18th-century Scottish Country Dance workshop

My EAERN workshop earlier this month on 18th-century Scottish dances & music is now up online, available to view in full here: EAERN workshop

It starts with a lecture from yours truly about the collections and our dance band project, and then from about 25 minutes we tried out a bunch of dances together. You’ll also hear some fab playing from Marie Fielding and Alison McGillivray.


‘Reviving the 18th-century dance night’

Here’s a guest blog I’ve written for the Eighteenth-Century Arts Education Research Network (EAERN) about some of my experience working with 18th-century Scottish music and dance. I led a dance workshop for the network back in May with Alison McGillivray and I’ll be back with more in October – no doubt my ceilidh band colleagues will find it amusing that I’ve become in demand as a dance caller, since it’s something I’ve avoided for years!

The Cross Well of Edinburgh (Bremner).png

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.


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


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!


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.


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!


Callum serenades local Great Dane ‘Minnie’ 

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).