Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band – TDFS blog

Here’s a blog I wrote for the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland in January 2017 about recent and upcoming Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band projects I’ve been producing with Concerto Caledonia:

[original article: http://www.tracscotland.org/nathaniel-gow%E2%80%99s-dance-band%5D

Scottish early music group Concerto Caledonia has recently launched the series Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band: Ceilidh Nights, taking place in Glasgow venues Òran Mór and The Glad Cafe, January to March 2017.

The nights explore the musical world of a dance band from the 1780s, bringing together some of Scotland’s finest traditional and early music performers, including viola player Mairi Campbell, cellist Alison McGillivray, piper Callum Armstrong, and fiddlers Aaron McGregor, Lauren MacColl, Shona Mooney, and Marie Fielding.

2. Concerto Caledonia - Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band (© Mikah Smillie 2015).JPG

Concerto Caledonia – Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band (© Mikah Smillie 2015)

The project combines old and new elements to reimagine the 18th-century dance night. The group incorporate the format, the informal and social aspects of a modern Scottish ceilidh, led by a team of callers including historical dancer Steve Player. The band performs on period instruments, with music and country dance instructions taken from 18th-century Scottish collections such as those by Robert Bremner, Alexander ‘King’ McGlashan, and of course the Gow family.

Niel and Nathaniel Gow

Niel Gow has often been described as the founding father of Scottish fiddle music, not only for the composition of many tunes, but for his distinctive performing style, particularly the strength of his up-bow. Niel was also the founder of a musical dynasty, thanks to the success of his four fiddle-playing sons, most notably John (1764) and Nathaniel (1763), who had parallel careers in London and Edinburgh, as publishers, and leaders of the two most successful Scottish dance bands of their day.

Nathaniel had mixed success as a businessman, but he clearly saw the opportunity of building on the Gow brand, publishing collections under the name ‘Niel Gow and Sons’, such as The Beauties of Niel Gow (1819-1822) and the four volumes of The Complete Repository (1799-1813). These collections were an important step in transforming material from more ephemeral 18th-century collections into a distinct canon of tunes, deliberately simplifying and homogenising features such as rhythm and ornamentation.

Whilst Nathaniel is remembered as an important figure in Scottish fiddle music, a considerable amount of his output is centred around music and dance which wouldn’t be considered Scottish or even ‘traditional’ by today’s standards. Dance bands and publishers focussed on what was popular: Strathspeys, Reels and other ‘Scottish’ forms had continued to be in vogue in the nineteenth century, but Scottish society also looked to London and Paris for the new and fashionable forms, such as minuets, waltzes and cotillions.

In March 1817, Nathaniel Gow introduced the French Quadrille to Scottish society in a ball held at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. This event will be celebrated this year with a concert and dance workshop (20-21 January) and a Regency Ball (11 March) at the Assembly Rooms on George St, led by Talitha Mackenzie, Stuart Marsden and Concerto Caledonia.

4. Stumpie Strathspey’ from Niel Gow, 'A Collection of Strathspey Reels (1784). Image from Historical Music of Scotland [www.hms.scot].png5. Typical cello basses from Robert Bremner, A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (c.1757). Image from Historical Music of Scotland [www.hms.scot].png

1. Stumpie Strathspey’ from Niel Gow, ‘A Collection of Strathspey Reels (1784). Image from Historical Music of Scotland [www.hms.scot]
2. Typical cello basses from Robert Bremner, A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (c.1757). Image from Historical Music of Scotland [www.hms.scot]

 

The 18th-century Scottish dance band

The 18th-century Scottish dance band differed from its modern counterparts. As noted, repertoire included continental forms, but even ‘local’ forms such as the reel were presented through the lens of 18th-century style, with ornaments such as trills, appoggiaturas, and turns. The idea of a ‘set’ of tunes seems to have developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: in the 1780s, a single country dance was usually accompanied by one tune of the same name.

