... the Auld Toon shuffle an the New Town stride
They walk round hand in hand
But when the Auld Toon ruffles up the New Town's pride
That's when the shit hits the face o the fan
Quite a droll song, Rod Paterson's Auld Toon Shuffle and New Town Stride
. But it neatly caricatures a duality in the Scottish psyche. Geographically, we live across cultures and languages: England – Scotland; Highlands – Lowlands; Lowlands – Borders; Hebridean Isles – Norse Isles: and linguistically, Scots – Gaelic; English – Scots; Gaelic – English; and so many variants thereof.
Moreover, our literary and musical traditions actually comprise six different tongues: Ancient Welsh; Latin; Gaelic; Scots; Norn; English. Architecturally, our cities all round us delineate strong contrasts between more organically formed auld toons and more Neoclassically conceived new towns. They represent in stone and mortar a fascinating juxtaposition of opposites: what Sydney Goodsir Smith identifies as a Gothic-Celtic asymmetry and a Classical symmetry. They transmit 'in symbolic forms and human patterns a representative portion of a culture', as Lewis Mumford rightly notes in his The City in History
. They palpably mark out a nation with interesting dualities and tensions that embodies our social and historical position in the world.
And, it can be argued that, like our architecture, our literary and musical traditions, taken as a whole, embrace these dualities and tensions. As such, they are a just representation of who we are; not a misrepresentation of who we might be when we look over our shoulders.
That is precisely what our two great songsters appreciated but what we, as a nation, are still at pains to understand. We cannot quite make up our minds about the strange alchemy that, quintessentially, is Scotland. So what is obfuscating our vision? Arguably, an arbitrary (and damaging) social and historical wedge in Scottish culture whereby art is by definition the preserve of only one very select, elitist group: a group whom Burns sarcastically described as the 'jury'.
Avowedly, this is all part of a blighting national myth which took root in Scottish Enlightenment thinking as the literati cast a jaundiced eye over a very fragmented history: from the travails of the Reformation through their own distorted vision of the 'dark ages' of 17th century Scotland (never mind the considerable achievements of The Advocates, now the National, Library of Scotland; the Botanic Garden; the widely celebrated Edinburgh Medical School of Archibald Pitcairne and his colleagues).
Moreover, this vision was a self-conscious construct. It was part of an historical trade-off, so sharply delineated in David Hume's ebullient letter of 1757 to Gilbert Elliot, where he describes, in social, cultural and political terms, what it means for Scotland to be a success in Britain and in modern Europe. Furthermore, Hume was in 1752 arguably the first, in a group of Scots language nay-sayers, to print and publish a list of 'Scotticisms' to be painstakingly removed from the speech of Scottish men and women. And it is particularly noteworthy that the 'very corrupt Dialect', of which he writes, is an integral part of that historical trade-off. It clearly has no place within the 'distinguish'd... Literature' for which he so wantonly enthuses.
Is it not strange that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our
Parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our
chief Nobility, are unhappy, in our Accent & Pronunciation, speak a
corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange, I
say, that, in these Circumstances, we shou'd really be the People most
distinguish'd for Literature in Europe?
Hume was, unquestionably, one of our greatest historical figures; but, his cultural vision was seriously blinkered. For along with the other elite arbiters of taste, he left Scotland with a destructive national myth in which Scots language and, by natural extension, Scots vernacular poetry and song, are seen as inherently 'corrupt', insular, reactionary. A myth not even tempered by a balanced reflection on his own historical position, or by the obvious power play at work in 18th-century Britain.
It is noteworthy that Dr William Robertson, a celebrated Scottish Enlightenment figure in his own right, recognised Hume's oversights and did represent a more balanced perspective. In his History of Scotland
(1759), Robertson claimed that the English versus Scots language debate was, in fact, arbitrary: that, after 1603, the English naturally became the sole judges of language and merely rejected 'every form of speech to which their ear was not accustomed'; that, even at the 1707 Union, the Scots language was spoken with 'elegance'. And though he knew he was swimming against the tide of critical opinion amongst the literati, Robertson speculated that, had historical circumstances been different, the various dialects of Scots might have been compared to the dialects of Ancient Greece, and a great literary tradition in vernacular Scots flourished.
