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Just another old Book of Scottish Tunes?

2012 October 30
by lucinda matthews-jones

A posting by Dr Karen E McAulay (Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) for JVC Online

A decade ago, the library at RSAMD (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) was refurbished.  In preparation for the alterations, an old cupboard had to be emptied, and three music manuscripts came to light, each containing Scottish tunes arranged for the flute; and psalm- tunes.[i]

Figure 1: James Simpson’s version of ‘Coolon’, in Simpson MS 2 – probably copied from another source

The manuscripts had belonged to a Dundonian lodging-house superintendent, James Simpson, and dated c.1828-1830.  Simpson died in 1872, his wife Cecilia surviving him and living as tenant in one of two tiny cottages at the back of Myrekirk House, their former home where their son Alexander now lived with his own family.

Figure 2: Myrekirk Cottages, where Cecilia Simpson ended her days

Figure 3: Myrekirk, Simpson’s penultimate home – originally a manse, though the Kirk was long gone.

Alexander was a significant figure in Scottish music commerce, as co-owner of a Dundee music publishing firm which continued trading until the 1970s.  However, we had no inkling how or when his father’s manuscripts had arrived in Glasgow. I conducted a small-scale research project to establish the basic facts about their provenance, history and contents.

Having been reminded how much I enjoyed the research process, I decided to resume the doctoral studies that I’d never completed, twenty-odd years earlier.  The only difference was that I had been a mediaevalist then; I would now be studying Scottish music from the late 18th and 19th centuries.

As it turned out, I did no further work on the James Simpson flute manuscripts once I’d published a couple of articles and a research paper for the RMA Research Chronicle.[ii] Instead, I focused on Scottish song-collecting during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.  I began with a Highland collection contemporary with James Macpherson’s fraudulent Ossian poetry, and ended with a controversial English collection of ‘popular songs’, whose compiler upset many ‘over-national’ Scots musicians by asserting that the repertoire was not as thoroughbred Scottish as they thought.

I devoted a great deal of time to poring over the paratextual material – the prefaces, contextual notes, etc – and discovered that what really excited me was tracing the links between this repertoire – surprisingly, very little researched – and other artistic endeavours, particularly the written word, by the likes of Joseph Ritson, Robert Burns, Walter Scott and James Hogg – not to mention individuals such as Sydney Owenson, elsewhere in the Celtic diaspora.  Issues of authenticity, fakery, and attitudes towards creativity, were all grist to the mill.  A chance remark to an American research student in the Academic Ladder writing club, led me to further parallels in the world of art: I was put in touch with an art-historian who had discovered remarkably similar attitudes towards copied art, as I was finding in connection with the ‘buried treasure’ that R. A. Smith and Allan Cunningham were purportedly ‘finding’ in their published collections of songs and poems respectively.  (Literary scholars will know all about the ‘found manuscript/ buried treasure’ themes in eighteenth and early nineteenth century novels and poetry collections, such as Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or Scott’s The Antiquarian.)

Other chapters explored the importance of travel, and the sense of place, to my Scottish song collectors; and then as the mid-nineteenth century approached, I discovered that a more serious and scholarly attitude was brought to bear on collections aimed at the growing market of a middle-class, pianoforte-owning public.

I had to draw a line somewhere, though, which is why my thesis ends in the apparently insignificant year of 1888.  It was the year the Englishman, William Chappell, died.  When Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time was eventually republished in a new edition, the content had been systematically de-Scotified, and the book given the new title, Old English Popular Music.[iii] The move would have silenced some of his loudest critics, had they still been alive to witness it.

Since graduating from the University of Glasgow with my doctorate in December 2009, I’ve continued my research on a small scale, delivering and publishing a few papers – and getting a book contract with Ashgate.  The book, Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era, will be published in March 2013.

Since I’ve been Music and Academic Services Librarian at the Royal Conservatoire for nearly 25 years, I imagined that this would be the pattern of my existence for the foreseeable future.  However, I have been fortunate enough to have been head-hunted for a part-time secondment to an AHRC-funded research project which has just started at the Universities of Glasgow and Cambridge.  I shall be working as postdoctoral research assistant for two days a week for the next three years, on ‘Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions’.  Where my doctoral research focused on editorial attitudes and decisions in Scottish song collections, this new project is looking at the bass-lines and accompaniments supplied in books of Scottish fiddle tunes in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  We’ll be looking much more closely at notes and harmonies, to establish the nature of any recurring patterns, with the aim of informing modern performance practice for musicians using this repertoire.

In my opinion, it’s an altogether satisfactory outcome from the chance discovery of three old flute manuscripts in a redundant cupboard!

Karen E. McAulay can be contacted via the Library and IT Department at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  She authors the long-established performing arts blog, Whittaker Live, and also maintains a personal Academia.edu page.


[i] James Simpson MS 1 (1828); MS 2 (1828-30) and MS 3 (undated), Whittaker Library, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

[ii] Karen E McAulay, ‘Nineteenth Century Dundonian Flute Manuscripts found at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, RMA Research Chronicle 38 (2005), p. 99-141.

[iii] William Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time: a Collection of Ancient Songs, Ballads, and Dance Tunes, Illustrative of the National Music of England, airs harmonized by G. A. Macfarren, 2 vols (London: Cramer, Beale & Chappell, [1855–59]); and Old English Popular Music, new edn with a preface and notes and the earlier examples entirely revised by H. Ellis Wooldridge, 2 vols (London: Chappell and MacMillan, 1893)

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