Some observations on Conformity and Invention in the music of Scotland occasioned by reading the preface to the second part of Neil Gow & Sons Complete Repository and surveying the manuscripts of David Young, Writing Master.

'The original Scotch Strathspeys, Reels and Jigs of which this collection consists are brought forward with a view to serve as a Standard of those national Tunes and Dances, for we cannot avoid mentioning that in every part of Scotland where we have occasionally been, and from every observation we were able to make, have not once met with two Professionsl Musicians who play the Same notes of any Tune. Thsi being the Case, the Standard now proposed, will we hope, appear abundantly apparent; and that a conformity in playing those tunes, may with great propriety be adopted.'

So said the Gows in the preface to the Second Part of the Repository. By the time of the publication of the Fourth Part they felt able to say:
“Their Original Aim being obtained, namely, that of conformity being adopted throughout the Island, by Amateurs, as well as by Professional People, playing the same notes of every tune, without the confusion which prevailed previous to the appearance of the Repository.“

The remarks made by Gow regarding ‘conformity’ or the lack of it in the musicians they encountered concerns differences in interpretation of traditional tunes from one player to another across the country.
We are fortunate, however, in having in the various library archives evidence that any one player would not only necessarily play the same tune the same way every time, but those who could do so would not necessarily write down the same version every time.
Perhaps the most vital link we have with the repertoire of Scottish musicians before the middle of the 18th century is in the surviving works of David Young*. The two manuscript volumes that survive of the three that he prepared for ‘MacFarlane of that Ilk’ (as it says on the title page) contain hundreds of tunes, some simple, some with extended sets of variations. This was only part of what he left us, however; there are three other manuscripts that are either entirely or appear to be partly in his hand, four, if we count the two parts of the ‘Drummond Castle’ manuscript as two separate sources - one contains, according to its title page, ‘Country Dances’ and the other ‘Highland Reels’. These sources are usually dated 1734. David Young’s ‘Collection of the newest Country Dances Performed in Scotland’ is dated 1740. I have recently been introduced to another manuscript, mostly in his hand, which is dated, provisionally, 1750-60.  It seems quite likely that Young died around 1753, making this last manuscript to date around ten or twenty year after the earlier ones.
Not surprisingly, these sources contain in many instances the same tunes, sometimes in brief form, sometimes with variations. In a few cases, the same tune appears in all four sources, and it is one of these that enables us to explore the ‘conformity of a ‘Writing Master (as Young styles himself ) and presumably an accomplished musician, when it came to recording the same tune over the space of some twenty years.
I have chosen the familiar tune ‘Caberfei’ because it not only appears in all four collections, but demonstrates how a player might notate a tune with which they were familiar in different ways, whilst retaining the tune’s integrity. Just the kind of thing that made the Gows so indignant.

* It is surprising and frustrating that, given the vital role that Young’s work plays in our knowledge of the repertoire of musicians in the early decades of the 18th century, that we know so little about him. He seems to have been educated at Marischal college in Aberdeen during the 1720’s but thereafter, though there are several possible contenders for his career, no definite evidence currently exists. He may have been a ‘Writing Master’ at Stirling, or at Haddington (where he may even have taught the young Joseph MacDonald), or both, but this is based solely on the name and approximate dates, which is far from distinctive enough to identify him with certainty.

Here then are the opening two strains of Young’s earliest setting of Caberfei, as it appears in the Drummond Castle MS collection of Highland Reels. It’s worth noting that these settings are the earliest surviving of what was to become a standard in the pipers’ repertoire; in this source Young has titled it ‘Caper fei’


And here is the setting in the Collection of the newest Country Dances etc., 1740, where it is titled ‘Caberfei’

On the face of it they look very similar. Closer inspection reveals that Young has had a new idea about how to return to the reprise of the theme in bar 5. The second strain, however, is the same in both versions (apart from the notation of the accidentals).  When Young came to write the same tune in the MacFarlane manuscript (it is in the second volume, though 1740 is the date allotted to both sources) not only had he changed his mind about the rhythmic structure of the opening phrase, he also had a rather different approach to the second strain - gone are the semi-quavers, to be replaced by a reflection of the cadence of the first strain’s second bar, what might be said to be the tune’s defining motif : here Young has titled it ‘Caber-fei.’ *

By the 1750’s, probably towards the end of his life, Young produced this setting: he has abandoned both approaches to the reprise of the theme at bar 5, opting instead to lead into a straight repeat. His approach to the second strain is a combination of the two previous approaches, along with the introduction of a subtle differences in the ground. (Here he again titles it ‘Caberfei’)

It is far from unusual, of course, to find variants of a tune in different sources; it is probably unique, however to find four different settings by the same person, an indication that for David Young at least, there was no ‘right’ version. What he left us were snapshots of the way a tune developed, presumably as he performed it throughout his life

* The setting here is adapted from the transcription posted  online by Donald MacDonald;