In fact, this was Robertson's own speculative version of the culturally relativist notions of his counterparts across Europe: historicist thinkers like Montesquieu and Voltaire who insisted that each nation, by virtue of its particular topography, climate and language, possessed an irreplaceable 'genie' – in fact, its unique contribution to world culture.
Thus, at least in this speculative sense, Robertson was, quite objectively, entertaining Counter-Enlightenment notions that Hume simply could not stomach. And he was, in his own way, grappling with the uneasy idea of a Scots Vernacular Revival that he knew was well underway at that time with the popularity of Allan Ramsay's poetry and songs; the pastoral vogue in Britain for Scots song – English publications like Thomas d'Urfey's Pills To Purge Melancholy
; the more formal interest in Scots folk tunes with James Oswald's collections; the Jekyll-Hyde antics of James Beattie and others who both condemned and supported Scots vernacular traditions in poetry and song; the rising primitivist interest, even amongst the noted English poets of the day like Shenstone and Collins who compared Scots language to the 'Doric' of the ancient Greek poet, Theocritus.
So Robertson fully understood Hume's pragmatic (if somewhat cynical) trade-off, and, more generally, the unenviable position of minority cultures in the world. It would take a much lesser figure from a later period, Max Weinreich speaking in the 1940s, to enunciate more directly the blunt truth of what cultural dominance means in practical linguistic terms. As Weinreich claims in defining the critical difference between a language and a dialect; in fact, in defending his own native Yiddish.
A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot
(A language is a dialect with an army and a navy)
As I say: interesting tensions. Some of them totally destructive, as with the utilitarian biases of Hume and his counterparts; some of them, as with Robertson, Beattie, Tobias Smollett, Henry Mackenzie, quite unsettling with the emergence of Robert Burns and the other popular vernacular songsters; some of them strangely creative, liberating.
In the face of all the agonising and jockeying for political influence, it was pretty clear who would win the day: the army and the navy. Moreover, we can discern a straight line from Hume to one of the founding fathers of the Edinburgh Festival: George Farquhar Graham.
For Graham, writing in 1816 (significantly, not 1948), published a far-reaching manifesto of taste: An Account of the First Edinburgh Musical Festival...1815
. To which is added An Essay, Containing Some General Observations on Music
(Edinburgh, 1816). From his perspective, 'enlightened' thinking (note the rhetoric) has no place in it for traditional Scots music and song.
Perhaps there is no country in the world, where the prejudice in favour of national music is carried to so great a height as in Scotland. This is the more surprising at first view, because the Scots are, in many other respects, a people singularly liberal and enlightened... Many of the Scottish melodies, having in themselves very little intrinsic merit, are yet fixed in the hearts and affections of Scotsmen.
Graham will define the polarity in strong social and cultural terms: between 'science', 'knowledge' and 'foreign composition' – on the one hand; 'ignorance', 'prejudice' and 'national music' – on the other. Need we ask what was happening here, or why the Edinburgh International Festival remains, to the present day, not quite international where Scotland is concerned; why, for example, complete folk-song cycles of the Burns songs are not to the fore alongside the wonted Schubert, or Hugh Wolf?
In short, G F Graham promulgated a significant opposition that had long been in place, though perhaps not enunciated quite so blatantly: the bitter divide between the 'foreign' and the 'national'. And, again, it was a matter of following the prejudices of the majority culture. In the words of R Vaughan Williams, the celebrated English composer (whom Hamish admired) :
... I am speaking of course of my own country England, but I believe it exists equally virulently in yours... It began in England, I think, in the early 18th century when the political power got into the hands of the entirely uncultured landed gentry and the practice of art was considered unworthy of a gentleman, from which it followed that you had to hire a 'damned foreigner' to do it for you if you wanted it, from which in its turn followed the corollary that the type of music which the foreigner brought with him was the only type worth having and that the very different type of music being made at
home must necessarily be wrong... So, the official music, whether it took the form of Mr Handel to compose an oratorio, or an oboe player in a regimental band, was imported from Germany. This snobbery is equally virulent to this day... it is equally felt that music cannot be something which is native to us and when imported from abroad must of necessity be better.
