There are multiple versions of Maggie Lauder in the Scottish fiddle literature, both manuscript and published. Early versions are more diverse than later ones, and even though the number of variations grows after Disblair, it is arguably his setting, as refined by Oswald and McGibbon, which is the basis of all later versions, including those for various bagpipes.

Before looking at Oswald’s and related settings we shall consider two settings which lie outside this mainstream. The first is from John & William Neal’s intriguing A Collection of the most Celebrated Scots Tunes For The Violin etc. by the Best Masters, Dublin. Charles Gore and Bruce Olson both propose a date of c. 1724 for this work. Only one incomplete copy of the book is known, and at the time of writing I am pursuing a clear image of the relevant page for transcription. The photocopy I have seen, which is illegible in places, has Moggy Lauther as a 5-strain variation set, in G rather than D, and although recognisable, it is different both in melodic detail and harmonic structure from most other versions.

The second non-mainstream version is from Robert Bremner’s A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes with variations for the violin etc., Edinburgh, dated 1759 by David Johnson.

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As in many 18th century publications, a bass line is provided for a cello, or to turn the piece into a harpsichord solo. The interest for us in such simple bass lines lies less in their musical effect than in what they tell us about the harmonic thinking of those who composed or transcribed tunes and variations.

Bremner is unclear about his repeats. They are standardised here but in the original, strain 3 ends, and strain 4 opens and ends, with repeat dots, while the other strain endings and beginnings do not have them. Strain 2 is anomalous: the harmonic structure diverges somewhat, there is a lot of syncopation, and there are 10 rather than 8 bars. It is possible that Bremner got muddled with his note values from bar 5 onwards; readers can make up their own minds exactly how he got muddled, or whether he is to be taken literally.

The other sets we shall look at are all in D, and they are closely related to each other. As said above, they form the mainstream of the tune’s development, and many features, from details to sequence of strains, recur from one version to another as they pass from musician to musician. Whether the sets were actually made in the order given here is a matter of conjecture, but we will follow an apparent progression of increasing refinement and elaboration.

We begin with Moggie Lawther from the Scots Tunes section of the fiddle manuscript of James Gillespie of Perth (National Library of Scotland MS 808).

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Although the manuscript is dated 1768 the setting is, according to David Johnson, “a rare, late text of Forbes of Disblair’s Maggie Lauder variations, which for most fiddlers had been superseded by McGibbon’s set.” Disblair’s set lays much of the groundwork for the later D sets, including all the pipe settings. Bearing in mind that as a song tune, the earliest versions consisted of a single strain, the main motif of the 2nd strain is consolidated (f#/g/a f#g or f#/g/a/f#/ f#g in abc notation), while the 4th strain with its low D figure is taken up as the 3rd strain of later sets. Bars 7 and 8 form a consistent tag phrase in all strains, and set the default pattern followed by later sets, though it is elaborated and varied in some. The variations are built on an easily discernible harmonic pattern, though Disblair himself loses it in the second half of bar 5 of strains 5 and 6 with a jarring shift to the dominant chord rather than the tonic chord we have come to expect there. Disblair’s set seems to have circulated widely, for as well as forming the basis of later Scottish sets it was copied (perhaps at several removes) into some of the English fiddlers’ manuscripts which can be accessed on the Village Music Project website:

James Oswald’s Magie Lawder was published in vol. 1 of his Caledonian Pocket Companion (London, 1743).

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In the printed version the word “Variation” appears as the start of strain 3, showing that Oswald considered strains 1 and 2 as “the tune”. The set is technically more demanding than Disblair’s with a shift out of first position to reach high D, and some semiquaver triplets, but apart from its more consistent adherence to the underlying harmonic structure and less reliance on recycled passages it is not a great advance musically.

William McGibbon’s set (in vol. 1 of A collection of Scots Tunes etc., Edinburgh, 1742) was published just before Oswald’s.

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There is a lot of detail common to McGibbon and Oswald, but both have details absent from the other. Without supporting evidence it is not possible to say whether McGibbon’s set is what it appears to be, a direct reworking of Oswald’s (which could have been circulating before publication), or whether both men independently added to and polished material which was in general circulation. McGibbon’s set has 8 rather than 6 strains (he also writes “Variation” at the start of strain 3), and he adds a credible bass line to the first 2 strains. All Oswald’s 6 strain-openings occur in McGibbon’s set in strains 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8, with a closer match in detail at the beginning of the set than the end.


With McGibbon’s bass line before us we can examnine the harmonic basis of the tune and its variations. Translated into chord symbols, McGibbon’s understanding can be expressed as:

||: D / / / | A / / / | D / / / | D / / / |

G / D / | A / / / | Bm G Em A | D A D / :||

In some strains of some sets of the tune there is a strong sense of

| Em / A / |

in the second bar of the first and sometimes also the second line (e.g. Gillespie str 6, McGibbon strs 7 & 8), and with Davie’s later set this becomes more conscious (strs 3-6, and the triplet strains 13 & 14 where, because of the change of time signature to 2/4, there is a distinct bar built on E minor).

There are countless ways to harmonise the two last bars. McGibbon’s is tasteful and also not the most obvious, which might be:

| D Bm Em A | D A D / |


| D Bm G A | D A D / |

Reinagle, in a later keyboard arrangement which is more fully realised than McGibbon’s, nevertheless goes for the much simpler:

| D D G A | D A D / |

(in Alexander Reinagle, A Collection of the Most Favourite Scots Tunes, Glasgow, 1782)

For those interested in musical structure, Maggie Lauder is built on a variant of the “Elsie Marley displaced” chord pattern, but so disguised by the harmonic busy-ness of the two final bars that we may be misled into hearing it as belonging to the conventional world of harmonic direction rather than the piper’s world of harmonic proportion, that improbable zone where the the harmonies of the West and the drones of the East coalesce into a subtle beauty.

McGibbon’s set was the one chosen for inclusion in John Clark’s Flores Musicae collection (Edinburgh, 1773). Parts of it were also included in an extravagant 14-strain version which remained in circulation into the 20th century, if only to a limited extent: Maggy Lawder with Variations from (James) Davie’s Caledonian Repository (Edinburgh, 1829) was also included in Köhler’s Violin Repository, published in serial form in the 1880s, and it was copied, minus the minor and triplet strains, into the Northumbrian fiddler Jack Davidson’s (Kielder Jock) manuscript in the 1920s.

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McGibbon’s first four strains, simplified here and elaborated there, appear in the same sequence in Davie, and McGibbon’s strain 5 becomes Davie’s strain 7. Davie introduces a slow D minor section and finishes in D major with two strains based on triplets. The effect of the whole is showy to the point of melodrama, and while it would make an impressive party piece in the hands of a capable player it has moved some distance from the aesthetics of traditional music as generally understood.

1.Intro . 2.Songs . 3.Anster Fair . 4.Fiddle . 5.Irish Pipes . 6.Highland Pipes . 7.Northumbrian Smallpipes . 8.Border Pipes . 9.Conclusion

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