February workshop: some Winter Merry Melodies

We looked at two tunes, both of which can be found in Kerr’s Merry Melodies for the Violin. Published in the 1870s, they have proved to be an enduring a source for a variety of Scottish, Irish and other tunes common at the time — including popular airs from opera. These tunes would have been an important part of the repertoire of most performing musicians when they were published.


Our tunes were the Schottische/ barndance A Winter’s Night Schottische and the strathspey Gloomy Winter. I also included a reel, Feargan and one of my own compositions, The Slipway.

Recordings of the tunes are below and can be downloaded. I encourage you to listen to them and other versions of the tunes as much as possible to help internalise them.

Update 3 March: A PDF of the tunes has now been uploaded after the server errors were been ironed out. There was some discussion about ABC music notation, an open source music notation system for traditional instruments and repertoire. An ABC version of our tunes has also been uploaded as a .TXT file that ABC apps can read. If you click on the link you should see it in your browser. Find out more about ABC notation here.

A Winter’s Night Schottische I first came across and learned as a barndance from Hammy Hamilton’s recording Moneymusk, where he duetted with a young Paul McGrattan. Hammy Hamilton is a flute player and maker from Northern Ireland, now long resident in Co. Cork. His flutes are excellent but can take some filling and he has both written a guide to the Irish flute and runs Cruinniú na bhFliúit (Flutemeet) every April (some spaces still available at time of writing). Flutemeet was one of the inspirations for our annual FluteFling Scottish flute weekends.

Flute session in Sandy Bell's, Edinburgh

Flute session in Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh, November 2016: Cathal McConnell, Sharon Creasey, Rebecca Knorr, John Crawford and Kenny Hadden. (c) Gordon Turnbull

The repertoire or Northern Ireland has many examples of Scottish links and there are a host of strathspeys, for example, that are played as Highlands or barndances. A Winter’s Night Schottische is known in Ireland as Eddie Duffy’s Barndance, Eddie Duffy being a fiddle player from County Fermanagh, honoured in the annual Derrygonnely Festival. I was reminded of this tune after the November workshop when it was played in Sandy Bell’s by Sharon Creasey and Cathal McConnell. Sharon worked with Cathal on the Hidden Fermanagh project and it was Cathal who helped to spread the music of Fermanagh into the wider world. A version of the tune appears in Kerr’s with our title.

For a history of the schottische, a dance once popular throughout Europe, Wikipedia has an overview of its complex history.

The tune has a heavily dotted but regular rhythm, very much akin to a hornpipe and similar to a barndance. There is a fluidity to some of the definitions of these tune types but the dances for them are distinct. Using glottal stops to pulse the breath and push the beat along, there are opportunities to decorate sparsely in the main, but with some variation possible too. We focused on the phrasing to help bring out the overarching structure of the tune.

I came across Gloomy Winter in Kerr’s while looking for a companion piece for the schottische. It’s actually a strathspey setting of Robert Tannahill’s 1808 song Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa’, but should perhaps be more accurately called Lord Balgonie’s Favourite, since that was the original tune that the words were set to. The excellent Sangstories web site has an account of the story behind it. The old tune books have many examples of song airs put to dance tunes.

Robert Tannahill was a poet, weaver and flute player from Paisley and the inspiration behind the Tannahill Weaver’s name. More about him from the Robert Tannahill Federation.