In Scottish terms, Vaughan Williams is not wide of the mark. His arguments about the 18th-century are certainly borne out by the Scots vernacular poets of the period who felt the yoke of foreign dominance – and fought back against it.
Take, for example, Robert Fergusson in his Elegy, On the Death of Scots Music
, with its barbed jibes at 'foreign sonnets... fresh sprung frae Italy'. Or Burns, just a few years later, with his song, Amang the Trees
(an obvious riposte at the vogue for the Viennese and German composers) where he asserts that Niel Gow, the most famous Scots fiddler of his time, would ultimately save (would need to save) Scotland from the:
... yell o foreign squeels...
Their capon craws and queer ha ha's
They made our lugs grow eerie, O... (ears)
In a more jocular vein, Hamish takes a swipe at the classical biases of his own time in Eightsome Reel
Tae Hell wi your oboes an your douce violas (sombre)
Your flutes an your cellos an your concertinas
Oor pipes an oor reeds’ll supply aa the needs (Our, all)
O oor dear wee silly little signorinas
But neither Burns nor Hamish was even remotely ethnocentric or anti-classical. Burns, in fact, would speak admiringly of the 'pathos of Handel's Messiah
'; and Hamish would, in casual conversation, often pepper his analytical comments with reference to opera and the music hall. Their point was essentially that of the cultural relativists mentioned earlier, Montesquieu and Voltaire, or, in more modern times, the English composer and historian, Hubert Parry: namely, that musical style, like vernacular language, is (must be) 'ultimately national' if it is to have any enduring value or originality.
Moreover, folk music itself, as Janacek, Dvorak, Kodaly and so many others noted, embraces the whole of music and is vital to social cohesion. For them, G F Graham's arbitrary divisions are both artificial and unhealthy. To return to Vaughan Williams on the subject:
Is not folk-song the bond of union where all our musical tastes can meet? We are too apt to divide our music into popular and classical, the highbrow and the lowbrow... You remember how the Florentine crowd carried Cimabue's great Madonna in procession to the cathedral? When will our art achieve such a triumph?... At present it is only a dream, but it is a realisable dream. We must see to it that our art has true vitality and in it the seeds of even greater vitality. And where can we look for a surer proof that our art is living than in the music which has for generations voiced the spiritual longings of our race?
Against this background, we can make more sense of what Hamish and Burns had in mind with their music and song composition; why they had, in the words of Burns, 'to challenge the jury' of history as they pursued their vocation as song-writers – even beyond that of 'poets'. For song was ever described, in Britain anyway, as the 'lesser lyric'. Not quite literature. In this connection, Hamish's letter (November 1959) to The Scotsman
Norman MacCaig's excluding him from an Arts Council anthology of contemporary Scottish poets demonstrates just how much of a vocation it was for him and how determined he had to be to uphold that vocation. Bear in mind that Hamish, only 10 years before, was the recipient of the highly coveted Somerset Maugham Award for literature.
I have come to set greater store by my songs 'in the idiom of the people' than by other kinds of poetry I have tried to write. By working in the Folk-song Revival, therefore, I am paying what is probably a congenial tribute to the honour'd shade of the most famous Crochallan Fencible: i.e. (Robert Burns).
History repeating itself. For, not quite 200 years earlier, Burns found himself embroiled in the self-same defence of song and his own Scottish folk-song revival against the littérateurs of the day. In a letter of October 1787 to Reverend John Skinner, the north-east song-writer, Burns threw down the gauntlet, avowedly with the weight of history squarely on his shoulders.
The world might think slightingly of the craft of song-making, if they please, but… let them try… I have often wished, and will certainly endeavour, to form a kind of common acquaintance among all the genuine sons of Caledonian song. The world, busy in low prosaic pursuits, may overlook us: but 'reverence thyself'. The World is not our peers – so we challenge the jury.
