The cry of the fishwives of Newhaven selling their fish in the streets of Edinburgh is known the world over through the song Caller Herrin by Lady Nairne and Nathaniel Gow. But there were many more such cries, and many of them were used as the basis for pieces of music. Most were unknown outside Edinburgh, and changed from one generation to the next; no two vendors sang them quite the same way. A poem from a 19th century broadside put many together:
Auld Edinburgh Cries
Loud the cries are ringin', ringin',
Cheery ringin' up and down;
Short but sweet the sang that's singin,
Blythely through Auld Reekie's toun.
Wand'rin' weary, wet or dry,
Hark, yon sonsy maiden's cry -
"Neeps like succar, Wha'll buy Neeps",
Oh they're bonnie, come and see them,
Taste and try before ye buy.
Ilka month brings in its treasures;
Rizarts red in clusters shine,
Bonnie berries, green an' yellow,
Sugar plums sae sweet and fine.
Wand'rin' weary, wet or dry,
Hark, yon sturdy hizzy's cry -
"Four bunch a penny, the bonny caller radishes"
"Ripe strawberries" "Sonsy cherries"
Greet the ear at ilka turn,
"Buy my bonnie water-cresses,
A' the road frae Loudon Burn,"
Wand'rin' weary, wet or dry,
Hark, yon wifie's cheery cry -
"Curds an' whey, Curds an' whey,"
"Fine sour douk - a pint a penny,
Better milk's no in the land."
"Heather ranges, Heather ranges,"
"Cauf for beds" and "Yellow sand,"
Wand'rin' weary, wet or dry,
Hark yon barefit lassie's cry -
"Ripe berries, the big pint a ha'p'ny,"
"Rosy-cheekit Carse o' Gowrie's,"
"Juicy pears - a bonnie stock,"
"Dulse and tangle" "Caller Partans,"
"Wulks an' buckies" "Candy Rock,"
Wand'rin' weary, wet or dry,
Hark yon puir auld wifie's cry -
"Wha'll buy my pease an' beans, hot an' warm",
"Wastlin' herrin', Wastlin herrin,"
Come an' buy, they'll please ye weel,
"Haddies - haddies caller haddies,"
Fresh an' loupin' in the creel.
Wand'rin' weary, wet or dry,
Hark yon fisher Jenny's cry -
"Caller Ou, Caller Ou."
Street cries are musically very different from anything else in the Scottish tradition; despite the impression given by pieces based on them, they were often atonal motifs rather than tunes fitting into conventional keys and modes. Nor were they always loud. "Buy a broom" was the cry of the Flemish women and girls who left the Netherlands in the spring to sell their brooms over the summer. The English visitor John Hone described it as "a low, shrill, twittering note", saying
it is a domestic cry, two or three go together and utter it in company with each other; not in concert nor to a neighbourhood, and scarcely louder than will attract the notice of an inmate seen at a parlour window or an open street door, or a lady or two passing in the street.
This cry was parodied in 1834 by J.S. Blackie (1809-1895) to make a street cry for lawyers: "Give a fee".
A number of street cries were collected by James H. Jamieson and published in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club at the beginning of this century; some of them date back to over 100 years before that. Oh Callar Spirlings was used as the basis for a complicated piano piece by Domenico Corri, and quoted at the head of the score. The Cobbler is a street cry from the mid-19th century collected by the Rymour Club: it was performed by an itinerant cobbler, his wife and his son singing the phrases successively. Caller Herring and Cod is a cry of the Newhaven fishwives noted by the London elocutionist John Hullah in his The Cultivation of the Speaking Voice (1874). He describes it ironically as "a rag of Popery" - the callers would all have been Protestants but he thought it was derived from plainsong. It also sounds a bit like Happy Birthday to You.
Street cries lasted long into the machine age. The lawyer Joseph Inglis wrote in The Blind Vendor of "Light" (Waverley Bridge), from a book of verse written between 1899 and 1906:
Amid the din of cab and motor-car
Of Carnival, of speeches of the Bar,
This truth so sudden, like a falling star
Arrests the weary traveller from afar.
After a journey in the Peebles train,
Whose speed is so upsetting to the brain,
'Tis like the peace which follows racking pain
To hear the music of that sweet refrain:-
"Vesta-lights, a penny a box,
Laces, a penny a pair".
The match-seller was Alexander Malcolm, who had been blinded in an explosion at Nobel's factory in Falkirk.
