Playing from Old Collections of Scottish Fiddle Music

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The ongoing reprinting and digitisation of old Scottish fiddle music means that it is more accessible now than ever before. The contents of entire collections can be downloaded in seconds and the dedication of a select few music publishers has made many of the great collections available in print for the first time in centuries. But the modern user of these materials faces many obstacles in deciphering them: unfamiliar ornaments, the inclusion of unimaginative or seemingly ill-conceived bass lines, incongruous articulation and bowing markings, and well-known tunes in not so well-known keys are just a few of the pitfalls to be encountered! Of course, all this can be ignored if all that is of interest is tunes as series of pitches and rhythms, but a valuable insight can be gained into how the tunes were first performed by considering at least some these issues.

This blog post is intended as a guide for traditional musicians who are keen to explore the growing number of easily accessible old Scottish fiddle tunes, and includes links to where these can be found free on-line and solutions to the problems most frequently encountered in using them. In addition, historical context is provided to bridge the gap between our time and theirs and to facilitate an engagement with the tunes on their own terms.

Step 1: Finding Tunes On-line


Many musicians will be used to using sites like The SessionJC’s Tune Finder, Folk Tune Finder or The Traditional Tune Archive to access tunes in music notation on-line. Most useful for finding individual tunes, these websites are easy to navigate and results can range from one example to many, depending on the popularity of the tune in question. Sites like these store tunes in abc notation which can be converted into readable sheet music with the click of a button. The advantage of abc is that it is text-based and takes up a minimal amount of memory, unlike image files of printed material which eat up digital storage space. Abc is a great way of notating a melody as far as pitch and rhythm are concerned, but in many of the old publications of fiddle music there is a lot more included on the page, such as bass lines, articulations, and ornaments, for which a facsimile of the original can be more informative.

Digital Facsimile Editions

Digital copies of original publications are becoming increasingly available on-line, through sites such as The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)The Internet Archive, and (especially for Scott Skinner tunes) the University of Aberdeen’s The Music of James Scott Skinner website. In this case, the music notation is stored as either an image file (for individual pages) or pdf (for full collections), and, while requiring significantly more memory than abc, provides an almost unmatchable level of detail.

While the Scott Skinner site is indexed at the level of individual tunes, IMSLP and The Internet Archive are searchable by collection. This is not so immediately helpful if you are looking for a particular tune, but if you are looking for just any new material these can be of great interest.


Browsing through entire collections of tunes gives you an insight into potential sets of tunes as laid out on the page. (This insight is available to an extent when using abc, like Jack Campin does, to notate entire collections in sequence. See Jack Campin’s Hompage).

The Scottish Music Index

When it comes to finding tunes in connection to the collections they were first published in, Charles Gore’s Scottish Music Index is invaluable. The site does not contain any examples of music notation, but does list the contents of almost every publication of Scottish fiddle music between 1700 and 1900. Thus, you can search for the title of a tune and the site will list every published collection in which it’s included. The next step is to track down a copy of the collection (either on-line if a copy has been digitised or in a library if it hasn’t). In order to search the index it’s necessary to have a subscription, but at only £10 for two years it’s worth every penny!

Digital Modern Editions

Modern editions of old tunes and collections are available to download for free from music publishers, The Highland Music Trust (HMT) and Taigh na Teud. There’s more on modern editions in the next section. Nick Parkes has also published facsimiles of old collections as CD-ROMs.

Step 2: Finding Tunes in Print

The availability of fiddle tunes on-line is steadily increasing, but it remains the case that only a small minority of collections have been digitised. Essentials like the Gow and Marshall collections remain accessible only in print. Music publishers have taken huge steps in the past couple of decades to make classic collections available in print once more, with HMT releasing modern editions of the Athole and Glen collections, among others, and Taigh na Teud releasing a modern edition of the Malcolm MacDonald collection.

Modern Editions

In contrast to a facsimile edition, where images of the original pages are printed, in modern editions music is re-set in computerised typesetting, making it more familiar to twenty-first-century users. However, the process of resetting is rarely straightforward and demands editorial decision-making. Things like whether or not to maintain the original sequence of tunes and page layout are inconsequential if the focus is purely on the tune as pitch and rhythm, but as historical documents there can be a logic to how the music is laid out that is obliterated by a modern edition.


