Guthrie Manuscript

Location: GB-Eu

Reference: La.III.111

Date: 1670 - 1680 [circa]

Size: Octavo

Extent: 458 pages (22 with musical contents)


Discovered by Scottish historian David Laing in the early 1800s, the Guthrie manuscript now forms part of the Laing Collection at the University of Edinburgh. It is amongst the earliest Scottish sources specifically compiled for violin, yet it stands out from other early manuscripts for its use of diatonic violin tablature and its location within a volume of sermons by a famous minister and Covenanter. It also offers perhaps the earliest direct insight into the repertoire of an occupational violinist in seventeenth-century Scotland.

Apart from its musical contents on pages 292-313, the manuscript consists of biblical passages, sermons, the final speech and other material by the Stirling minister James Guthrie, a Covenanter executed in Edinburgh in 1661. The combination of sacred and profane material has perplexed scholars, especially given the presence of tunes with explicit or anti-clerical titles (e.g. “My ladies cunt yrs hair upond”; “If the kirk would let me be”).

As Stell notes, the central gathering of musical items is written on the same type of paper as the sermons, though the music likely post-dates the biblical passages immediately preceding it, since a partial contents list of the violin pieces is written over the top of the preceding page. The text on pages 293-313 is written in a confident and fairly neat seventeenth-century secretary hand. The earlier section containing sermons and sacred texts is written in a slightly more compact and angular hand. A later hand with a childish script used portions of the manuscript for writing practice, penning his name ("John Finlason"), and those of his mother and father, "Alexander Finlason" and "Isoball Mofet". [This might have been John Finlason, baptised in Glencorse (near Edinburgh) on 13 July 1684 to Alexander Finlason and Isobell Moffit. Glencorse OPR, GB-Enr 687/10/28.]. On page 303 there is a section titled “The Division of the gam”, a catechism explaining scales, clefs, key signatures, and accidentals.

This combination of material suggests its compiler was musically educated, possibly a former pupil at a burgh music school. The combination of sacred and profane also makes more sense when considering the mixture of roles undertaken by teachers and pupils of music schools: leading psalm-singing for worship, playing instruments, and performing for weddings and other events (see McGregor, pp. 113-117).

Previously missing from discussions is an anti-Episcopal ballad on pages 307-8 appearing between two sections of violin tablature, and written in the same hand as the music sections. Another hand has twice written "W guthrie" on the same page, possibly in reference to (or even the signature of) William Guthrie, son of the executed minister. This appears to connect the sermons and musical items, perhaps implying that the musician had links to the Covenanters.

The 62 tunes are copied at a right angle to the rest of the volume, in a four-line stave roughly drawn by hand. The music is written in a diatonic violin tablature, with the pitches of the four strings appearing in descending order from lowest to highest string. In this form of tablature, the letters "a" to "e" do not denote exact pitches, but rather indicate an open string ("a") or the use of first to fourth fingers ("b" to "e"). The tablature lacks time signatures, key signatures, and rhythmic notation. However, there are more opaque details: certain notes are followed by a dot, appearing to indicate the final note (or sometimes the last stressed note) of a bar; and there are brackets around certain notes, possibly indicating pairs of shorter note values. Several tunes have been heavily corrected, usually by giving an additional choice of notes above or below the stave.

Violin tablature was an obscure notation, only recorded briefly in one other Scottish source (Newbattle Violin MS 1). Outside of Scotland it was predominantly used by professional dancing masters and dance musicians, as a mnemonic for recording dance melodies. The tablature in Guthrie likely functioned as an aide-memoire for an individual who already knew the pieces.

Of the manuscript’s 62 musical items, 32 appear in other collections, allowing a reconstruction of pitches, metre and rhythms through cross-referencing. Transcriptions of other items rely on some conjecture, though workable estimates have been provided in the full transcription in McGregor’s thesis, from which the thematic index has been constructed.

The pieces largely consist of vernacular ballad and dance tunes, but some items show a more cosmopolitan range of styles. The manuscript is amongst the earliest Scottish sources to label tunes according to national or regional origins, including a “french galyard”, three items labelled “a french thing” (“The kings delight”, “Munks March”, and “Hei cockeina”), and "Once I lov’d another mans wife, an English thing". Also included are “a Lankishire hornpipe, or Tikled her ovr again”, probably the earliest 3/2 hornpipe in a Scottish source; and “Ostend”, the descant on the passamezzo antico known in French and Dutch collections as “Le Bourée d’Avignon”. These tunes represent a range of different styles: the first two fit well to galliard rhythm, and alongside “Ostend” are court dances; “Munks march” appears with country dance instructions in editions of Playford’s The Dancing Master. “Hei cockeina” and “Once I lov’d another mans wife” appear to be popular dance tunes, fitting well to compound-time jig rhythm.

Other items give a snapshot of vernacular repertoire in the 1670s. For example, “The malt grinds well” is a skeletal version of a variation set of the same name found in many 18th-century collections. “Corn bunting” roughly outlines the melodic shape of the strathspey “Tullochgorum”. The single-strain tune “Katie thinks not long to play wt Peter at even” is built around a binary bass pattern and uses a gapped-scale around the pitches d’ - e’ - g’ - a’ - b’. The outline of the tune (including dots marking the last beat of each bar) suggests the rhythmic structure of a reel, with a repeated rhythm punctuated by what looks like "birl" figures.


Howie, John, Biographia Scoticana (Glasgow: John Bryce, 1775), 237-246.

McGregor, Violinists and Violin Music in Scotland, 212-220, 369-88.
Includes full transcription of the Guthrie MS.

Stell, Sources, 64-99.

Links: Digitisation at University of Edinburgh

View this manuscript's tunes in the full tune index