Scotland’s Music and Dance: Amusement, Traditions and Work

If someone was to say to you “music and dance in Scotland” you would automatically think of bagpipes and ceilidh dances. But, looking at the Statistical Accounts of Scotland, you would discover a wider world of music and dance. It is very much central to Scottish traditions, from social gatherings through to religious settings, and even in work. It plays an important role in the lives of people, no matter what class or age. The country and its people are embodied and given life through song. There are also some surprising revelations, with many parishes reporting an actual loss in the taste for music!

In the first of three posts on music and dance in Scotland, we look at music in social settings, musical traditions and music while working.

Music in social settings

Music, along with sport, provided light relief after a long hard day or week of work, especially in the winter. In Dryfesdale, County of Dumfries, “the principal diversion or amusement is curling on the ice in the winter, when sometimes scores of people assemble on the waters, and in the most keen, yet friendly manner, engage against one another, and usually conclude the game and day with a good dinner, drink, and songs.” (OSA, Vol. IX, 1793, p. 432)

The principle amusements in Durness, County of Sutherland, were playing ball and shinty on the sands of Balnakiel. “The whole population turns out on old Christmas and new-year’s day, and even old men of seventy are to be seen mingling in the crowd, remaining till night puts an end to the contest. Indeed, the inhabitant, of this parish have always been noted for the enthusiasm with which they engaged in these sports. To keep up the tone of action, they retire in the evening, and mingle in the dance to the music of the bagpipe, regardless of the bruises and scars of the contest.” (NSA, Vol. XV, 1845, p. 96)

Most farmhouses and all cottages in Dornock, County of Dumfries, were constructed using mud or clay. “The manner of erecting them is singular… Some [people] fall to the working the clay or mud, by mixing it with straw; others carry the materials; and 4 or 6 of the most experienced hands, build and take care of the walls. The walls of the house are finished in a few hours; after which, they retire to a good dinner and plenty of drink which is provided for them, where they have music and a dance, with which, and other marks of festivity, they conclude the evening. This is called a daubing; and in this manner they make a frolic of what would otherwise be a very dirty and disagreeable job.” (OSA, Vol. II, 1792, p. 22)

Music also played an important part in festivals. One example is that of the annual St Columba’s Day fair at Largs, County of Ayrshire, which was held on the second Tuesday of June. “The whole week is a kind of jubilee to the inhabitants, and a scene of diversion to others. Such a vast multitude cannot be accommodated with beds; and the Highlanders, in particular, do not seem to think such accommodation necessary. They spend the whole night in rustic sports, carousing and dancing on the green to the sound of the bagpipe. Every one who chooses is allowed to join in this, which forms their principal amusement. The candidates for the dance are generally so numerous, that it is kept up without intermission during the whole time of the fair.” (OSA, Vol. XVII, 1796, p. 519)

A print showing people dancing in the ballroom at Eglinton Castle, North Ayrshire, Scotland. 1840.

The Ballroom at Eglinton Castle, 1840. By Hodgson (The Eglinton Tournament) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some parishes set up assembly rooms wherever they could, such as Tiree and Coll, County of Argyle. “They frequently entertain themselves by composing and singing songs, by repeating Fingalian and other tales, by dancing assemblies at different farms by turns. In this qualification they are remarkably neat.” (OSA, Vol. X, 1794 p. 414) Others had a specific assembly room where people would dance, such as Edinburgh. “In 1763, there was one dancing assembly room; the profits of which went to the support of the Charity-Workhouse. Minutes were danced by each set, previous to the country dances. Strict regularity with respect to dress and decorum, and great dignity of manners were observed.”  (OSA, Vol. VI, 1793, p. 618)

In fact, there were many dances organized for charitable purposes. In Strathdon, County of Aberdeen, subscription dances were “set on foot for the relief of some case of poverty or incidental distress in the neighbourhood; and thus, at the individual cost of a few pence, a considerable sum is realized for a needy neighbour. Another charitable practice prevails. When an extraordinary case of helpless distress occurs, the young men in the locality assemble together, and, often accompanied with music, go from house to house, where they receive a donation in kind or money. In this way a considerable supply is speedily raised in behalf of the object of their charitable exertions.” (NSA, Vol. XII, 1845, p. 549) A similar practice was carried out in Kirkmichael, County of Dumfries, where “a friend is sent to as many of their neighbours as they think needful, to invite them to what they call a drinking… The guests convene at the time appointed, and, after collecting a
shilling a piece, and sometimes more, they divert themselves for about a couple of hours, with music and dancing”. This sometimes resulted in 5, 6, or 7 pounds being raised for the needy person or family. (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 59)

