Saturday, January 17, 2009

Early Scottish Music from the Skene Manuscript

The Skene Manuscript is one of the earliest written records of Scottish music. It belongs to the Faculty of Advocates and is kept in the National Library of Scotland. It was converted to staff notation and published with a commentary in:

From A Manuscript Of The Reign Of King James VI With An Introductory Enquiry Illustrative Of The History Of The Music Of Scotland By William Dauney, Esq. F.S.A. Scot., Edinburgh, 1838

This book is available for free download from Google Books - Click Here.

The music starts at page 215.

Contents of the Skene Manuscript
The manuscript is a collection of eighty five pieces of music written in mandore tablature. The mandore was a form of lute tuned to a similar pitch to the modern viola. The closest modern equivalent would be the mandola.

Here is a facsimile example of the original tablature (click on image to see a larger version):

The music contained in the manuscript was written for secular entertainment purposes and would have been played in the noble houses of Scotland. Some of the tunes refer to members of the family of James VI (e.g. Prince Henries Maske) and this music would no doubt have been played at the royal court. Much of the music is French influenced because of Scotland's close connections with France, but it does contain some specifically Scottish melodies including the first written down version of the Flowers of the Forest. Some of the melodies are written for specific types of dances.

Here are some excerpts played on penny whistle:

And here are some more, including the version of the Flowers of the Forest (the first written version of that tune):

A full commentary and explanation of the origin of the tunes plus any lyrics is contained in the book by William Dauney, referenced above starting at page 253.

Origins of the Skene manuscript

The date is uncertain, sometimes between 1615-1625, but possibly as late as 1630. Written by, or for, John Skene of Hallyards Castle, Lothian.

Sir John Skene was Lord Curriehill (1543-1617) a member of the Faculty of Advocates since 1575. Appointed as a judge he served as Lord Advocate from 1589 to 1594 and was involved in the prosecution of many alleged witches. His book Regiam Majestatem is a record of the laws of Scotland as they stood before James VI became James I of England.
He also served as Scottish ambassador to Holland.

Hallyards Castle was a fortified tower in the usual Scottish style. The foundations still exist to the north west end of the runway at Edinburgh Airport, although this is a later version of the house built by John Skene's son.

The castle was affected by undermining and was a partial ruin by the 19th century. It was finally demolished in 1975 when the airport runway was extended.
The family also owned Curriehill Castle in Currie.

Location of Hallyards relative to Edinburgh Airport (click on the image to see a larger version):

Closer view (click on the image to see a larger version):