Burns and the Fiddle

Last month saw the launch of a new online resource focussed on Robert Burns’s connections with 18th-century Scottish fiddle music. It’s a project I’ve been working on since last August as a collaboration between Concerto Caledonia and the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, featuring introductory essays by Kirsteen McCue and myself, and recordings by me and Alison McGillivray. We’ve based our recordings on the original fiddle versions of tunes that Burns reworked into songs, including melodies by Niel Gow and William Marshall, and material from Robert Bremner’s A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances. There’s some really beautiful tunes here, especially Gow’s Robie donna gorach, which was later replaced with another tune for Burns’s song ‘The banks of Nith’ in the Scots Musical Museum, and the original more unsentimental fiddle tunes used for A red red rose (Major Graham’s Strathspey by Gow), and Of a’ the airts (Miss Admiral Gordon’s Strathspey by Marshall).

On researching the material for this project, I was struck by how little these fiddle tunes have been explored in relation to Burns’s literary works. Too often the melodies used by Burns and other songwriters are simply labelled as ‘traditional’ or assumed to have been known solely through an aural/oral tradition of folk song. Burns knew many of these tunes from their notated sources – he owned several printed books of fiddle tunes, and had access to Robert Riddell’s library – as well as hearing them directly from fiddlers such as Niel and Nathaniel Gow, and would probably have had first-hand experience of actually dancing to many of the airs used for his songs. We’ve been provisionally discussing a project combining what we’ve been doing with the Concerto Caledonia ceilidh nights series with the Burns material, so hopefully there will be plenty more about this in the months to come!

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