farewell and Tibbie), in her monograph The Fiddle in Scottish Culture (Brilinn, 2007). And detailed work has been done by Charles Gore for his Scottish Fiddle Index.

Burns biographers have already established that Burns had an interest in the fiddle early in his life. Anecdotal evidence from his little sister, Isabella, later in her life, suggests that Burns tried hard to learn to play the fiddle, even if he never acquired enough skill to keep a dance tune going. That he admired and used fiddlers as key characters in his poetry and song is also well known:  from the ‘pigmy scraper’ in The Jolly Beggars with his wonderful song to match the spiky fiddle tune ‘Whistle o’er the lave o’t’ created in 1785, to the fiddle-playing Devil in ‘The Deil’s awa’ wi’ the exciseman’ first published in The Scots Musical Museum in 1792.  This later song used the tune ‘The Hemp Dresser’ which Burns had probably found in the collection of fiddle tunes entitled The Caledonian Pocket Companion, by the 18th century dancing-master and fiddler James Oswald. One of Burns’s letters to James Johnson in 1791 reveals Burns’s excitement at purchasing an ‘entire copy of Oswald’s Scots [Music,] (Letters, II, 91). He anticipated that he would ‘make glorious work out of it’ and so he did, choosing many of Oswald’s tunes for his songs.  John Purser’s work on Burns and Oswald cleverly reveals the connections between the two artists, showing that their Freemasonic links were only a starting point and that their two projects, the ‘Companion’ for Oswald and the ‘Museum’ for Burns, were part of the same camp too (Purser in Love & Liberty, ed. Simpson, 1997, 326-33).

As suggested here, Burns’s letters are a fine source of evidence about his knowledge of existing and contemporary fiddle tunes.  In his ‘seventeeth year’, he recounts to Dr John Moore in August 1787, he attended ‘a country dance school’ (Letters, I, 139), where he would have learnt common country dances accompanied by a solo fiddler. And this education in dancing and the fiddle tunes for dances continued for Burns and his brother Gilbert at the Bachelor’s Club in Tarbolton, which they established and ran between 1781 and 1783. Indeed, the fiddle belonging to William Gregg, their dancing master, is still in existence. It can be can be seen at the Robert Burns  Birthplace Museum in Alloway and it is still played at special events at the Bachelor’s Club today.

Burns’s letters to both Johnson, and later to George Thomson, frequently discuss the use of fiddle tunes for songs and the qualities of these tunes in detail. Later editions of the songs, especially those by James C. Dick in 1903 and James Kinsley in the 1960s, trace many of these tunes to contemporary collections by famous fiddlers including Oswald and Niel Gow, along with William Marshall, James Aird and others.  Moreover, Burns’s good friend Robert Riddell of Glenriddell, through whose own library at Ellisland Burns most probably accessed some of these printed collections, was a keen amateur musician who published his own collection of New Music for the pianoforte or Harpsichord in 1787, including ‘Reels, Minuets, Hornpipes, Marches’ and songs. He also published A Collection of Scotch Galwegian & Border Tunes for the Violin in 1794 (both were printed by James Johnson in Edinburgh).

Sir Henry Raeburn: Niel Gow, 1727 – 1807. Violinist and composer

As Nigel Leask’s new edition of the ‘Tour Journals’ reminds us, there was even a famous meeting with Burns and Niel Gow, when Burns visited Blair Atholl in August 1787. He spent his breakfast on 31 August listening to Gow playing tunes and Burns noted down that he was a ‘short, stout built, honest highland figure with his grayish hair shed on his honest social brow an interesting face marking strong sense, kind openheartedness mixed with unmistrusting simplicity’ (HT, 147). Later that day Burns visited Gow’s house and met his wife Margaret. His letter home to his brother Gilbert a few weeks later tracks his movements around the Duke of Athole’s estates to Badenoch and the river Spey where he comments on ‘Strathspey’ being ‘so famous in Scottish Music’ (Letters, I, 156).

Fortuitously, while we have been working on our new editions of Burns’s songs in The Scots Musical Museum and in Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, another AHRC-funded project has been underway at the University of Glasgow (PI Dr David McGuinness) with colleagues in music. The Bass Culture project has been challenging the assumption that British and European folk musics are based on melody, through an examination of the bass cultures which are represented in the historical sources of Scottish fiddle and pipe music. So this team has been working very closely with exactly the fiddle collections Burns knew and with the tunes he often chose for his songs.

To examine more closely Burns’s working relationship with this repertoire we commissioned fiddler Aaron McGregor and cellist Alison McGillvray to perform some of the tunes Burns used for his most famous songs including ‘My love’s like a red, red rose’ and ‘Of a’ the airts’. But we asked them to use the original 18th century publications that Burns most probably used himself.