The most familiar street cry of the present day is Evening News!, from newspaper sellers around Princes Street; no other newspaper has its own cry. And I heard the cry Hot Chestnuts from a man with a hot chestnut trolley beside the statue of Wellington in Princes Street at New Year, 1997.
Some street cries survived in folklore long after they were used to sell anything. Wha'll buy sybies? was found by "B.J.H." of the Rymour Club around 1900. The more melodic version Will you buy my syboes? is older: a children's song edited from a manuscript of the mid-19th century by Alfred Moffat in his Fifty Scottish Nursery Rhymes.
Street cries could also be exploited by trained musicians, and they served as musical raw material for over 200 years. The Cries of Edinburgh is a slip jig from the Caledonian Pocket Companion. It may quote cries of the time, but if so they are not identifiable today; it resembles Fy Let Us A' to the Bridal. Wha'll hae pease and beans hot and warrm is a fiddle tune from a manuscript of 1715 compiled by George Skene (not the better-known "Skene Manuscript" of lute music from 100 years earlier). Hot peas and beans were a popular Edinburgh street food when this was written and for nearly 200 years afterwards. A Minuit whall hae Denty Sawsers is another piece from George Skene's collection. "Sawser" meant a kind of sausage; a related word "saster" meant what we would now call a haggis pudding. This beautiful tune is one of the most unusual in this collection. The minuet is not a dance that Scotland ever really made its own. Many were hand copied or printed, but almost all of them were either directly imported or written in imitation of foreign models; this one has a uniquely Scottish feel. Wha'll Hae My Dainty White Puddings is a jig from the McFarlan Manuscript of around 1740, though it occurs in many other sources of the same century. Fresh Herrings is from a manuscript of the late 18th century. The first of the two pieces called Hott Mutton Pyes is from Aird's collection of 1788, and is presumably an elaboration of one cry; the second is a 3-voice catch which puts it in counterpoint with two other cries. It was written by the German composer/bassoonist John Frederick Lampe (c.1703 - 1751) who moved to Edinburgh in 1750 after a career in London. As well as writing a congratulatory anthem for the Duke of Cumberland after Culloden and several hymns that were popular at the time, he had treated English folk tunes on a larger scale before, in a medley overture combining Buttered Peas and Over the Hills and Far Away in double counterpoint, and in an operetta on the folk ballad The Dragon of Wantley. The collection this is taken from has other pieces based on Durham and London street cries. I've included extended versions of the sound files with the round structure expanded. Neeps like Sucker Wha'll Buy Neeps is from Pringle's 2nd Collection. Queensbury's Scots Measure was also known by a title like this, Salt Fish and Dumplins; perhaps it too was based on a street cry.
The elaborate and ingenious Caller Herrin by Nathaniel Gow, with a text by Lady Nairne, was based on several related street cries of the fishwives of Newhaven, who came to sell their fish in the New Town. It's a small tone poem. As notes in the published score indicate, the opening is the call of a fishwife in West George Street, then the descending scales represent the bells of the church of St George (an 8-bell carillon unique in Scotland at the time), then we get three different fishwives in St Andrew Square, and finally the fishwives from George Street arrive in the square. Nairne's lyrics were written as an act of charity to Gow when he was bankrupt and terminally ill; she let him take all the proceeds. The words accurately reflect the way the women used to sell their fish; heartstring-tugging stories about drowned husbands were the usual sales pitch. The fishwives were gradually supplanted by fishmongers selling from fixed shops, with running water making the business more hygienic; the Forth herring fishery finally collapsed in the early 1950s.
Gow knew when he was on to a good thing: Kail and Leeks is another in the genre, and Peas and Beans and Rock Partens is based on two cries; I've given his versions of them before it. "Caller O'u", "fresh oysters", was once well known through John Gray's 19th century song Caller O'u (the Boatmen of the Forth) that tried to follow up Gow and Nairne's little masterpiece; it's in the style of the parlour songs of the time. The word "O'u" for oysters seems to have been in use for only about 70 years in the 19th century. A late contribution to the genre Gow popularized was The Buckie Wife of the early 1960s by the Edinburgh folk revival singer Bob Bertram. The refrain could be an Edinburgh street cry.
