Library and Information Services, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Monday, 4 August 2014

Is this Song Scottish, or English? Is it even Genuine?

Karen has spent some time pondering these questions when she researches historic Scottish song.  As far back as the 18th century, song collectors were debating the nationality of the material they collected.  

For example, take Joseph Ritson.  He was from the north east of England, but made collections of both English and Scottish songs.  A stickler for detail, it mattered enormously to him that everything was well-documented and annotated.  The antics of other less scrupulous collectors really annoyed him.  (In fact, he called himself "Anti-Scot", but he was actually anti-John Pinkerton and most particularly, anti-James MacPherson, of Ossian fame.  He was certainly not anti Scottish music.)

A century later, the English ballad collector William Chappell similarly got himself into hot water by suggesting some old Scottish songs were really English.  You can read more about the whole issue here in 'From ‘Anti-Scot', to ‘Anti-Scottish Sentiment': Cultural Nationalism and Scottish Song in the Late Eighteenth to Nineteenth Centuries'.

William Motherwell, the 19th century ballad collector, was another person who strenuously asserted his meticulous approach to ballad-collecting. However, his friend Robert Archibald Smith said the songs in the Scotish Minstrel  were all genuine, but we know from his correspondence with Motherwell that this wasn't entirely true.  The same goes for Scottish poet Allan Cunningham.

By the end of the 19th century, attitudes were becoming more relaxed.  In later editions of Wood's Songs of Scotland (initially edited by George Farquhar Graham), there was more chance of 'Scottish songs' being accepted as Scottish by repute as much as by established origin.

Where does that leave The Ashokan Farewell and Highland Cathedral?  We wouldn't venture to comment!

Useful resources in the Whittaker Library:-

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