Furthermore, in a Saltire Review
of 1955, Hamish quotes Robert Burns in one of the most significant defences of the 'national' Scots folk-song tradition in history: a remarkable letter of 1793, from the poet to George Thomson, that should be cited in every serious study of the man. It is not. For the most part, it has remained unnoticed or ignored for over 200 years.
Thomson, it may be recalled, was the editor who had commissioned Pleyel, Kozeluch, Haydn, Beethoven and others of the same ilk to orchestrate the songs. And Burns, this 'fiddler & poet', with no formal musical credentials to his name, vehemently and bravely, as Hamish observed, defended the Scots folk tradition of song against the most famous Classical composers of his day: namely, those like Pleyel, a protégé of Haydn and an artist lionised in London when our poet was just coming into his own.
Whatever Mr Pleyel does, let him not alter one iota of the original Scots airs; I mean, in the Song department… But, let our National Music preserve its native features. They are, I own, frequently wild, & unreduceable to the more modern rules; but on that very eccentricity, perhaps, depends a great part of their effect...
The problem was that the Classical composers expected to be dealing with a mere 'poet' but found themselves lumbered with a veritable folk fiddler who, as Burns affirms to Charles Sharpe in a letter of 1791, was wont to compose from the tune to the words.
I am a Fiddler & a Poet... The other day, a brother Catgut gave me a charming Scots Air of your composition… taking up the idea, I have spun it into three stanzas enclosed.
From the fiddle tune to the words. The fiddler as poet. A very un-Germanic approach. Unlike, for example, Franz Schubert who, only a few years later, would set his songs to Goethe's poetry, or, so many years later, Hugo Wolf, who set his songs to Heyse's poetry. The problem was that even the great Beethoven's orchestrations, to quote Vaughan Williams, 'gave a decided German tinge to the tunes'; they were 'curious and not satisfactory'. As he opined:
As long as composers persist in serving up at second-hand the externals of the music of other nations, they must not be surprised if audiences prefer the real Brahms, the real Wagner, the real Debussy, or the real Stravinsky to their pale reflections.
Moreover, to his mind, only the 'national composer' truly possesses:
... the secret to which he alone is able to tell to his fellow countrymen.
In short, the Burns songs lost something vital in the Viennese musical translation; it did not do them justice whatsoever. Hence, Burns found himself constantly defending the Scots musical forms to which he set his songs (like strathspeys, jigs, etc...) against the uninformed interventions of Thomson and his Classical arrangers. The central point was that he demanded a clarity of the melodic line whereby the Scottish musical form (like the jig or hornpipe) would remain wholly intact. Nor should it be obscured by the musical arrangement or lose its simplicity by the busier (noisier, he argues) effect of what he calls 'the Counterpoint... of the learned Musician'. In essence, we have here a reversal of G F Graham's argument. As the poet informs his editor in a letter of August 1793:
... many musical compositions, particularly where much of the merit lies in Counterpoint, however they may transport & ravish the ears of you, Connoisseurs, affect my simple lug no otherwise than merely as a melodious Din.-On the other hand, by way of amends, I am delighted with many little melodies, which the learned Musician despises as silly & insipid.
In point of fact, Burns was not all that diplomatic in his defiance of Thomson – for example, where he pits the musical judgement of Stephen Clarke, the Episcopal organist at the Cowgate and musical editor of Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, against that of the most eminent Classical composers of the day. In a letter of September 1794 to Thomson, the frustration level is obviously raised to so high a pitch that he cannot contain his sarcasm:
I am sensible that my taste in Music must be inelegant & vulgar, because people of undisputed & cultivated taste can find no merit in many of my favourite tunes… Many of our Strathspeys, ancient & modern, give me most exquisite enjoyment, where you & other judges would probably be shewing signs of disgust. For instance, I am just now making verses for
Rothemurche's Rant, an air which puts me in raptures: & in fact, unless
I am pleased with the tune I never can make verses to it. Here I have Clarke on my side, who is a judge that I will pit against any of you.
Somewhat more diplomatically, he appeals to Thomson, in a letter of October, 1794, 'to get any of our ancienter Scots Fiddlers to play... in Strathspey time, The Moudiewort',
so that he and his Viennese arrangers will have a better grasp of the living tradition of Scots music.
