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Pipers at the Edinburgh Tattoo
Pipers at the Edinburgh Tattoo

Scotland's traditional music in many ways forms the foundation of our national identity and a key element of our culture. Large scale emigration from Scotland over several centuries, resulting in the presence of many more Scots outwith the country than within its borders, means that echoes of Scottish traditional music can be found in many different parts of the world.

Edinburgh Book Festival
Edinburgh Book Festival
Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe
Traditional Music... And in Scotland
Traditional Music... And in Scotland!
Pipe Band Member, Glenrothes
Pipe Band Member, Glenrothes

The origins of traditional Scottish folk music are lost in the mists of time. There are close links between the roots of much of Scotland's music and the Gaelic tradition that came from Ireland: and in some ways Scottish and Irish folk music are similar. However, in other ways they have retained identities that are quite distinct, in part because of the influence in Scotland of other traditions, notably those associated with the Old Norse and Scots languages.

It is thought that the music of the Picts was based on the harp, but like their language, all further information has been lost. As a result, the oldest music to which any form can be given was probably the singing and harp playing of the Gaels. Traditional folk ballads probably also date back to the dawn of antiquity, sung in all the various languages once in use across what is now Scotland.

The harp was replaced as the most popular instrument by the Great Highland Bagpipe or A' Phìob Mhòr during the 1400s. This gained a hold, especially, across the clans of the Highlands and Islands before later being taken up with enthusiasm by the Scottish Regiments of the British Army, and spread by them to all parts of the British Empire.

The earliest printed collection of non-religious music in Scotland was published in 1662 by John Forbes of Aberdeen. His work was followed by Playford's Original Scotch Tunes in 1700; David Herd's Ancient and modern Scottish songs, heroic ballads, etc. in 1776; and the most important collection of all, The Scots Musical Museum which was published in six volumes between 1787 and 1803 by James Johnson and Robert Burns. This also included new words by Burns, who has since become known as Scotland's national bard. Later collectors of traditional ballads included Sir Walter Scott.

Traditional Scottish music diminished in popularity during the middle decades of the 1900s: but the 1960s saw a radical roots revival in which young musicians rediscovered and made popular many of the traditional elements of Scottish music. The musicians of the 1970s, and since, built on the renaissance of the 60s and traditional music in Scotland is arguably now more popular than it has ever been.

The Instruments

One of the first instruments in common use was the harp or, in modern Gaelic, the clàrsach. Its Pictish origins are inferred from their presence in a number of Pictish carvings dating from pre-1000 found across Scotland, with no record of it occurring elsewhere in Europe at a similar age. The idea of a Pictish origin is supported by the earliest known Irish word for harp, cruit, which apparently came from their name for the Picts: Cruithne. In the middle ages the harp remained an important instrument. This is reflected in the spread of the name MacWhirter, which translates as mac a' chruiteir, or son of the harpist, and is common across Scotland. The modern revival of the harp in Scotland, and among Scots worldwide, dates back to the foundation of the Clarsach Society in 1931.

The Great Highland Bagpipe or A' Phìob Mhòr which achieved a position of dominance in Scottish music in the 1400s and has retained it ever since, was a member of a family of instruments in common use back to ancient times across much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Given this distribution, it is tempting to suggest that what the British Empire later did for the popularity of the Great Highland Bagpipe, the Roman Empire might have first done for the bagpipe family as a whole.

Traditionally, many other forms of bagpipe were also used across Scotland, though many were then displaced by the popularity of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Survivors include the Border pipes, which are similar to the Great Highland Bagpipe, but with air provided by a bellows; and the Scottish smallpipes which are smaller, bellows-driven pipes derived in the 1980s from the traditional Northumbrian smallpipes, but using the same fingering system as the Great Highland Bagpipe.

The use of the violin or fiddle in Scotland was first documented in 1680, and Scottish fiddling has gone on to develop in a number of different directions: including, geographically, across the Atlantic, where it formed one of the points of departure for both US and Canadian folk music.

Although it is nice to think that some of the Spanish troops who landed near Eilean Donan Castle on 13 April 1719 might have brought guitars with them, there is no evidence of it. Which means that the guitar was only first introduced into the playing of traditional Scottish music during the revival of the 1960s, through the playing of musicians like Archie Fisher, the Corries, Hamish Imlach and Bert Jansch.

The rather unadventurously-named tin whistle dates back at least as far as an example from around 1500 which now resides in the National Museum of Scotland. Today it is a widely used instrument, but one in which few players specialise. It tends instead to be a second instrument used by flute players, pipers and other musicians.

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