Many of the ballads and satires in this book were sold in the street. The life of a chapbook or broadside seller in Victorian London was well described by Henry Mayhew: one of desperate poverty and nightmarish uncertainty, worse than almost any other street-seller's trade. There is no reason to suppose it was much easier in Edinburgh at any time. These hawkers were often called Flying Stationers. In the 18th and early 19th centuries selling literature in the street was technically illegal, so they would sell a straw and throw in the chapbook free. The city authorities generally let them get away with this, so it seems the ban was not meant very seriously. The Flying Stationers' great opportunity was a public execution, when they could sell news reports or versified confessions to the watching crowd. But even without a current horror they they could always make do, as described in a letter to a newspaper of 13 August 1831, from somebody who must have been swindled out of a few pence:
SPEECH-CRYING.- One of the most intolerable nuisances which the citizens of Edinburgh are made to endure, is the incessant bawling of speech-criers who infest the streets, and swindle the lower orders out of their pence, by vending the most abominable fabrications of robberies and murders. The whole of yesterday, scores of these sturdy vagabonds were busily employed in hawking "an account of a horrid and barbarous murder, between Glasgow and Lanark," which happened some 20 or 30 years ago, making it appear as if it had been perpetrated within the last few days. Has the police no control over such miscreants? Is the publisher not amenable to justice?
And the notoriously dissolute clergyman George William Auriol Hay Drummond was no more appreciative of other street cries in A Town Eclogue of 1804, where he wrote (in between visits to prostitutes):
What time each damsel, as she homeward flies,
Hears drowsy tinkling cry of "Mutton pies";
(Quake at the knell! thou vagrant race canine!
The crusty fate perchance may soon be thine!)
Stray and mad dogs were a serious problem in Edinburgh at the end of the 18th century, with the summer of 1793 seeing a mass roundup, so Drummond may have been onto something.
Until about 1760 there were even street cries for funerals. The bellman of the West Church (St Cuthbert's) used to go about the streets ringing his handbell and shouting out a rhyme which was apparently quite close to the children's parody Tingle, Tangle, Tousie, with the deceased's name inserted:
The words are from Macmath's manuscripts; the tune was reprinted by Alfred Moffat from a manuscript of the mid-nineteenth century.
The city employed a bellman as well. One of his jobs in the 18th century was to announce when any beef arrived in the city - particularly in winter, this was a rare and expensive luxury item. Or he could be called on in emergencies, as in August 1595 when the whole town was alarmed by the common bell to pursue a kidnapper and attempted rapist.
Alexander Pennecuik reported that All you that in your beds do lie was cried "by a gentleman who borrowed the bell-man's cloak and bell, and rung, and repeated the verses as under, thro' the streets of Edinburgh, at four o'clock in the morning, May 10, 1720". I have taken the tune from a four-voice round which makes a close verbal parallel, published by the Englishman Thomas Ravenscroft in his Melismata of 1594:
I lay with an old man all the night,
I turned to him and he to me,
hee could not doe so well as he might,
but hee would faine, but it would not bee.
If Pennecuik's friend didn't actually sing Ravenscroft's tune, perhaps he would have if he'd found three other people to risk getting arrested with. I've given both the melody and a version for playback with the round structure expanded.
Most other Scottish towns had a bellman, but Dalkeith instead had several generations of women town criers, "Bell Wives", who beat a wooden trencher with a spoon; one of them, Beetty Dick (1693-1773) is depicted in Kay's Edinburgh Portraits. They were paid per announcement directly by local traders instead of the Council, and early in the 19th century getting the money out of the merchants became so difficult that they gave up.
"The Idler", an emigré to South Africa, recalled his late 19th century boyhood:
Does anyone remember the "night hawks" of Edinburgh? They were the poorest of the poor, the outcasts from the last refuges of broken humanity. They used to cringe along the streets in the silent hours to gather bits of rag or broken or spoiled meat in the rubbish bins, which in those days were put out from the houses overnight, and whose contents would be blown about the pavements by the strong winds. They would be seen sometimes in the daytime, diseased and crippled, begging at the street corners. I knew some of them as familiar figures for many years, passing them daily as they shivered by the kerbstones, and recognizing at the end their poor bodies on the dissecting tables of the Surgeons' Hall.
Edinburgh has been notorious for its beggars for its entire existence. As William Dunbar wrote in To the Merchantis of Edinburgh around 1500:
Your Burgh of beggeris is ane nest,
To schout thai swentyouris will not rest;
All honest folk they do molest,
Sa piteuslie thai cry and rame:
Think ye not schame,
That for the poore hes nothing drest,
In hurt and sclander of your name!