Print-on-demand (POD) provides printed facsimile copies of material outwith copyright. The second volume of the nineteenth-century original Glen Collection is available as POD via Amazon. Another volume available as POD is Dr Keith Norman MacDonald’s Skye Collection, also via Amazon. The quality of any POD publication is dependant on the condition of the material copied. The quality of the Glen and Skye Collection PODs is fair.

Old Collections in Libraries

Of course, it is possible to consult the original documents. Most are housed in libraries, but they do come up for sale occasionally. The main collections of Scottish fiddle music are housed at The National Library of ScotlandThe British LibraryThe University of AberdeenThe University of EdinburghThe University of GlasgowThe A. K. Bell Library (Perth)Dundee Public Library (Wighton Collection), and The Bodleian Library (University of Oxford, Harding Collection). It is important to make the distinction between a collection of fiddle tunes as a discrete publication and libraries’ named collections of fiddle music, such as the National Library of Scotland’s Glen Collection which consists of many published collections of tunes which belonged formerly to John Glen. Libraries also house fiddle manuscripts (hand-written rather than printed music notation) but few of these have been indexed, meaning the only way to search for tunes in them is by visiting the library and consulting the manuscript. Anyone can visit the above libraries, and most will be able to provide photocopies of relevant pages, though the cost for this varies from library to library.

Step 3: Playing the Music

As has been maintained throughout, it is perfectly possible to extract the tune as pitches and rhythms in most instances. However, it is also possible to engage with them on another level where they can reveal new ways to play.

Harmony and Accompaniment

This example of Jenny Dang the Weaver from Gow’s Repository of the Dance Music of Scotland shows how the music can be harmonised in a way that is different from how it would typically be done today. As this tune is in D major, it would be most common for the first chord to be a chord of D with a D in the bass, but as we see here, the bass note is an A which alternates with a B for the first strain. This is a throwback to a modal conception of harmony that was slowly supplanted by tonal major/minor harmony, not taking hold completely in Scotland until well into the nineteenth century. The A-B alternation in the bass is demonstrated in the following video.

The bass line was originally intended to be played on ‘cello, but as the video shows, it’s possible to adapt it to suit the instrumental forces available. For any fiddler who has made the transition to viola, they’ll know how quickly a new clef can be learnt. And if you have any experience on the piano you’ll already be familiar with bass clef.

The White Cockade

This example of The White Cockade from c. 1790 (Longman and Broderip’s Selection) further demonstrates the modal orientation of eighteenth-century performers, with the bass line implying e minor rather than the more common G major of today.

The issue of bass lines must be tackled with caution; there is a wide variation in quality from the perfunctory to the artistic. However, it is important to remember the status of the ‘cello in the dance band of the eighteenth century, where it’s role was more percussive than harmonic. It was the job of the bass player to keep a steady pulse for the dancers in the same way that drummers do in dance bands today.

Ornamentation and Variations

The way a traditional musician ornaments a tune can quickly give away the regional style in which s/he plays. The short, sharp grace notes of the North-East Scottish fiddler contrast with the slower, smoother graces of a West Coast fiddler. Ornamentation was also a defining feature of baroque music by the likes of Bach and Handel, who were contemporaries of the early Scottish fiddlers, including William McGibbon.

His setting of Maggie Lauder (Magie Lawder) includes a bass line (with figures to indicate which chord to play) and trills (tr) in addition to a rather ornate setting of the tune in music notation. Further, it includes variations which are best considered with the topic of ornamentation, as they are an embellishment of the original tune. The trills can be played in many ways, but the traditional musician can feel at ease interpreting them liberally as grace notes or crushed notes. It can also be rewarding to study the precise rhythms as notated, distinguishing between dotted and straight quavers.

These ornaments and variations are indicative of the significant element of improvisation that featured in the performance of Scottish fiddle music in the eighteenth century. A fiddler would be expected to come up with variations spontaneously within performance.

Of course, music notation is not the best way to record improvisatory elements in performance, but along with written accounts it is all we have of how the music was played in the past. An awareness of the degree of creativity in historical performance is a good start to recreating it in performances today. The best players do this to an extent – recordings of fiddler, Hector MacAndrew, demonstrate how he would play a tune straight the first time and ornamented the second, and jazz fiddlers like Stephane Grappelli constantly play around with the tune – but so many musicians want only to replicate a text (whether music notation or a revered recording) that creativity in performance is encountered far less often nowadays.