3. David Allan, The Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl (1780.jpgDavid Allan, The Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl (1780)

With the ascendancy of harmony instruments such as the piano, accordion, and guitar, modern ears have become accustomed to the sound of chords. The backbone of the dance band of the 1780s was the fiddle and bass fiddle (i.e. cello), as seen in David Allan’s 1780 painting of Niel and Donald Gow (a piper also helps himself to a drink in the background!). The many printed collections from this period present cello bass lines, most often consisting of two repeated notes in crotchets, with a cadence for each section. These basses not only outline the harmonies, but offer a pulsing, driving rhythm – what Scott Skinner later referred to as an ‘accented drone’.

Whilst the fiddle-cello duo was the mainstay of dances, some bands included additional instruments: collections by Abraham Mackintosh and Isaac Cooper include two fiddle parts for some tunes, playing additional harmonies, or in unison. Some bands included full string sections and wind players: the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms in the mid-eighteenth century included oboes alongside a string section, and there are two records of Gow bands in the early nineteenth century including four fiddles and cello alongside instruments such as french horn, tambourine and harp. Pipers are also mentioned as being present at dances alongside fiddlers – did the two ever play together for dancing? The Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band project offers an opportunity to experiment with these various different options.

Nathaniel Gows Dance Band: Ceilidh Nights returns to Òran Mór (23 January & 27 March) and The Glad Cafe (23 February). For tickets and more info, see: www.concal.org/ceilidh

 Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band: Ceilidh Nights are supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund.

 

0.01 per cent bagpipe chanter?

The violin playing of Norman MacCaig, Dolmetsch & Geminiani

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On Wednesday night I attended a fascinating talk given by Stuart Eydmann on the prequel to the folk music revival in Scotland (as part of the RMA colloquia at Glasgow Uni). Stuart’s work delves into some unexplored threads somewhat outside the received wisdom of Hamish Henderson and others, and he’s discovered a number of unsung heroes, including the poet Norman MacCaig. The discovery of a photo of MacCaig playing fiddle led Stuart to search the School of Scottish Studies for archival recordings, locating a recording of MacCaig’s fiddle playing made in the 1950s, wrongly labelled as being performed on ‘chanter’, as well as another recording made by Alan Lomax in Edinburgh in 1951 (you can listen this one online here).

This has fired my imagination for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is MacCaig’s rather individual, uncompromising style and his adoption of Highland bagpipe music – in repertoire, ornaments and temperament. As Stuart pointed out, MacCaig’s style is somewhat different in character to the (very beautiful), but also more violinistic piobaireachd of Bonnie Rideout and others which have a closer relationship with 18th-century violin pibroch sources (such as this one from 1740).

But what really got me thinking was the mistaken label of ‘chanter’, which reminded me of Robert Donington’s description of the baroque violin playing of Arnold Dolmetsch – one of the pioneers of the early music movement in the early 20th century, which itself has overlap with the folk music revival.

‘Dolmetsch’s basic tone on the violin was of a more fiery colouring and a less refined texture than we generally associate with this most versatile of instruments (almost as if 0.01 per cent of bagpipe chanter had got blended in). He played more into the string, and with a more slowly moving bow, than is general nowadays. His accentuation was almost entirely of the crisp variety (sharp attack, often preceded by silence of articulation) rather than of the massive variety (by arm- weight and pressure). His cantabile was exquisitely sustained; but the rest of his playing was highly articulated. Not only were the expressive silences numerous; notes not separated by silences were kept articulated by an incisive little bite of the bow-hair on (not off) the string. The result was piquant and cleanly-etched; it combined intoxicating lightness with solid strength and virility. It was at once vital and relaxed.’

[Robert Donington, ‘The Interpretation of Early Music’ (London, 1963) p465]

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Elements of this match up with descriptions of the playing style of 17th and 18th-century violinists: Francesco Geminiani described Corelli’s playing tone as ‘firm and even’, ‘resembling a sweet trumpet’. In his own treatise of 1749, Geminiani stresses the use of silence, both in terms of a crisp articulation in allegro passages, and in beginning long, arching notes with silence, before a mezza di voce (swelling on the same note).