The point is: Burns resolutely urges Thomson to let him work in the oral tradition as the ultimate guideline for his composition. Hence, in another (earlier) letter of September 1793, regarding the song Saw ye my father
, he argues 'that the old way, & the way to give most effect, is to have no starting note, as the Fiddlers call it...'.
And, in a letter of October 1794, regarding O when she cam ben
, he offers to provide 'a critique', at a later date, as he makes demands to restore 'old simplicity' in using 'the old rhythm... by far the most original & beautiful'.
Again and again: the tune and the tradition are sacrosanct for Burns the fiddler-poet. They are the life-blood of the Scots tradition, and what he will not willingly sacrifice to aggrandise himself even with his editor. And how like Burns was Hamish Henderson when, in defending his approach to poetry and song against the modern litterateurs, he asserted – as he so often did:
My commitment was to the oral tradition. The choices were – success at my desk or failure in the berry-fields. I chose the dreels o' Blairgowrie... (quick work)
Burns, in one of his most important letters – November 1792, takes Thomson to task over the critical difference between song and poetry in relation to the simplest of Scottish musical forms – the jig. It accompanies a song, My wife's a wanton wee thing
, which was full of incessant repetitions. Take his chorus, which would have had Thomson tearing his hair out for its lack of 'poetry'.
My wife's a wanton wee thing
My wife's a wanton wee thing
My wife's a wanton wee thing
She winna be guided by me (Won't listen to me)
So this is our Ayrshire songster, in Scots Music 101 mode, endeavouring to enlighten his editor and his orchestrators. Note how, in pawkily elevating the tenor of his argument, he throws back at Thomson the formal musicological term 'rhythmus' which he would have known from studying Alexander Malcolm's A Treatise of Musick
If you mean, my dear Sir, that all Songs in your Collection shall be Poetry of the first merit, I am afraid you will find difficulty in the undertaking more than you are aware of. There is a peculiar rhythmus in many of our airs, a necessity of adaping syllables to the emphasis, or what I would call, the feature notes, of the tune, that cramps the Poet, & lays him under almost insuperable difficulties. For instance, in the air,
My wife's a wanton wee thing, if a few lines, smooth & pretty, can be adapted to it, it is all that you can expect. The following I made extempore to it; & though, on farther study I might give you something more profound, yet it might not suit the light horse gallop of the air so well as this random clink.
As Burns underlined, this was not 'Poetry of the first merit'. It was never meant to be. But, it was a highly evolved Burnsian form of mouth-music: the words as the articulation (one might say, the voice) of that all important jig. Here, in the reworking of instrumental and dance tunes is the fiddler Burns obsessed with converting Scottish traditional musical forms into song. For him, and he never stopped trying to explain this to Thomson, the medium was the message: the north-east strathspey; the Borders slip-jig and double hornpipe; the Highland reel – and more.
Quite simply, it was: the language of music. Essentially, how the musical form, its rhythm and its character, conjures-up the fundamental meaning of the song. And this explains so much in those letters to Thomson about the song-writer's fixation with rhythm: 'composing' (his word) between the beats of the horse's hooves as he rides along to escort a stranger through Dumfries; or, as in the elaborate description to Thomson in 1793 of his idiosyncratic composition method:
swinging. at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow-chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes on.
Quite simply: form is meaning in the Burns songs. This was indeed what Hamish Henderson fully appreciated when he speaks of the Ayrshire poet's remaking the national tradition in a radical and revolutionary way: converting the national dance and instrumental forms into Scots song. In this respect, the words 'National Music' take on new meaning with Burns. As Hamish asserted at a Langholm Burns Club supper of January, 1981:
There is a Burns phenomenon. It is very Scottish – but it spans the world from Buenos Aires to Peking… Make no bones about it, Burns was a radical and a revolutionary… the poet Burns resembles most is Lorca – the great Spanish poet murdered at the very beginning of the Civil War in Spain. Both were men of passion. Both died young. Both 'embodied' the folk-song of their countries. Both 'remade' folk-song, both were anti-authoritarian. His songs are immortal: Burns's songs represent an act of national pride, a patriotic effort to preserve the characteristic culture of his homeland, to protect it from
the myriad negative consequences of Scotland's loss of independence…
What did all that mean in practical artistic terms for the two songsters? In fact, it meant many things. It meant that Burns would undertake a self-appointed cultural unifying mission to forge a national-international tradition from what appeared to the 'enlightened' to be a mere conglomeration of fragmented and culturally isolated regions – from the Borders through the Lowlands, north-east, Highlands, Gaelic and Norse Isles. And linking this strong 'hybrid' nation, as Hamish was wont to call it, with its ancient cultural roots – with Wales; Ireland; Scandinavia; Northumberland; Europe. A big order.
