Dr Karen McAulay: Late Summer in the Hebrides: Alexander Campbell’s Song-Collecting for Albyn’s Anthology

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Blog Author: Eleanor Thomson

Dr Karen McAulay presented the second seminar in the series, exploring the song-collecting activities of Alexander Campbell (1764–1824). McAulay’s 2013 monograph Our Ancient National Airs: Scottish Song Collecting from the Enlightenment to the Romantic Era is a seminal ethnomusicological study which focuses on song collections with music, rather than words, and considers the cultural influences and motivations of the collectors. McAulay demonstrated the importance of an ethnomusicological approach and in choosing as its focus a perhaps more obscure figure in Alexander Campbell, presented an engaging and thoughtful investigation of this well-known period of collecting in Scotland.

Following in the footsteps of Martin Martin; Robert Burns; Boswell and Johnson; John Leyden; James Hogg; and under the spell of MacPherson’s Ossian; Alexander Campbell set out on his tour of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the summer of 1815 in search of material for his collection, Albyn’s Anthology, published in two volumes in 1816 and 1818. Campbell had already published works including an Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland… with a Conversation on Scottish Song (1798-1799) and a Journey from Edinburgh through parts of North Britain (1802). The tour was documented in Campbell’s journal which was later titled A Slight Sketch of a Journey made through parts of the Highlands & Hebrides.

Dr McAulay outlined the context of song collecting activity in this period and how, amidst the growing enthusiasm for ‘genuine’ Scottish material, Campbell had earnestly set out to preserve his own native musical tradition. McAulay described how Campbell had understood the nuance of Gaelic dialects, but that his own Gaelic left something to be desired; and that he had received funding for the trip from the Highland Society of Scotland, although they were eager to distance themselves from any responsibility for the quality of the collection. At the beginning of his journey Campbell changed into traditional Highland dress, an act which McAulay described as simultaneously ‘traditional, old-fashioned, nostalgic or politically symbolic.’ (McAulay, Our Ancient National Airs, p.83) His pursuits can be seen to represent the climax of the Scottish Enlightenment as it gave way to the sentiments of the Romantic era.

Campbell’s journey began in July 1815 in Stirling and took him to Lismore, Mull, Iona, the Uists, Barra, Vatersay, Harris, Skye, Raasay and Scalpay, before returning to the mainland in October 1815. Sir John MacGregor Murray helped to organise the route and the introductions necessary to gather material from a wide selection of social classes. Campbell took down tunes from weavers, fishermen, soldiers, ministers as well as the drawing-room Highland elite. His informants also included many women, some but certainly not all of whom were credited in his final collection. Mrs McKenzie of Dervaig, Campbell noted in his Slight Sketch, ‘knows French, musick, drawing, sews neatly, makes shellwork, & can milk a cow; in short she can do everything’ (fols 10v-12r). A formidable woman indeed.

Campbell collected instrumental music from the pipe, harp, piano and fiddle as well as vocal repertoire from Gaelic luinneags (short songs), iorram (rowing songs) and puirt a beul (mouth-music). After transcribing these melodies, Campbell set about harmonising them in order to create a collection of Highland airs with piano accompaniments, effectively known as ‘art-music’. Unfortunately, his musical abilities seem to have differed rather dramatically from the European standards of Classical settings and his understanding and representation of musical theory was criticised. Dr McAulay gave several examples via video of the settings which Campbell had used in Albyn’s Anthology and compared them to more traditional versions, noting that he had kept the traditional feel of some and that the modal harmonies remained effective if a bit clichéd. Short renditions of ‘The Highland Watch’ and the ‘Jock of Hazeldene’ among others brought the lecture to a lively and engaging close.

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