THOMAS Alexander Erskine rejoiced in the titles of Lord Pittenweem, Viscount Fenton, and Sixth Earl of Kellie, but was known to his retainers as “Fiddler Tam” on account of his skill on the violin, so please forgive him his hereditary titles. He was born at Kellie Castle in Fife on September 1, 1732, making him an exact contemporary of Haydn. He is variously referred to as Kelly, Kellie and Thomas Erskine. Here we shall give him his title in the proper spelling of his family seat – Kellie, and I want you to like him, both for his music and for himself.

Kellie’s father, the fifth earl, was an amiable drunk who “came out” for Bonnie Prince Charlie, in full Highland gear and with the two retainers he persuaded to join him. He fled from the field at Culloden and eventually gave himself up and was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle until 1753. This hopeless gesture left the heir with reduced prospects but instead of looking for gainful employment, young Kellie went to Mannheim in Germany to study composition with Johann Stamitz. Stamitz was a big cheese in those days and the “school” of composition founded by him and his son had a considerable influence on the young Mozart.

But Kellie got there first and, on his return to Scotland, he lived off the sale of the lands he inherited. I’m glad he did, because it allowed him to be a composer.

Many years later, Charles Burney wrote: “The late Earl of Kellie, who was possessed of more musical science than any dilettanti with whom I was ever acquainted ... shut himself up at Mannheim ... studied composition, and practised the violin with such serious application, that, at his return ... there was no part of theoretical or practical music in which he was not equally versed with the greatest professors of his time. Indeed, he had a strength of hand on the violin, and a genius for composition, with which few professors are gifted.”

When Kellie returned from Mannheim he became a central figure in British musical life. The new disciplined Mannheim style, with its dramatic crescendos, was a thrilling novelty in the London of the 1760s, and Kellie was the first to exploit it in Britain. Robert Bremner (another Scot) published six of Kellie’s symphonies Op.1 in 1761, and soon afterwards, Collett, Hook and Norris followed Kellie’s lead. He is said to have persuaded the violinist and composer François Hippolyte Barthélemon to leave the (French) Irish Brigade in 1761 to become a professional musician, and John Collett dedicated his 1766 symphonies to him in glowing terms in which genuine gratitude shines through the conventional obsequiousness:

“My Lord, Although these Symphonies to which I hereby presume to affix your Lordship’s Name, have already had the honour of your approbation, Yet I offer them with the greatest diffidence, when I consider what will, perhaps, be expected from anything which you consent to Patronize.

“Your own exquisite knowledge in the Science of Music is so universelly allow’d, that the Public may entertain too high an opinion of a Work usher’d into the World under the Sanction of Your Name, and demand a greater Performance than a Young Adventurer is able to produce. But Tho’ your good-nature may prevail over Your Judgment, I hope your Lordship will excuse this Address, as my chief motive is, to seize an oppertunity of expressing my sincere gratitude for the many favours you have already confer’d on My Lord, Your Lordship’s most Obedient and most devoted humble Servant, John Collett."

Thomas Robertson, writing in 1784, gives us an insight into contemporary responses to Kellie’s music, which include the suggestion some of the passion in it was the result of his being a Scot:

“In his works, the fervidum ingenium of his country bursts forth; and elegance is mingled with fire. From the singular ardour and impetuosity of his temperament, joined to his German education under the celebrated Stamitz ... this great composer has employed himself chiefly upon symphonies, but in a style peculiar to himself. While others please and amuse, it is his province to rouse, and almost to overset his hearer. Loudness, rapidity, enthusiasm, announce the Earl of Kellie.

“What appears to have been singularly peculiar to this musician, is what may be called the velocity of his talents; by which he composed whole pieces of the most excellent music, in one night’s time. Part of his works is still unpublished; and not a little probably lost. Being always remarkably fond of a concert of wind instruments, whenever he met with a good band of them, he was seized with a fit of composition, and wrote pieces in the moment, which he gave away to the performers, and never saw again: and these, in his own judgment, were the best he ever composed.”

We have lost much of Kellie’s music as a result of this cavalier approach, but some of his chamber music has survived in a set of parts discovered in Kilravock Castle, which sits between Inverness and Nairn. The parts are now in the National Library of Scotland. They include nine string quartets, nine trio sonatas (three already known) and a virtuosic three-movement duetto for two violins. Kellie’s reputation was international, and as early as 1764 his music was being performed in Kassel, as James Boswell reports: “At six I went to the comédie. On entering the house I was surprised to hear the orchestre play one of Lord Kellie’s concertos. They, however, played it very ill. The pretty slow parts they made a country dance of. The piece was Tartuffe, and pretty well performed.”

