In Scotland the tradition of collecting tunes and songs started well before 1750, with several key 17th century manuscript collections. Allan Ramsay’s work as song collector, with a real interest in music to match, was pivotal in the 1710 and 20s, with his text-only Scots Songs followed by his ‘ballad-opera’ The Gentle Shepherd and his famous Tea-Table Miscellany accompanied by a separate little volume of ‘Musick’. The idea of a national body of Scots songs was firmly established at this time and Scots, or ‘Scotch’ song was popularly included in London theatrical productions.
In the century from 1750 there are numerous collections of Scottish songs with music, including two involving Robert Burns (1759-1796) as their key lyrical contributor. Published in six volumes (each containing 100 songs) between 1783 and 1803, the first of these was James Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum, produced in Edinburgh. This was followed, between the early 1790s and mid-1840s by George Thomson’s opulent A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (with some 300 songs again over six volumes), a joint commercial enterprise between Edinburgh and London and involving European composers. While the Gaelic language remained problematic, in the 1810s the interest in publishing Highland songs came to the fore, with Alexander Campbell’s fascinating and handsome Albyn’s Anthology (1816-18). This was followed in the 1820s by another major multi-volume collection, The Scotish Minstrel (1821-24) edited and arranged by Paisley composer Robert Archibald Smith. Many of these collections appeared to have shared materials, including anthemic songs about historical events or individuals or those celebrating landscape and love. As such they created a canon of Scottish National Song.
George Farquhar Graham’s major three-volume collection of Songs of Scotland, with long historical notes, appeared in the 1840s and was to be a standard work on Victorian shelves and Finlay Dun’s 1848 collection of Gaelic Songs with English and Gaelic texts entitled Orain na h-Albam (Albain) appeared in 1848. By this time many individual Scots Songs had become famous, frequently because of the early Victorian branding of Burns as National Bard, but also via the London stage, some notable performers and the complimentary and growing market for popular single song-sheet prints. The transnational potential was already realised, via mass Scots emigration at this time. By the 1810s and 20s Edinburgh editor George Thomson had forayed into producing big collections of Welsh and Irish songs alongside his Scottish collection and had ambitions for a collection of songs from all nations and R.A. Smith was also publishing Irish songs.
Featured Image: Harding A362, foldout frontispiece, Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.