Music of Scotland


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

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.

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.

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A country that is renowned the world over for its traditional music, Scotland’s traditional scene is diverse and full of surprises. From folk music to Celtic fusion, the 21st century has brought forth a whole new wave of musicians and bands that are experimenting with the very idea of what Scottish traditional music is and spoiler; it’s not all about the bagpipes. While guitar bands and indie groups seem to have become the most popular musical exports in the past few decades, the traditional scene is fighting back and thriving in the process as artists continue to push the boundaries of what has come to be expected.

RACHEL NEWTON is a highly skilled multi-instrumentalist whose talents at writing and arranging music have won her many accolades over the years, including Musician of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017. As well being a singer and harpist, Newton also plays the fiddle and the viola and is a founding member of The Shee and The Furrow Collective. Her third solo album, Here’s My Heart Come Take It, was recently chosen for the 2017 SAY Award longlist alongside 19 other albums, making it one of the top releases of the year. It’s a beautifully atmospheric record which draws attention to the powerful combination of harp and voice, with ballads in both English and Gaelic.
NITEWORKS are arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of the trad music scene in Scotland in recent years, thanks to their combination of electronic music with Gaelic and traditional sounds. Formed on the Isle of Skye, the band, made up of Ruairidh Graham, Allan MacDonald, Christopher Nicolson and Innes Strachan, have quickly made their mark on the scene since the release of their debut EP in 2011, going on to win the Up and Coming Artist of the Year award at the 2012 Scottish Trad Awards. The quartet is known for their exhilarating live performances, where ceilidh and club culture combine to form something great.
TALISK from Glasgow, were winners of the 2015 BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award, going on to pick up a number of other nominations and awards following their big win. Most recently, concertina player Mohsen Amini won the title of 2016 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year, following in the footsteps of 2015 winner and singer-songwriter Claire Hastings. The trio, consisting of Amini alongside fiddle player Hayley Keenan and guitarist Craig Irving, play fast-paced, crisp and fiery traditional music that highlights each musician’s technical ability and individual expression.
The song which every passionate Scot will know. Scotland’s adopted – yet unofficial – national anthem, it was written by Roy Williamson of the Corries back in the 1960s and speaks of Robert the Bruce’s victory over England’s Edward II at the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn. Scottish rugby winger is credited with popularising the song for use at sporting events when he encouraged his teammates to sing it during a victorious Lions tour of South Africa in 1974. But Flower of Scotland’s status as the favoured national anthem was cemented at the start of the 1990 Five Nations game between Scotland and England. A spirited rendition was sung by players and fans alike as Scotland went on to win 13-7 to win the Grand Slam. Most people in Scotland will be able to recite at least two verses of Flower of Scotland without hesitation.
Written by music hall great Sir Harry Lauder in 1905, I Love A Lassie is a perennial favourite in Scotland.

Inspired by Lauder’s love for his wife Nancy, the song became a worldwide hit in English speaking countries during the early 1900s. Worth a mention is the corrupted version of this tune, commonly sung by fans of Partick Thisle FC – although the jury is out on whether or not Sir Harry would have approved… I’m thinking not, but there are few who won’t recognize the original song’s catchy chorus:

I love a lassie, a bonnie bonnie lassie,
She’s as pure as a lily in the dell,
She’s sweet as the heather, the bonnie bloomin’ heather,
Mary, my Scots bluebell.

Probably the most famous Scottish song ever, due to it being sung traditionally at New Year around the globe. Auld Lang Syne started life as a poem “borrowed” by Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, who confessed that the bulk of the words were passed on to him from an old man.

The song is thought to have gained worldwide prominence thanks to band leader Guy Lombardo, who instructed his band to play a rendition of the song live at New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel on New Year’s Eve 1929. The performance was broadcast live over the radio that night to millions of homes, resulting in a tradition which has stood the test of time.

A party tune to end all parties. Commonly referred to as simply “Loch Lomond”, the song was first written during the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 and has gradually become one of the country’s best-known tunes. The lyrics make mention of a longing to be reunited with a departed love on the “bonnie, bonnie” banks of Scotland’s largest loch. One theory, however, suggests that the song is sung from the perspective of a woman whose Jacobite lover has been captured and is facing execution in London. Loch Lomond is traditionally played as the last song of the night at Scottish parties. The best-known version of the song is by the Celtic rock group Runrig, who have recorded it several times.
As Scottish as Irn Bru and deep fried pizzas. There can’t be too many souls in Scotland who don’t know all the words to this one. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) was released by Auchtermuchty duo The Proclaimers in 1988, and went on to score hits around the world. The song has appeared in countless movies and TV shows since it was written and has even been parodied by Family Guy and The Simpsons.
Released by Andy Cameron as a novelty record to mark the country’s appearance at Argentina 1978, the song references manager Ally MacLeod and makes grand claims predicting that Scotland will ‘really shake them up’ to win the World Cup. Sadly, they couldn’t even hurdle the group stage.