MacCaig’s fiddle style (at least in the one recording I’ve heard) has the more constant sound of the pipes, but there is also overlap with the Dolmetsch description: playing into the string, with a slow bow, and crisp accentuation (made both by sharp attack and ornamentation) on the string. The element of ‘silence’ doesn’t really apply – the idea here is imitating the more constant sustain of the bagpipes, with accentuation made through ornamentation.

These performers are obviously separated both in terms of period and the style of music they were performing, so what’s the point I’m trying to make here? I guess I’m both pointing out the overlap between these three descriptions (the chanter, or Corelli’s ‘sweet trumpet’) and the need to consider different sound worlds in my own exploration of repertoire from Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The performing style of Italian violinists was known in Scotland in the 18th-century, with many resident and visiting Italian performers (including Geminiani, who visited Scotland in 1760) and with local performer-composers fluent in the style. But this existed side-by-side with localised musical traditions (including lowland and highland pipe music, harp music, dance, variation and song idioms). There was a great deal of interaction, but many communities must have been somewhat cut off from developments in Edinburgh; in 1703, Martin Martin reported 18 inhabitants on Lewis, who could play violin ‘pretty well without being taught’.

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Local traditions must also have influenced some of the ways Italianate music was performed in Scotland. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald described (admittedly in quite a derogatory manner) a style of performing music by Corelli, Festing and Handel on the Lowland pipes, complete with drones, and cuttings (ornaments) from highland bagpipe music. I wonder about the elderly Geminiani’s reaction to this style if he experienced it during his 1760 visit to Edinburgh.

‘…they imitate Scots Tunes & Minuets &c & Some Italian Musick, while they have nothing for another part but their Drones … Whilst they play this Scots or Italian Composition with Pipe Drones for different Parts they must Cut & divide the Notes in a way that destroys both the taste & style of the Composition – viz by Pipe Cuttings…’

[Joseph MacDonald, A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (c.1760). Edinburgh University Library, MS La.III.804; Available online here]

More on performance practice in my next post I think, but one of the aspects I’m interested in is collaboration between musicians with a background in ‘historically-informed performance practice’ and traditional performers, and the different reactions and approaches to performing on period instruments and working with early sources. This is of course the inspiration behind the Nathaniel Gow Dance Band project with Concerto Caledonia, which will return on February 11th for a performance and album launch in Café Oto.

 

Research Blogging: the First Hurdle

Collaborative blog post I contributed to at the Research Blogs in the Arts and Humanities workshop last week.

Research Blogging in the Arts & Humanities

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Writing a blog allows budding researchers to develop a network of peers and engage with the public, beyond the confines of academia. It offers a platform to hone writing skills and explore new ideas. However, for researchers at the outset of their career, there are a number of issues to consider before setting off. After attending a two-day workshop on Research Blogging in the Arts and Humanities, four PhD researchers voice their anxieties around blogging, and offer some advice on moving forward.

Starting a post! 

Whilst we have material and ideas that we want to write about, it’s often difficult to establish where to begin and develop this into something coherent. At times, we automatically revert to the process of academic writing and structures. David McGuinness’ advice was to think of blog posts as ‘recapitulation’, as a way of focussing thoughts and ideas, but we’ve found that we first need a…

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Musical adventures in Hastings and Tuscany

I’m just back to sunny Glasgow from my musical adventures over the past few weeks, which have taken me to St Mary in the Castle, Hastings for the Sotto Voce Arts Festival before a residency in the stunning Castello di Potentino in Tuscany. Beautiful weather and surroundings aside, these have been interesting experiments into different ways of performing and interacting with audiences.

Vineyards at Potentino: it's a hard life!

Vineyards at Potentino: it’s a hard life!

The Hastings gig was put together very last minute under the banner of the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Their planned programme was to be the first performance of the material from their recent Aldeburgh residency looking at the musical experiments of Francis Bacon. Due to illness of one of the regular lineup, Gabi Maas and I were drafted in (on nyckleharpa and treble viol respectively) to play with regular “Strange and Ancient” performers Alison McGillivray (lyra viol and violone) and Jean Kelly (bray harp, triple harp).

Our ‘experiments’ mostly concerned our slightly unusual grouping of instruments (and also how quickly we could put together a programme and cross the country from Glasgow to Hastings and back!) We managed to stick to the planned theme of Francis Bacon and Gallileo, performing some repertoire probably known to Gallileo, some music by Bacon himself, alongside music by early 17th-century Italian-English composers (such as Giovanni Coperario, otherwise known as John Cooper), as well as a selection of 17th-century tunes from England, Ireland, Scotland and Sweden. Both the lyra-viol and nyckelharpa have resonant strings underneath their playing strings, which coupled with the twangy sound of the bray harp and the full-bodied triple-harp, made my treble viol feel quite weedy! The real magic of these instruments (much like instruments with a drone such as bagpipes or hurdy-gurdy) is to create an acoustic, a sound-world for the rest of the music to sit comfortably in. Once you adjust to hearing a lot of this on stage (and not much of yourself!), it becomes a rather enjoyable, if surreal experience.

St Mary's in the Castle, Hastings

St Mary’s in the Castle, Hastings

This concert also featured the talents of Kinetic light sculptor Paul Friedlander. As well as opening the show with a lecture and demonstration of his work, Paul provided the backdrop for our concert – a light tableau, which rather than responding to the music per se, gradually evolved throughout the performance. This looked beautiful, though when my music stand light faded half way through I wished I was more familiar with the music!

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Gabi, Callum, me and Laura at Potentino

After a day or two to catch my breath (and play gigs with Erskine Quartet and It’s No Reel) we went from Glasgow’s pitiful 11ºC to a sweltering 35ºC+ heat in Tuscany, for a week-long residency at Castello di Potentino with Callum Armstrong (various bagpipes, recorders and aulos), Gabi Maas (baroque violin) and Laura Sergeant (baroque cello). Potentino is one of those places where all the right elements come together and wonderful things happen as a result. It was restored by the Horton-Greene family around 15 years ago, who now combine running the castle with a vineyard and olive grove, producing award-winning wines and olive oil. Parts of the castle date from the middle ages, including a 13th-century chapel, and the valley is surrounded by mountains, rivers, the sounds of crickets and the smell of lavender.

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Potentino chapel

The idea behind the music at Potentino isn’t really a festival, but for musicians to become part of the culture of the place: for Alexander and Charlotte (the brother & sister duo that run Potentino), the regular concert series is only as important as us being there to rehearse and experiment with the space, meet people and make music on a much more informal basis. For us, it was incredible for our newly formed ensemble to have the time and environment to play lots of music, put together new arrangements, test out different instrumental combinations, and enjoy the delicious food and wine on offer! Most of our audience was made up of the 25 or so people staying at Potentino at any one time, with the remaining filled up by other people that lived nearby and stayed for dinner and drinks, meaning that we personally knew most of the people that we performed for (not to mention informally playing tunes after dinner, and leading some dancing on a couple of occasions). My favourite moment was when one of the castle’s dogs (Ottie, a miniature Jack Russell) started licking Callum’s foot during an aulos solo, before Callum followed the confused creature round the room. This sense of community is something we’ve been striving to achieve with West End Baroque in Glasgow, which has involved early music concerts in Glasgow bars – we’ve had one or two dogs in the audience, though I think the wine in Potentino has been slightly better!

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Callum serenades local Great Dane ‘Minnie’ 

Nathaniel Gow Dance Band

Having just been awarded funding from the SGSAH to set up a PhD training workshop on research blogging in the arts and humanities, I think it’s about time I started posting in this blog! Expect to see more regular posting over the next few months.

Over the last month, I’ve been playing in Concerto Caledonia’s new project Nathaniel Gow’s Scottish Dance Band, an exciting collective of trad musicians and early music specialists, playing on period instruments and performing music mostly taken from late 18th-century Scottish dance music collections.

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This has emerged as an output of the Glasgow University-led research project, Bass Culture in Scottish Musical Traditions, which explores the harmonic basis of Scottish traditional music. As well as overseeing the project, David McGuinness has been building a massive database and digitisation of Scottish printed sources of fiddle music from 1750-1850 (due to go ‘live’ at hms.scot in October I believe). These represent a substantial amount of (often overlooked) material, and even the more familiar tunes are very different to the versions played today. We’ve been exploring a range of different approaches, styles, and instrumental combinations (including five fiddles, pipes, octave flute, cello and fortepiano). Our job has been made easier by returning the music (at least in part) to its original function through collaboration with a team of period dancers.

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In the premiere performance with the full band at Glasgow’s Cottier Chamber Project on June 19th, our team of period dancers (led by Talitha Mackenzie) demonstrated and taught a number of 18th-century country dances to some unsuspecting (but eventually very keen) audience members! Earlier in the month, Alison, Mairi Campbell and I also played for the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland’s Quadrille and Contradanse day at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, looking mostly at regency-period dances, and exploring the influence of French dance forms in Scotland from the late-18th century onwards. Our little band performed in the most common 18th-century dance-band set up – two fiddles and a ‘bass fiddle’ [ie cello]. (In David Allan’s paintings, the piper is usually helping himself to a drink while the fiddles play!)

Earlier this month David, Alison and I also highlighted some of the more ‘domestic’ music from the same period on Radio 3’s In Tune. (You can still hear it for a day or two – I even got a word or two in, after some coaxing by David) This included Nathaniel Gow’s ‘The Cries of Edinburgh’, containing two pieces based on ‘Hot Pies’ and ‘Kale and Leaks’ and ‘a favorite new medley’ performed at the annual ball on 14th March 1830. Last week, we recorded this at the beautiful Ardkinglas, making use of their excellent square piano for the smaller-scale ‘domestic’ parts of the album (we ended this session with a trip to the superb Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, just round the corner!)

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The week before, we were at Chrichton Collegiate Church to record the full band. We talked our way into a visit to the impressive remains of Chrichton Castle next door, where Alison and I discovered some graffiti dating from the same period as the sources we were performing from.

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I think I’ll need to write a separate post all about how we brought together different approaches and playing styles in this project. The so-called ‘historically informed’ approach – using period instruments, original source material, and information on period performance style from iconography and treatises – was brought together with musicians that live and breathe this music as part of a living tradition, mixed in with our collective musical intuition. Often long discussions about the best way to play a tune were immediately answered (and superseded) by the involvement of the dancers, with the steps suited to particular tempi or dotted feel. The main realisation was that this repertoire is so rich that a variety of approaches will work, and that there are endless possibilities with performing these tunes.

Pedantic garnish or the man in music maist expert? Memories of McGibbon

After a visit to the superb new Bannockburn Centre last week, I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is to separate history from mythology. The political or cultural importance of figures like Bruce or Wallace often has more to do with legend than historical fact, and in fact since histories are usually written years after the events themselves, by historians with their own political motives, reality and myth are often impossible to separate.

McGibbon

But even with a minor historical figure, the way they are portrayed and discussed after their death often has little to do with the reality of their life. Last year, I spent several months looking into the 18th-century Scottish violinist William McGibbon (1696-1756); I was analysing his treatment of different national styles, looking at his embellished versions of Corelli’s Op 5 sonatas (or as David McG refers to them, decompositions), and his collections of Scots Tunes. One thing that really struck me was that despite the majority of his output being in Italian “art” music (I hate this term, but you get the idea: lots of sonatas, and now lost orchestral music), it was his three collections of Scots Tunes that he was predominantly remembered for in the latter-18th and 19th centuries.

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After the original Edinburgh edition, the collection seems to have been everywhere, going through numerous new editions and reprints in Edinburgh and London between the 1750s and early 1800s. Some of these stray more and more from McGibbon’s original, re-typesetting the music, changing the basslines and variations, and even adding entirely new material. In fact, the idea of authorship is difficult even with the original edition: McGibbon probably didn’t pen any of the tunes himself, whilst many of the basslines are closely related to earlier sources (especially the collections of Adam Craig and James Oswald) and some of the variations themselves were in circulation for a number of years, being found in many earlier manuscript sources.

