Tunes, lyrics, Hogg and Burns: a late January update

The January workshop couldn’t have taken place without a nod to Robert Burns and it turned out that much of the music we covered had lyrics or associations with words.

Gordon demonstrates how to engage the diaphragm while playing the flute. Photo (c) Oonagh O’Brien

We also tried out some different flutes and whistles and explored learning to use the diaphragm.

When playing while lying down, the diaphragm has to be engaged. The sensation is then recreated when resuming a vertical position in order to better support the breath.

Other technique covered included rolls, cuts and strikes and longer phrasing.

Leaving Lismore

We began with Leaving Lismore as a slower piece to warm up. A retreat march in D by Mrs. Martin Hardie (of which nothing seems to be known), there is a harmony for fiddle by Christine Martin from Breakish, Isle of Skye that I have adapted for flutes and whistle. There are some good opportunities for simple decoration and space to concentrate on tone and breath support.

Once we had the slow waltz feel down, we tried introducing the harmonies to good effect, with the whistles adding to the range of sound. While I have taught this tune before, it was new to the group and is one of a few pieces that might be suitable for working on as an ensemble.

Kye Comes Hame

A strathspey I have never heard others play but is undoubtedly related to When the Kye Comes Hame, a song written with James Hogg (“The Ettrick Shepherd”) and first published in 1822 in his novel The Three Perils of Man. There’s a good historical overview of the song at the National Library of Scotland web site which suggests that the tune may have already been well known.

I learned my version many years ago via Kerr’s Merrie Melodies and I think it was the lyricism of the tune that appealed to me at the time, although I was unaware of the song at that point. Being aware of the lyrics can often help with phrasing and is often recommended for slow airs that derive from songs. However, without the words, the opportunity opens to emphasise the rhythm and bounce of the tune.

In D, this tune goes well with Leaving Lismore.

Here are the Tannahill Weavers with their version of the song:

Green Grow the Rashes

Green Grow the Rashes O is a poem of 1787 by Robert Burns with a very long and detailed history. Some information here from the Scottish Country Dancing perspective and also some lyrics analysis from this website, which says there were three other pre-existing versions that Burns took as inspiration.

However the Traditional Tune Archive has more on the melody that can be traced back to 17th Century lute collections and became known in a different format as Grant’s Rant. As the Grants were traditionally in the Rothiemurcus area, this might suggest it is from the heart of strathspey country.

I had thought that the version we learned is based on one from Donegal, but listening back to my sources which have some of the Scotch snaps shaved off, I think that other influences may have overridden it. Our version is more like a Highland or west coast strathspey, in its bounce and punch and certainly not at all like Dougie McLean’s wistful version of the song, which shows how versatile a melody it is.

Our version is in G and sits on flutes and whistles nicely, with opportunities for typically Scottish short rolls on the G in particular. This tune goes well after Kye Comes Hame.

Flutes at this afternoon’s workshop. @tribeporty

A post shared by Gordon Turnbull (@gordontheflow) on

Och Is Duine Truagh Mi

While looking through some teaching material that Rebecca Knorr gave to me a few years ago, I came across the west coast pipe reel/ port a beul Och Is Duine Truagh Mi (Alas I am a forlorn man). It’s a lovely tune that was recorded by the influential Ossian a good few years back, with Iain McDonald on pipes, flute and whistles.

Rebecca’s version is in G to sit on the whistle more readily, which is how we did it, but I also provided music and a recording of it in A, which is how it would normally be played. The version in G features long G rolls and follows nicely out of Green Grow the Rashes, keeping the key but changing the rhythm.

It’s a really useful skill to know a tune in more than one key, particularly if you know it well. It’s like seeing someone in different clothes in that it brings out different parts of the personality. However, it also builds up technical skills in terms of fingering and anticipation. Neither the A version nor the G version are particularly difficult on flute or whistle, but if you try it out you will have to think of different fingering and phrasing transitions which is useful.

Niall Kenny on The Session says he got this from Allan McDonald (Iain’s brother, who with Dr Angus McDonald make up the three piping brothers of Glenuig ) and that it may originally hail from Scalpay.

