George Skene Manuscript

Title: George Skene His Musick Book

Location: GB-En

Reference: Adv. MS 5.2.21

Date: 1715 - 1717

Size: Oblong octavo (20cmx15.3cm)

Extent: 28 folios


Tune manuscript named after its owner and principal compiler, George Skene (1695-1756), 17th Laird of Skene in Aberdeenshire. The manuscript consists predominantly of vernacular pieces, seemingly recorded from aural circulation. It is an important source for moving emphasis away from the central belt to the North East, possibly showing some signs of a Northern musical "dialect" with influences from Gaelic-speaking Scotland.

Skene had a dual interest in Italian and Scottish vernacular music. He owned a substantial library of Italianate instrumental and operatic music, and had an interest in occupational musicians. Skene’s surviving diary (GB-En MS 3806) recounts a journey from Edinburgh to London in 1729, and includes descriptions of his playing violin and bagpipes, accompanying dancing, and performing alongside musicians in Scotland and England, including the "King of Pipers" James Bell in Penrith.

The manuscript remains in excellent condition in its original leather binding. On the front and back end-papers are scribbled words, including signatures of George Skene. On the recto side of the final folio is written "George Skene / an dom 1717 / his musick book". An earlier dating comes on f. 11, where the words "learnt from pat. Ogilvie young Babbur anno 1715" appear above the tune "Sir William Wallace His March". The book seems to have been copied over a longer space of time: it includes an untitled version of the tune “Mr. Oswald’s Bass Minuet”, a composition by Fife-born dancing master and musician James Oswald (1710-1769), which was not published until the mid-1730s.

The most prominent script is that of George Skene (his distinctive script clear from the final folio and his diary), copying 41 pieces on ff. 1-3v, 6v-14v, 17v-20, and 23v-25. The hand is clear if sometimes amateur and slapdash, often missing clefs, and giving many corrections. The other two hands have the confident and clear look of professional musicians. Scribe B has copied seven pieces on ff. 4-6, and scribe C five pieces on ff. 15-17 and ff. 20v-22. The latter has a distinctive musical script, featuring enormous treble clefs with a small flick at their top end, and large noteheads.

The manuscript’s 52 pieces are set for unaccompanied treble instrument, most likely violin throughout. The 41 pieces copied by Skene predominantly seem to have been collected from aural sources, including direct transcriptions of the playing of particular performers (eg “Gird the logie, for the pipe Ingram’s Set”). Many tunes show signs of being worked out by ear, with numerous mistakes and corrections. Several pieces record the names of popular ballads, some long enough to be the first lines of songs ("The minister’s wife has learn’d a sang & she cares not how grit if it be lang"), some with obscene titles ("The black part of the c__t"), and many written in Scots dialect ("Y’ere the lass that has the Geir & I am the Lad that loes you").

The range of material copied by Skene shows a clear expansion of Scottish violin repertoire. There are settings of Scots tunes ranging from simple to highly Italianate, and there is possibly the earliest example of '"variation sonata" form in a Scottish source (“The Long Sadle”, no. 49). Here, a single Scots tune is used as the basis for a set of variations in distinct sections, some of which are based on dances from the Italian sonata da camera. The manuscript also contains a range of dance tune types including Scots Measures, jigs, country dance tunes, minuets, and two gavottes. This is one of the earliest Scottish sources to specifically label tunes as reels, with seven such examples, as well as nine others which match their rhythmic characteristics. Significantly, many of the tunes are early versions of strathspeys which became popular later in the century, some of which have been (presumably incorrectly) ascribed to later composers such as Niel Gow.

Skene’s settings are significant in their detailed ornamentation, incorporating a larger range of ornament symbols and more dense embellishment than previous Scottish sources. Skene’s version of “Tail Todle” (no. 37) opens with a two-strain performance version, with two versions of the opening strain featuring different ornaments, and with distinctive bowing indications, including syncopated slurs and staccato markings. At the bottom of the page, an alternative version is marked “or this for a first strain w[i]t[h] the last when Danc’d”, though in fact different versions of both strains are given.

Perhaps most important in the manuscript are four bagpipe settings (nos. 38, 45, 46, 52). The headings “bagpipe humour” and “bagpipe way” seem to suggest that these are fiddle settings, yet with the exception of “Wat ye what I got yestreen” (no. 38) the pieces are playable as bagpipe repertoire, never going beyond the standard nine-note chanter scale (g’ to a’’; or f’ to g’’ in "Malcolme Kaird’s"), and not containing violinistic elements such as double-stopping. The tunes contain distinctive ornamentation influenced by pipe repertoire and performance style, including an otherwise unknown example (in fiddle music) of an ornament labelled “gatherings”, possibly related to the pibroch genre cruinneachadh (literally "gathering" in Gaelic).


McGregor, Violinists and Violin Music in Scotland, 247-254, 431-450.
Includes a full transcription.

Turbet, The Music Collection of a Scottish Laird, 1731

Links: NLS Catalogue

View this manuscript's tunes in the full tune index