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I. SCOTTISH SONG PRIOR TO BURNS
'How is he [Burns] great, except through the circumstance that the whole songs of his predecessors lived in the mouth of the people, that they were, so to speak, sung at his cradle; that as a boy he grew up amongst them, and the high excellence of these models so prevailed him that he had therein a living basis on which he could proceed further?' Conversations of Goethe, 1875, p. 254.
'Come, the song we had last night :—
Mark it, Caesario; it is old and plain :
The spinners and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it; it is silly sooth
And dallies with the innocence of love
Like the old age.' SHAKESPEARE, Twelfth Night, Act ii, Sc. 4.
ROBERT BURNS has left an indelible mark as an original writer of vernacular songs; and he is unique as a reviver of old songs. These latter, as he found them, were mere echoes of the past, and survived only in a word, a line, a chorus or a stanza, which he picked up and made into a finished song to perpetuate a melody which required verses. Goethe, at a time when this part of Burns' work was obscure, explained how Burns was great, and before touching the main subject of this introduction it will be appropriate to give a short historical sketch of the progress of Scottish Song and popular music prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, when Burns appears in the field. The literary records of Scotland are scanty. The irreparable loss of an unknown number of writings was caused by strife, war, poverty, and religious fervour. In the thirteenth century Edward I carried
into England all the national and other papers that he could find. In 1666 Charles II was constrained to return them, and the remains were packed in forty casks, but the ship with this precious cargo foundered in the Frith of Forth, and the documents were irrecoverably lost. At the Reformation the warlike nobles seized and appropriated the monasteries and religious edifices. They cared more for the sword than the pen, and a vast number of neglected papers must have perished by decay. The existence of about twelve poets of distinction of the fifteenth century is only known from the mention of their names in a poem by William Dunbar, Scotland's premier poet. The works of several others are represented by one or a few subscribed pieces in existing manuscripts. Such are examples of the difficulty in constructing a continuous narrative of the poetry and music of Scotland.
Prior to 1794 no historical criticism of any consequence had been written. Dr. Beattie contributed a chapter on the subject in his Essays on Poetry and Music, 1776. About the same time William Tytler wrote a Dissertation on the Scottish Music, which was first printed at the end of Arnot's History of Edinburgh, 1776. John Ramsay of Ochtertyre wrote an article on Old Scottish Songs, published in The Bee in 1791. In the modern sense of the term there is no historical criticism in any of these essays. Very few references are given and none to music. Indeed, it does not appear that any of the writers knew of the existence of a single manuscript of Scottish music, and consequently they speculated on the tunes they knew and on many of the songs from internal evidence alone. Burns learnt little from their writings, indeed Ramsay and Tytler, both personal friends, got valuable information from him, and he knew more on the subject than all of them put together.
The basis of what is known about the poetry of Scottish song is contained in Ritson's Historical Essay prefixed to Scottish Songs, 1794. Unlike Percy, Pinkerton, and other garblers of text, he was scrupulously veracious and spent
many years collecting material for his essay. He exhausted the public libraries and those of his friends, and made several journeys to Scotland for the purpose. Ritson's researches came too late to be of any service to Burns, who, however, must have been gratified to find seven or eight of his songs (which he contributed anonymously to Johnson's Museum) reprinted in Ritson's collection. It seems the proper thing to overlook Ritson's great service to the elucidation of Song, to censure his infirmity of temper and to quote him without acknowledgement, but he has contributed more to the subject than all others combined who followed him.
The first person connected with the muse of Scotland is Merlin Caledonius, a myth and a prophet, a poet, a necromancer and the possessor of other celestial and infernal attributes. His prophecies in obscure alliterative verse delighted the whole nation for several centuries. Whether he and Merlin Ambrosius, the Prime Minister and general factotum of King Arthur, were the same is not very clear. The Scottish Merlin is described as a small wizened man attended by a 'white lady'. His place of burial is still pointed out on the banks of the Tweed, at the junction of the Powsail burn close to Drummelzier.