Kellie’s Maid of the Mill reached New York in 1769, St Petersburg in 1772 and Jamaica in 1779. His music was also performed in Philadelphia where the music scene was dominated by Alexander Reinagle who had crossed the Atlantic from Scotland. It was perhaps through him that a minuet by Kellie appears uniquely in George Washington’s wife Martha Custis’s music book – for which information I am indebted to Bonnie Rideout.

Boswell knew Kellie and his music well. He had borrowed money from him at the races. “I felt a strong regard for him and was pleased at the romantic conceit of getting it from a gamester, a nobleman and a musical composer,” Boswell wrote, reporting that “Lord Kellie was in high glee”. Kellie was frequently in high glee on account of wine, women and song – in that order. In his song The Lover’s Message, Strephon is basically holding his Celia to ransom, pretending he is dying for love, (for which read sex) but admitting if she turns him down he will scorn to die.

The air to which Kellie sets this is as charmingly insincere as one could possibly wish. As for wine, he is credited with having founded the Capillaire Club which “was composed of all those who were inclined to be witty or joyous”.

The National:

CAPILLAIRE was a medicinal drink to which alcohol could be added – and surely was in Kellie’s club which met on Sundays and for which he had glasses specially engraved. His Capillaire Minuet was no doubt danced to at the club’s annual ball in 1774. It was attended by nearly 200 ladies and gentlemen.

The Scottish poet Alison Cockburn mentions the club in a letter to the great Edinburgh philosopher David Hume: “Goodness! How little you know of our world. Dear man, you can be a member of the Capillaire, and then have Sunday set apart for that and toping ... bring you vices we shall find objects for them. As for the Godly, there is not one here. ... all, all are worshippers of Mammon.”

Kellie would have been happy in such company. Religion was not his strong suit and it was said of him that his nose was so red it would ripen cucumbers. One of his best friends was Lord Stanley, and in June 1774 he provided a substantial part of the music for the first fête-champêtre held in Britain.

This was a five-day entertainment at Lord Stanley’s country estate – the Oaks at Epsom – to celebrate his lordship’s marriage. Modelled on French rural festivals, it cost £5000. There was an orchestra in the orangery, and London and its environs were cleaned out of orange trees to prettify the place.

Kellie’s Minuet for Lord Stanley is an extremely lively piece, suitable for a 22-year-old aristocrat given to horseracing and cockfighting and, like Kellie, fond of his pleasures.

But Kellie was much more than an 18th-century rake and his minuets for the occasion show a lot of variety, including a soothing one for Lady Stanley. Such were Kellie’s musical skills that it was said of him that:

“In the midst of a turbulent and tumultuous movement of a symphony in 12 or 14 parts, if any instrument failed either in time or tune, though playing a different and difficult part himself, he instantly prompted the erroneous performer with his voice, by singing his part without abandoning his own.”

We may also assume that, as the introducer of the Mannheim style he was one of the first to train British musicians to imitate it. Nor is his musicianship confined to matters of technical skill. There is depth of feeling in many of his slow movements, and his vivacity is far from superficial.

“His harmonies are acknowledged to be accurate and ingenious; admirably calculated for the effect in view, and discovering a thorough knowledge in music. From some specimens which he has given, it appears that his talents were not limited to a single style; and which has made his admirers regret that he did not apply himself to a greater variety of subjects.”

At least one subject reveals that variety, and that is Freemasonry, to which I will return in a later essay. Meanwhile, there is no better way to say farewell to Kellie than in the following poem – and if anyone knows where can be found the bust of Kellie that Whiteford sent to Warre, please, please let me know.

“To thee John Warre! I Caleb

Whiteford send

The honour’d bust of a departed friend;

Me too the bonds of firmest

Friendship tied,

And half my soul took flight when

Kelly died!

Whose Sense refin’d, whose wit

devoid of Gall, Ne’er wounded any, but delighted all.

Where shall we seek such

Pleasantry to find

That cheerful constant sunshine of

the Mind?

How vain the Labour, and the

Search how vain,

Unless himself should visit Earth


But though no longer we behold

him here,

Kelly still shines in a superior


That Soul of Melody, that feeling

Heart, In Heaven’s high Concerts surely

bears a part;

And, though alas! from former

Friends remov’d,

He still enjoys that Harmony he


If you want to hear some of Kellie’s music, you can do no better than Concerto Caledonia’s Fiddler Tam, the music of Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie, Linn CKD 240.