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The Lute in Scotland



The first Scottish collections

Lutenist Many a lute, viol and virginal 'whispered softness in the chambers' of the Scottish gentry during the turbulent years. Many an educated hand inscribed favourite airs in French or Italian tablature in manuscript tune books. Some of these books, of great interest today, have been preserved: we have the compilations of Sir William Mure of Rowallan; John Skene of Hallhills; Robert Gordon of Straloch (lost, but copied); Rev. Robert Edwards, minister of Murroes Parish near Dundee; Alexander Forbes of Tolquhan; William Sterling of Ardoch; William Ker of Newbattles; and the Rev. James Guthrie.

Of these, the Rowallan (c. 1612-28), the Skene (1615-20) and the Straloch (1627), are the earliest. They are for the lute [The Skene MS was actually written for the mandora, a small high-pitched relative of the lute] and contain many Scottish airs, the earliest forms indeed of some tunes current in later years, such as 'Flowers o' the Forest', 'John Anderson my Jo', 'Adieu Dundee', 'Good Night and God be with You', 'My Jo Janet' and 'Green Grow the Rashes'. The Rowallan also contains a tune entitled 'Ane Scottis Dance', and the Stirling (sometimes called the Leyden) 'New Hilland Ladie'.

George S. Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String:
A History of Scottish Dance Music
Dent & Sons, London, 1971
page 30


Lady lutenist Early Scottish music cannot be classified in terms of simply 'classical' or 'folk' music. In past times, music in Scotland fell into three categories—'notes of noy' (sadness); 'notes of joy'; and 'sleep music'. Lutaris and clarsaris would have familiar with all three... The lute manuscripts are the obvious starting point. The complete Scottish lute repertoire runs to some 400 pieces. Many are settings of clarsach, fiddle or pipe tunes popular all over Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries and contain the earliest settings of such classic airs as 'Grein Greus ye Rasses' and 'The Flowers of the Forrest'. The Golden Age of the lute in Scotland, however, had all but vanished by this time, and, sadly, because of the Reformation and a self-exiled Court, almost nothing survives it. But by looking at musical performance practice in other European courts at this time, especially the French, with whom Scotland shared an 'auld alliance', one can get a picture of what might have taken place.

Robert Phillips, William Taylor
Notes to
The Rowallan Concert, Notes of Noy, Notes of Joy


The formal classification of music according to its function, of which the Irish goltraige (music of lamentation), gentraige (joyful music) and súantraige (sleep music) are examples, is of great antiquity and occurs in many civilizations.

Joan Rimmer
The Irish Harp/Cláirseach na hÉireann
Cló Mercier, Corcaigh, 1977
p. 24


Only a few isolated pieces of the great body of Irish traditional music can be regarded as purely instrumental, in the sense of music played solely to delight the ear and not for dancing or marching. In olden times the contrary was the case, as many references in the ancient literature attest, and that the three thirds, suantraí, geantraí and goltraí, into which music was divided refer only to instrumental music, is evident from the ancient legends which purport to examine the origin of these terms. In the account of the battle of Magh Tuireadh fought between the Tuatha dé Danann and the piratical Formorians it is related how the Dagda (the good god) effects the release of Uaithne, his harper, who had been carried off by the retreating pirates. He pursues the fleeing band to their retreat, where he sees his harp hanging from a wall on which they have placed it, and the harp comes to him, killing in its passage nine of the pirates. The Dagda plays upon the harp the three musical feats which give distinction to the harper. He plays the goltraí until their women weep; he plays the geantraí until their women and youths burst into laughter; and he plays the suantraí until the entire host falls asleep.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
pp. 2-4


Flanders was linked to Scotland by commercial ties, and this land also played its part in influencing the music of Scotland. The Netherlands School of composition was already swaying the world of music, and Scotland, like the rest, was sitting at her feet, as the solitary Scottish book which has been preserved on the didactics of music so completely proves. For practical instrumental instruction, Flanders was also the place for tutelage. In 11473, a certain Heroun, "clerk of the chapel," received money for his passage to the "scholis," seemingly in Flanders. We find a lutar of the court being sent there to "lerne his craft" in the same year. Another lutar journeyed to Bruges this year, whilst a further entry tells of a court minstrl receiving a gift while there. In the next year we read of the king's "litil lutar" being sent to the latter city, and in 1512 a "Flemys lutar," with so good a Scots name as Rankine, as well as "foure scolaris menstralis," all from the court, were in Flanders. It is worthy of note however, that there was some give and take between the two countries, since there is a record of three "joueurs de hautbois et sachottes [sacbuts?] ... venant d'Écosse" being employed at Malines in 1504-5. The fact that James II (1437-60) married a daughter of the Duke of Guelderland in 1449 may have strengthened ties with Flanders.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
pp. 67-68



