Bass Culture Fiddle Books – Niel Gow and all the others

The three-year AHRC-funded Bass Culture project is finished now, and there’s a brand new website where you can find details of over 200 fiddle books and 22 fully digitized and indexed collections.

If you’d like to contact the project, you’ll find a link on the website homepage.  (Comments on this blog may go to researchers no longer connected with the project, so it’s better to contact!)

Italian Style

In the late 18th and early 19th, paratext in Scottish song and dance collections quite often object to “Italian” influences in music.  There’s the perception that “Italian” is synonymous with fussy, arty, classical music and not quite what the compilers expected in a Scottish music anthology. Things were different in earlier days.  Here’s Francis Barsanti (Francesco) circa 1742, in A Collection of Old Scots Tunes, With the Bass for Violoncello or harpsichord. Set and most humbly Dedicated to the Right Honourable The Lady Erskine.  (Sadly, his successors would probably have dismissed it as just another Italianate, Baroque collection!)


Having discovered, in several ancient Scots tunes, an elegance and variety of harmony equal to the compositions of the most celebrated masters of those times; at the desire of several gentlemen of taste, I applied myself to do justice to those ancient compositions, by a proper and natural bass to each tune, with the strictest regard to the tune itself, and without any alteration of the tune to accommodate it to the bass.  As I flatter myself that this attempt to revive the taste of our ancestors will not be disagreeable, I have submitted the same to the judgment of the Publick, that in case this should have the good fortune to please, I may be encouraged to further attempts of the same kind.

See the music

Time Travel with a Tablet

Shared from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Whittaker Live blog:-

Time Travel with a Tablet? Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection 


With some excitement, yesterday, we opened this digital copy of one of Scotland’s earliest song-tune collections.  Allan Ramsay compiled a collection of song texts. Alexander Stuart compiled a tune-book to go with the words, in the mid-1720s. And here’s the digitized work, all the way from the University of South Carolina!

Musick for Allan Ramsay’s Collection of 71 Scots Songs

You can save the whole book to an iPad or tablet, and play the tunes out of it. What could be cooler than that?

Part of the G. Ross Roy Collection of Burnsiana and Scottish Literature) Musick for Allan Ramsay’s collection of 71 Scots songs

A Flurry of Activity

The Bass Culture team has adopted a serious, studious demeanour as the project rolls towards its October web-launch. Not that we weren’t serious and studious before, but we’re even more so now, which goes some way to explaining why there are fewer blogposts these days.

David and Karen are editing the spreadsheet (consistency is our middle name, and qualitative judgements are very carefully weighed up, if they’re allowed to remain at all!).  Luca is building the website.

It’s all the extra things that Karen’s afraid of forgetting!  There is going to be a bibliography of key sources: the following are some of them, but we’ll provide the full bibliographic details on the website itself!

  • Baptie’s Musical Scotland
  • The British Union-Catalogue of early music printed before the year 1801 : a record of the holdings of over one hundred libraries throughout the British Isles (in our database, abbreviated as BUCEM)
  • Douglas, Sheila – The Atholl Collection catalogue: 300 years of Scottish music and poetry (Perth, UK: Perth & Kinross Libraries, 1999)
  • Glen, John – The Glen collection of Scottish dance music : strathspeys, reels, and jigs, selected from the earliest printed sources, or from the composer’s works [2 vols, 1891 and 1895](In our database, in the format: Glen, Collection of Scottish Dance Music)
  • Gore, Charles – Scottish Music Index
  • Johnson, David – Music and Society
  • Kidson, Frank – British music publishers, printers and engravers : London, provincial, Scottish and Irish. From Queen Elizabeth’s reign to George the Fourth’s, with select bibliographical lists of musical works printed and published within that period (1900) (In our database, in the format, Kidson, British Music Publishers
  • National Library of Scotland, Digital Gallery
  • Oxford Music
  •  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • RISM (Repertoire Internationale des Sources Musicales)
  • Scottish Book Trade Index (In our database, SBTI)
  • Smith and Humphries’ Music Publishing in the British Isles

All the information is there in Karen’s Mendeley and Diigo accounts, but it still needs to be collated and double, treble-checked!