There are some lyrics to the reel and I have found a couple of intriguing versions, one with pipe variations. This first one has a slightly different title, but features whistles as well as pipes played by Seoanaidh MacIntyre with Ross B. Wilson on keyboards. There are two variations on each part, effectively making it a six part tune. The video includes the sheet music:

The second version is by fiddle and harp duo Jenna Moynihan & Mairi Chaimbeul:

Dhomhnuill a Dhomhnuill

Dhomhnuill a Dhomhnuill is a piece of mouth music (port a beul) from the isle of Skye that I learned from Gaelic singer Michel Byrne. This was part of the repertoire for The Big Squeeze Ceilidh Band for many years when we both played in it together. We didn’t spend much time with it, but it would go well after Och Is Duine Truagh Mi in either key. I taught this reel a couple of years ago and at the time wrote about it here.

February workshop

The next workshop will take place on Saturday 24th February and will be taken by Sharon Creasey. It’s a rare chance to spend some time with Sharon, who plays Boehm system flute as well as whistle.

Scotch Mary and Peter Pan

A danger of running an event on the third weekend of the month is that eventually you get to December and meet Christmas head-on. When that happens, it’s hard to know what to expect. So when Kenny Hadden said he would come down that weekend, I jumped at the chance to get him to also do some teaching alongside me and it became something bigger than usual.

Flutes at The Dalriada: (l-r) John Corbett, Malcolm Reavell, Sean Paul Newman, Kenny Hadden, John Crawford. (c) Gordon Turnbull

John Crawford and Malcolm Reavell were also there, also from Aberdeen, and we went for a flutey session afterwards at The Dalriada with Sean Paul Newman welcoming as usual and providing accompaniment. Later that evening Sharon Creasey came along with Cathal McConnell  to play at The Captain’s Bar. All in all a bit of a mini flute festival.

Sharon Creasey and Cathal McConnell at The Captain’s Bar, Edinburgh

The workshop began with a slow tune to warm up: Caol Muile (The Sound of Mull), the air to a Gaelic song (Youtube link to a version sung at Plockton School). I have a version with some harmony parts and added another myself, so we had some fun trying them out. Grace notes and breathing came up as we added expression.

I followed this up with a reel that seems to be from Donegal and presented problems in pinning down a definitive version. We had one for the day and Kenny and I also had some variations. Scotch Mary can be found in various collections and with various titles. Irish Molly is one, Ireland Green is a title given by PJ Hayes and Martin Hayes too. Flute players John Skelton and Kieran O’Hare recorded it on whistles on their great CD Double Barrelled (link has a clip of the music).

The tune actually exists in three main versions, as two parts: A+B, B+C or three parts: A+B+C. To confuse things, the A and C parts are similar, there are different changes in other versions and key shifts too. The version I taught includes elements of these. Here’s a closely related Donegal version on Youtube played by Paddy, Seamus and Kevin Glackin. It’s the second tune in the set.

Kenny Hadden with others walking and feeling the rhythm while playing at the December FluteFling workshop.

Kenny took over after the break and kept the festive theme by teaching and sharing some tunes by Johnny Cunningham that were originally for a musical theatre performance on Peter Pan. Johnny and brother Phil studied at local Portobello High School so it was doubly apt for the location.

The first tune, Two is the Beginning of the End, not only had a strange title, but was in an enigmatic scale that served as a useful warm-up piece to get the ears tuned in. As it has actually been a good while since I found myself learning a tune by ear in a workshop, it was good to have the tables turned and be reminded of the experience.

The second tune Kenny introduced was more traditional, but recorded by Johnny Cunningham. The Celtic Society’s Quickstep (music and background can be round at the Traditional Tune Archive) is a dance tune first published in Kerr’s Merrie Melodies of the 1880s, but in existence since at least 1820. A delightful tune with some interesting jumps and straightforward runs that can be played with some bounce. It doesn’t seem to be played very much and could benefit from more exposure.

Resources for the tunes are to be found on the resources page for 2017. Two is the Beginning of the End doesn’t feature for copyright reasons, but those who attended will have something to work with. I will add The Celtic Society’s Quickstep very shortly.

Here’s Johnny’s version of The Celtic Society’s Quickstep, as recorded on Fair Warning:

Kenny has a YouTube channel with some rare archive video and TV footage, particularly of music from Scotland, that is worth exploring.

