Getting Started

Finding a day when 7 busy musicians are all free is the biggest challenge of meeting up! We finally managed to nail everyone down to a day a couple of weeks ago and holed up at Emily and Jamie’s cottage in the wilds of Galloway. It was a bleak old blustery day outside but the wood stove was lit, the coffee was on and everyone was looking forward to getting started.

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We’re working from photocopies of the original manuscripts, not only to cut down on handling of the hundred-year-old fragile books but also as the photocopies have enlarged print.
Although Macmath’s handwriting is beautifully clear and legible the books also have songs written down by others. Here’s Macmath’s writing (top) and (below) examples of some of the other hand’s we’re working to decipher. The enlarged print – and a magnifying glass – really helps when you’re stuck on a word.

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Altogether the 2 books we’re looking at have 56 songs or song fragments between them. We decided to choose which ones we thought were worth working on for the project. This entailed going through each song and looking at 1) Was it unusual or rare or unique to the collection? 2) Was the text complete? 3) Did it have a tune included or referred to by Macmath or did we know of a tune to a similar song or version? By pooling our knowledge of tunes, similar versions of the songs and ‘people who might know’ missing information we gradually made a clear choice of 20 songs we’re interested in taking further.




Some of the songs in the collection are just small fragments of songs. You get the impression that Macmath was very meticulous in his research and wrote down everything he knew or found out – sometimes just one verse of a song that differed slightly from other versions he’d already found.


Emily Smith searches for alternative versions of a song.


So we then divided the songs up between us – we all had favourites or ones we were interested in ‘taking on’. Some were drawn to songs without tunes that need new tunes writing. I work with choirs, so was particularly looking for texts that were simple, not too wordy and that would lend themselves to folk-choir settings. Robyn’s choice included 3 versions of The Death of Queen Jeanie – an extraordinary song about Queen Jeanie going into to labour, an account of an emergency caesarean and the Queen’s subsequent death. An amazing glimpse into another time. (It is thought that the queen may be Jane Seymour the third wife of King Henry VIII. If that is the case the birth referred to would have taken place in 1537). Aaron took on the ‘Lads of Whamfrey’ – an epic composition contemporary to Macmath rather than a ballad – that was included in the books as a newspaper cutting. In other circumstances we might not have included it but for the fact that Whamfrey is local to Dumfries and Galloway and so of interest to us as local musicians.


Wendy Stewart and Aaron Jones researching songs.

We also decided that our criteria for this project is about making a collection of singable songs with good arrangements and to make that we are allowing ourselves the freedom to edit and tweak songs. We’re coming at it as musicians who are singing the collection back to life rather than academics striving for ‘correct’ versions.


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