At the court of James IV, harpers were particularly encouraged... Lutars were the next to receive royal approval. The ordinary lutars seem to have had 14s. a quater. Some of them are named, Warlaw, Lindores, Rankine, Robert Rudman, Adam Dikeson, Robert Hay, John Ledebetar, Craig, and Gray Steil who was called "soutar lutar" i.e. the "shoemaker lutar."

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 74



One Irish air can with certainty be assigned to an earlier period. The jumble "callen o custure me" in Shakespeare's Henry V (IV 4) has been deciphered to read Cailín ó Chois tSiúre mé (I am a girl from the Suir-side). In a poem beginning Mealltar bean le beagán téad (a woman is wooed with a few strings) found in a late seventeenth-century manuscript from Fermanagh, Cailín ó Chois tSiúre is mentioned with the names of other songs, the singing of which, the poet declares, would have been a more profitable occupation for him than writing poetry. Malone, the great Irish eighteenth-century editor of Shakespeare, in his effort to restore the correct reading, has drawn attention to the appearance in A Handfull of Pleasant Delites, published in 1584, of a song entitled 'A Sonet of a lover in the praise of his lady, to Calen o custure me, sung at every line's end'. The air is found among a collection of songs and other pieces bound together with William Ballet's lute book (belonging to the last quarter of the sixteenth century) now preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin. It is the earliest known annotation of an Irish song and will be immediately recognised as a variant of that to which The Croppy Boy ('Good men and true in this house who dwell') is sung.

Breandán Breathnach
Folk Music and Dances of Ireland
Mercier Press, 1977
pp. 18-19

William Byrd (1543-1623), the noted English composer, created a version of this tune for virginal, under the title "Callino Casturame". There is an excellent website, The Keyboard Music of William Byrd by John Sankey, which has MIDI versions of Byrd's music. Among these is "Callino Casturame". You must visit the site to hear it; the server refuses links.


This lute still retained its Oriental features and shape, and was the favourite of almost all Scotland's rulers from James I to Mary. It was played with a plectrum, as we see from the sculptured example given by Dalyell ... One of the songs in Wedderburn's Complaint of Scotland (1549) is entitled, Bille vil thou cum by a lute. The jovial lines in Christes Kirk on the Grene tell us about—

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 91

The lute had been the chief instrument of this group for a century of more, and Burel recognizes it as "of instruments the only king." According to Brantôme and Melville, the lute was played by Mary Queen of Scots, and Melville says that it was in the hands of the students at St. Andrews.

Henry George Farmer
Ibid., p. 91



Lute group Another Scots poet, Sir William Mure of Rowallan (1594-1657), never left Scotland. Nephew of Alexander Montgomerie, he is important for us not only as author of several new song-texts, e.g. to the music of The flaming fire, Joy to the person and the so far unidentified folk-song Pert Jean, but also as compiler of two manuscript anthologies marking the two ways of Scots music—the first representative of that dualism that was to remain at the heart of Scottish music from this time on. His set of part-books of about 1630, now surviving only in a cantus part, originally contained a wide selection of French, Italian, English and Scottish part-music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. His lute-book of 1615 includes alongside about twenty arrangements of English and European ballad or dance tunes, twenty versions of Scots songs and dances in the native air tradition, and a transcription of the part-song setting (by Lauder?) of his uncle's Before the Greeks (Musica Britannica XV, 50), almost certainly another Castalian piece from the 1580s.