Niniani suburbium seu mendicorum platea, "the suburb of St Ninian, street of beggars" on Gordon of Rothiemay's 1647 map where Leith Street is now, still has beggars today. As Dunbar pointed out fifty years before the Reformation, Edinburgh couldn't support the destitute adequately then, and the dissolution of the old Church with its institutions for the poor made the situation even worse. Every attempt at public funding met with furious opposition from the middle classes, and every time the resourceless poor were thrown on their wits the resulting crime waves generated equal indignation. Legislation never achieved anything, and neither did institutions born of moral panic like the Society for the Suppression of Public Begging formed in the wartime slump of 1812.
One of the more durable partial solutions was the "Blue Gowns", a corporation of licenced "deserving" beggars given special uniforms and paid a small amount directly by the Crown. They formed a kind of trade guild for mendicants, treated by the wider society rather as Big Issue sellers are today but with formal recognition by the state. The last one I have heard of was Wee Geordie More, who used to sing and dance on stilts in the street, became a blue-gown in old age, and died in 1828. The modern system of soup kitchens and night shelters began soon after, first in response to the cholera epidemic of 1832 and regularly at Queensberry House in 1840; the problem became far greater with the influx of Irish and Highland refugees from the potato famine in 1846-7, and it was decades before the system could cope. The Edinburgh Blew Gowns Dance is from Daniel Aborn's manuscript of 1790, now in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in the US. Since most blue-gowns were old or badly disabled, it should probably go quite slowly. Perhaps the tune was played at times of ceremonial payment from the royal treasury. It sounds like an English jig and must be meant for the flute or fife.
The Mad (or Poor) Boy is another of Nathaniel Gow's street-cry compositions, here taken from its first printing as a single music sheet. The Mad Boy used to call out like this when begging in the streets of Edinburgh in 1798. Gow says of the repeated notes:
the Boy requently repeats this Barr while he looks around him expecting Alms, which his truly Simple Apperance seldome fail to insure to him.
This was a popular piece; there are several surviving manuscript copies of it from the early 19th century, including a transcription for flute. The text for it is by Sir Alexander Boswell; presumably it's meant to go to the 9/8 section.
Another such singer in the 1820s was "Duck Meg" in Leith, recalled sixty years later by John Martine in his Reminiscences of the Town and Port of Leith. She had strangely deformed feet like those of a duck, and often used to go barefoot; she made her living by begging old rope from newly arrived ships, which she would sell for recycling. She knew all the regular ships and their crews, and would adapt her begging songs on the spot for each as it arrived. She called these songs "madrigals". Martine quoted the words for a few of them, like this one to a whaler:
Here ye are again, my bonnie lammie,
Wi' the William and Ann, full o' whallie;
Gae hame and kiss your fine bairnies,
And cuddle yer bonnie wivies,
And gie Maggie a wheen old ropies,
For ye ken I like ye fairlie.
Ye are my bonnie lambs
Just hame from Quebec,
Drapit and druckit,
Gae hame to your wives;
Get warmed and rubbit,
And gie me some auld raipies.
Why "madrigals"? The word means little in Scottish culture, and could have had nothing like its modern meaning to a Leith beggar in the 1820s, when even the Edinburgh elite's idea of early music was Handel's Messiah. But there is a tune in Aird's collection of the 1780s titled The Madrigal, marked "siciliano"; the only such piece in any Scottish dance collection. It sounds like an English jig, and almost fits Duck Meg's words, but the length is wrong unless she repeated some lines. Perhaps she learnt some version of Aird's tune from a local fiddler. I've taken it from a slightly later collection by Clarkson.
A street musician is simply a beggar with talent, and Edinburgh's council often passed the same regulations to cover both. "An Irishman that sung with a lass and would not work" was banished in 1529. The repression reached its zenith with the measures against the Gypsies, who must have always been prominent among the city's musicians from their arrival in 1506; they were collectively sentenced to death as a race by the Scottish Parliament in 1609, and the full penalties of that act were enforced a few times against "notorious Egyptians". This picture of the crowds going to Leith Races, from the Tory Blackwood's Magazine in 1821, is one of many in later years to identify beggars and musicians:
Leith Walk, at this period, was the resort of all the beggars whom disease or disinclination prevented from calling the Lists; and these were stationed so closely on both sides of the road, and were so very importunate, that one does not regret the regulation which prohibits their appearance within the bounds of police. So many "poor blind boys" - "puir lassies" - fatherless children, and mothers without husbands - so many blind fiddlers, and lame musicians of every description, were plying their different arts in the crowded thoroughfare, that it required a more than common share of philosophy to pass along without emptying one's pockets of their small change.