Thus Burns, would become 'a rovin boy', wandering up and down the country: rediscovering in the oral tradition – in the indigenous fiddle, bagpipe, instrumental and dance traditions of Scotland, a unique body of music that could bind the nation Scotland together.
Hamish could not have put it better when, in a letter to Geordie Hamilton, he states: it is 'in the ecstatic vortex of the dance you will find the Scottish unity...'. The 'ecstatic vortex of the dance'. Or (Burns might have added) the ecstatic vortex of the dance tune. In point of fact, Burns, in creating that Scottish unity from the great multiplicity of the living tradition in music, was actually reinventing the tradition as he brought it all together and, with it, redefined Scottish culture as a whole.
So many songs derived from north-east strathspeys; Highland reels; Gaelic airs; Irish airs; Borders and Northumbrian jigs, slip jigs, double and single hornpipes. And those as well, clearly grounded in European tunes that represented the natural intersection of the native culture with that of the Europeans; especially that of the European musicians who had settled in Scotland and become immersed in the native tradition themselves.
Figures like Domenico Corri who, in The Singer's Preceptor
, praises comic song (obviously with Burns in mind) as 'the most comprehensive and expressive style'. And here might be an appropriate place to note that Burns had much more in common with European Baroque style and composition in its emphasis on chamber music – with its lighter semi-staccato articulation and clarity of the melodic line, rather than with the more percussive, homophonic, metropolitan Classical music of the newly emerging concert hall.
That is what the poet means by the 'Counterpoint' which he perceives as a 'melodious Din'; the term 'homophonic' not being used until well into the next century. But that is a huge subject in its own right. And it encompasses a lengthy exploration of style and articulation in Baroque, folk and Classical music in moving from the 18th to the 19th century.
The language of music was for both Burns and Hamish one vital means of obviating what, from the time of Hume, particularly, had been designated the 'problem' of Scots language. That was part of what Hamish meant, in his assertive letter to Norman MacCaig, about setting 'greater store by my songs in the idiom of the people'.
Musical form was itself part of that 'idiom of the people' – inextricably entwined with the words. That is precisely why the two songsters use, for instance, a reel (an unremitting breathless tension) in their wildly romping, if comically breathless sexual songs: songs like Hamish's Eightsome Reel
and Burns's O John Come Kiss Me Noo
. It is why, with its pokingly-pointed Scots snaps (da-dum... da-dum... da-dum), the musical equivalent of thumbing one's nose at the unco guid (the morally righteous), strathspeys are Burns's preferred form. Hence, his Brig o Dye
, a wild dance that unashamedly devolves into the sexual act:
Theniel Menzie bonie Mary (Nathaniel)
Theniel Menzies bonie Mary
Chairlie Grigor tint his plaidie (lost his kilt)
Kissin Theniel's bonie Mary
Or, Hamish's Nou Jeannie dear
, which runs along the same sexually liberated lines:
We havena lang for 'luve's sweet sang' – (have not long)
It's shair the morn's the deil's O... (certain, tomorrow's the devil's)
Sae kiss me mair, ma carrot-hair (more, my)
A thousand kisses gie me O (give)
(But dinna count the hale amount (don't, whole)
lest Dick an Denny see me O)
It is why, if the subject is mischievously festive, normally with reference to the dance, Burns employs slip jigs and jigs, like The Deil's Awa
, in a rhythmical mouth music. And why we find that every form, be it strathspey, hornpipe, or what have you, is integral to the meaning of the song. Again, another huge subject in itself.
