Aileen Logie: Scottish/Irish Music Connections

Aileen’s musical life in Scotland started as a child in a family of musicians, surrounded by music, so I asked her if she could write something for us talking about the relationship between Scottish and Irish music. She was kind enough to agree.

As Aileen says, “This is a quick primer through numerous subjects really. Each paragraph is a subject in itself.”

I found her article really interesting, especially thinking about how music for Scottish Country Dancing fits into the wider picture of Celtic music. There are lots of musical treats in store in Aileen’s article, just click on the links to enjoy some fantastic Celtic music performances.

Kristin Downey

Aileen playing the strathspey The Parting Glass for Scottish Country Dancing at the Johnsonville St Patrick’s Day celebration in 2021 Photo: Loralee Hyde

There has been cross pollination of music between Scottish and Irish way back through the mists of time. The Celts are a musical tribe. What you find depends a lot on which slice of history you look at.

There is a notion that local music reflects the cadence of local language. Scottish and Irish Gaels are cousins – both Scottish and Irish gaelic is mutually understood and is phonetically very similar (although spelled differently). The root of much traditional music is traced back to gaelic songs – rhythmic working to ballads, eg waulking songs for stretching tweed fabric. The oldest form of Celtic music is ceol mor Highland piping – and links to the classical music of Northern India (which is where the Celts originally came from).

Engraving of Scotswomen singing while waulking cloth, c. 1770 Image: Wikipedia

Scots and Irish both share some very difficult history. Highland villages were displaced for sheep grazing during the Clearances. Irish suffered famine and crop failure. Both led to forced emigration in desperate circumstances from their homelands to New England and east coast settlements. Such heartbreak leads to stirring and emotional tunes – some beautiful, others chilling, eg Sorais Slan le Fionnairidh (Leaving Fuinary) and Carrickfergus.

People have tried to generalise about the recognisable features between Irish/Scottish. You hear that Scottish music has stronger rhythms and Irish music is more flowing and ‘diddly’. I find that the background of the player is every bit as important – accent, emphasis and phrasing. There are huge regional variations in Scotland and Ireland – more so than the Irish/Scottish divide. In Scotland there is the West Highland tradition, steeped in pipe tunes, (eg Aonghas Grant), strong rhythmic fiddle playing style in NE (Strathspey territory), (eg Paul Anderson playing tunes you’ll recognise!), lowland music geared to community – quite mixed, often with Presbyterian hymn chord sequences as its base.

You can play any tune in any ‘dialect’ you want to. Donegal has strong Scottish links and have tunes called ‘Highlands’ which turn out to be strathspeys (eg Mairead Ni Mhaonaidh). Glasgow is a home from home for Irish and any session there will have a strong representation of Irish tunes (eg an Irish pub session). What is true is that Scottish traditional music has some unique forms eg the Strathspey (12 different types identified), pibroch pipe music (stirring stuff) (eg Lament for Donald of Laggan), retreat marches (3 beats to the bar) (here at Dufftown Highland Games), and a wide range of other marches not found elsewhere. Irish hornpipes have wide appeal, but are not unique.

The Scottish Country Dancing music you hear played is a distinct genre which is shoe-horned into the requirements of this branch of dancing. Only 3 tempi (reels, jigs, strathspeys) played in a very prescribed style – particular speed, emphasis on first beat of the bar, steady and continuous. Music is not normally formulaic like this and you might be surprised to hear how some of these tunes are traditionally played! You will not hear much difference between Scottish and Irish jigs when played for Scottish Country Dancing, as I will be strictly bounded by that dance prescriptive form.

Enjoying the Scottish Country dance The Parting Glass (devised by Rod Downey) at the Johnsonville St Patrick’s Day celebration in 2021 Photo: Loralee Hyde

Here’s a close to authentic version of The Parting Glass played in a pub. It is a very old song linked to a very old tradition of having a farewell drink together at the end of a convivial evening. Called Stirrup Cup in England, Deoch an Doruis (drink at the door) in Gaelic. (Listen to a 1912 recording by Harry Lauder.) This tradition still continues to a degree, but has been severely hampered by tough drink/drive laws! The tune is Scottish, first version noted in 1605 – so it well precedes the Burns and Gow era. It was collected and committed to paper in the 1780s. Most people think it is Irish, and this happens a lot, but I’m sure cuts both ways.

Scottish silver stirrup cups, Hallmarked Edinburgh, 1917 Image: Wikipedia
Parting Glass, British, Burslem, Staffordshire, Stirrup cup, Ceramics-Pottery, c. 1780 Image: copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

One tune can travel far, gathering lots of different names as it goes – some might have 15. A tune is a living entity and depends on the player to bring out what they feel the music is saying – this obviously varies – a lot! It can develop arms, legs and twists as it goes. It also depends on the instrument. Drone reed instruments tune to the Pythagorean scale (just, true frequencies) and play only in that key. Other instruments tune mostly to Equal Temperament scale (developed by Bach) which compromises notes so that any key is playable by the instrument. However, it means different keys have a different mood/feel and this feature can be emphasized when you are composing a tune. Bright and happy – go for G or A. Sad and emotional G minor and D minor does it for me.

It has been interesting having more Celtic nation festivals. You can really hear the commonalities. Cape Bretons developed a strong very rhythmic style to suit their percussive step dancing (eg Andrea Beaton, live strathspeys then reels). Step dancing has been reseeded back to Scotland (from whence it came) and is enjoying considerable revival. Here’s an older Cape Breton video of step dancers and in this more recent one you can hear the foot percussion. The links with Irish dancing are plain to see. Galician (and Breton) pipe music is more complicated harmonically but again shares the same roots. We even have Bulgarian dance rhythms fusing with Celtic music – this makes sense as it was on the Celts migration route west.

Celtic music connections far outweigh notional national differences!

Aileen Logie
15 March 2022

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