By far the most popular instrument among performers of Scottish traditional music is the fiddle. Traditional flute players in Scotland often play mostly Irish material, under the impression that the flute is "not a Scottish instrument". It was not always like this. The modern violin is an import of the late seventeenth century, and before then dance music was played on whistles, recorders, rebecs, and various kinds of bagpipe, with the more courtly forms being the preserve of harpers. Whistles made in spring from tubes of elder bark could have been used in Scotland before any written history; the recorder is mentioned as a Scots instrument in the Book of the Howlat from 1450; the poet Alexander Scott is mentioned as being part of a Scottish students' fife band in Paris in 1540; and the transverse flute ("Almany quhissel" meaning "German flute") is mentioned in the town records of Aberdeen from 24 November 1574 as an instrument used to wake people up for their work in the morning and tell them when to go home:

the haill counsale being warnit to this day, ordainit Johnne Cowpar to pas everie day in the morning at four houris, and everie nycht at eight houris at ewyne, throu all the rewis of the toune, playand upon the Almany quhissel, with ane servante with him playand upon the taborine, quhairby the craftismen, their servandis, and all utheris laborious folkis, being warnit and excitat, may pas to their labouris in dew and convenient tyme.

This would have been something like a military fife. And we can guess one tune he played on it; see later.

The transverse flute, in its continental civilian form, was introduced into Scotland shortly after the fiddle, with a big boost in its popularity in 1725; in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, nobody would publish a songbook without its tunes transposed to fit the flute. The first collections of Scottish tunes for the newly fashionable instrument were published in London as soon as the instruments arrived, so there was never a time when Scottish players were short of published Scottish repertoire. The most important Scottish music anthology printed in the first half of the century was James Oswald's monumental Caledonian Pocket Companion; at first this had a title page mentioning the flute as an intended instrument while ignoring the violin, and the content reflects this, with melodic lines soaring far above the first position on the fiddle and employing runs quite unlike anything in string music. Only with the third volume did he consider violin players worth mentioning as potential customers, and while from there on in this collection the music has a range suitable for both instruments, it is always planned so as to fall most naturally under the fingers on a flute.

Anthologies of Scottish music specifically for the flute were published until the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and until then, most publishers of instrumental traditional music thought it worthwhile to advertise their collections as playable on the flute - even when those collections included double stops, right-hand piano chords or notes off the bottom of the flute's range, so that any flute-playing purchaser would have had to double as arranger. The instrument declined after 1880, for a variety of reasons: there was less domestic music-making where a quiet instrument could have a place, and public music was becoming ever louder with incessant "improvements" to musical instruments. Scottish traditional music still had a role in dancing, but the core of the flute's repertoire was in listening pieces and it did not lend itself to working in large bands like the violin. Today, with the invention of the PA system, all instruments are equal; if Edison had only invented it last century I would not have needed to produce this collection.

Coincidentally, the flute was being adopted by the Irish at the same time as the Scots were dropping it; perhaps newly-unfashionable Scottish instruments even found their way over the Irish Sea. But what the Irish then did with them bore no relation to the older Scottish tradition. Not one of the sources I've used here suggests anything like the modern Irish approach to playing traditional tunes on the flute; it's an anachronism, and when applied to such distinctively Scottish genres as the strathspey or pipe march, it just doesn't work.

For military music, flute and fife retained their position until brass took over after the Napoleonic War - later to be superseded in turn, by bagpipes. This military tradition created the one space in the present-day Scottish musical scene where the flute has a secure role performing a traditional repertoire: the Orange flute band. The sectarian fifers of the present day are continuing a tradition far older than that of either the ceilidh dance band or the regimental pipe band. While their repertoire is small and for the most part not very old, a continuous line links them through the armies of the 18th century to the oldest instrumental music known to have been played in Scotland.

Many Scottish traditional tunes are equally performable on either the fiddle or the flute. There are so many books of fiddle music in print that there would be no point in reproducing such material. Instead I have selected only music which, because of its range or melodic patterns, specifically suits the flute, and which is known to have been meant for it by its compiler or publisher. None of this music has been generally available for a century; it either comes from now-rare published anthologies or from manuscript collections assembled by flute players for their own use.

Most of these pieces were written for the keyless six-hole or one-key seven-hole flute in D, though more keys were in use when some of the later pieces were written down. I include a few fingering charts for it from different periods, with the range extending as far as the second B above the staff, though none of the pieces in this collection goes that high. Military instruments were often transposing, written in D and sounding in B flat. Only one piece here goes below D. There is no need for a special "Irish" or "celtic" flute to play this music; it mostly lies higher than the usual Irish session tune, and doesn't require great power in the extreme low register. For the earlier music at least, a baroque flute would be ideal if you've got one and know how to play it, but there is no comment in any of the sources I've looked at that says any specific kind of flute might be better than another for Scottish tunes, even though many were compiled after the Boehm flute had come into use in Scotland.

I have stayed close to the notation of the original sources. The main divergence between 18th century practice and the present day is in double bars and repeat signs; the distinction between them was not always meaningful then, and their interpretation now is up to you - common sense and the structure of any dance they may accompany will produce an answer that works. None of the sources I have used has any dancing instructions attached, so the intended length is not inferrable that way. I have sometimes altered the beaming and, for a few tunes, changed key signatures to describe the true mode rather than insert accidentals throughout. I have not added any phrase marks or articulation signs of my own. None of these sources used metronome markings, and even the common Italian terms are unusual. "Slowish" is as precise as it gets.

There are also no chords; all these tunes predate the modern-style use of the guitar for instrumental accompaniment, and only a few of them were printed with an accompanying part you could work out a chording from. There are many eighteenth century song arrangements marked "for the German Flute or Guitar", but the guitar of the time (tuned in two consecutive major triads, like CEGceg) was was meant to fingerpick the tune, not accompany it, with chords mostly restricted to open-string strums at the beginning or end of a phrase. The modern guitar does often work for accompanying this music, but you're on your own as to how. The original accompaniment was most often cello or harpsichord, occasionally harp, and later fortepiano; an electric bass guitar can do a reasonable job on an early Scottish cello line, but trying to fake the other instruments on a guitar is harder.

I've kept the sometimes extremely strange spelling and capitalization of the sources, and the original tune names (often not used today). It's impossible to use tune indexes if these oddities are "fixed"; not many of these tunes are indexed anywhere yet, but they will be.

I researched this as a spinoff of my study of the music of Edinburgh, Embro, Embro: the hidden history of Edinburgh in its music - because I had no specific instrument in mind for that collection and was selecting tunes purely on their historical significance, I didn't fall into the usual blindness Scottish music anthologists have to anything that isn't for voice, fiddle or bagpipes, and after encountering a few hundred flute tunes that were more interesting than their corresponding versions for other instruments, I got the message and started this project. The original study is also available on CD-ROM; see the website, or the sampler included on this disk, Music of Dalkeith.

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Old Scottish Flute Music
Copyright © 2003, Jack Campin