Hold onto your hats, folks – it’s going to be quite a ride!

After the Napoleonic Wars, a Deluge of Quadrilles

Curious about the quadrilles that David and Talitha have been working on, we decided to see what exactly Nathaniel Gow had been up to.  His first set of Favorite French Quadrilles looked interesting, so maybe there were more to discover …

More? There were dozens of collections compiled after 1815, and not just by Nathaniel Gow!  (Look in, if you’ve got a few minutes to spare.)

The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo on18th June, led to a surge of enthusiasm for French dances in Britain.  In London, S. Chappell, James Paine and Edward Payne seem to have kicked off the trend, closely followed by John Gow.  John published six ‘favorite’ sets of quadrilles, ca.1818-23.  They all contained ‘Scotch airs’, as did his ‘First set of favorite Scotch quadrilles’ (1823), and two sets of ‘Caledonian quadrilles’ (published in London by Leoni Lee ca 1844).

John’s brother Nathaniel simultaneously published quadrilles in Edinburgh from 1817.starting with two different ‘First sets’ for assemblies on 20th January and 11th March 1817, and continuing with various similar collections until ca.1828.

This tells us that John and Nathaniel were keen to seize an opportunity, and kept abreast of trends in social dancing.  There’s probably a bigger story to tell here, but this will do for a start!  (Incidentally, Karen says Copac is an excellent place to derive material for book history stories.  All that data, just waiting to be interpreted imaginatively… ).

Gaily tripping, lightly skipping

(And not an HMS Pinafore in sight!)

David McGuinness’s Concerto Caledonia will be playing for a day of Quadrilles and Contredanses in Edinburgh this Saturday, as Talitha Mackenzie leads a Regency Dance workshop.  Never was a band better informed than this one!  Since they may be drawing upon Bass Culture repertoire, it seems appropriate to post details of the event here.  So … do you know your Quadrilles from your Contredanses?

Quadrilles and Contredanses – Saturday 6 June, Edinburgh

  • Dance Workshop 10.30 AM to 4.30 PM (£20)
  • Regency Ball 7.30-9.30 PM (£8/£6 or £5 with Workshop ticket)
  • Venue:  Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High Street, Edinburgh, with live music on period instruments throughout the day from members of Concerto Caledonia.

All welcome! Low-heeled shoes or dance pumps recommended ~ Regency dress suggested but not required for the ball.

How to Show Gratitude to a Patron – Nathaniel Demonstrates Best Practice

To the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt

Writes Nathaniel Gow in 1819, at the head of his latest book, The Beauties of Niel Gow.  (His famous father wrote a lot of great tunes, so why not publish the best of them again and get some profit from them?)

The Editor would be wanting in candour and gratitude were he to omit, in presenting this work to the Public, to acknowledge the uniform and marked patronage his Father and Family (himself in particular) have received from the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt, and how much it was owing to their flattering approbation that they were encouraged to make any attempt to add their Compositions to the Stock of National Scottish Music, Composed prior to their time.

It is that approbation which now induces him to offer the present publication under the Title of


The first piece in a collection often has a special relevance and implies an extra compliment paid to the dedicatee, so here we have Niel Gow’s Lamentation for Jas. Moray Esqr. of Abercarney. A footnote explains,

Mr Moray was the early and kind patron of the Author.  The loss which Society sustained in the Death of that Gentleman was the cause of the production of this truly pathetic and beautiful Air.

We should, of course, remember that ‘pathetic’ meant ‘full of pathos’ and not the derogatory connotations which the word carries today!

When Karen was checking bibliographic details of the collection, she discovered that the Whittaker Library in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland does actually have a copy of The Beauties of Niel Gow, but not in one of the original editions.  The Whittaker Library has a London reprint by C. Jefferys of 67 Berners Street, distributed by our own  Bayley & Ferguson, of 54 Queen Street Glasgow and 2 Great Marlborough Street, London.  Considering Charles W. Jefferys had been writing and translating lyrics since around 1835, and latterly also publishing light music until about 1880, Niel Gow’s Beauties had been on the go for well over half a century!  It was more recently reprinted in Harrogate by Celtic Music in 1983, and in Pasadena, CA, by Fiddlers Crossing, circa 1990.  His patrons would have been proud…

Published by Authority, in 1792

Karen has been trawling for digitized copies of Gow strathspey publications, eagerly hunting for more ingratiating dedications.  To no avail, so far – she’ll have to go and look at “real” copies of the books that haven’t been digitized! However, that doesn’t mean she didn’t unearth interesting nuggets of information.