And there have been buskers in the streets of Edinburgh ever since. Some were well-known by name. In the 1870s, there were the blind singers Robert Arkley and Jamie Main performing Scots songs in the High Street; the clarinet player Forsyth outside John Knox's House; and the melodeon player "Palmy Dick", who lived to make 78rpm records, with a pitch at Jeffrey Street. At about the same time, an Irish piper had his pitch at Fountain Close, and an old harpist was taking his improbable street instrument around the town doing his setpiece, variations on W. Vincent Wallace's sentimental song Scenes that are Brightest - there are several recorded descriptions of him, but nobody seems to have remembered him playing anything else. German bands made a living at street performance in the Edwardian era. An Italian organ-grinder was an equally familiar sight for fifty years, still playing as an old man in the 1930s; at around the same time a busker who played in the Leith Walk area combined his act with part-time dentistry, pulling teeth with his fingers. Any public occasion could bring musicians out; perhaps the most opportunistic of all was the fiddler who played The Lost Chord for the crowd gathered on Calton Hill in 1913 for a hanging in the jail. There has been a boom in tourist-season immigrant buskers since the Festival began in 1947, but before that the number of year-round street musicians hardly changed in centuries. Gordon Mills' memories of his childhood in one of the poorest streets of Gorgie around 1930 could be paralleled at most times since the Middle Ages:
Our world, like Shakespeare's, was a stage. We were regularly regaled in the street by jugglers, contortionists and tap dancers; by banjo, mandolin and ukelele bands; barrel-organs, glockenspiels, squeeze boxes, Jews harps, tin whistle, bones and ubiquitous street singers.
A few spectators (mostly children) would gather round the players, while the main part of the audience surveyed the scene from the private boxes of the first floor windows, the dress circle of the second floor, and the gallery above.
Many of the performers, like the Gorgie piper, the one-man band, and the plaget (half-mad) street singer Hie Bie Sie, were well kent faces (no matter the song, no matter the composer's lyrics, only the thin sounds "hie bie sie", rose from that scrawny throat).
Then there was the man who sang The Old Rugged Cross. Tall, spare, and haggard, with tears streaming down his cheeks, he could touch the hardest heart. Was he genuine, or was he merely an actor who knew - although the pickings were thin - how to extract the last penny from pocket or purse?
On Sunday mornings, a Salvation Army band usually performed at the foot of the street. Ignoring the curses of would-be late risers, they blasted out their tunes of glory, giving it laldie on the trombone and tambourine. They were competent musicians, smart in their dark uniforms with splendid cap badges of blood and fire. Young freshly washed faces under bonnets of straw courageously renounced past sins and invited us to join them on the happy road to salvation. Naturally we were well aware that along with other residents of Skin Street we were in dire need of salvation, as they never played in the better-off districts (or so we were told).
At irregular intervals in that theatre of the absurd we were entertained by ex-servicemen's bands, usually brass, but often augmented by banjos and concertinas, guitars, ukeleles and fiddles, ocarinas, spoons or paper and comb.
I remember one such band from around 1930, playing to a small but appreciative audience in the street. The war variously called the "Great War", the "First World War" (how did they know there would be a second?) and "the War to end all wars" had ended twelve years since. And there in front of us were the heroes - an ill clad, ill fed raggle-taggle band of one-time soldiers who had been to hell and back on the battlefields of France and Belgium.
Ghosts with gaunt heads balanced on broken bodies. One displayed on his consumptive chest - just below his medal ribbon - a card bearing the legend "Ex-serviceman". Another passed through the sparse audience with an upturned military cap, hoping to gather a few coppers from an embarrassed but grateful group of children and unemployed. Some, led by their comrades, were blind; others had left an arm or a leg on a makeshift operating table somewhere in France. All were scarred in some way, but they played patriotic music in the street while they waited for that "land fit for heroes" promised by the government.