Finally, a wee plug for the Scottish Flute channel on YouTube, which has evolved out of the FluteFling workshops and sessions. Set up and run by volunteers and supporters in the Aberdeen area, there is some footage from the Aberdeen weekend in November and more can expected both from the archive and as more events occur.


Mullindhu: an ambiguous tune

September’s workshop looked at a version of Mullindhu, which translates as The Black Mill. A Scottish tune with Highland origins, there are a few different versions and spellings about in the main collections (Skye, Fraser and Athole are ones I regularly refer to). A reel in A Dorian, our version is slow and stately, more like a march, and was recorded by Jock Tamson’s Bairns.

Resources for this and the two other tunes we looked at (PDF, ABC and MP3 formats) have been added to the Resources Page.

Alba Low whistle in D (c) Gordon Turnbull

The story I originally heard about this melody from Edinburgh fiddler Doug Patience (now in County Clare) was that the mill in question stood on disputed land between two rival families and was burnt down by one of the sides. The composer was local and diplomatically wrote a tune that could be seen as either celebratory or in lament, depending on the point of view of the listener.

On The, a discussion on the tune quotes a story from Cape Breton Island about the Mill as a clandestine rendezvous for romance that similarly divides opinion:

Apparently, on Cape Breton Island the tune/song was not allowed to be played in certain parts because it was so closely associated with the MacDougalls of Margaree, who apparently were extremely touchy about hearing it played within their earshot! It appears that one line of a stanza of the puirt a beul set to the melody goes “Tha nead circe fraoiche ‘s a’ mhuilean dubh.” (In the black mill is the heather-hen’s nest). The offense to the Margaree MacDougalls was due to a joke that was told about hens at the expense of the clan, and they were so sensitive to any reference to the joke that they could not tolerate mention of poultry of any kind, and took the playing of the tune to be a veiled insult against the clan.

More on the tune background and stories can be found at the Fiddler’s Companion, including one story that includes devilish dealings.

I was pleasantly surprised that a bit of playing about with the tune reveals it to be a version of The Oyster Wives’ Rant, a reel I have known for many years but not often played. We also had a look at this in the workshop. The Fiddler’s Companion informs us that the earliest printed version is in Bremner’s Collection of 1775 and that it is part of a family of tunes and variants from Scotland to England and Ireland — so our Mullin Dhu connection is no surprise.

In searching about for a possible companion piece, I came across the distinctively titled An Oidhche Bha Na Gabhair Againn (The Night We Had the Goats) in the Athole Collection, a book which handily orders the tunes by key. This is in the relatively rare G major and I have adapted it slightly to my playing style. We didn’t have time to look at it properly, but it bounces nicely off the Ds and Gs and lends itself to short sharp spiky rolls. Interestingly, it resolves on to A, which lends it a whistful, inconclusive feel to my ears.

While it is described as a pipe tune, and printed versions may go back to 1795, the origins may be in puirt-à-beul. The odd title might be explained by another translation, The Night the Goats Came Home.

Here’s a version played a few years ago by then 17 year olds Hannah Stockley and Brad Murphy at the Gaelic Society in Sydney, Cape Breton.

After the workshop, myself and Malcolm Reavell rounded off the day by walking along to the Dalriada in Joppa and joined in the regular Saturday afternoon session for a couple of hours. Thanks to Sean Paul Newman (guitar) and Robert Chalmers (concertina) for their hospitality.

Reminder: FluteFling workshops take a break in October, but goes on the road in November with a big Aberdeen weekend featuring tutors Davy Maguire, Sharon Creasey, with a concert and sessions. And to keep the momentum going, regular Edinburgh workshops resume in November and December.

March workshop roundup: A look at John McKenna and the North Connaught flute style

This month’s workshop fell on St Patrick’s Day weekend and it seemed a good opportunity to explore influential flute player John McKenna, his style and repertoire. We learned just one of the many tunes that he popularised, but spent a good deal of time exploring pulse and ornamentation. A few of us then joined Bev Whelan for a session, where we played some of McKenna’s music.

