One morning last May, Callum Armstrong, Julian Goodacre and Pete Stewart paid a visit to Perth to look at a very special piece of piping history.

It’s twenty years since Matt Seattle first published his edition of the William Dixon manuscript, an event which transformed our knowledge and understanding of piping in the Scottish Lowlands and the Border regions. The years since have seen a lot of further research into related music and the landscape of Lowland and Border music now looks very different. Also, we know a good deal more about the compiler of the manuscript and the relationship of its content to other sources, thanks to the work of Matt Seattle and Julia Say [of the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society]. However, there seems to have been very little further investigation into the manuscript itself. It was with this in mind that Callum Armstrong first suggested a trip to the A. K. Bell Library in Perth where it is held as part of the Atholl Collection. Our initial approach was met with great enthusiasm by the library staff who not only encouraged our visit but suggested we might bring our pipes and play ‘from the page’ itself.

Callum and Pete get their first look at the manuscript

And so Callum, Julian Goodacre and I arrived at the library the day after the UK General Election. We were first introduced to the Atholl Collection itself. I’m not sure of the total number of volumes of Scottish music and song it contains, but it occupies an entire archive rack in the stack, and represents the collection of Lady Dorothea Ruggles-Brice, who was in her day a leading authority on the music of Scotland. She it was who rescued the Dixon manuscript from the fire.
Pete explores a volume from the Atholl Collection

Pete amongst the Atholl Collection shelves

Lady Dorothea Ruggles-Brice

In the obituary published in the Glasgow Herald in Jan, 1928, she was described as ‘the most assiduous and knowledgable collector of old Scottish music of our time. It was her life’s hobby and while still in the schoolroom she had started to write a little book of the lesser known melodies of her native land.  These songs she was accustomed to sing to her own accompaniment. As time went on she gradually gathered together a collection of the rarest and most valuable printed books of our national airs. Nothing gave her greater pleasure than to fill gaps in her musical library … She never forgot a tune and could trace tunes back to their earliest forms with entirely reliable accuracy.”
“She once visited an old highlander in a Perthsire village who had a rare volume of old Scottish dances. They examined the volume and after a time she offered to purchase it. The proud old fellow replied that Lady Dorothea could have it as a present but she would never be allowed to purchase it.”
This is a rather more mundane and far less satisfying way of telling the story than that of Lady Dorothea herself, as retold in Matt’s  The Master Piper.
Lady Dorothea’s collection was donated to the Sandeman Library which subsequently became the A. K. Bell Library. A fully cross-referenced card index of the contents of all the volumes exists and is gradually being digitised. I’m sure a return visit will happen one day but our present purpose was to examine what may be her greatest find, the William Dixon manuscript.
We were immediately surprised to be presented, not just with the manuscript but with Lady Dorothea’s complete transcription. One of the principle features of the actual notation in the original manuscript is that it is written on four lines, with the ‘G’ clef on the bottom one (the ‘French clef’ or ‘French violin clef’). Whilst not common in Scottish traditional music manuscripts (some of the music in the Bowie manuscript uses this four-line stave and G clef) it was not uncommon at the time for baroque solo instrument music, particularly the alto recorder.
Lady Dorothea’s transcription is written on a five-line stave with the usual G clef and she has written it in G. This contradicts what Dixon actually noted in the manuscript. However, it is not exactly obvious how Dixon’s instructions should be interpreted, so perhaps Lady Dorothea acted wisely.

‘NB: In order to transpose the following tunes into any book whose notes are pricked down on five lines you must begin each tune one note lower than in this book - Willim’

