Skip to main content

Seventeenth Century Scottish Music

a short essay with lyric examples

It is a commonly held belief that there is little documentable music from Scotland in the period that Clann Tartan portrays. This misconception is due to the relative scarcity of both modern editions and recordings of 16th and 17th century music.

The reality is that there are literally thousands of period songs and tunes available; authentic music for Clann Tartan simply requires a bit more work to find than so-called "traditional" music. The seven surviving 17th century lute manuscripts from Scotland, for example, contain over 500 works, and this is only for a single instrument. (See Dauney, or Knutson for the Skene MS, Vavreck for the Straloch MS.)

Music has always traveled. Just as Scots enjoyed music from outside Scotland - the Skene Manuscript with its 115 or so works contains music from England, France, Italy, Spain, the Low Countries, and the Germanies in addition to its Scottish tunes - people from other lands enjoyed the music of Scotland. From the standpoint of living history, it is far more appropriate to perform a sixteenth or seventeenth century English or French piece than to perform a nineteenth or twentieth century "traditional" music simply because it is from Scotland or Ireland.

Scottish music can be found, for example, in the publications of John Playford, whose "Dancing Master" contains scores of Scottish tunes in its many editions from 1651 to circa 1728 (see Barlow, Dean-Smith). Pierre Attaignant also included many Scottish tunes in his dozens of music books published in Paris around the mid sixteenth century - which is not surprising, given the Auld Alliance.

Subjoined are annotated lyrics to a number of period pieces from various sources. Scots words are glossed, and historic background and references are provided.

These lyrics are not merely songs; they are also useful in terms of social history. They allow us to look into the minds, so to speak, of the people we in Clann Tartan are attempting to portray.

They represent different genres and styles of period music: "Brave Mars begins to Rouse" is a marching song, "The Nicht is Neir Gane" is an art song, "Martin said to his man" is a tavern song, etc.

When Cannons are Roaring

to the tune of "A Statute for Drunkards and Swearers" (1624)
a marching song

Brave Mars begins to rouse,
and he does bend his browes
Borias bursts out in blowes,
great Etnaes fire.
He that may losse the field,
yet let him never yeeld
thogh thousands should be kilde
let Souldiers try it.

When Cannons are roaring
and Bullets are flying,
he that would honour win
must not fear dying.

Though Constantin be dead,
Who left us honour,
And taught brave Christian Kings,
under his banner.
Paganes amazèd stood,
in a great wonder,
To see brave Christians come,
like claps of Thunder.

When Cannons,
Raised are the worthies nine,
and now ascending,
Even by a power divyne,
now peace is ending,
So many Christian Kings,
with them to enter,
Against their feircest Foes,
that's brave adventure.

When Cannons,
Sojers with swords in hands,
to the walls comming,
Horse-men about the streets,
ryding and running,
Sentinells on the walls,
arme, arme, a crying,
Pittards against the ports,
wyld fire a flying.

When Cannons,
Mars, (verse 1) of course, is the god of war
Trumpets on Turrets hye,
these are a sounding,
Drumes beating out alowd,
echoes resounding.
Larim-Bells in ilk place,
they are a ringing,
Women with stones in laps,
to the walls bringing.

When Cannons,
Captains in open fields,
on their foes rushing,
Gentlemen seconds them,
with their Picks pushing.
Ingyniers in the Trench,
earth, earth up-rearing,
Gun-powder in the mynes,
Paganes up-blowing.

When Cannons,
Portculzies in the ports
they are down letting,
Burgers come flocking by,
too, their hands setting.
Ladders against the wall,
they are uprearing,
Women great timber [l]oggs
to the walls bearing.
When Cannons are roaring,
and Bullets are flying,
He that would honour win,
must not fear dying.


Constantin (verse 2) is that 4th century Roman Emperor Constantine who was the first to convert to Christianity.

The Nine Worthies (v. 3) were three pagan (Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar), three Jewish (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus), and three Christian (Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godefroy de Bouillon) heroes mentioned together in medieval romances.

Pittards (v. 4) were early explosive shells which went "poof" more than "boom" From the French "petard," which means "fart." Honest.

Portculzies (v. 7) were portcullises, those big iron grates at the entrances to towns and castles.

This song was mentioned by Captain Robert Monro in his memoirs of his service under Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years' War. Many of you know the song, but we have done it in the past to a shortened (and slightly modernized) version (see Knutson and Norden).

This version is from John Forbes' Cantus, Songs, and Fancies of 1662, with corrections from the 1682 edition.