Two other instrumental sources of about the same period record similar instrumental repertories: the collection of about 1620 by Sir William Skene of Hallyards of over one hundred pieces for the mandora (a small lute) includes native airs and dances and their courtly counterparts, one of which, Hutchesouns Galyiard, was probably written by or for one of the Hudsons. And the playing book for lute of Robert Gordon of Straloch of about 1628 (now unfortunately only surviving in a partial transcript of 1847) contains a dance measure with divisions and a variatio, according to contemporary practice, entitled Ostende—another European tune, known elsewhere (by Praetorius for instance) as La Bourrée.

Kenneth Elliott & Frederick Rimmer
A History of Scottish Music
British Broadcasting Corporation, 1973
p. 43


Female lutenist

Noted female Scottish lutenists

Despite the statement above, part of the Rowallan lute manuscript was probably compiled by two sisters, Anna and Mary Hay, daughters of the eighth Earl of Errol.

Here are some related links from the Early Music Women Composers pages.



Lutenist [Discussion of arrangements of the song Peggy I must love thee]

Text B is an arrangement for lute in 'Princess Anne's lute-book' ... it is more successful than Purcell in many ways: the sketchiness of lute-style allows the arranger to leave great melodic arcs unsupported in mid air, and harmonic ambiguities are not forced upon the listener's attention but remain dormant. The awkward E at the beginning of the tune is dealt with imaginatively: it is displaced an octave, Stravinsky-like, so that the opening suggests, without actually stating, a chord of E minor, and the whole tune is cross-barred so as to throw the stress off the note on to the next-but-one-following G, so reinforcing a sense of G major tonality.

David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 161-163


Lute tablature The background for this page is an example of lute tablature like that used in the Scottish manuscripts.



Graysteil—music from the middle ages and renaissance in Scotland, Dorian DIS-80141, Rob MacKillop … medieval and renaissance lutes, William Taylor bray harp and clarsach, Andy Hunter traditional ballad singer, Paul Rendall tenor.

We are all aware of the surviving Scottish lute manuscripts and the type of music contained therein: traditional/folk influenced or rooted pieces. Yet records show that the lute first appeared in Scotland in the 13th century and was soon associated with the so-called art music of the royal courts. None of the music from this period (13th century to 1603, the year that the Scottish James VI became James I of England as well, removing his court to England) survives. My edition of Scottish lute music (Music for the lute in Scotland, Kinmor Press) contains details of payments to lutars (the favoured Scottish term for lutenists) and quotes from many poems of the period to show how central and common the lute was to music making in mainly Lowland Scotland of the period already mentioned. Instead of lamenting the loss of repertoire of this period I decided to engage in a little creative detective work to reveal the type of music which was played.

The recording begins with five pieces from the 13th century, two songs with medieval lute and clarsach decoration, and three clarsach solos arranged from the Saint Andrews Music Book. Both the songs are rooted in Orkney: The Orkney Wedding Song and the Hymn To Saint Magnus, and are sung by an Orkneyman, Paul Rendall.

Then come five renaissance lute solos intabulated from The Art Of Music, Edinburgh c.1580 (not the 13th century as the back of the CD packaging says!). These are beautiful, rhythmically complex pieces of polyphony—a world away from Gypsies Lilt etc.

Then follows something very ambitious: an arrangement for lute and bray harp of Robert Carver's Mass for three voices. For those of us who are unaware of the sound qualities of the bray harp—be prepared for a shock. Basically the brays are little blocks of wood which gently touch each string by the soundboard making the string buzz. It sounds similar to a sitar or, as someone once pointed out, much to the player's annoyance, like a harp through a fuzz box! But this instrument was the standard throughout the 16th century, yet how rarely do we here it in early music performances today. The composer, Robert Carver, is undoubtedly the finest ever to flourish in Scotland. If you don't know his music then PLEASE check this out—amazing, even in an arrangement for plucked instruments. The underlying harmonic structure hints at the so-called double tonic beloved of Scottish bagpipe and fiddle music and is highlighted, IMHO, by being performed on instruments.

The final track has the lute and clarsach (the true wire-strung instrument) joined by the great traditional ballad singer, Andy Hunter, in an extract of the great epic Romance of Sir Graysteil. I say extract—we perform around twenty minutes out of the three hours the piece should take. The tune is, thankfully, very seductive, is found in the Straloch manuscript of the early 16th century, yet the text contains pre-christian elements. It's a tale of knights and damsels and within that genre is of a very high quality.

Rob MacKillop
Posted to the lute mailing list on Mon, 26 May 1997.