The manuscript book is surprisingly small - 8cm x 13cm. It originally had paper covers but was bound into its current boards by the Library. It carries various dates from 1733 to 1738, though 1733 is the most frequently used. William also wrote his name in many places, often followed by the 1733 date.
For a manuscript that was rescued from a fireplace it bears remarkably few signs of damage. Indeed, apart from browning of the inside top corners of one or two early pages [which might be seen as scorch marks] the only really significant staining seems to be the result of repairs made at some time to the cover using adhesive tape.
A number of questions arise from a perusal of the pages, to do with titles, page numbers, the blank pages which divide the book into two sections, and the persistent crossings-out of the titles to write them again below the stave - something that seems to have been done in 1738. All this will have to await a more careful study. For now, I want to concentrate on one aspect, the use of symbols as ‘ornaments’. For this the most revealing tune is the very first, ‘Dikes a way’ (as written above the stave). It comes before the contents page in the book and its title does not appear in the full contents page, only on the subsequent, rather scrappy and abandoned attempt at a contents list, where it has the title ‘Watty’s Away’; Another, different tune that appears later in the book is also titled ‘Dickes a way’.
Below is the first page of the tune; the second page can be seen on pages 28-29. Two things deserve comment immediately. The ‘reversed’ minims (half-notes) are a norm in manuscripts of the time and are used throughout this one; the florid curls however, are unique to this tune - I have not seen one anywhere else. The second is the slurs. Before we discuss these, and the use of the two parallel, sloping lines above the minims in the opening two strains, I want to introduce an image taken from another book in the Atholl Collection which Callum searched for and found.

 Before we discuss these, and the use of the two parallel, sloping lines above the minims in the opening two strains, I want to introduce an image taken from another book in the Atholl Collection which Callum searched for and found.

intending something significant. It is a Scottish 18th century harpsichord tutor; its relevance here is that it contains what is probably the best guide we have at present to the interpretation of these ornaments.
The immediately relevant one is the first, the ‘shake’, confirmation that Dixon’s use of this ornament is to suggest a ‘tremelo’ effect, produced in what ever way your chanter will do it; note that the ‘grace’ note is the one above that written. Since in the manuscript  many of these shakes occur on the high A, this is only really possible if your high A uses a covered fingering, in which case the shake employing the right hand pinkie will give a slightly higher pitch, sufficient to give the required stress on this note - in his tutor for the viol in the 17th century, Peter Leycester called this ornament a ‘relish’, a term which gives a good idea of the effect required. The other ‘Graces’ transcribed here do not appear in Dixon’s manuscript but they do appear in a number of fiddle manuscripts that contain pipe music - Henry Atkinson’s comes immediately to mind, where both fore- and back-falls are written as well as the shake.
The slurs, however, are more challenging. When we first looked at them in the manuscript we thought that perhaps they included the crotchet (quarter-note) under their brace but a closer consideration suggests that we were mistaken. Dixon uses this type of slur, though less floridly written, in several tunes and only once is it in a position unlike that in the tune we are considering. This is in ‘Have a Care of her Johny’
Now if Dixon were writing music for a stopped chanter he might be indicating that these notes should be played without the usual interruption. However, the appearance in the tune of the low F (G nominal) shows that this is not the case. This is an open chanter and such use of the slur, which usually indicates a phrasing mark, makes little sense. I’d like to suggest that the usage of slurs in ‘Have a Care of her Johny’ gives us a clue to how to read all these slurs. Dixon here is consistent; the slur is always in the same position and in every instance of that position.

The opening strains of ‘Have a Care of her Johny’

My suggestion is that it is used to indicate an ‘inequality’. The two notes (here crotchets) are to be played one long, one short, almost certainly in that order. There are a few examples in the manuscript where Dixon writes a dotted note to indicate much the same thing but these are always a dotted crotchet and quaver, never quaver and semi-quaver; (one of these, ‘Young and Lusty Was I’ actually has both the dotted crotchet and the slurred quavers; it also has the only occasion on which Dixon failed to mark a slur over the quaver pattern which elsewhere always has one).
‘Have a Care of Her Johny’ is the only tune that has these slurs over crotchets, so I might have misunderstood their meaning. I have, however, yet to find another preferable interpretation of something which seems to have had some significance for Dixon himself. Given the paucity of indications outside the notation itself we have for interpreting its performance, these slurs are worth giving some serious thought to, since such minor points often lead the way to broader insights.This has been a perfunctory overview of the experience of handling the manuscript which for someone who has spent twenty years playing it from a modern edition has been a voyage of discovery.  
To cap this experience Callum and I  were invited by the Library staff to give what turned out to be an impromptu recital in the public area of the Library, playing with the manuscript open in front of us. Neither of us turned in exactly flawless performances, but given the circumstance, this was hardly surprising.
It only remains for me to thank the Library staff for their enthusiastic support in allowing us such generous access to this priceless object. I look forward to returning to Perth to explore this remarkable collection further.

Two videos of the Library performances are available on Youtube; search for Gingleing Gordie or Wally as the Marquis Ran.