The lyrics ‘we’re representing Britain and we’ve got to do or die, for England cannae dae it cos’ they didnae qualify’ were quite amusing at the time, as Scotland was the only home nation to make it to Argentina that year. Oh, how the tables have turned…

The footage of Andy Cameron performing this on Top Of The Pops decked out in tartan scarf, tammy and Scotland fitba’ shirt is well worth a watch.

Pretty much essential listening at Scottish parties, particularly towards the end of the night when everyone’s positively sozzled. Written and recorded by Glasgow band Deacon Blue, the song has been released as a single three times. It has managed to achieve legendary status in Scotland despite having never charted higher than No.31 in the UK. Deacon Blue performed Dignity live at the closing ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow.
Proof, as if any were ever needed, that the Scots don’t take themselves too seriously. Unleashed in 1960 by comic performer Andy Stewart, the song speaks of a kilt-wearing man from Skye who ventures down south and is hassled relentlessly for his lack of trousers. Donald Where’s Your Troosers? managed to claim a No.1 hit in Canada when it was first released and, even more incredible, a No.4 in the UK when it was re-issued in 1989.
Touted by many as an alternative to Flower of Scotland as the country’s unofficial national anthem, Scotland the Brave is thought to have originated in the early 1900s, with the first lyrics to the song written around 1950 by the journalist Cliff Hanley. Before the Corries’ Flower of Scotland took over, Scotland the Brave was used as the national anthem by the Scottish football team for the 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups. Very few Scots know the lyrics to Scotland the Brave, as it’s most commonly played without words by pipe bands. The tune is recognized the world over.
A real classic little tune. Written and performed by Scottish folk singer Adam MacNaughton, the Jeely Piece Song discusses the challenges of high rise living in 1960s Glasgow. The most famous version of the song was recorded by songwriter and poet, Matt McGinn. The chorus goes as follows:

Oh ye cannae fling pieces oot a twenty storey flat,
Seven hundred hungry weans’ll testify, to that.
If it’s butter, cheese or jeely, if the breid is plain or pan,
The odds against it reaching earth are ninety-nine tae wan.

You don’t need to have been a teenage girl in the 1970s to appreciate this one, though that, or copious amounts of alcohol, will definitely help. Written and produced for the Bay City Rollers by songwriters Phil Coulter and Bill Martin, Shang-A-Lang is one of those songs guaranteed to fill any social club dance-floor. The song was a massive hit, reaching No.2 in the UK charts at the height of Rollermania in 1974. Shang-A-Lang is said to have come about as a result of Bill Martin attempting to write a song which evoked the distinct “clang” of the Glasgow shipyards.
Also known as Will Ye Go Lassie Go, the lyrics and melody from Wild Mountain Thyme are a variation of The Braes of Balquhidder, written in the late 18th century by Scots poet Robert Tannahill. Attributed to folk singer Francis McPeake, the song has been covered countless times by musicians of all genres, including Bob Dylan, The Clancy Brothers, Thin Lizzy, and The Corries. The chorus is enough to make you hairs stand on end…

And we’ll all go together to pick wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather.
Will ye go, lassie, will ye go?

A song to be proud of. Considered one of the most beautiful and heart rending Scottish ballads ever recorded, Caledonia was penned by Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean in 1977. It rose to prominence in 1991 when it was sang and recorded by Frankie Miller for use in what become an iconic television advert for Tennent’s Lager. The song proved so popular that Miller re-recorded it and released it as a single later that year, with the song reaching No.45 in the charts. Caledonia was also used heavily during VisitScotland’s campaign to promote Homecoming Scotland 2009. MacLean claims that it took him no longer than 10 minutes to write.
Largely forgotten about outside of Scotland, In a Big Country became a huge worldwide hit for Fife rockers Big Country in 1983. In a Big Country’s accompanying music video received considerable airplay on MTV, resulting in the song flying up to No.17 on the US Billboard charts – the group’s biggest stateside success. The song was released at a time when Scotland was beginning to rediscover itself as a music-producing nation, with acts such as Annie Lennox, Altered Images, Simple Minds and Midge Ure filling the charts.
Let’s end with probably the first song most Scots ever heard. Also known as Coulter’s Candy, Ally Bally Bee can trace its routes back to Galashiels in the mid nineteenth century where it was written by weaver Robert Coltard. Despite the fact that practically every child in Scotland will have been lulled to the sleep at some point with his tune, Coltard died a penniless man and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Ally bally, ally bally bee,
Sittin’ on yer mammy’s knee,
Greetin’ for a wee bawbee,
Tae buy some Coulter’s candy.


Burns Night Reel from jennifuchs on 8tracks Radio.


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