Joshua Campbell and strathspeys

Karen and I are now nearing the end of our odyssey to investigate as many printed sources of Scottish fiddle music from about 1750-1840 as we can. On the way back from Aberdeen yesterday we realised that we only have two library visits left to make, and then we will have seen pretty much everything relevant that’s in Charles Gore’s Scottish Music Index.

Down in the basement of Aberdeen’s iconic Sir Duncan Rice library we were looking at two of Joshua Campbell’s books, both from Glasgow around 1788. One is a substantial, handsome volume A Collection of New Reels & Highland Strathspeys, which contains mostly strathspeys of great character, some with variations. The other, A Collection of the Newest & best Reels and Minuets, is a cheaper pocket book of tunes collected from other sources. It’s very curious that strathspeys were given the big authoritative expensive treatment, while reels and minuets were relegated to a cheaper, more rough-and-ready publication. Did strathspeys have more cultural cachet? Or was the smaller book a reaction to the commercial failure of the bigger one?

Either way, the books contain an object lesson in early strathspey style, as the tune ‘The New Town of Edinburgh’ appears in both. In the wee book it’s a reel, almost exactly as it had appeared in Bremner’s similarly small A Collection of Scots Reels book decades earlier.  But in the big book, it’s a strathspey, and not only has it the characteristic dotted and back-dotted rhythms, but the tune is decorated liberally with semiquaver runs. Bremner has to point out in his Scots Reels (c.1757) that ‘The Strathspey Reels are play’d much slower than the others’ (p38) and his example ‘The Fir Tree’ has a similar combination of dotted rhythms and semiquaver passages. So playing a reel as a ‘Strathspey reel’ could involve more than just changing the rhythm and the bowing: there was an opportunity to fit in more notes as well.