John McKenna’s legacy

John McKenna, from Musical Traditions web siteJohn McKenna was one of a number of Irish musicians who made their name by recording on the early cylinders and 78s in America in the early-mid 20th Century. You can find out more about him on Wikipedia and Musical Traditions, there are recordings on YouTube, a society in his honour and much more if you wish to Google him.

From County Leitrim, his style energetic with a strong pulse, which typifies the Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon style. I have written more about different styles on The Flow website. Do also check out Josie McDermott, Catherine McEvoy (lots of other interviews on Brad Hurley’s excellent site) and John Wynne. I also mentioned Conal O Grada (here is the introduction to The Raw Bar Collective) I encourage everyone to use these links as a springboard for further exploring — YouTube has a wealth of footage, many from archives.

Packie Duignan was one of many who followed in John McKenna’s footsteps and it is possible to speculate that he may have been an inspiration for the punchy Belfast or wider Northern Irish style after he visited the city with Cathal McConnell. Harry Bradley and Michael Clarkson are just two exponents of this Northern style, but there are many others. These two recorded together on The Pleasures of Hope.

For a short introduction to Northern Irish flute traditions, this video has some notable voices.


John McKenna not only influenced people in his playing style, but also in his repertoire. Many of the sets of tunes he recorded are still played today and often referred to as McKenna’s Reels or McKenna’s Polkas despite recording a good number of different ones.

We looked at just one tune, Colonel Rodger’s Favourite, the first of a pair of reels known as McKenna’s No. 1 and McKenna’s No. 2, or simply, McKenna’s. We exploring it in some depth, taking the time to look at ornaments, revisit  and . The other tunes I had prepared were the second of these reels, The Happy Days of Youth and two of the polkas he is associated with — Farewell to Whiskey (a polka version of Niel Gow’s air Farewell to Whisky) and The Dark Girl Dressed in Blue.

Such widely played tunes naturally have a number of settings and mine have been added to the current repertoire playlist and I have uploaded the notation too.


As well as exploring the ideas behind Sylvain Barou‘s method for learning cuts, strikes and rolls (see previous posts), we had a look at creating a pulse using glottal stops supported by the diaphragm. The pulse, like decoration, occurs on the beat and is useful when playing with others or for dancers in order to emphasise the rhythm and keep everyone together musically.

This is the basis of the older style of traditional flute playing in Ireland and there is much to suggest that it is also applicable to at least parts of the Scottish repertoire. Some Irish polkas are linked to Scottish marches, for example, and strathspeys also require a pronounced rhythm.

Calum Stewart uses this as part of a wide range of techniques that includes tonguing to produce a distinctive and dynamic performance.

Like Tom Oakes, who also has a broad palette of tonal colour, Calum Stewart uses the “Dirty D”, mentioned in this interview with John Skelton, which takes us right back to Packie Duignan, John McKenna and the Leitrim/ Northern Irish sound.

We tried this out by playing a low D and then overblowing to the point where it begins to break into the next octave, but doesn’t quite. Like the spluttering candle flame exercise, it requires some control, not the lack of it as it may appear. Some flutes will do this more readily than others but the exploration of these tonal boundaries on a foundation note of the flute will promote better tone and volume over the instrument as a whole.

Forthcoming dates

The monthly workshops will take a break in April and return in May (tickets on sale soon). The June one will be given over to the 4th annual FluteFling weekend. Monthly workshops may continue in July if there is enough interest.

January workshop roundup: cuts, strikes and rolls

The FluteFling January workshop explored some of the issues around decoration, looking at cuts and strikes, their combining into rolls and the construction of crans. Techniques for finger decoration are the same on flutes and whistles alike.

We focused on Irish music as this generally lends itself to decoration more readily than the Scottish repertoire, there are more examples and anything gleaned can then be applied to a Scottish context.

A method for cuts, strikes and rolls

We began by familiarising ourselves with Breton flute player Sylvain Barou and his method for practicing cuts, strikes and rolls that he demonstrated at a flute weekend at Wiston Lodge a good few years back now. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule (more on that below), this serves as a useful foundation and hopefully allows people to experiment with confidence.

The method is based on scales, applying initially a single cut to each note of the scale as it is played. A cut is a very quick decoration from above, played by momentarily raising a single finger to sound the decorating note; other fingers remain in position, so making the note imperfect. This is because the point is a quick interruption of the note being decorated, not to play a separate note.