In Liberton, County of Edinburgh, there were carter’s plays. “The carters have friendly societies for the purpose of supporting each other in old age or during ill-health, and with the view partly of securing a day’s recreation, and partly of recruiting their numbers and funds, they have an annual procession. Every man decorates his cart-horse with flowers and ribbons, and a regular procession is made, accompanied by a band of music, through this and some of the neighbouring parishes. To crown all, there is an uncouth uproarious race with cart-horses on the public road, which draws forth a crowd of Edinburgh idlers, and all ends in a dinner, for which a fixed sum is paid.” (NSA, Vol. I, 1845, p. 12)

Musical traditions

It is easy to see how such musical pastimes became traditions. There are some wondrous customs involving music and dance described in the parish reports. One such tradition was the holding of an annual festival in Perth, County of Perth, during which the Saint Obert’s Play was performed. On the 10th December, people “attired themselves in disguise dresses, and passed through the city piping and dancing, and striking drums, and carrying in their hands burning torches. One of the actors was clad in a particular kind of coat, which they designated the Devil’s Coat, and another rode upon a horse, having on its feet men’s shoes. There is no account extant of its minute particulars, but, from the manner in which the kirk session and the corporation officials dealt with the performers, it appears to have been idolatrous, profane, and immoral in its tendency.” So much so that action was taken by the Kirk Session against such pastimes, especially the Saint Obert’s play. (NSA, Vol. X, 1845, p. 80)

In the Peebles parish report there is a very interesting description of the Beltane Festival, which is held every year on the 1st May. It mentions a poem by King James I “entitled Peebles to
the Play, in which he represents a great annual festival of music, diversions, and feasting, that had long been in use to be held at Peebles, attended by multitudes from the Forth and the Forest, in their best apparel.” (OSA, Vol. XII, 1794, p. 14) This poem can be found in The Miscellany of Popular Scottish Poems.

However, some traditions had fallen by the wayside even by the time the Statistical Accounts of Scotland were written. Formerly, in Lady, County of Orkney, “it was customary for companies of men, on new year’s morning, to go to the houses of the rich, and awake the family, by singing the New Year’s song, in full chorus. When the song was concluded, the family entertained the musicians with ale and bread, and gave them a smoked goose or a piece of beef.” (NSA, Vol. XV, 1845, p. 142)

Other festivals that formerly took place was the Trades Race fair that was held every June in Beith, County of Ayrshire, “in which the trades assembled and went in procession through the town with music and flags. On the day after the Trades Race, the merchants of the town used to meet and walk in procession, and afterwards dine together” (NSA, Vol. V, 1845, p. 592) and the Maiden Feast which was held at the end of harvest time in Longforgan, County of Perth, the maiden referring to the last handful of corn reaped in the field. “One of the finest girls in the field was dressed up in ribbands, and brought home in triumph, with the music of fiddles or bagpipes. A good dinner was given to the whole band, and the evening spent in joviality and dancing, while the fortunate lass who took the maiden was the Queen of the feast.” This custom was later replaced with each shearer being given 6d. and a loaf of bread, although “some farmers, when all their corns are brought in, give their servants a dinner, and a jovial evening, by way of Harvest-home.” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 550)

In the Statistical Accounts of Scotland there are also some very unusual anecdotes involving music, including:

  • the story of an unfortunate piper in a cave somewhere in Kilmalie, County of Inverness, whose music could be heard 10 miles away. The tune that he played was “”Oh! that I had three hands I two for the bagpipe, and one for the sword” signifying that he had been attacked by subterranean foes.” (OSA, Vol. VIII, 1793, p. 421)
  • a young man in Lundie and Fowlis, County of Forfar, who, one day, played a tune on the shepherd’s pipe. “Hearing his music distinctly repeated three times over, he got up in great terror, averring that the Devil was certainly in the place; that he had never before engaged with Satan, and he was determined he never would again; whereupon he broke his pipe in pieces, and could never afterwards be prevailed upon to play any more.” (OSA, Vol. VII, 1793, p. 282)