Most buskers were down on their luck in some way or other, from Peter Milne with his opium habit until the present day. Kate Powell, "The Nightingale" began as an opera singer in London around 1890 billed as "The Scottish Nightingale"; after being widowed she returned to sing on the streets of Edinburgh, but only after dark heavily wrapped in dark clothes. Not all of these performers were musicians: James Kennedy, an American who had been blinded while working on the Forth Bridge, used to recite from a Braille Bible for a living, and the gramophone briefly brought new opportunities. An ex-sailor with a missing hand played his gramophone in Telfer Subway at Fountainbridge in the 1930s, and "Gramophone Granny" played one outside the Playhouse Cinema at Greenside in the years after World War 2, with a placard printed "suffering from a severe nervous breakdown". But for all his poverty, the street fiddler George Paterson (c.1880-1944), whose usual pitch was Frederick Street, used to buy bags of coal for old folk and in 1938 donated his takings so that a group of 100 poor children could see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for free.
Animals have probably been inseparable from buskers since the Middle Ages. Miss Mary Dunlop's mechanical piano is still on display in the Museum of Childhood in the Canongate; she performed around Edinburgh with it from the 1930s to 1966, in her last years with a white pony called Smokey who was probably more of a draw than the music. Few can have tried so hard to appeal to animal-lovers as Angela Varecchi, who lived in the Grassmarket early in this century. She played her barrel-organ in Edinburgh in winter, and in summer would go on the road to the Highlands with the organ, a monkey, two bull-terriers, a pony, and two turtle doves that picked out envelopes for fortune-telling.
I have only traced one piece composed by a known Edinburgh street musician. Herbert Parkin "The Old Fiddler", originally from Brighton, played in Edinburgh for the latter part of his life, going round Bruntsfield, Morningside and the Braids with his little white spaniel; he died in the late 1920s. In the 1880s or 1890s he had some of his compositions published by Köhler and hawked them in the street. The Scott Crow Strathspey is one of these. It's printed in an unusual format like a folded greeting card; practical for carrying around in bundles in uncertain weather.
But beginning long before the Reformation, there were also professional street musicians hired by the city. Three pipers were each paid threepence a day to play morning and evening with a drummer in 1487; and there was much better-paid irregular work as well, festive performances like St Giles' Day in 1555 as it appears in the city records:
The bailies and counsale ordanis thesaurer Maister John Prestoun to content and pay to James Dromond and his marrowis quha plait befoir Sanct Geill on Sanct Geillis day on the schammes the sowme of xls.
"Schammes" were probably shawms like the modern Breton bombarde or Turkish zurna, but could also have been windcap instruments like the crumhorn, or primitive limited-range clarinets. A similar entry the next year says "Jacques and his sonis" were paid for playing throughout the Hallow Fair. They probably lost their jobs at the Reformation, but it was not long before the city was again employing musicians: these were the Town Waits, set up in 1607 to play at noon from the steeple of St Giles and in the evening around the town. My guess is that they were formed as a result of the union of the crowns. With the royal court gone to England, it no longer provided ceremonial music for the city, and the musicians it used to employ were out of work, so the council stepped in to fill the gap. The Waits at first used "schalmes and howboys and siclyk"; "howboys" were oboes. In 1679 they were using "cornets and other instruments", "cornet" then meaning the hunting-horn-like instrument with recorder-like fingerholes that has been one of the least-revived instruments of the early music movement because of its extreme technical difficulty. In 1696 they had "French hautboyes and double curtal", or oboes and bassoon. All of these could play fast music loudly in any weather Edinburgh might throw at them. The bassoonist of 1696, Malcom McGibbone, must have been one of the city's most skilled musicians; he also ran a music school.
We don't know what sort of music they played; waits in other cities of Europe began earlier and generally used more trumpets and trombones, which may imply older and slower music. The negative evidence is that no new music is known to have been imported by the Waits, whereas other external influences like English or Highland soldiery, Italian lutenists and French singers did leave repertoire behind them, documented in tune titles and comments in manuscripts. So the most economical guess is that the Waits played the Lowland Scottish material they found around them in the city. Late in the 18th century the Castle's oboist, Captain Fraser, could astonish Burns by playing Scottish slow airs with more expression than he had heard from any other instrumentalist. While Fraser must have been influenced by Continental music, he also had over two centuries of Scottish reed playing behind him, dating back to long before the violin arrived in Scotland and building on the old wind music traditions of the Lowland bagpipe and the stock-and-horn.