Reference to McGibbon was also used on the title pages and prefaces of other collections to instil a sense of tradition or cultural pedigree (or authenticity?). Robert Riddell elevates McGibbon to composer of tunes in his 1794 Collection of Scotch, Galwegian and Border Tunes, whilst James Davie’s 1851 volume of The Caledonian Repository includes McGibbon’s name on the title page amongst the list of authors of the tunes. McGibbon is given special status at the top of the page alongside James Oswald and ‘The Royal Stuarts’.

This is unusual considering the Scottish backlash against Italianate music from the later-18th century onwards. A number of writers lamented the popularity of Italian music, which they saw as a threat to their native traditions. Interestingly, McGibbon is mentioned in this ongoing debate: in the 1770s, Robert Ferguson’s diatribe against Italian music in Scotland “Elegy on the Death of Scots Music” singles out McGibbon not for his Italian music, but as a champion of Scots music:

Macgibbon’s gane: Ah! Wae’s my heart!

The man in music maist expert

Wha cou’d sweet melody impart, 

And tune the reed

Wi’ sic a slee and pawky art;

But now he’s dead

The portrayal of McGibbon wasn’t always positive: in 1798, Alexander Campbell dismissed McGibbon as a “professed” musician and for introducing too much “pedantic garnish” to his Scots tune collections. However, I find it interesting that McGibbon continued to be part of the public imagination for what must have been a fairly minor part of his career and that he could be both celebrated and attacked for his contribution to Scottish fiddle music.

McGibbon might be seen as a special case amongst that body of performers we refer to as “Scots fiddlers”; he studied in England and probably spent time in Italy, and died before the “golden age” of Scots fiddle music. But it might come as a surprise just how involved in European “art” music a number of the great 18th-century fiddlers were. Of course our idea of “classical” and “folk” music as two distinct entities is really a 19th-century invention… (More on that later perhaps, but if interested, check out Matthew Gelbart’s study).

Alexander Munro: Highland music master?

Munro (Recueil des meilleurs airs eccossois) (website)

New evidence on the 18th-century Scottish composer

One of the most enigmatic figures in 18th-century Scottish music is Alexander Munro, composer of the the Recueil Des Meilleurs Airs Ecossois published in Paris in 1732, and described by Hawkins as a ‘native of Scotland’. This volume was not only some of the first Scottish music written for flute, but was very influential to 18th-century Scottish music, arguably creating a new genre: the Scottish variation sonata. Here a single Scots air is transformed into a set of Italian dances, blending Scots fiddle-variation style and the Italian sonata da camera. As well as Munro’s ‘sonatas’ appearing in numerous fiddle manuscripts through the 18th century, other composer-performers such as McGibbon, McLean and Mackintosh took up the form and the work may even have had an influence on Geminiani.

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Apart from a single piece of music ascribed to Munro in the 1740 MacFarlane manuscript, musicologists have struggled to locate any real evidence of the composer and his background. David Johnson speculated that this was the work of an amateur musician: Alexander Monro primus, the anatomy professor at the University of Edinburgh.

The missing Munro?

I have recently located a better candidate: while looking through records at the National Archives of Scotland, I came across a reference to ‘Alexander Munro, teacher of the music school at Tain’ dated 1730. With a couple more days of digging, I’ve found a number of other references to this individual and now have a fairly substantial account of his career as a music master in the Highlands between 1709 and 1736.

Munro is described variously as ‘music master’ at Inverness (before 1709), Elgin (1709-11), Fortrose (1713-16) and Tain (1730-1736). As well as these four teaching posts, he also appears to have branched out as a writing master or professional scribe, writing a document for the Ross family of Pitcalnie and making a manuscript copy of Robert Gordon’s 1630 historical text ‘Earldom of Sutherland’.

So this individual appears to be enterprising, well educated, and connected to landed families. Not a bad contender so far for the composer of the Recueil Des Meilleurs Airs Ecossois.

The remaining issue is that of Paris for the publication of the 1732 volume. However, music publishing was still in its infancy in Scotland at this point, with only a handful of different volumes published by 1732. It’s possible that Munro the music master could have had his own connections in Paris; a number of 18th-century Scots left to study music or work abroad. In particular, Munro’s contemporary William McGibbon studied in London with William Corbett c.1709, may have travelled to Italy, and later published his own work both in Edinburgh and London.