In the parish of Leuchars, County of Fife, it was reported that the fiddle was played to ease the suffering of people affected with St Vitus’ Dance (another name for Sydenham’s chorea). “It was not
regular music that gave relief, but the striking of certain strings, which the person under agitation, desired should be struck again. The effect was astonishing; the person affected, became quiet, sat down, and in a little, asked to be put to bed, but still called for the person to play, till the feelings that produced the agitation were abated.” (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 606)

Music as you work

Music was not only found in social settings. There are some mentions of people, especially fishermen, using the power of song and music to get them through their work. In Prestonpans, County of Haddington, it was reported that, at a particular time of year, fishing for oysters forms the principal occupation of a number of seafaring men. “Long before dawn, in the bleakest season of the year, their dredging song may be heard afar off, and, except when the wind is very turbulent, their music, which is not disagreeable, appears to be an accompaniment of labours that are by no means unsuccessful.” (NSA, Vol. II, 1845, p. 312)

painting of fishermen with their haul of fish

Silver Darlings, Unknown Artist. North Ayrshire Heritage Council. [Re-used through Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Licence]

In the parish of Latheron, County of Caithness, fishermen “engage in worship after shooting their nets. On these occasions a portion of a psalm is sung, followed with prayer, and the effect is represented as truly solemn and heart-stirring, as the melodious strains of the Gaelic music, carried along the surface of the waters, (several being similarly engaged), spread throughout the whole fleet.” (NSA, Vol. XV, 1845, p. 102) (We will look specifically at music and religion in our next post.)

Music may also improve the end product! Rutherglen, County of Lanark, “has long been famous for sour cakes. As the baking is wholly performed by the hand a great deal of noise is the consequence. The beats, however, are not irregular, nor destitute of an agreeable harmony, especially when they are accompanied with vocal music, which is frequently the case.” (NSA, Vol. VI, 1845, p. 384) It would be very interesting to see and hear the process, as well as taste the results.

The power of music

Looking at the references to music and dance in the Statistical Accounts you can see how much it pervaded every aspect of life from work to play. Music and dance may have changed in many ways since these parish reports, but the one constant is that they have the power to bring joy, to heal and to allow people to express themselves.

In the next post on Scotland’s dance and music we will look at examples of Scottish ballads found in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland and eminent musicians, especially musical families.

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Festival weird and wonderful titles

Say “hello” to the summer and the festival season! As there are so many events taking place, especially in Edinburgh where SUNCAT is based, we thought that we’d search SUNCAT for some of the more weird and wonderful festival titles.

  • Abertoir : gŵyl arswyd = horror festival.
  • The Carrying Stream Festival.
  • Galway Oyster Festival.
  • International Quilt Festival quilt scene.
  • Underage festival.
  • Young at Heart festival.
  • Annual million pines arts & crafts festival.
  • Fest’ n’ Furious.
  • Crop Over festival magazine.
  • International Old-Time Dance Festival Week … Douglas, Isle of Man … 30th August to … 6th September, 1958 [etc.]. [Festival brochures.]
  • The … Festival of the Sons of the Clergy.
  • The Lemon Tree presents Rootin Aboot.
  • The Leacock Festival of Humour annual.
  • Masks newsletter : International Festival of Masks newsletter.
  • Ye olde newes of the … annual Texas Renaissance Festival
  • Sherlock Holmes festival : Crowborough, East Sussex.
  • Souvenir program / Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
  • Stonehaven fireballs and open air in the square.
  • The Totally Unknown Writers Festival … stories.
  • Old May day fair : a Welsh country fair with traditional crafts, sports and pastimes = Gwyl hen galan Mai / Welsh Folk Museum.
  • Peebles March Riding and Beltane Queen Festival.
  • Possum fez wik!
  • Shimmy skinny.
  • Symphony in the Flint Hills field journal.
  • Vintage spirit events … : steam & transport heritage at its best.

For more festival titles and other weird and wonderful journals take a look in SUNCAT.


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