The Nicht is Neir Gane

or, Hey Nou the Day Dawis to the tune of Hey, Tuttie Tattie an art song

Hey! nou the day dawis;
The jolie cok crauis,
Nou shroudis the shawis
Throu natur anone.
The Thrisell-cok cryis

On lovers wha lyis,
Nou skaillis the skyis;
The nicht is neir gane.

The fieldis ouerflowis
With gowans that growis,
Quhair lilies lyk lowe is,
Als rid als the rone.
The Turtill that treu is,
With nots that renewis
Hir Pairtie perseuis,
The nicht is neir gane.

Nou Hairtis with Hyndis,
Conforme to thair kyndis,
Hie tursis thair tyndis,
On grund whair they grone.
Nou Hurchones, with Hairis,
Aye passis in pairis;
Quhilk deuly declaris
The nicht is neir gane.

The sesone excellis
Thrugh sweetness that smellis
Nou Cupid compellis
Our hairtis echone.
On Venus wha waikis,
To muse on our maikis,
Syne sing for thair saikis,
The nicht is neir gane.

All curageous knichtis
Agains the day dichtis
The breist-plate that bricht is,
To fecht with their fone.
The stoned steed stampis
Through courage, and crampis,
Syne on the land lampis,
The nicht is neir gane.

The freikis on feildis
That wight wapins weildis
With shyning bright shieldis
At Titan in trone.
Stiff speiris in reistis
Ouer corseris crestis
Ar brok on their breistis,
The nicht is neir gane.

So hard ar their hittis,
Some sweyis, some sittis,
And some perforce flittis
On grund quhile they grone.
Syne groomis that gay is
On blonkis that brayis
With suordis assayis,
The nicht is neir gane.

Stanza 1: dawis=dawns, shroudis the shawis=woods dress themselves, skaillis=clears, gane=gone.
Stanza 2: gowans=daisies, quhair=where, lowe=flame, rone=rowan, turtill that treu is=turtledove, pairty=mate.
Stanza 3: hairtis and hyndis=male and female red deer, turses thair tyndis=carry their antlers, hurchonis=urchins (i.e. hedgehogs). hairis=hares, quhilk=while.
Stanza 4: hairtis=hearts, maikis=mates.
Stanza 5: dichtis=dights (i.e. wears), fone=foes, stoned steed=stallion, crampis=prances, lampis=gallops.
Stanza 6: freikis=warriors, wight wapins=sturdy weapons, speiris=lances, corseris=fast horses.
Stanza 7: flittis=are thrown from their horses, quhile=while, blonkis=white riding horses.

This is a song in high praise of Nature. It is Spring. The sun is rising, the birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, the critters are pairing up, even people are falling in love. And, of course, the knights are fighting. What could be more natural? Leave it to a Scotsman to write a Maysong such as this...

Alexander Montgomerie (ca.1545-ca.1611) was one of the last, and one of the best, of the makaris, or poets who wrote in Scots. He was the son of John Montgomerie, Laird of Hessilheid, Ayrshire. He stayed with James VI's court in England, and was granted a pension (annual subsidy) of 500 marks by the king. He was abroad, apparently on diplomatic duty, from 1586 to 1591. Part of this time was spent in prison - his poetic complaints to King James still survive. He seems to have been a Catholic, or at least a Catholic sympathizer, as he was implicated in the pro-Catholic Ladyland Plot of 1597 (Yes, he lost his pension). He died bitter and impoverished (Encylopedia Britanica).

A number of Montgomerie's poems were set to music, but "The Nicht is Neir Gane" was written to a pre-existing tune. Bishop Douglas of Dunkeld mentions an earlier version of the song in 1513. "Hey, Tuttie Tattie," the tune to which this song was written, was believed by Robert Burns to be the march that Robert the Bruce ordered played on the way to his great victory at Bannockburn in 1314, which is why Burns wrote his "Scots wha hae," or "Bruce's Address," to this tune (Winstock, p.25).
Martine said to his man,
or, Whose the fool now.
to its own tune
a tavern song

Martine said to his man,
fy man, fy,
O Martine said to his man,
whose the fool now.
Martine said to his man
fill thou the cup and I the can
thou hast well drunken man
who's the fool now.

I saw a Sheep shearing Corne,
fy man, fy,
I saw a Sheep shearing Corne,
whose the fool now?
I saw a Sheep shearing Corne,
and a cockold blow his horne,
Thou hast well drunken man,
who's the fool now.

[note: now that you know the structure, I will dispense with that portion of the song. DV]

I saw a Man in the Moon,
clouting Sainct Peters shoon.

I saw a Hare chase a Hound,
twenty myles above the ground,

I saw a Goose ring a Hog,
and a Snale to bite a Dog,

I saw a Mouse catch a Cat,
and the Cheese to eat the Rat.

verse 2, corne is the generic term for grain - not American maize.
verse 3 clouting is plugging a hole. Although not used so in this song, "clouting" often has certain other connotations. shoon plural of shoe. Nouns ending in vowel sounds were frequently pluralized by adding "n" rather than "s" in our period - both in London English and the Guid Scottis tongue.

This is an example of a period tavern song that normal people (like those who most of us in Clann Tartan portray) not professionals, would sing. Martin and his man both sing, alternating lines. Martin is the one whose brain is not functioning properly, and his man is condemning Martin's overindulgence.

The song was first published in England in 1588 but this version does not survive. Thomas Ravenscroft's Deuteromelia published in 1609, contains this piece as a four-part "freemen song". These were a most popular form of entertainment where three or more men sing the same words at the same time, but to different notes, thus forming vocal chords with their (ahem) vocal chords. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.) Freemen songs were popular throughout the British Isles from the time of Henry VIII right through the eighteenth century. "Glee clubs," which were social groups who performed freemen songs, as well as related period song forms such as catches (different words to different melodies at the same time) and rounds (same words, same tunes, but at different times), were even popular in America until a generation or two ago.

The version above is based on John Forbes' version from his Cantus, Songs, and Fancies published in Edinburgh in 1662. The last verse is unique to the English version. I originally believed that the second verse (the one about the sheep) was to be found only in the Scottish version - which would be amusing - but I then discovered that the otherwise useful edition I was working from had been silently Bowlderized. This illustrates the perils of using modern editions of period texts.
The Gowans are Gay
to its own tune
a May song

The Gowans are gay my jo,
the Gowans are gay,
They make me wake when I should sleep
the first morning of may.

About the Fields as I did passe,
the Gowans are gay,
I chanced to meet a proper Lasse
the first morning of May.

Right bussie was that bonie maide,
the gowans are gay,
And I thereafter to her saide
the first morning of May.

O Lady fair, what doe you here,
the gowans are gay,
Gathring the Dew what needs you spear
the first morning of May.

The Dew quoth I, what can that meane,
the Gowans are gay,
She said to wash my Lady clean,
the first morning of May.

I askèd farther at her fyne,
the Gowans are gay,
To my will if she would incline,
the first morning of May.

She said her earand was not there,
the Gowans are gay,
Her Maiden-head on me to ware,
the first morning of May.

Thus I her left; and past my way,
the Gowans are gay,
Into a Gardene me to play,
the first morning of May.

Where there were Birds singing ful sweet
the Gowans are gay,
Unto my comfort was full meet,
the first morning of May.

And thereabout I past my time,
the Gowans are gay,
While that it was the houre of prime,
the first morning of May.

And then returnèd home again,
the Gowans are gay,
Pansing what Maiden that had been,
the first morning of May.

verse 1 gowans = daisies (you should know this by now, what with Dun Gowan and all!)
My jo = my dear, from the French joie, literally "joy." "My jo" is a VERY common term of endearment in our period. Those of you who have dear ones in Clann, USE IT!
v.3 bonie = bonny, NOT boney!
v.4 what needs you spear? = why do you ask? or, perhaps, what's it to you?
v.5 According to popular belief, the dew on May Morning was "special." To wash with it would make one more attractive.
v.6 at her [so] fyne
v.7 ware = expend
v.9 comfort was full meet = the birds' singing was most agreeable
v.10 hour of prime = 6am to 9 am; this is from the pre-clock divisions of the day.
v.11 Pansing = pondering; from the French penser = to think

May-songs are amongst the most common classes of music in our period, and not just in Scotland. There are many, many fine May-songs from England, France, Germany (although their language is an offense to the ear), Italy, Spain,

This one was chosen both because of its haunting tune and because it still has a bit of the faerie to it. Although many other period May-songs celebrate sexuality, they are often devoid of otherworldly content. This is not surprising, given that authorities in 16th and 17th century Scotland and England, for example, cracked down hard on May Day festivities; bonfires, Maypoles and so on were discouraged.

This song, although from Forbes' Cantus, Songs and Fancies of 1662 (song #19), is believed to date from the 15th century at the latest. The tune was in the (Scottish) Straloch Manuscript of 1627-9, but this document his been missing for the past 160 years or so. I have been unable to find it in any other books or manuscripts, but the music is rather medieval in style; it is highly infectious, as well.

