Robert Burns, born Alloway, 1759, died Dumfries, 1796, is widely regarded as the finest poet in Scotland’s history. It’s well known that a large part of his work consisted of words for songs: who has not heard of “Auld lang syne,” or “My luve’s like a red, red rose”? Less well known, however, is the working method he used to create such songs. Nearly always he would choose an already-existing tune and construct new words to fit it, an unusual and technically very tricky method in which all sorts of things could go horribly wrong; though with most of his 370 songs everything goes breathtakingly right. In his final script he would specify, at the top of the words, the tune the lyric was designed for.
Many of the tunes Burns used already had words -- commercial, literary, or oral -- and in such cases his work often consisted only of making additions or adjustments to these. But in a significant number, perhaps a quarter, of his songs he used tunes which had no words at all, so starting from a blank canvas. This was particularly so when he set words to fiddle tunes which had been recently composed in his own time. On the internal evidence of his songs, he knew a great deal about fiddle music.
Burns’ life coincided with a glorious period in Scots fiddling. Around the time he was born, the fiddle managed to push the bagpipes and harp into the background and establish itself as Scotland’s major traditional-music instrument, and though fiddling went back to the Middle Ages the re-designed Italian violin was seen as something new, fashionable, Scottish but at the same time European, an instrument alive with possibilities. Dancing had also come to the fore after a century of religious repression; this created an enormous demand for dance music, and thus for fiddling. As a result, vast quantities of new fiddle music were being written all through Burns’ life -- reels, strathspeys, Scots measures, hornpipes, slow airs, variations -- and specialist fiddle-composers were emerging into national prominence -- Marshall, Gow and his four sons, McGlashan, Mackintosh. It was inevitable that Burns, in his quest for good tunes to write words to, should have kept a keen eye on who was composing what, and had a go at playing the fiddle himself.
The evidence that Burns played the fiddle has been overlooked by many biographers. But his first Epistle to David Sillar, who was one of Burns’ closest friends during his early adulthood, is firmly inscribed “To Davie, a Brother-Poet, Lover, Ploughman and Fiddler,” and shows that he regarded fiddling as one of his finest accomplishments.
[For the rest of this article, and the tunes "Invercald's Reel (strathspey)" and "A Rose bud by my early walk," purchase the Fall 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[David Johnson is one of Scotland's leading musicologists; his writings include Music and Society in Lowland Scotland (2nd ed. 2003), Scottish Fiddle Music in the 18th Century (3rd ed. 2005), and contributions to Grove's Dictionary. He is also an active composer with a catalogue of around 50 works, ranging from operas to pieces for schoolchildren. A catalog of his publications, including the tune book Stepping Northward (fiddle with cello accompaniment), can be ordered by writing to him at email@example.com]