In 1792, Niel Gow published his A Third Collection of Strathspey Reels &c for the Piano-forte, Violin and Violoncello.  Dedicated on the title-page to The Marchioness of Tweeddale, there is no additional prefatory commentary on the first page.  But the first interesting fact is that the harp isn’t listed amongst the instruments.  Indeed, a tiny little footnote on p.1 whispers, ‘NB. The small Notes throughtout the Book shows the Chords for the Piano-Forte.’  (Although the piano was gaining popularity, it wasn’t etirely ‘bye-bye harp’, for it was still being mentioned in the Gows’ Complete Repository books.)

And the second interesting thing is this: apparently for the first time, he made a copyright statement at the bottom of the first page:

“The Author thinks proper to mention, that the Tunes which are not Composed by him are Published by Authority of the Different Composers, which has induced him to secure the Book in Stationers Hall According to Act of Parliament.”

And sure enough, Michael Kassler’s index, Music Entries at Stationers’ Hall 1710-1818 shows the book listed there on 7 March 1792.  The amount of music being submitted had started to rise significantly after 1784, and maybe by this time the Gows had decided it was time to jump on the bandwagon.  However, there isn’t another Gow publication listed until 11 January 1800, when Niel’s son Nathaniel submitted Lady Mary Ramsay’s Strathspey, and the Earl of Dalhousie’s Reel. A new medley, danced at the Edinburgh Assembly, etc., etc., Composed by Nathaniel Gow. To which is added, Three favorite Tunes.  Again, on 3 June 1801, Niel Gow’s A Fourth Collection of Strathspey Reels, etc was listed in the Stationers’ Hall book.

The Gows must have submitted their publications somewhat spasmodically.  Maybe the London brother, John, took a whole bundle at once, for Parts 2 and 3 of the Repository along with the 4th and 5th Collection of Strathspeys were all listed in Stationers’ Hall on 6 October 1815.

Kassler’s listing ends in 1818, because one of his sources was music impresario William Hawes’ manuscript, ‘A List of Music Entered at Stationers’ Hall, from January 1, 1789, to January 1, 1819′. (see Kassler (2004), vii-xxviii)  And this means that the whole Gow publishing history remains, to date, only partially documented.  The Bass Culture project will amplify it to some extent, but the full story remains to be told in future!

Nathaniel Gow’s Small Share of Trouble

Having transcribed the dedications to Niel and Nathaniel’s Complete Repository yesterday, you might have guessed that Karen’s twitching fingers wouldn’t have been able to keep away from further Gow publications in an idle moment this evening.  At first glance, it seems that Nathaniel might have been the instigator of these dedications – certainly, there was no interesting commentary in Niel Gow’s early collections.

But then, around 1810, Nathaniel decided to branch out, producing The Vocal Melodies of Scotland, dedicated to His Grace The Duke of Buccleuch & Queensberry, Arranged For The Piano Forte or Harp, Violin & Violoncello.  This in itself is interesting – he has the pianoforte named first, but he hasn’t yet dropped the violin and violoncello.  There’s no flowery dedication to His Grace, but the first page of song-tunes (no lyrics) alludes to the Gows’ earlier publications of strathspeys and reels – and, again, to their pursuit of Conformity!  Note that just as Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum had as subtitle, ‘our ancient national airs’, so Nathaniel Gow here alludes to ‘Our Original Native Melodies’.  (Who said nationalism was anything new?!)  The emboldened type is copied from Gow’s own typeset:-

From the marked approbation with which the Public honoured Niel Gow and Sons’ Editions of Strathspeys and Reels, in adopting their Setts as Standard, the Editor is induced to hope that the following Collection of our Original Native Melodies may be favourably received, and should it have, even in any degree, the effect of producing a Conformity in the playing of these Beautiful Simple Airs, he will be amply repaid for his small share of trouble.