As we noted, this is the language of music. Form is meaning in the two poets. And, within that musical form is a further connection between the songsters: a strong influence that has never been properly represented in the music of Burns, or explored in that of Hamish. Now, Burns was indeed a fiddler, but he lived in Dumfriesshire during the last great flowering of the bellows blown Borders Pipes and Small Pipes. In fact, a great cultural benefit to the song-writer and poet.
Ayrshire indeed had its town pipers, but the culture was not cut from the same Borders mould. The bellows pipes were quite simply centre stage in the region; fed by a larger tradition that spanned both sides of the Scottish Marches – especially given all the toing and froing between east and west borders. These pipes had a deep grounding in the area over hundreds of years as we can observe from a remarkable representation of the Borders pipes in a 16th-century carving from Greenlaw, Kirkcudbrightshire. And, in the 18th-century, the Borders pipers occupied a special position civicly as they awakened the towns folk each morning and piped them to sleep at night; performed for Common Ridings, feeing fairs and kirns; weddings and funerals.
For the fiddler poet, working in an oral tradition and forever collecting tunes, this was another deep musical quarry which would wholly inspire him. Moreover, both song-writers developed a passion for pipe tunes and for converting these tunes into Scots song.
One could cite numerous examples of Border pipe tunes in the Burns songs: songs as characteristically Burnsian as, for example, John Anderson, My Jo
. John Anderson, the toon piper o Kelsae (Kelso); a member of one of the hereditary Borders piping families. And, with a somewhat melancholy march bearing his name, a tune that will play upon the song-writer's mind (almost hauntingly so) as he adapts it for several songs: John Anderson
, One night as I did wander
, How cruel are the parents
. In a rather colourful metaphor, the poet even adverts to the toon piper's 'chanter pipe' in his bawdy version of John Anderson
Another more idiosyncratically Borders musical influence that Burns frequently drew upon was the double (or 3/2) hornpipe, which an 18th-century gypsy family, the Allans of Kirk Yetholm, maintained was a pure Borders form. Several of his songs employ this musical form: Robin Shure in Hairst
; The Dusty Miller
; Wee Willie Gray
, to name a few. This last is a prime example of Burns's employing the form as the language of music. For it is based upon the famous Border pipe double hornpipe, Wee Totum Fogg
, which skips about lightly and widely, the way one might imagine a wee elf tripping along the landscape.
This is programme music, if you like, akin to Richard Strauss's tone poems, especially Till Eulenspiegel
, which was based upon German folklore of the 16th-century. Only Burns, unlike Strauss, has a ready-made traditional form for the depiction of his elf, Wee Willie, who goes naked to the woods and dresses himself up wi flooers an a flie. Significantly, the grounding in that Borders tradition of music and folklore naturally brings with it a proximity with its social and cultural origins that makes it, at once, local, national, universal. Clever stuff.
As mentioned, Hamish too had a lifelong passion for pipes – in fact, pipes of every imaginable variety. Throughout his army career he mixed and melled with Highland pipers, culminating in his forming a mass pipe band and demanding that they lead the liberating march into Rome. This was his personal Beachhead Pipe Band which consisted of five Scottish regiments and one Irish regiment. Moreover, he wrote a pipe tune and song for the occasion, The Roads To Rome
Later, during his years at The School of Scottish Studies, he would record, interview and mix with pipers of aa kin kind: Calum Johnstone of Barra; Alec Higgins, the Northeast Traveller; Seaumus Ennis, the legendary uillean piper; Colin Ross, the noted Northumbrian piper and Scottish Small Pipes maker, to name a few. He would encourage the folk groups of the 1960s and 70s, like The Tannahill Weavers, to bring the Highland Bagpipe into greater prominence in their musical arrangements.