A player of the Waits was still drawing a salary in 1804; from then on they vanish from the record, perhaps abolished by the Police Act of 1805. Long before that, the widening of the city's streets and the competing noise from horse traffic that followed the demolition of the town gates in the 1760s must have made it harder for street musicians to be heard. The Edinburgh Blew Gowns Dance is a possible item from their repertoire, if my guess about when it was played is right. In Aborn's version, it's too long to have been reliably handed down from one generation of disabled beggars to the next by oral tradition, and there was no repertoire of "beggars' music" in Scotland as there was in Italy, so it is more likely to have been played for the blue-gowns than by them.
The loudest of all acoustic street instruments is a set of church bells. Until the New Town was built, the city was compact enough for the sound of St Giles' bells to reach every corner of it, so playing on them was an important public act that fetched higher fees than any other kind of musical performance. Bellringers could be highly skilled on many other instruments. I have mentioned tunes played on the bells at other points in this book. The abstract mathematical patterns of English bellringing were never popular in Edinburgh; the English style only arrived in Scotland late in the nineteenth century and then only to very few churches. Edward Burt described the city's bells in 1730:
I have just now taken notice that each church has but one bell, which leads me to acquaint you, that on a joy-day, as the king's birth-day, &c. (we will suppose in Edinburgh, where there are nine churches), the bells are all rung at a time, and almost all of them within hearing. This causes a most disagreeable jangling, by their often clashing one with another. And thus their joy is expressed by the same means as our sorrow would be for the death of a good king.
But their music bells (as they call them) are very entertaining, and a disgrace to our clockwork chimes.
They are played at the hours of exchange, that is, from eleven to twelve, upon keys like an organ or harpsichord; only, as the force in this case must be greater than upon those instruments, the musician has a small cushion to each hand, to save them from bruising.
He plays Scots, English, Irish, and Italian airs to great perfection, and is heard all over the city. This he performs every week-day, and, I am told, receives from the town, for this service, a salary of fifty pounds a year.
The music bells continued long after; Eleanor Atkinson'sGreyfriars Bobby describes a bellringer in the 1860s playing The Bluebells of Scotland and There Grows a Bonny Briar Bush in Our Kail Yard on the bells of St Giles.
The bellman was not the only musician used for public announcements; the city and its surrounding townships all maintained public drums. The English visitor Edward Burt, writing home to London in 1730, described how the drum announced the time for emptying chamber pots into the street at 10pm. Since this was also the closing hour for pubs, it made for an exciting few minutes of the day.
Street music could often be political, and the sound of the drum above all. It has always been a weapon of the police and the army, most blatantly in the reign of Charles II. At the mass execution of ten Covenanters in the Grassmarket in December 1666, drums beat to drown out the condemned men's speeches from the scaffold; this must have become a predictable routine, since when Bailie of Jerviswood was to be executed in 1684, he anticipated it and had copies of his dying speech circulated in advance. The drum has also accompanied every mass movement in Edinburgh's history, up to the present day - the latest political use I've heard was a lesbian samba school playing in summer 2000 on a demonstration for the repeal of Thatcher's "Clause 28" homophobic legislation. Statutes from the paranoic legal codes of Mary Queen of Scots and James VI recognized this explicitly, and forbade political use of drums ("talbrones" in old Scots) as part of a general ban on protest. The Act of Queen Mary, 1563, c.83, Anent the stancheing of tumults within burrowes, says:
That naine of our Soveraine Ladies lieges presume, pretende, or take upon hand to make onie privie conventiones nor assemblies within burgh, put on armour, cleeith themselves with weapones, or make sound of trumpet or talbrone, or use culveringes, displayed banners, anseinzies, or uthers instruments bellical quhatsumever, in onie time heireafter, without the special license of our said Soveraine Lady, and her Hienes Magistrates within the burgh, quhair the said tumult and uproare chauncis to be, had and obtained theirto, under the pain of death.
This didn't stop the Reformation, and most prosecutions under that law in succeeding centuries failed; a mob in May 1682 even forced the King's militia to beat their drums for them while breaking open the Canongate Jail to free prisoners and got away with it. But with milder penalties, it's the substance of renewed Scottish legislation dating from the Thatcher era and still in force, allowing the police arbitrary powers to break up demonstrations that have not been notified in advance and banning the use of paramilitary dress on peaceful demonstrations under the pretext of "prevention of terrorism".
