‘Perceptions of Scottish musical antiquity in the Enlightenment’

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Yesterday, 12 February 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Joanna Clements who discussed ‘Perceptions of Scottish musical antiquity in the Enlightenment’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The focus of this discussion centred around the history of music in Scotland from the 17th century, with the poet/playwright Allan Ramsay acting as a key introductory figure. In his wildly popular, The Tea-Table Miscellany, “A Collection of Choice Songs Scots and English” from 1724, he identified certain Scottish songs as ‘ancient’. According to Ramsay, common characteristics of these ancient songs were their ‘cheerful’ and ‘simplistic’ nature. An example of one of these ‘ancient songs’ is ‘The Broom of Cowdenknows’ from The Red Red Rose, a recording of which was played by Joanna during the lecture.

Ramsay’s work led to an explosion of writing about Scottish music history from the 1760s onwards, including William Tytler’s, A Dissertation of the Scottish Musick (1779) and Walter Scott’s Minstrels of the Scottish Border (1802). The former followed Ramsay and claimed the simplicity of these songs ‘derived from a very remote antiquity’. Other writers, like John Pinkerton, were more critical of Ramsay and his methods. Nevertheless, writing about Scottish music was clearly all the rage at this time.

Joanna argued that these writers followed an ‘Enlightenment Model of Historical Progress’, comparable to Adam Smith’s theory of societal development:

Hunter-Gatherer > Pastoralism > Agriculture > Commercial Society.

In this model, there is a transition from simple to complex, from ‘unrestrained expressions of passions’ to ‘passions controlled by society’. These are universal phases in human society but different societies would experience them at different stages. Essentially, the majority of these 18th century writers applied the above model to the development of Scottish music. To them, there was a gradual evolution from ‘rude’ to ‘civilised’ or as Tytler put it, from compositions of ‘artless simplicity’ to ‘more refined’ works.

Many of these writers looked to the rural poor of Borders and Highlands of Scotland to gather ‘new material’. Ramsay claimed they held a ‘remnant of primeval manners’ and their arrested state of development rendered the songs discovered in these areas as genuine examples of musical antiquity The rural poor were examples of the pastoral lifestyle, highlighted in the above model. Writers like R.H. Cromek and John Pinkerton looked to shepherds from these areas for their ‘ancient music’. However, both Cromek and Pinkerton’s methods and examples were fraudulent, albeit inadvertently in Cromek’s case. Cromek enlisted a local poet, Allan Cunningham, to gather the material but the songs provided were actually Cunningham’s own work, replete with falsified historical references.

These writers also perceived a corruption of this historical material. Authenticity was found in the examples from the rural poor, while the songs recovered by some of the metropolitan elite became so modernised they had ‘no trace of simplicity’. Cromek asserted that the authentic songs from the rural poor retained the ‘rough nature <of> peasantry’, while those transcribed by the elite had all the ‘tasselings of courtly refinement’. This ‘refinement’ was, ultimately, corruption from the ‘original’ source.

After the lecture, the arguably artificial ‘mythology of tradition’, with its reverence for ‘naturalness’, was identified by one commentator as an ever-present feature of the musical festival, Celtic Connections, exemplifying the contemporary relevance of Joanna’s discussion.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next Tuesday, 19 February, our seminar series continues with Dr. Iain MacDonald’s discussion of ‘Hospitality and the Church in the Highlands in the medieval and early modern eras’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm.

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