The best way to work with these is to think of them as finger actions or movements. For the bottom hand notes, cut using the G finger (sounding a notional A); for upper hand notes, cut using the B finger (sounding a notional C).

A parallel exercise is to try this with strikes as grace notes. A single grace note, the finger below the played note is struck, or bounced quickly to sound the note below. A strikes is also referred to as a tap, pat or bounce. Of course you can’t do this on D, although it could be possible if using keys, however I have never seen it done.

Rolls consist of a cut followed by a strike, so the next exercise is to combine these elements following the methods already explored. By doing so, a five note combination is created. For example, with grace notes in brackets, a roll on A would become:




A roll on D or d is not possible, but a cran is. Borrowed from uilleann piping, the cran consists of three cuts from above. There is more than one way of playing these:

D-(A)-D-(G)-D-(F#)-D (standard)


D-(A)-D-(F#)-D-(G)-D (my version, also June McCormack)

We looked at working in the lower register, but of course you can try this out using the full scale and octave jumps too. Arpeggios and other note combinations are possible ways of extending and building upon these exercises. When working on these, try them slowly at first and then build up speed as your fingers get used to the actions.

When learning tunes, consider applying cuts as grace notes as a way of building up to rolls. You can add the strikes at a later point.

Some thoughts

Rolls and decoration should be used as appropriate. It’s a matter of taste and it is also possible to lose the tune or timing in a flurry of notes. Micho Russell, Conal O Grada and Harry Bradley (see below) are examples of flute players who don’t use very much decoration or if so, simpler decoration.

Taste too, dictates which notes are used to perform these decorations. I learned with a note above and a note below, for example. However a greater contrast (and thereby definition) can be found using high cuts and low strikes. Most people will use a variety.

Double cut, casadh, condensed rolls, shortened condensed rolls, shortened crans and others are all variations on these techniques and worthy of some time in forthcoming workshops.

You probably also need to check out Roger Millington’s excellent Brother Steve’s Tin Whistle Pages, in particular the “dah-blah-blah” method. Be sure to explore the site, including the recordings of various recitals and sessions.


I suggested that the Irish repertoire is a better place to pick up many of the rudiments than Scottish music. Flutes have a friend in the uillean pipes and share a common decoration language. Of course such spaces do exist in Scottish music, but they are less abundant.

The tunes we explored are below. A PDF of the written music is here:

The Golden Stud: a reel that rolls

I find that this is a good tune for getting the fingers going. There are a few ways of playing it, but at some point you will play ascending rolls. It’s the middle tune here:

Rolls – the long, short and middle of it

As promised, here is a link to Niall Keegan’s paper on The Parameters of Style in Irish Music, which has a particular lean towards flutes. Published in Inbhear, The Journal of Irish Music and Dance, it’s a long read with plenty of clips of Niall illustrating the points he makes.

As emerged at the workshop, there is more than one way of playing and writing out rolls and part of it is to do with their duration: are they long or short? If so, where does the emphasis lie? For my money, a long roll tends to have a lead-in or lead-out note, which a short roll does not. I suspect that short rolls may feature more than long rolls in the Scottish repertoire.

Niall Keegan’s take on decoration is on this page.

If you really wish to explore this further in reading, parts of Gray Larson’s book can be found in this link.

An old new jig: Jane Craggs

The second tune we learned was one of my own, named for a friend on her birthday in 1987 and so 30 years old this year as was pointed out. I had included the jig for reference but somehow it caught people’s interest. It was picked up by a few people, including Tom McKean of the American band Dun Creagan:

When I play the tune today I tend to use rolls on the long B and F# notes but initially didn’t do so very much as they were still a challenge, especially on the flute due to hand positions. So feel free to play them either way. The high B jump also presents a little technical challenge.

Other tunes

I have included music and recordings for two Irish jigs, The Legacy and Sonny Brogan’s, and The Green Mountain, an Irish reel I learned from Skye-based uillean piper Duncan MacInnes.

Other resources and inspiration

We mentioned a few interesting people. I have included links, but it is worth googling them to find out so much more:

The next workshop takes place on Saturday 18th February.