Many centuries after Merlin came Thomas the Rymer, who lived in the thirteenth century. He also was a prophet and a poet, the reputed author of a ballad bearing his name, which recites that his queen of Elfland was dressed in ' grass-green silk'. Having lost his mental balance in her presence he kissed her, which caused him to 'dree his weird' for seven years in Elfland. When his durance expired he had no wish to leave the place, but he was courteously expelled, and came back to his earthly home at Earlston on the river Leader. After some time the 'grass green ladye' again called; Thomas followed her and has not yet returned. He remains entrapped in a cave in the Eildon hills near Melrose, not dead, but still sleeping. The story with a dash of Barbarossa thrown in is radically the same as the adventures of Tannhäuser, the minnesinger of Germany, with
Venus in the Venusberg, and both tales are probably derived from the same source. The Rymer and Merlin are the master prophets of Scotland. 'The whole prophecies of Scotland, England, Ireland, France, and Denmark prophecied by Thomas Rymer, marvellous Merling, Beid, Berlington ... Edin. 1777' is the title of a late edition of a small chap book which circulated in Scotland for nearly 150 years, and was read and recited in palace and cottage. The work is remarkable as the latest printed specimens of alliterative poetry in the English language. The prophecies of Merlin are named in Lindsay's works early in the fifteenth century.
Contemporary with the Rymer Thomas is a stanza, the earliest fragment of Scottish Song, on the violent death of Alexander II in 1285. It bewails the loss of prosperity in Scotland, where always was plenty of 'bread and ale, gamyn and glee.'
One of the chronicles significantly records that 'the Commonality murmured' when Edward in 1291 proclaimed himself at Norham Overlord of Scotland, which explains why the English had such a loose grip of the country. At the siege of Berwick in 1296, the Scots burnt two of Edward's ships, and satirized his 'long shanks' in popular song. Edward disliked this humour, and renewed with fury the siege of the town, which he carried with great loss to the Scots (Ritson, p. 25).
Ballads on Wallace were made on the battle of Roslin (1298), and are referred to in the Scotichronicon, a MS. of the seventeenth century. The hero of Scotland is thus referred to :
'Now will ye hear a jollie jest
How Robin Hood was pope of Rome
Lyden's Complaynt of Scotland, p. 226.
In a chap book of about 1750 is ballad on the achievements of Wallace.
Although Edward disapproved of the Scots personal description of him, it was adopted by the English for a ballad, written after the execution of Simon Fraser in 1306, and closes with advice to the Scots 'to hang up the hatchet and the knife while lasteth the life of him with the long shonkes'. There are several incidents in this English contemporary ballad not noticed by Burton or other historians.
At the battle of Bannockburn the Scots enforced a curious ransom on one of the prisoners. Edward II took with him a poet laureate to Scotland to celebrate the expected victory. Robert Baston, a Carmelite friar, who invented a kind of rime known by his name, was captured and offered his liberty on condition that he wrote a poem in praise of the Scots.
The Scots in 1328 made a butt of the Queen, the sister of Edward III, in one of their songs. At that time the English officers were distinguished for wearing fancy clothes, and a song was circulated which ridiculed the pointed beards, the 'painted hoods', and the gay coats of the military. A copy of this song was affixed to the church door of St. Peter's, in York. On the defeat of Hardclay by de Soulis, Barbour refers about 1375 to a song where he says:
'Young wemen when they will play
Sing it amang them ilk day.' (The Bruce, B 11.)
Hume of Godscroft relates the death in 1353 of the Lord of Liddesdale by the Earl of Douglas, 'for so says the old song', that the Countess wrote love letters to Liddesdale to dissuade him from that hunting. It tells likewise the manner of the taking of his men and how he was carried the first night to Lindin Kirk, a mile from Selkirk, and was buried within the abbocie of Melrose (Ritson, p. 29).
A new era begins with James I, who was one of the most accomplished men of his time. He was a linguist, a poet, a writer of vernacular verses, a musician and a reputed composer. He played a number of musical instruments