One mystery of Edinburgh's street music is the disappearance of the bagpipe. It had a regular place in public ceremonial at the guild plays and processions; professional pipers were employed by both king and city in the fifteenth century, and pipers from England toured in 1489, 1491 and 1506; in 1489 they were paid by the Lord High Treasurer after performing in the Castle. At the time pipes seem to have been regarded as valuable, since a man was hanged for stealing a set in 1510. A record of 1536 describes the bagpipes being used in church services. But they faded from the scene except from small gatherings of the poor after the Reformation. The last town piper seems to have been John Johnston, dismissed in 1660 when the magistrates declared that his office was "tedious and unnecessary". As the story of the shawm shows, other instruments more closely associated with the unreformed Church retained official recognition, and so did the bagpipes elsewhere; they were played by Waits in the smaller towns of the Borders and the Lothians into the nineteenth century. Musselburgh's town piper James Waugh achieved brief fame in 1691 when he was seized while playing the street and carried away to be a soldier in the Edinburgh Regiment. He was released after application to the Law Courts, and his official status must have been persuasive. But Edinburgh had no such post by then. There are sporadic accounts of pipers being prosecuted for playing near the city on the Sabbath (the Water of Leith seems to have been the usual spot) but nothing suggests official recognition or even regular employment; Edinburgh abandoned the pipes just as they were becoming established in the Highlands in place of the harp. They only regained their former status towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the wake of their adoption by the army.
Only a few miles away, in Dalkeith, their status endured far longer and we know more about the music they played. The post of town piper to Dalkeith was combined with that of personal piper to the Duke of Buccleuch. One early Dalkeith piper, Jamie Reid, played one of the strangest gigs any piper can ever have been asked to do: at the time of the Revolution of 1688, he kept time for the Jacobite local minister, the Reverend Thomas Heriot, who danced around a bonfire on the High Street of Dalkeith on the Sabbath as a poltical protest. His excuse at his subsequent ecclesiastical trial was that he was doing it in order to purge and purify his congregation as ordained in the scriptures ("I will make my ministers a flame of fire", Hebrews 1:7). This didn't persuade his judges.
The last few Dalkeith pipers are well-documented and had rather more conventional work. George (Geordie) Sime (1700-1790), a chubby figure depicted by Kay, used to make the rounds of the town daily at 5am and 8pm; most towns in Scotland had employed a musician to do this since the Middle Ages. His successor Jamie Reid was piper to the town of Dalkeith until 1810. According to the cartoonist John Kay, one of his duties was to welcome the Duchess of Buccleuch on her return to Dalkeith House by standing on a high point about a mile out of town and playing Dalkeith has got a rare thing, a tune never written down under that name, and bid her goodbye by playing the 3/2 hornpipe Go to Berwick Johnny which I've taken in a fiddle version from the Gows' Complete Repository of the early 1800s. I believe the first tune may be one notated in a manuscript of around 1675 which seems to have been connected with the Scotts of Buccleuch. It's called The Baggpipe Tune, which suggests there's something distinctive about it; if it were the town anthem of Dalkeith and the family fanfare of its feudal owners, that would explain it. It's in scordatura notation for the fiddle, with the G string raised to A to provide a few unisons, and has a third part added which goes beyond the range of the pipes. But the first two parts fit the pipes perfectly, and it's a 3/2 hornpipe like its complement. It's the earliest-notated pipe tune from Scotland.
Reid found his son Tom impossible to discipline, and once punished him by clamping his head in a vice and blowing the bagpipes into his ear. When asked why he didn't just beat him with a stick like most fathers, he replied:
ye may break a' the hazels in the Duke's wood owre him, and he'll no be ae bit better. Na, na, I have tried a' that but ye see this mak's the callant as quiet as a poussie an' besides dinging the music into his heid, I hae great hopes that he will ae day mak' a grand piper, for by this way he had almost learned a' the tunes already.
Understandably, this didn't work out. The next two pipers were Robert Lorimer, who held office from 1810 to 1829, and his son George, the last piper. George might have seen the end coming when he was fined in 1818 for beating the drum in the street. He was kept on for the last few years until 1845 but in a non-playing capacity, simply asked to appear in costume at ceremonial occasions; the town no longer wanted to be woken by pipes at dawn.
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Embro, Embro Copyright © 2001, Jack Campin