There are a few settings and titles for this tune, which featured in Michael Nyman’s score for The Piano:

An attraction about the Kerr’s setting in A minor is in the challenges is presents to the flute and whistle. It doesn’t sit neatly under the fingers, drops below the range of the instruments, both holds and pulses on the weaker c’ that also requires tricky articulation. However, this can be used to bring out a sense of vulnerability in the melody, something that Dougie MacLean does with the downward inflections in the phrasing of his version of the song and served as a model for thinking about the phrasing on the flute:

And finally, here’s The Tannahill Weavers playing the song, with Phil Smillie on flute and Lorne MacDougall on whistle:

We also looked at a couple of ways of articulating C natural in particular, leading to a digression that included demonstrations of The Bibble (as played by Ruairidh Morrison and also Munro Gauld) and The Wipe (as played by Phil Smillie and Malcolm Reavell on the whistle)

While looking for final tune to go with these tunes, I came across Feargan (a pet name for Fearghus), a simple but hypnotic reel with a sense of port-a-beul about it. I can’t find much about it at all. As well as being in Kerr’s (1870s), it’s also in the Athole Collection of 1884. Something about the structure of it and the possible meaning of the name makes me think it may be a west coast or Highlands tune originally.

Feargan could go well out of Gloomy Winter as they share the same key. Consider playing it at a slower than usual pace for a reel or possibly even as a strathspey first, then as a reel.

Finally, a bonus tune that we didn’t look at is The Slipway, a kind of slip jig I wrote while playing about with rhythms. I hope you have fun with it.

The next workshop will take place on Saturday 18th March.


Lucy Farr’s Barndance plus one

This week we caught up with some of Amble’s tunes from when she took the class. Our main focus was Lucy Farr’s Barndance and we followed this with another, Where in the World Would we be Without Women?

Lucy Farr was a fiddle player from east Galway, who ended up living in London. She featured on the influential 1968 recording Paddy in the Smoke, which was a live recording from the London session scene of the time. There is a great profile of Lucy Farr here. Fetch a cup of tea to have while reading that one as it is as detailed as it is fascinating.

Our barndance is one of two associated with Lucy Farr, who called it The Kilnamona Barndance according to flute player Niall Kenny on this lengthy discussion on The Session. There is also some discussion about it’s identity as a German (Northern Irish dance form) and a 7-step dance (also German, possibly the same dance). I know little about this dance form other than it has a similar musical feel to a barndance, which in itself feels like a little like hornpipe.

Once in a session in Sandy Bell’s, someone from the Western Isles sang in Gaelic to this tune when I played it and told me it was well known and that the song translated as I Saw the Cat. It is worth checking out the recording by fiddler Martin Hayes, from neighbouring east Clare, of a much-slowed down and meditative version of this simple but effective tune.

If We Hadn’t Any Women in the World is a barndance that could follow Lucy’ Farr’s quite nicely. Harry Bradley recorded this on As I Carelessly Did Stray…, but he cites Hammy Hamilton’s recording on Moneymusk as the source. I believe that I may have heard this on an early cassette version of that recording (and have misremembered the title slightly too — Where in the World Would We Be Without Women?). Hammy Hamilton’s fine version is freely available online and I note that he freely switches phrases around, which may also account for my own fluid setting of the tune. Again, many versions and much discussion on The Session website. The tune was first recorded by James Morrison in 1928 according to the sleeve notes.

Dots, ABCs and recordings for both tunes can be found in the Resources section.

Photo of Lucy Farr via Mustrad.



Bonus holiday tune: The Cameron Highlanders

A quick unexpected update as the classes aren’t due to resume until later in the month. However, a good tune to get to help get to grips with a resonant bottom D on the flute is The Cameron Highlanders.

A composition by James Scott Skinner, which you can see here, the Traditional Tune Archive puts the date at 1880. The Cameron Highlanders were a Scottish Regiment first raised in the 18th Century.

Don’t confuse this tune (as I often do) with The Cameronian Reel or Cameronian Rant, both different tunes, possibly related, with similar structures and Scottish origins. Confused? You’re not alone.

My version is much influenced by the Irish setting (and maybe by those other tunes), where it is played as a barndance. Some discussion of the different versions can be found on The Session website.

I haven’t put up music notation for this yet, but have recorded it on whistle and flute. You can find them on the Resources page for this year.

Image: Donald Callander graduation, Sandhurst 1939 by A.D.F.Callander, some rights reserved.