At the Reformation we find the Gude and Godlie Ballates, which were Presbyterian propaganda, eloquently recommending music and poetry for devotion. One ballad goes:

David Craig
Scottish Literature and the Scottish People: 1680-1830
Chatto & Windus, London, 1961
p. 201


fairchill—Dwelly's Gaelic dictionary relates this to farch-chiùil and farch, meaning "lute" or perhaps "lyre". I am not aware of any recorded instance of the use of the lyre in the Celtic countries, other than in translating words found in the Bible. Note that unlike many other musical instruments the name is not derived from English. This would indicate a fairly early origin for the word.


Mac Dhughail Oig

Nuair bha mi 'nam oige
'S tric mi 'g eisdeachd nan oran,
Agus dain agus eigse luchd sgeoil;
Bhiodh teudan nan cruitean,
'S na fairchill 'gan itreadh
Aig maighdeanan meoghail nan cuat.
When I was youthful
Oft I listened to music,
To the tales and traditions of yore;
Harp strings were then twanging
While maidens were tuning
The notes of sweet lutes to their loves.
Fhad 's bhios gobhair 'nam mhainnir,
Beachan eirm na mo sgeapaibh,
Cealloir marchain a'teagradh na ron;
Ni mi neafag ri manach
Agus faosaid ri sagart,
Ni mi fireas ri anart breid srol.
While I've goats on my grazings,
Honey combs in my bee-hives,
And the abbot still shares out the seals,
I'll contend with the friars
And confess to the abbot,
Making ready for death's winding sheet.
Tha mi fada 'nam aonar
Ann an ultas an saoghail;
Deostair calma 'gam shuiridh air falbh.
'S ann an Heisgeir an saile
Rugadh m'athair 's mo mhathair,
Thug iad luigheachd gu Sionn nan sar.
I've been lonely a long time
In this world that's so troubled;
Strong the power that pulls me away.
Heisgeir, gem of the ocean
Reared my father and mother
Now they rest in the Heroes' Retreat.

This is the oldest and one of the most interesting Heisgir melodies to survive. The melody resembles that of the old Welsh song "Ton-y-botel"; which suggests a common ancient Celtic (possibly pre-Christian) origin for the two melodies.

The son of Dugald, the Younger, is now old and looks at the past and the future with philosophical calm. All the allusions are old. Though he is acquainted with Christian externals he seems to be equally at home with pre-Christian essentials. His parents have gone to the non-Christian Sionn of heroes and not the Christian Heaven of God, angels, and saints.

Donald Fergusson, Aonaghus Iain MacDhomhnuill, Jean Gillespie
Bho Na H-Innse Gall As Iomallaiche
(From the Farthest Hebrides)
Macmillan, Toronto,1978
pp. 7-8 (verses 4-6 and commentary)

The concept of a fully functionally Catholic (or perhaps even Celtic Christian) monastery in Gaelic-speaking Scotland indicates that this song must date back to the 16th century, at least. (There were no religious centres in Scotland after the Reformation of 1560.)


Farch, farch-chiuil, fairchil, a musical instrument, possibly the lute, probably the lyre. The 'farch' is mentioned in the 'Lay of Fraoch,' taken down in 1861 from Kenneth Morrison, Trithion, Skye:—

'B' fhaide do shleagh na slat shiuil,
Bu bhinne na farch-chiuil do ghuth,
Snamhaiche cho fàth ri Fraoch
Cha do shin a thaobh ri sruth.'
Longer thy spear than the yard of the sail,
Sweeter than the lyre of melody thy voice,
A swimmer as swift as Fraoch
Never stretched his side to flood.

Alexander Carmichael
Carmina Gadelica, Vol. II
Scottish Academic Press, 1972
p. 289


Sorchar nan Reul The Lightener of the Stars
Feuch Sorchar nan reul
Air corbha nan neul,
Agus ceolradh nan speur
Ri luaidh dha.
Behold the Lightener of the stars
On the crests of the clouds,
And the choralists of the sky
Lauding Him.
Tighinn le caithrim a nuas
Bho an Athair tha shuas,
Clar agus farcha nan duan
Ri seirm dha…
Coming down with acclaim
From the Father above,
Harp and lyre of song
Sounding to Him…

Alexander Carmichael
Carmina Gadelica, Vol. I
Scottish Academic Press, 1972
pp. 44-45


Venus with lute There were many religious houses throughout the isles. Two of these were in Benbecula—one at 'Baile-mhanaich,' Monk's-town, and one at 'Baile-nan-cilleach,' Nuns'-town. These houses were attached to Iona, and were ruled and occupied by members of the first families of the Western Isles. Probably their insularity secured them from dissolution at the time of the Reformation, for these communities lingered long after the Reformation, and ceased to exist simply through natural decay.