So many of Hamish's songs are, as with Burns, based upon re-jigged pipe tunes, especially upon pipe marches: like Farewell To The Creeks
(Banks o Sicily
); The Bloody Fields Of Flanders
(Freedom Come All Ye
); Scotland The Brave
(John Maclean's March
– in an adapted form). And Hamish's grasp of the nuances of difference in the nature of, say, a 4/4 march as against a 6/8 march is as subtle as that of Burns. For example, if the two songsters wish to compose a song which is military in its subject matter but less compulsive in its theme than an upbeat 4/4, they characteristically use a 6/8 march: specifically, a 6/8 march which is more a solo piper's walk – like Hamish would have heard in the officers' mess.
Prime examples? Burns's Come Boat Me O'er
, where the gentle swaying compulsion of the 6/8 march complements the theme of the Jacobite soldiers gently rowing across the water for a happy reunion with Bonnie Prince Charlie. Or, as noted elsewhere, Hamish's Banks o Sicily
, as it captures both the deep reflective thoughts of the swaddies who were taking a momentary respite from battle and just about to advance again in battle as they bid their 'Fareweel' and line 'the waterside' for transport across to Italy. Again, this is the happy marriage of form and content: words wedded to the tune.
To cite another example, where Burns and Hamish draw upon a dance form and, equally, a tradition of folklore that virtually every piper knows: the Seann Triubhas. The form itself, with its use of a pointedly rhythmical Scots snap idiom at the end of each melodic line, underpins its association with a robustly rising theme of social protest. In Gaelic literature, Duncan Ban MacIntyre will pen a poem of strong remonstrance against the British Government's proscriptions against the wearing of the kilt after the 1745 – in his Oran do in Bhriogais
(Song of the Breeches
). In Scots folklore, the dance form itself carries forward this theme as a bit of programme music whereby the Highland dancer endeavours to kick-off the English trews inflicted upon him by the British Government.
Burns will refashion, redirect this social message in his vagabond musical, The Jolly Beggars
, where the social ills of 'Hun-ger, cauld, an'- a' sic- harms', the beggar's wonted lot, are exorcised through fiddling and song, the prospect of plenty at future bookings – 'kirns an' weddins'. A bit of effective, if somewhat oblique, social satire; somewhat in the tradition of the grotesque.
Hamish will extend the form even further with his Gillie More
: a powerful Scottish international tribute from the blacksmiths of Leith to those of Kiev and a clarion call for an international socialist brotherhood. And he will achieve this without compromising either the fundamental character of the Seann Triubhas or the cultural thread that binds the tradition together. His use of Gaelic in places is a subtly effective nod towards the Highland Jacobite origins of the song as, at the same time, he creates a John Henry-like workers' hero, 'The Gillie Mor', and addresses his comrades as 'avallich'.
Moreover, even given Hamish's slower adaptation, all the noteworthy rising disyllabic lifts of the Seann Triubhas inflect heavily on those key words and phrases of social protest – especially at the end of the melodic line, and particularly throughout his closing invocation:
O ho-ro the Gil-lie Mor here's a-weld ll-wear for-ev-er
A-grup thae can-nae sev-er O ho'ro the Gil-lie Mor (grip, they cannot)
Ane's the-wish yokes-us the-gith-er (One's, together)
Ane's the-darg that-lees a-fore (lies before us)
You an-me the-man the brith-er – me an-you the Gil-lie Mor brother)
It is with such songs that we begin to understand what Hamish meant when he speaks of being both a nationalist and an internationalist. And what Vaughan Williams meant when he affirmed:
Our best way of serving the common cause will be to be most ourselves. When the United States of the World becomes, as I hope it will, an established fact, those will serve that universal State best who bring into the common fund something that they and they only can bring.
In essence, this meant for the two song-writers a strong commitment to the national tradition alongside a passionate engagement with world culture. Hence, Burns would pen songs like his Heard Ye o the Tree o France
, which was openly sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution, and Hamish, his Rivonia
, which was sent to the freedom fighters of South Africa and formally recognised by Nelson Mandela. In fact, the two songsters were culturally, politically, socially singing from the same page; both taking a strong stance against the social and literary hierarchies of their day. As we observed much earlier, they were met with stiff opposition.
Fred Freeman is Professor of Scots Language and Scots Song at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Part 2 of 'Burns, Hamish and song' will be in SR next week