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.


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).

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