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.

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.


Port a beul from Islay

This week’s tune is a piece of mouth music that celebrates the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, famous for many things, including malt whisky. Sometimes described as a children’s song, ‘S ann an Ilè is a strathspey that shares some of the melody with The Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling.

I first heard this sung by Dun Creagan, a Scots-Irish band from America. Their singer Tom McKean studied Gaelic in Edinburgh and now teaches in Aberdeen. They made one CD, mostly recorded live and it is now available on Soundcloud (see the link above). Here’s the song:

I met Tom when he lived in Edinburgh and he took some of the Edinburgh session tunes back to the US where the band incorporated some of them into their repertoire. I was surprised a few years later when Rick Gagné, their whistle and banjo player was in touch in the early days of the internet to say they had recorded a composition of mine (Jane Craggs, which is also on their Soundcloud page). This was the start of a long-distance friendship in which we exchanged tunes, recordings, anecdotes and news.

Rick is wearing glasses in the Dun Creagan picture. He was a stunning whistler, equally adept on banjo and other stringed instruments as well as being a prolific composer of distinctive tunes. He was admired throughout the traditional music scene, not just for his music, but also his openness, positivity and encouragement to others. I had hoped that one day we might meet for a tune, but he sadly died earlier this year after a short illness. I have some of his compositions that he sent me and and will see if we can take a look at them in the class sometime.

Here’s another version, sung by Christina Stewart, with lyrics and translation. Our version can be found on the resources page. For a decent version of The Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling, see Nigel Gatherer’s version on Folk Tune Finder or within Volume 1 of his Joy of Sets series. Published in various older collections, The Fiddler’s Companion web site puts the composition of the Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling as possibly pre-1806 and it has a rich history, that is worth checking out. Composed by George Jenkins, it has a different B part to ‘S ann an Ìle and the Marquis’ B part became part of an Irish slide (12/8 tune).

Tunes based on Gaelic song sometimes have a long history and fiddle composers (and poets) sometimes borrowed or amended existing traditional tunes before added their names as composer to the “improved” versions. There’s no evidence that Jenkins did this, but Flings are thought to be quite old (see the Fiddler’s Companion discussion) and I wouldn’t be surprised that a tune with a simple structure such as this one turned out to have origins older than late 18thC.

Photo: Colours and Casks by Jens Mayer, some rights reserved.

A strathspey: The Braes of Mar

This is a four part strathspey that sounds very much like a pipe tune but the fourth part drops below the piping range, suggesting that this may be a fiddle setting.

The Fiddler’s Companion confirms that the itself tune is old, having first appeared in the Drummond Castle Manuscript of 1734 as Sir Alexander McDonald’s Reel and later printed in Bremner’s Collection of 1757 as Sir Alexander McDonald. It has traveled to Canada and Ireland and exists in many forms under different names, including as as fling and as a jig. Some say the Devil’s Dead is a well-known song in Ireland that is set to this tune.

I first learned this as an Irish two-part reel that I later realised was a fling. I then found it was a strathspey and discovered from Edinburgh fiddler Doug Patience (now in Meenross, County Clare) that it had a third part. And finally, years later I learned it had a fourth part. It seems that 2, 3 and 4-part versions are common.

The most frequent decoration here is cuts and casadhs (a late double grace note), but there is an opportunity to roll in the third part on the high E in the opening phrase and later in the 4th part on a low E phrase near the end. Keep a regular pulse throughout with the breath and it’s OK to tongue the shorter parts of the scotch snaps to give them more punch. Look out too for opportunities to put in a brief pause on the longer parts of the snaps.

The resources for the tune can be found on the Resources page for this year’s classes.

Photo: Native pine at Glen Derry, Mar Lodge Estate. Copyright C Mills 2013. Used with kind permisssion.

Katie Bairdie: a 500 year old children’s tune

Katie Bairdie is the most recent tune we have covered can be played as a strathspey, a schottische, a reel, a waltz and it was originally a march on the highland pipes.

Resources for this can be found on the Resources page for the year.

The tune is one with a very ancient and coloured history. It’s often taught in schools as a playground song, Katie Bairdie, which has lots of variations. It’s great to teach in schools as a spur for songwriting. Singer Christine Kydd has recorded some of these with schools and written on the background of the song, with one suggestion being it can be traced back to 1628.

However, there is evidence that the melody goes back further than that. Katherine Campbell and Ewan McVicar include it in their schools’ anthology, Scottish Traditional Songs and Music. There is it called Sherramuir March or The Stewart’s March. It was originally a pipe tune with 9 parts entitled Gabhaidh Sin An Rathad Mór (We Will Take the High Road), and associated with the MacIntyres of Cruachan, Argyll. The Stewarts of Appin then claimed it and played it when returning from the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. The Gaelic title refers to the Battle of Inverlochy of 1644.

It was played by the Stewarts of Perthshire at the Battle of Sherrifmuir of 1715, which is where the English title comes from. James Hogg may have added lyrics to the tune and Robert Burns also wrote about the battle.

Eventually the Katie Bairdie lyrics are added and at some point it also becomes the tune for London Bridge is Falling Down, itself an old song. More information from Education Scotland, which also quotes from Campbell and McVicar.

However the story doesn’t end there, as it is also goes by the title Kafoozalum, the title of a bawdy song to the tune printed in the USA in the mid 19thC. I have seen reference to it being in vaudeville theatre and a search shows that Rudyard Kipling and James Joyce referenced it in their own ways.

More recently, Belfast flute Harry Bradley recorded it on his first CD and called it Davy Maguire’s after the flute player he associated with it. Davy Maguire teaches flute in Belfast and else where. Here the snaps have been smoothed out, but it is recognisably the same tune: