Broadsides to Brass Bands

topical music of the 19th century

From the seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century, in both Scotland and England, public executions were a golden opportunity for the writers and printers of broadside news and ballad sheets, the tabloids of the time. Scotland had far fewer executions than England, so each execution tended to have more songs and faked eve-of-execution confessions written about it. I have only found two Dalkeith executions commemorated in broadsides. The earlier was The Last Speech and dying Words of Margaret Millar, Coal-bearer at Colden-cleugh who was execute 10. February 1726 at the Gibbet of Dalkeith, for Murdering her own Child, which has no song or verses but an unusually compassionate description of the woman's situation:

I engaged in the Coal-heugh of Coldencleugh, under the Service of Christian Lumsden, which I most solemnly regrate this Day, and which was my Misfortune, she reduced me to great Extremities, by not paying up of my Wages, so duely as I was needful of it, to buy me Cloaths to go to the House of GOD upon his Day, which made me to run into an Hurry of Dispar, my Land-Lady and others in the Coal-heugh suspecting I had an Ear with George Lauder Coal-grieve there, began to make Reflections upon me, which prompted me to greater Vice, as most unhappily hath now fallen out: Which Vice hath brought me to this unhappy and untimely End; he having had that Opportunity of inducing me into that horrid Sin of Adultry, and after which Time I came to be with Child to him, I acquainted him thereof, and when the Time of Birth came, I finding no Substance from him, I did most unnaturally imbrue my Hands in the innocent Blood of the Fruit of my Womb.

The later one was the case of William Thomson, James Thomson and John Fram, convicted of highway robbery in 1827, after assaulting George Dickson near the foot of Langside Brae, robbing him of his watch, a letter and a copy of the Scotsman. Two of them were pardoned, but William Thomson was driven to Dalkeith from the Calton Jail in Edinburgh, and hanged on the main street "amidst a vast multitude of spectators, there being no execution in Dalkeith, within the memory of any living man". No specific tune is named or implied for The sorrowful Lamentations of William Thomson, but the metre would fit many melodies. It's a typical execution broadside of the time.

In urban settings, the other great opportunity for the broadside press was local politics. Dalkeith hardly had such a thing until the mid-19th century; the landowners' autocracy was undisputed. Instead, the county's near-feudal culture produced a curious genre of literary forelock-tugging: songs and poems on the Duke of Buccleuch's birthday. This was a local holiday, described in Peter Forbes's verse autobiography Lang syne (to the tune of Ye Banks and Braes) where he recalls working for Shiells the nurseryman in Dalkeith:

In the days o' lang syne, when wi' William Shiells,
Naething wa'd gang down then but canty Scots reels;
Then cutting an' cap'ring wi' funny young chaps
An' rinnin' blind races for whisky an' baps:
Then plannin' our dressing for birth day's procession,
An' to busk a braw flower we a' did incline;
Without spite or malice, march'd down to the palace,
Sae happy we were in the days o' lang syne.

The earliest verse birthday tribute to the Duke I have found is John Learmont's Stanzas on his Grace the Duke of Buccleugh's Birth-Day, 1790, which are mostly about the Duke's role as an agricultural "improver". The first singable one was by James Hogg, with Hap an' rowe the feetie o't, an adaptation of Stumpie (a bawdy song popularized by Burns) which is at least competently written. But there were many more of them throughout the 19th century, degenerating into utter doggerel like the song sheet Long live good Buccleuch, a pastiche of Walter Scott's All the Blue Bonnets are Over the Border ("March, March, Ettrick and Teviotdale") which was a fairly awful song to begin with. The sheet it comes from had slogans printed all round the edge:

Long live good Buccleuch
Live and let live

The tune setting here has music for the chorus both before and after the verse. In the unlikely event that anybody wants to sing this, you'd use the first verse as the chorus.

Another of these birthday songs was a family affair: The Duke of Buccleuch's Birthday, words and music by the Duke's sister-in-law Lady John Scott.

The earliest political ballad I have found is A New Song, dedicated to the Reform Committee of Dalkeith at the time of the Reform Act of 1832, and using the abrupt little tune of the early 18th century song Fee him, father, fee him. There were a few more election songs throughout the century, but with the outcome much more predictable, there wasn't the energy that Edinburgh, Glasgow or Dundee put into scurrilous ballad-mongering.

As the broadside tradition was dying out, new forms of mass music-making were coming into existence: first amateur choral societies (themselves arising out of the more complex hymn singing that became popularized at the beginning of the nineteenth century), then brass bands, and finally pipe bands.

Older hymn tunes, or adapted secular tunes, were often given local names when a British congregation adopted them; and if a new tune was given such a name by its composer (like Andrew Thomson's St George's, Edinburgh) it often stuck. The first probably happened in Dalkeith churches, but I have not traced any such renamings. There is, however, a Welsh hymn called Dalkeith - presumably named at random when the names of most larger towns in Britain had already been spoken for.

The secular music of the choral societies had no local reference: when they began, all of them wanted to sing Handel's Messiah, and the nearest they got to local identity was to perform arrangements of the most familiar Scottish songs of the time, particularly those of Burns. Their concerts got steadily more ambitious: the Dalkeith Philharmonic Society put on a full performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah in 1890. On a smaller scale, the amateur song tradition was institutionalized by the end of the century into regular gatherings similar to the present-day folk club singaround. The Dalkeith Advertiser of the 1870s reported on a musical club that met in Newtongrange on Thursdays, performing material that can still be heard there at the Thursday folk club now.

The first Midlothian brass band was first set up by the Duke of Buccleuch at his Dalkeith mines in 1843; he saw this as an alternative to a library, given that there was no suitable library building. At this time, a cornopean, the precursor of the cornet that was then the main brass melody instrument, cost £10, the same as the property qualification for a vote, and an unimaginable sum for an individual miner. Coalowners in other parts of Britain were setting up bands at the same time; often they were expected to play for the owner's party at election campaigns. For the Lothian coalmasters and the Duke in particular, this meant the Tories. And the bands may have been intended as a distraction from trade unionism; 1843 was a year of intense union organization in Midlothian. (It didn't quite work; while the unions never entirely trusted the brass band movement, bands played for Midlothian union rallies as early as the Chartist demonstrations of the late 1840s, and were still playing for miners' strikes in the twentieth century). The brass bands may have used Scottish traditional material at the very beginning, but by the time we have any record of them they were playing the same light classical music arrangements used by all British bands. Music for brass bands had no local references; composers wrote for a nationwide or worldwide market.

All these new traditions, together with the older dance music of Scotland, came together in the temperance movement. By the early nineteenth century, alcohol consumption in Scotland was spiralling out of control, unimaginably higher than it is today, and most of the murders commemorated on the execution broadsides resulted from alcoholism. The temperance movement was an uneasy coalition of the radical political left and Christianity, particularly the smaller sects with less dependence on the wealthy or the state. Its meetings (designed to offend neither Socialists nor churchgoers) were modelled in various proportions on the church service, the Masonic gathering, the political rally and the traditional fair or holiday, with music appropriate to each. The Chartist paper The True Scotsman reported one:


Dalkeith, 4th January 1841.

SIR.- The Brethren of the Thistle Tent, accompanied by a number of Teetotallers, with their colours flying in the morning breeze of New Year's day, assembled in front of the Masons' Hall, and were arranged in order of procession. They moved off little before nine o'clock, and paraded the town. The Teetotallers took the lead preceded by a piper, and the brethren of the Rechabite Tent followed in reverse order; the Brethren wore their sash and medal, and the Teetotallers wore their medals and rosettes; every one appeared in first rate equipment; and happiness beamed in every countenance. The procession arrived at the White Hart Assembly Rooms, where a splendid breakfast was in readiness. The chair was occupied by our worthy Chief Ruler, Mr John Fairbairn. After breakfast, the chairman intimated that the forenoon should be taken up with short addresses, songs, recitations &c.; and also, if any wished to exercise their feet in the shape of dancing, that there were two Teetotal knights of the hair and catgut, below in readiness to administer to their necessities. The chairman then called upon brother John Anderson, who delivered a short but brilliant address. Several excellent songs were sung in good style, by brothers Urquhart and Taylor; and recitations by brother Taylor and Mr Killock, which was received with deafening applause. The room was now cleared for a dance, which was kept up with good spirit for nearly two hours, all present old and young joining in the harmless amusements. At the hour of parting, a vote of thanks was given to the chairman and to each individual who had taken an active part in the proceedings, likewise to the three musicians who had given their services gratis, to Mr Hill of the Cross Keys inn, for the use of the Assembly Room, when all other places were denied us. It was then proposed, that a report of this days proceedings be sent to the Editors of the True Scotsman newspaper, and the Scottish Temperance Herald for publication. Rule Britannia was then sung in full chorus, and the happy meeting broke up at two o'clock.

Temperance meetings like this on the morning of New Year's Day became traditional in Scotland. I suspect they were intended to get the message through to the drunkards at the moment when they were most likely to have hangovers.

The type of pipe band we are familiar with today began in the Crimean War of the 1850s, and most of their repertoire dates from after that. Civilian pipe bands took another generation to get under way, with their greatest expansion being in the 1880s. The Midlothian Amateur Pipe Band's March, by F. Beaton, was published by David Glen around 1890 and is still a popular dance tune.

At a banquet in 1869 for the Earl of Dalkeith, marking 15 years as Conservative MP for the county of Edinburgh, the band played Awa Whigs Awa. It didn't work for long. William Ewart Gladstone stood for Parliament in Midlothian in 1880, and his 1879-1880 campaign shaped subsequent styles of electioneering the world over. The result was a foregone conclusion, since it was a rural seat where only 15% of the eligible voters were registered and their preferences were well-known; so Gladstone took the opportunity to disregard local issues and play to the national and world media as nobody anywhere had ever done before. The campaign was a series of mass rallies, modelled after the religious revival meetings of Sankey and Moody five years earlier. Each began with Liberal songs, often set to hymn tunes. Gladstone gave his usual enormous improvised speeches; he was capable of speaking for over two hours straight with no notes. He focussed on foreign policy issues; these were the Tories' weak point since they had ended up in tactical alliances with the despotic regimes of both Russia and Turkey, and public sympathy was with the small nations subject to them like Poland and Serbia. (The 1880 Midlothian campaign gave the world the word “heckle”: it was originally used in the weaving industry, meaning to comb the dirt out of fibre, and got its political meaning as a result of the questioning Gladstone got from the textile workers in his audience). Local Tory propaganda struck a tone of desperation, like this song from the Dalkeith Advertiser in 1879, to a tune I haven't identified:

From the Firth of Forth to the Pentland's feet,
   Lies a county, all classic ground,
Where Holyrood stands, and Arthur's Seat,
   And castles and ruins abound.
These the young Dalkeith represents right well,
For he and his kindred among them dwell;
Still Gladstone is plotting to filch his seat,
But the cock of the North will not be beat!
No; Gladstone may come and Gladstone may go,
His own and his Muscovite horn to blow!
   We'll never elect Mr Gladstone - no!
   We'll never elect Mr Gladstone!

The last straw for the Tories was the spiralling costs of the war in Afghanistan, revealed in full only on the day before the poll, and Gladstone won with a solid majority. David Glen himself wrote The Right Honorable W.E. Gladstone's Welcome to Midlothian to mark this campaign. The tune may not in fact have been played at the time; the Dalkeith Advertiser of the time said he was welcomed by a string band and made no mention of a pipe band, and Glen published at least one other tune that could not have been played at the occasion he says it was, so his titles are not entirely reliable. Another piece from the election, The Fine Old Man versus Gladstone's Hornpipe, an unusual tune in a style that recalls American old-time fiddling more than anything in Scottish tradition, is by W.B. Laybourn, published by Köhler in Edinburgh in 1884.

The aristocracy had lost their exclusive grip on local politics, and correspondingly their leading role in other aspects of local culture. By the end of the nineteenth century they were no longer patronizing music, and the last composition I have traced that relates to any of the elite of Midlothian is Dalkeith's Lament, published by James Scott Skinner in 1888. This was for another Earl of Dalkeith, who shot himself accidentally when falling down a ravine on a deer stalk in Inverness-shire in 1886. The opening of the tune recalls an old jig or pipe march, There Cam a Young Man; the Earl was 26 when he died.

Next chapter: A Song to End With

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Music of Dalkeith
Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin