WHAT is it about manuscripts? I’ll tell you. Nobody makes them anymore. It’s all done by a word processor or a computer-friendly music programme. A manuscript is manu scriptus – hand written. When did you last actually write a letter? When did you last actually write anything besides a shopping list or your signature? I certainly hardly ever write anything. I type it.

But a manuscript – not just a hand-written copy of something else, but a whole load of stuff that can’t be found anywhere else – now that is something special, and that’s what I’m on about this week. This manuscript dates from 1766 and it’s thanks to John Turner that we have it at all. He bought it from the Travis and Emery bookshop in London because he guessed at its importance – which is just as well for the history of Scottish music, as it might have gone to a squirrel anywhere in the world and have been forgotten. There are many squirrels in the world of manuscripts and, as with squirrels, they forget where they have placed things, or they die and nobody cares about their squirreling and so the survivors throw out whatever they find.

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John is not a squirrel and has willingly shared his manuscript with others, including yours truly. But why a whole essay on it? Because it really is important. This is one of the earliest manuscripts of Scottish fiddle music with reels clearly identified as Strathspey Reels. It’s also full of pieces with Gaelic titles and reels identified as Highland Reels. It was previously unknown, so it hadn’t yet got an official name. When I say the manuscript dates from 1766, that’s what “El: Rose” wrote on the inside cover at “Kilravock Castle Dec.m 27th”, so we’ve decided on The Kilravock Fiddle Manuscript, but who was Elizabeth? Probably the Elizabeth Rose (or Ross) born at Kilravock on March 8 1747 and died on November 1 1815. That would make her 19 when she signed her name in the manuscript.

The start of the manuscript includes four reels by Duncan Campbell, otherwise unknown. I’ve asked all my contacts in the world of Scottish fiddle playing and not one of them knows anything about a Duncan Campbell composing and playing around 1766 near Inverness. Was he Elizabeth’s fiddle teacher? Why Inverness? Well Kilravock Castle is where this manuscript seems to have been put together, and it is near Culloden, near Inverness. On the eve of the Battle of Culloden Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed in Kilravock House and joined in the music-making, playing the cello and helping pass what must have been a tense evening. The Rose family – also rendered as Ross – were a musical lot, as we shall see in next week’s essay on Kellie.

Up until now the most important early collection of strathspeys and reels was that of Angus Cumming from 1780, so this is a game changer. It’s not just fascinating; it’s fun. It’s full of dances of course, but some of them have more to them than meets the eye, though the ear gives the game away. Take The Sow’s Teal to Gordie a Reele. That’s how it’s spelt in the manuscript, but it is still played today as The Soo’s Tail Tae Geordie and the story behind it is scarcely suitable for a lady of Kilravock Castle.

Geordie was George I and the sow was one of his mistresses, either the Duchess of Kendal or more probably the Countess of Darlington, who was so vast she was called “the elephant” in England. In Scotland she was just a sow (“soo”) and the reel, along with a thoroughly scurrilous song, must have originated in the 1720s.

It’s a satire against the fat mistress and was played on violin with, at the end, deliberately piggish squeals – of delight, alarm or derision is not specified. The squeals are to be made by scraping the bow on the wrong side of the bridge; in our manuscript version on the D and A strings, but I’ve heard it on all four strings as well. A brilliant set of variations was composed for this tune by William Nisbet of Dirleton (c.1710-1783), a laird and amateur musician and member of the Edinburgh Musical Society, so after all Elizabeth was not stepping out of aristocratic line in including this tune in her book.

Then there’s Jennie Jo a Reele. Jennie Jo is better known by later titles, The Four Poster Bed and The Four Corners of St Malo, in which the heel or “frog” of the bow is used to tap the four corners of the violin. As this is likely to damage the wood, fiddlers often cheat, but our manuscript instruction is to “Touch ye violin with the Bow 4 times”, with a drawing of the violin and the bow and the points to be touched.

NOW we all know what goes on in a four poster bed, and the origin of the title Jennie Jo is equally open to enjoyable speculation. But what of The Four Corners of St Malo? This is a tricky one. It may refer to the four towers that defend the more-or-less-impregnable port of St Malo and which the British failed to capture during the Seven Years’ War with the French between 1756 and 1763 – but where does that get us? Besides, in our manuscript the tune is called Jennie Jo – Jo meaning “love” as in John Anderson My Jo, John. But who was this particular Jennie amongst the many Jennies in popular song? And why touch the fiddle at all? Is it meant to represent a bed or a fort? Any answers out there?

The manuscript has only two items with bass lines, one described as a song but clearly intended for fiddle, and the other, Morach, was already better known as the fiddle tune Morag. Otherwise it’s almost all reels. Plain reels, unnamed reels, Highland Reels and Strathspey Reels. They include the popular Tulloch Gorm with a couple of showy variations if taken up to the proper speed. There are also three Rants. Rants are just another type of reel which, in some cases, live up to the common meaning of the word, but although these ones are lively enough they are no more hot-tempered than many another reel or strathspey.

The 10 reels which are called Strathspey Reels ought to be really important. The Strathspey Reel is quintessentially Scottish, but why is it named after Strathspey and what are its origins? My good friends, Doctor Will Lamb and Doctor Michael Newton have been arguing about this for some time and they still can’t agree. Does this manuscript help them out of their difficulties? I think not. For starters, the Highland Reels and the Strathspey Reels are essentially indistinguishable in their general and rhythmic character in which they are almost all in cut time – two beats to the bar, so played faster than common time with its four beats to the bar. But rhythm is supposed to be the defining element in the strathspey, with “dotted” rhythms and “Scotch snaps” – lively, but at a slower tempo. “Scotch snaps” are dotted rhythms in reverse with the short note first and the longer note second. The trouble is there is virtually no evidence for them at all in this manuscript – not in any of the reels, never mind the Strathspey Reels. There are plenty of dotted rhythms, and also plenty of “birls” – four repeated notes with the first two short and very fast – and lots of double tonics, but a dearth of Scotch snaps.

I EXPLAINED the double tonic a couple of weeks ago, but you probably weren’t paying that much attention, so here goes again. The “tonic” is the key-note of a piece; not a fortifying dram before playing. Imagine you are standing on the stage doing a wee dance, then take one step down to a lower bit of the stage and do much the same thing lower down. Then back up again. That’s like the “double tonic”. So the music takes a whole step down from the tonic level and a step back up, and in classical music there are even rules against it. Sod that. We have our own ways here.

The interesting thing is that in The Kilravock Fiddle Manuscript there is no sign of gentrification. These are sturdy assertive examples of Scottish traditional fiddle style. And yet the manuscript belonged to the lady of the castle and has some racy tunes in it and not a slow air to gentle them. Perhaps surprising is a complete absence of rumpety-tumpety jigs. No jigs at all. Reels and Strathspeys rule the roost.

Duncan Campbell composed a Ms Rose’s Reele and it’s the first reel in the manuscript and full of dotted rhythms. What’s more, it ses scordatura – a retuning of the strings from the usual GDAE to AEAE, which makes a sound closer to the bagpipes and bagpipe drones.

The tune is repeated later in the manuscript in a different key, with the dotted notes evened out and without requiring retuning. My guess is that Elizabeth was not keen on retuning and changed the key to avoid the problem.

THE same tune appears in Angus Cumming’s A Collection of Strathspey, or Old Highland Reels, published in 1780, as Kilravock’s Reele and it is halfway between the two earlier versions. So did Cumming know Campbell and, if he did, why didn’t he name him as the composer? Cumming was at pains to excuse this type of music to his subscribers, despite the fact that he clearly loved it. Here’s what he wrote in the Preface to his collection.

“The HIGHLAND REEL, though a species of MUSIC removed some degrees from primeval simplicity, bears evident marks of being the production of a people little advanced in the ARTS of REFINEMENT.

“IT is, however, in a high degree expressive of PASSION and ENTHUSIASM, and it possesses, in a peculiar manner, the power of exciting those emotions of mirth, cheerfulness, and gaiety, which dispose to the salutary and agreeable exercise of DANCING.”

Well, devil mend him, as my mother would say: what an inordinate cheek to describe the Highlanders as “little advanced in the arts of refinement”. Do you have to wear a top hat and speak like Jacob Rees-Mogg to qualify as refined? Hmmmmmm. Cumming was publishing with the support of many of the Scottish nobility. Did he really need to excuse his work in this manner? Had they not got past Culloden and the subsequent genocide and discovered that the Highlanders were human beings just like the rest of society?

Now you may well think that a manuscript almost exclusively of reels and strathspeys is too much of a good thing, and I wouldn’t recommend playing it straight through. But within the limitations of the dance form and fiddle playing of those days, it is remarkably varied, and I can prove it, because I made a wee analysis of the Kilravock fiddle manuscript. I measured the frequency of the 36 available variants of a triad (that’s a three-note chord) spread across four notes by repeating one of the notes. Twenty-five out of 36 variants are used. This is a highly inventive level of motivic variation. But the truth is, I am only just getting started looking at this manuscript. That’s the fun.

There’s something so direct and personal about it and yet this manuscript lies at the very heart of our national music.