The Atholl Collection at A K Bell Library

The A K Bell Library in Perth is home to a significant collection of Scottish dance music. Known as the Atholl Collection, its contents include many of the published tune collections from the Golden Age of fiddle music by the like of the Gows, Marshall, and McGlashan in addition to manuscripts compiled by amateurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In total, around 600 items make up the Collection, with the earliest of these dating from the seventeenth century.

My interest in the Collection stems from a project I’m currently researching about the popular Scottish dance tune, ‘Tullochgorum.’ On investigation, I found there to be twenty-one examples of the tune in the Atholl Collection, ranging in date from 1757 (the first example of the tune in print) to 1935. Each example is unique, differing in significant ways from every other example, yet each remains recognisable as ‘Tullochgorum.’ By comparing the examples, I hope to gain an insight into the performing practices of fiddlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (See my post on Tullochgorum for more information about this project).

I was greatly assisted in my research by two previous efforts of scholarship. The first is a catalogue prepared by Dr Sheila Douglas and published as a book in 1999. It contains details of the title, author, and publisher of each item in the Collection in addition to background information regarding its history. Second, an anonymous indexer [now identified as Mr Alastair Robertson of Kirkcaldy – 15/4/13] has taken the work of Dr Douglas to the next level by going through each volume in the Collection and meticulously taking note of the individual tunes within. The result is a sizeable bank of index cards which direct the user to every volume that contains a particular tune. This effort is on a par with that of Charles Gore who indexed the contents of every volume of fiddle music published between 1700 and 1900. However, whereas our anonymous indexer took as his limit the contents of the Atholl Collection, Gore travelled the country in search of any and every publication from within a two-hundred-year period. Gore’s Index was published as a book in 1994 and is searchable online at: http://www.scottishmusicindex.org/ (accessible via subscription).

I am grateful to Anne Carroll, Assistant Librarian in the Local Studies department of the A K Bell Library, for her help in accessing the Collection. From her, I learned that it is consulted by a wide range of users, including traditional musicians in search of ‘new’ tunes, researchers of music printing, and Scottish country dancers. She also expressed her concern that potential users of the Collection did not know of its existence and as such were missing an opportunity to explore what is a jewel in the crown of Scottish dance/traditional music. For my part, I must confess my initial confusion concerning the Atholl Collection at the A K Bell Library and The Athole Collection of the Dance Music of Scotland, a volume of tunes first published by James Stewart-Robertson in 1884 and available from the Highland Music Trust in a new edition at: http://www.heallan.com/athole.html

While both are collections of Scottish dance music and share links to the famous Atholl/Athole family of Perthshire, they are quite different in form. Whereas Robertson’s single-volume publication was dedicated to the Duke of Atholl/Athole, the Atholl Collection at the A K Bell was compiled by Lady Dorothea Stewart Murray, the eldest child of the 7th Duke of Atholl/Atholl, over her lifetime. The same person, married as Lady Dorothea Ruggles-Brise, was responsible for donating the Glen Collection of Scottish Dance music to the National Library of Scotland. An equally significant Collection, it was compiled by John Glen towards the end of the nineteenth century and was sold at auction on his death.

Anyone interested in consulting the Atholl Collection is encouraged to contact the Local Studies department at the A K Bell Library. More information is available at: http://www.pkc.gov.uk/article/3509/Special-collections

Ronnie Gibson (10th April 2013)

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