Death of Scots Music

play audio clip

On Scotia's plains, in days of yore,
When lads and lasses tartan wore,
Saft Music rang on ilka shore,
In hamely weid;
But harmony is now no more,
And music dead.

Round her the feather'd choir would wing,
Sae bonnily she wont to sing,
And sleely wake the sleeping string,
Their sang to lead,
Sweet as the zephyrs of the spring;
But now she's dead.

Mourn ilka nymph and ilka swain,
Ilk sunny hill and dowie glen;
Let weeping streams and Naiads drain
Their fountain head;
Let echo swell the dolefu' strain,
Since music's dead.

Whan the saft vernal breezes ca'
The grey-hair'd Winter's fogs awa',
Naebody than is heard to blaw,
Near hill or mead,
On chaunter, or on aiten straw,
Since music's dead.

Nae lasses now, on simmer days,
Will lilt at bleaching of their claes;
Nae herds on Yarrow's bonny braes,
Or banks of Tweed,
Delight to chant their hameil lays,
Since music's dead.

At glomin now the bagpipe's dumb,
Whan weary owsen hameward come;
Sae sweetly as it wont to bum,
And Pibrachs skreed;
We never hear its warlike hum;
For music's dead.

Macgibbon's gane: Ah! waes my heart!
The man in music maist expert,
Wha cou'd sweet melody impart,
And tune the reed,
Wi' sic a slee and pawky art;
But now he's dead.

Ilk carline now may grunt and grane,
Ilk bonny lassie make great mane,
Since he's awa', I trow there's nane
Can fill his stead;
The blythest sangster on the plain!
Alake, he's dead!

Now foreign sonnets bear the gree,
And crabbit queer variety
Of sound fresh sprung frae Italy,
A bastard breed!
Unlike that saft-tongu'd melody
Which now lies dead.

Cou'd lav'rocks at the dawning day,
Cou'd linties chirming frae the spray,
Or todling burns that smoothly play
O'er gowden bed,
Compare wi' Birks of Invermay?
But now they're dead.

O Scotland! that cou'd yence afford
To bang the pith of Roman sword,
Winna your sons, wi' joint accord,
To battle speed?
And fight till Music be restor'd,
Which now lies dead.

It’s difficult to imagine a world without music. Just think - no music! No CDs, no internet, no radio, no endless parade or rock and roll heroes, no Bach or Mozart or Beethoven?

Impossible, really.

The closest we can come is to the deaths of musicians like Elvis or John Lennon or Miles Davis or Kurt Cobain, which had very profound effects on the people who loved their music. But their recordings live on (and on and on) in their LPs and CDs and television programmes and reissues and greatest hits albums etc, etc. None of these things existed in Robert Fergusson’s time, of course. When a musician died, he meant it.

In a way, Fergusson’s poem has a 20th century counterpart in the song American Pie by Don McLean, in which the deaths of three rock and roll musicians of the 50s (Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper – really, that was his name) are mourned with the line “the day the music died.” In his song McLean mourns not just the passing of three great rock & roll musicians – but an entire way of life that was 50s America.

The musician in question in Fergusson’s poem, the man responsible here for the “death of music”, is William MacGibbon: “The man in music maist expert.” It seems that MacGibbon was a popular figure in Edinburgh and a master of his instrument: “Wha cou’d sweet melody impart, /And tune the reed, /Wi’ sic a slee and pawky art.” Curiously for the modern reader, Fergusson’s subject isn’t a poster-boy teeny-bop pin-up – he’s a bagpiper.

Fergusson works hard on our behalf to help us imagine a world without music. Throughout the poem he describes situations where we might expect to hear it, beginning with the first two stanzas which describe Scotland as a land filled and suffused with music – a natural music of birdsong and the sound of young men and women singing to each other. But, we are continually reminded that “music’s dead”. It is undoubtedly a nostalgic and exaggerated view that Fergusson puts forward here – much more in keeping with sentimental notions of Scotland that we now sell to German and American tourists. Scotland’s hills may well be alive with sound but any realistic description of the music of the highlands would have it buzzing with midges and frantic with the busy swish of BMWs on wet tarmac.

But these stanzas set up the exalted tone of the poem. This is assisted by the reference to Naiads and nymphs – figures from classical literature. Indeed the type of poem – the elegy – is a classical poetic form which Fergusson uses to lend the subject matter a bit of weight. He is a poet famous for his skill in using vernacular (or popular) forms of verse like the ballad, but here he shows us that not only is he familiar with more classical forms of poetry, he is also accomplished in them. By welding the voice of the people to the forms of classical poetry, like the elegy, Fergusson was making a point about the validity of his own language since many people felt that the only language suitable for the expression of delicate emotion and high sentiment was English. He proved it wasn’t.

The elegy is a sombre poem in which the poet reflects on the death and significance of someone. Here it is not merely a man – William MacGibbon, famous piper – who is mourned, but music itself. Such was the musicality of MacGibbon, Fergusson tells us, that his passing represents the passing of all music. “There’s nane /Can fill his stead” he says. Strong stuff. Is there anyone we could say that about – truthfully, honestly – these days? Perhaps a few, but we wouldn’t miss them for long.

The sombre tone of the poem comes across strongly with the repetition of “dead” at the end of each stanza: “he’s dead” or “music’s dead” or “which now lies dead”. It provides a heavy rhythm, slowing the poem down, the last phrase of each stanza tolling like a funeral bell. But is it only music that’s dead? A few stanzas give a clue that perhaps Fergusson’s subject is something broader. Perhaps it’s not just MacGibbon – though certainly the depth of feeling in the poem is real enough, if a wee bit over-cooked in places – but a whole way of life that Fergusson is mourning. The loss of traditions, and customs as exemplified by music is perhaps the underlying theme of this poem.

In the ninth stanza he writes, with some alarm, that “Now foreign sonnets bear the gree”. “Sonnets” can mean songs, or tales or stories, as well as a kind of poem. Fergusson has a deep distaste for this unwelcome intrusion as if he feels that foreign tastes and habits have begun to take place over Scotland’s own native ones. “A crabbit, queer variety/ Of sound fresh sprung frae Italy,/ A bastard breed!” he says. These days we find it difficult to share his bitterness – things from Italy are great, we think. Without Italy we wouldn’t have lasagne or olive oil or sun-dried tomatoes or spag-bol. And given the pick between a plate of porridge and a pizza I’m guessing the choice wouldn’t tug too hard at your conscience.

But that’s because we’re more comfortable with our identity now; we’re more or less happy to be part of the UK and still retain a very strong sense of our own separate identity as a nation. When we view Fergusson’s poem with a bit of historical perspective we see that his culture was under threat. The union with England, for Fergusson and for others, was nothing but trouble and it was going to lead, they thought – and with good reason – to the dissolving of a uniquely Scottish culture and way of life. In the final stanza we read Fergusson’s rousing call for the brave men of Scotland who, like their ancestors long ago who fought to keep the Roman invaders out, must again resist this foreign invasion (of culture this time) and fight to keep Scotland’s identity unique. The music he wants to keep alive is more of a metaphorical kind – that combination of elements unique to this country that make it what it is. Which includes bagpipe music, as it does the Scots language, and all kinds of customs and traditions, and tastes in food and drink.

When we look back over the poem again, we realise that in getting us to imagine a world without music, he’s really after something deeper: to imagine a Scotland that isn’t Scotland anymore.