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Scotland's first instrumental music


‘I luvit singing and playing on instruments passing well, and wald gladlie spend tyme quhair the exercise thairof wes within the College; for two or thrie of our condiscipulis playit feloun weil on the virginalis, and ane uthir on the lute and githorn… It wes the greit mercie of my God that keepit me from anie greit progres in singing and playing on instrumentis, for gif I had atteinit to anie resonabil messour tairin, I had nevir done guid uthirwayis, in respect on my amourous dispoisition.’ – Sir James Melville, Father of Elizabeth Melville


After James VI left Scotland to become James VI and I of Great Britain, the court moved from Edinburgh to London, and courtly music activity left Scotland. This has been portrayed as a moment of musical decline, yet manuscripts show much evidence of music making, with the continued popularity of English and French repertoire and the first Scottish traditional music to be written which was, to the best of our knowledge, an oral tradition until this time. The lute, notated in tablature, rather than standard music notation, was central to this repertoire and in moving from an oral into a written tradition that flourished in prints in the eighteenth century. Lute tablature, which notates the places you put your fingers rather than the actual sound made, had the ability to capture the uniqueness of the Scottish oral tradition in writing, resisting the temptation to ‘correct’ by standardising it into the musical rules of the time.


The first notated traditional Scottish music can be seen in the Rowallan and Straloch lute book. Both lute books show evidence of the clarsach (the Scottish harp), with the binary structure of the tunes in the Rowallan manuscript reminiscent of the music found in the Robert ap Huw manuscript. The Straloch manuscript contains ‘ports’ (Gaelic for tune) which has links back to the clarsach but has been adapted for lute. The John Skene manuscript is written for a five-course mandore, a small lute, and is equally spilt between continental repertoire and traditional Scottish tunes, sharing many overlaps with other Scottish manuscripts. The version of ‘Adew dundee’ found in the Skene shows the idiosyncrasies of notating a tune from an oral tradition into writing, with the A and B strains in seven bar phrases, while their variations are in eight bar phrases. The song ‘Joy to the person of my love’ is thought to have originated as a court song, which then has also become part of the oral Scottish tradition, with the version being found in the Robert Taitt manuscript (c.1670).

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