Wedderburn House was published in Abraham Mackintosh’s collection of c. 1792. The notation here is taken from HMT’s modern edition. It includes the ornament known as a turn (as seen in bar  2) and unlike the trill there is no equivalent ornament in the traditional music idioms of today. The turn is executed by quickly playing the written note, the note above, the written note again, the note below, and finally the written note once more. Tunes such as this betray the crossover or fusion between folk and classical elements which was such a big part of the music at this time. Fiddler-composers were not immune to ‘outside’ influences such as international musical fashions. Our modern ideas about traditional music are in many cases very modern and reflect little of how things were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially where dance music is concerned.

The Mackintosh Collections

The Mackintosh Collections from HMT serve as a good example of the cross-cultural exchange between classical and traditional that can be found in Scottish fiddle music. Consisting of four volumes in one, the publication makes accessible a substantial part of Robert Mackintosh’s oeuvre. (Robert was the father of Abraham). However, unlike the majority of collections from this time, these require lots of decoding. To begin, the contents include not only reels and strathspeys (the mainstay of Scottish fiddle music) but gavottes and minuets, in addition to airs labelled variously as vivace, allegro and andante (so not a typical slow air) and a technically demanding solo. Further, many of the tunes are set with two treble staves and a bass staff, suggesting more a baroque trio sonata than a Scottish dance tune. It is the first collection (1783) that seems most incongruous to modern sensibilities, with subsequent collections becoming more ‘traditional,’ but the boundary between classical music and traditional music remains unclear, especially given the inclusion of pieces intended only for performance on the newly fashionable piano-forte.
Niel Gows Lament for the Death of his Second Wife

This is my modern edition of Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife, based on the first published setting in Gow’s Fifth Collection (1809). What is most interesting about this is the variation of rhythm and ornamentation when the same thematic material is repeated in the second strain, with the notation revealing more about possible interpretations rather than one fixed interpretation.


A big stumbling block to playing from old collections is that little is indicated in the notation by way of bowing. Anyone used to playing from James Hunter’s The Fiddle Music of Scotland or Taigh na Teud’s Ceilidh Collections will know that much effort has been put into ensuring settings of the tune generally follow the rule of arriving on a down bow at the beginning of each bar. In older collections, composers and editors expected users of the music to make up their own bowings, or else use unwritten bowing conventions that are unknown to us today.

One bowing convention that is quite useful is the slurring of the last note of one bar with the first note of the next bar when the last note of the first bar lands on a down bow, as in Angus Cumming’s 1780 setting of Tullochgorum. It is given here in my modern edition, first as it is notated by Cumming and second with slurs that ensure each bar begins with a down bow. The slur over the bar line is something found in the Duke of Perth manuscript of fiddle tunes, and is useful for resolving many issues of bowing.

Step 4: Keeping it Traditional

One of the most important things about traditional music is learning tunes by ear. There are those who consider playing from music notation an unforgivable offence, with the value of oral transmission being seen as central to the identity of the traditional musician. However, as the collections of fiddle music show, many fiddlers in the past were musically literate, and while they might have performed from memory there is nothing to say that they didn’t rely on notation to learn tunes. However, their relationship to the tune on the page would have been quite different to our relationship to it: while we hold the text to be sacred, the eighteenth-century fiddler would have taken it as a springboard, inspiring his creativity and being only a starting point for performance. The fact that Nathaniel Gow had to plea to musicians in the preface to one of his books to perform the music he published as it was notated demonstrates how free and loose they played with the text. There is no shame in using music notation to learn tunes, but the tune on the page should never be taken as the desired end product. Creativity in performance, whether by adding your own ornamentation, variation, bowing, or accompaniment, is what makes traditional music so rewarding to perform and popular with audiences.

Links to Digitised Collections

Robert Bremner, A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (1757)

William McGibbon, A Collection of Scots Tunes (1746)

James Oswald, The Caledonian Pocket Companion (12 vols, c. 1745-c. 1762)

Gow and Sons, Gow’s Repository of the Dance Music of Scotland (4 vols, 1799-1817) 

George Cameron, Cameron’s Selection of Violin Music (1859)

Köhler’s Violin Repository of Dance Music

Francesco Barsanti, A Collection of Old Scots Tunes (1742)

Daniel Dow, A Collection of Ancient Scots Music (c. 1778)

Digital Collections at the National Library of Scotland

Niel Gow, A Collection of Strathspey Reels (bootleg edition)

This list will be updated as and when I find digitised collections. Please get in touch if you know of any that should be included – ronnie[dot]gibson[at]abdn[dot]ac[dot]uk 

Ronnie Gibson (22 May 2013)