It is said that two nuns had been visiting a sick woman. When returning home from the moorland to the townland, they heard the shrill voice of a child and the soft voice of a woman. The nuns groped their way down the rugged rocks, and there found a woman soothing a child in her arms. They were the only two saved from a wreck—the two frailest in the ship. The nuns took them home to Nunton. The woman was an Irish princess, and the child was an Irish prince, against whose life a usurper to the throne had conceived a plot. The holy princess fled with the child-prince, intending to take him for safety to Scandinavia. The two nuns are said to have composed the … following poems...

Ban-Tighnearna Bhinn The Melodious Lady-Lord
Co i bhain-tighearna bhinn,
An bun an tuim, Am beul an tuim ?

Chan alca [fhalc]
Cha lacha,
Chan eala,
'S chan aonar i.
Who is she the melodious lady-lord
At the base of the knoll, at the mouth of the wave?

Not the alc,
Not the duck,
Not the swan,
And not alone is she.
Co i bhain-tighearna bhinn,
An bun an tuim, Am beul an tuim ?

Chan fhosga,
Cha lona,
Cha smeorach,
Air gheuig i.
Who is she the melodious lady-lord
At the base of the knoll, at the mouth of the wave?

Not the lark,
Not the merle,
Not the mavis,
On the bough is she.
Co i bhain-tighearna bhinn,
An bun an tuim, Am beul an tuim ?

Cha tarman tuirim
An t-sleibh i.
Who is she the melodious lady-lord
At the base of the knoll, at the mouth of the wave?

Not the murmuring ptarmigan
Of the hill is she.
Co i bhain-tighearna bhinn,
An bun an tuim, Am beul an tuim ?

Cha bhreac air a bhuinne,
Cha mhoineis na tuinne,
Cha mhuirghin-mhuire
Na Ceit i.
Who is she the melodious lady-lord
At the base of the knoll, at the mouth of the wave?

Not the grilse of the stream,
Not the seal of the wave,
Not the sea maiden
Of May is she.
Co i bhain-tighearna bhinn,
An bun an tuim, Am beul an tuim ?

Cha bhainisg na cuigeil,
Chan ainnir na fuiril,
Cha bhainnireach bhuidhe
Na spreidh i.
Who is she the melodious lady-lord
At the base of the knoll, at the mouth of the wave?

Not the dame of the distaff,
Not the damsel of the lyre,
Not the golden-haired maid
Of the flocks is she.
Co i bhain-tighearna bhinn,
An bun an tuim, Am beul an tuim ?

Bain-tighearna bhinn,
Bhaindidh mhin,
Who is she the melodious lady-lord
At the base of the knoll, at the mouth of the wave?

Melodious lady-lord,
God-like in loveliness.
Ighinn righ,
Ogha righ,
Iar-ogh righ,
Ion-ogh righ,
Dubh-ogh righ,
Bean righ,
Mathair righ,
Muime righ,
I taladh righ,
Is e fo breid aic.
Daughter of a king,
Granddaughter of a king,
Great-granddaughter of a king,
Great-great-granddaughter of a king,
Great-great-great-granddaughter of a king,
Wife of a king,
Mother of a king,
Foster-mother of a king,
She lullabying a king,
And he under the plaid.
A Eirinn a shiubhal i,
Gu Lochlann tha fiughair aic,
An Trianaid bhi siubhal leath
H-uile taobh a theid i—
H-uile taobh a theid i.
From Erin she travelled,
For Lochlann is bound,
May the Trinity travel with her
Whithersoever she goes—
Whithersoever she goes.

Alexander Carmichael
Carmina Gadelica, Vol. II
Scottish Academic Press, 1972
pp. 202-207






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