Kirsteen McCue

Recreating 18th-century fiddle tunes

In compiling the material for this resource, we have attempted to give an overview of Burns’s relationship with contemporary fiddle culture. As well as original versions of some of Burns’s most famous adaptations of fiddle tunes, we present tunes he might have known from a variety of sources as well as a rich performance tradition. The recordings incorporate  versions of tunes from original 18th century printed collections, and we perform on  period instruments and bows. The instrumental combination of fiddle and cello was a common feature of 18th-century dance bands, and it is also likely this was what Burns would have heard at his meeting with Niel Gow in 1787.

As noted above, Burns was a participant in what has become known as the ‘golden age’ of Scots fiddle music: the era of celebrated fiddler-composers such as William Marshall and the Gows, who later became known as founding fathers of a national style; and the period when a body of Scottish dance music first began to appear in print. Recent research and performance projects in music at the University of Glasgow have explored the historical perspectives of this period of Scottish music. One output of the Bass Culture project has been a substantial database and digitisation of over three hundred printed fiddle collections published in Scotland between 1750 and 1850 (available online at Historical Music of Scotland). Work by Concerto Caledonia, especially the 2016 album recording ‘Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band’, has breathed new life into music from old collections, experimenting with instrumental combinations and performance styles which would have been familiar to the Scottish dance band of the 1780s.

One of the reasons these collections had such an impact on Burns seems to have been a shared aesthetic. In a letter to George Thomson, Burns named his own musical tastes as ‘inelegant and vulgar’, noting that ‘strathspeys, ancient and modern, give me most exquisite enjoyment’ where other people with cultivated tastes would show signs of disgust (Letters, II, 307). In the second half of the 18th century, Scottish fiddle music publications moved away from the more Italianate and highly ornamented ‘Scots tune’ style of Adam Craig, William McGibbon and others, to a repertoire largely consisting of dance music such as hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels – exactly the list Burns’s witches and warlocks dance to in his famous long poem ‘Tam o’Shanter’ (l. 117) – generally presented in a much simpler style with less embellishment.

Of particular note are the accompaniments in many of these collections, which after Robert Bremner’s A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (Edinburgh, c.1757-61) tend to feature stark cello basslines, most often consisting of repeated notes in crotchets moving between two notes a tone apart, a style Francis Collinson later described as an ‘accented drone’. Most of the tune types in these collections, if not the tunes themselves, have remained part of the tradition, but their presentation in collections is often noticeably different to modern performance style. As well as an 18th century repertoire of ornamentation and articulation, the rhythmical differences between dance forms such as the reel and strathspey was only then gradually being defined, and there is often far more fluidity between dotted and straight rhythms.

Many of the tunes presented in this resource would have been known to Burns in their original printed versions. Niel Gow’s ‘Major Graham’s Strathspey’ was the original choice for ‘Red Red Rose’, as well as ‘Ah, Chloris, since it may not be’, and Gow’s composition ‘Lamentation for Abercairney’ was used for Burns’s ‘Where braving angry winter’s storms’. We know from the Hastie manuscript that Burns knew these from Gow’s A Collection of Strathspey Reels (1784), and the musical settings of these tunes in SMM retain elements of violinistic writing, especially the range of up to two octaves and the wide leaps of an octave or more. Another tune probably known from Gow’s first collection is the beautiful Gaelic air ‘Robie donna gorach’, intended by Burns for his song ‘The Banks of Nith’, but replaced by Johnson in SMM with a far less memorable tune by Robert Riddell.

Perhaps the most famous of Burns’s fiddle adaptations is ‘Of a’ the airts’, set to William Marshall’s ‘Miss Admiral Gordon’s Reel’. In SMM, we find more of a sense of adaptation of the original melody, with the removal of many of the ‘birls’ and Scotch-snaps, giving Burns’s love song a far more lilting, gentle character compared to the more strident original version. Interestingly, Burns’s song and Marshall’s tune later became so closely associated that the Marshall’s 1822 edition includes ‘Of a’ the airts’ as a subtitle for the tune, and adopts many of the rhythmical changes from SMM.

Other songs by Burns have a relationship with fiddle tunes but are not as closely based on one particular musical text; he may have known some of these from several different collections, or from aural circulation. John Glen’s Early Scottish Melodies (1900) was particularly helpful in tracking down the earliest printed sources for tunes used by Burns. Glen noted the closeness between the melody used for Burns’s ‘For a’ that and a’ that’, and a tune first printed in Scotland by Bremner in c.1757 as ‘Lady McIntosh’s Reel’. Glen also noted the melodic similarities between ‘Sic a wife as willie had’ with a tune printed as the reel ‘Blue Britches’ in by Bremner, and in a strathspey version as ‘Link him Dodie’ in Gow’s 1784 collection.

No source is named for the music in SMM for ‘O Tibie I hae seen the day’ (Invercald’s Reel), and ‘Duncan Davidson’, yet both are clearly based on fiddle settings. They adopt the wide range,  large leaps, and dotted rhythms found in the many printed fiddle versions, and in the case of the latter tune, the version in SMM also includes the distinctive ‘four in a bar’ dance bassline.

Aaron McGregor