John Anderson My Jo
tae its awin tune a folk song

John Anderson sings only verse 2, lines 1,2,3, and 5; the rest is sung by his female acquaintance.

John Anderson my jo,
cum in as ye gae bye,
And ye sall get a sheips head
weel baken in a pye,
Weel baken in a pey,
and the haggis in a pat,
John Anderson my jo, cum in,
and ye's get that.

And hoe doe ye Cummer,
and hoe hae ye threven,
And hoe mony bairns hae ye?
Cummer, I hae seven.
Are they to your awin gudeman?
Na, Cummer, na,
For five of tham were gotten
quhan he was awa.

verse 1, line 3 sall = shall
4 weel baken = well baked
5 & 6 pye/pey = pie; that there are two different spellings of the same word so close to each other in the text reflects the lack of spelling standardization before dictionaries became common, rather than carelessness of the scribe - they are pronounced the same either way
6 pat = pot

verse 2, line 1 hoe = how
1 cummer = another term of endearment
2 threven = thrived
3 bairns = children (but see below)
4 awin = own
4 gudeman = husband (but see below)
6 gotten = begotten
8 quhan = when (period Scots English generally used "quh-" where London English uses "wh-" at the beginning of the interrogatives (who, what, where, etc.) probably due to the influence of both French, where all - and Latin, where most - interrogatives begin with "qu-"

This song was very popular as a dance tune throughout the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries, but only the Scots seem to have written lyrics for it. Although the tune was set for virginals, harpsichords, and consorts by numerous leading professional musicians of the day, it likely began as a Scottish country dance. There is a "Joan Sanderson" country dance in Playford (also known as "The Cushion Dance" Barlow, p. 64) which may be related, but the tune is different).

"John Anderson My Jo" is taken from a Scottish manuscript from about 1560 which is now housed in Dublin. The music set there, however, is relatively illegible - probably due to the scribe's lack of formal music education - so the tune we are using is taken from the Scottish Skene MS of circa 1620, (Knutson, unpaginated) which fits the words more or less perfectly.

At first glance, this is merely a humorous song about marital infidelity, where the last line is a rather effective punch line. Perhaps the woman has more on her mind than just filling John's tummy? She makes light of her, um, previous exploits.

It has been suggested, however, by several historians that this song runs a bit deeper than it appears. The argument is that the song was written precisely at the high point of anti-Catholic doggerel verse in Scotland - the 1560's - when John Knox and his followers were taking popular tunes and composing new lyrics to them. If this song is an example of that, then not only the tune is even more likely to have its origins in country music, but also the interpretation of the song in this context gives a whole new meaning to it.

The woman represents the Catholic Church, who tries to "seduce" John with the high living (represented by the feast) that, according to anti-Catholic propaganda of the day, all Catholic Priests attained. John Anderson is a Presbyterian "Everyman", who questions the Church. The Church's "awin gudeman" is, therefore, none other Jesus of Nazareth, who was often referred to as "our gudeman" by Scots in our period. The seven "bairns" are, then, the seven sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Marriage), of which, according to the protestants of the day, only two (Baptism and the Eucharist) are considered "legitimate." The other five came about after the death of the Carpenter's Kid - "quhan he was awa."

Even the use of the terms "cummer" and "my jo" by the couple is wry humor, as Catholics and Protestants were not getting along too well in 1560's Scotland.

There is a second version, from early 18th century Scotland, about a wife complaining to her husband of many years about his loss of sexual prowess. In the late 18th century, Robert Burns wrote new lyrics starting with this version. He kept the older couple theme, but made it into all sweet words and honeyed phrases. It is far from his finest example of sentimentality, being barely charming.

Tobacco is like love
to its own tune

Tobacco, Tobacco
Sing sweetly for Tobacco,
Tobacco is like love,
O love it,
For you see I will prove it.
Love maketh leane the fatte mens tumor,
So doth Tobacco,
Love still dries uppe the wanton humor,
So doth Tobacco,
Love makes men sayle from shore to shore,
So doth Tobacco,
Tis fond love often makes men poor,
So doth Tobacco,
Love makes men scorne al Coward feares,
So doth Tobacco,
Love often sets men by the eares,
So doth Tobacco.
Tobaccoe, Tobaccoe
Sing sweetly for Tobaccoe,
Tobaccoe is like Love,
O love it,
For you see I have provde it.

The writer of this love song, Captain Tobias Hume, published the above in his Musicall Humours in 1605 (Kallman, pp.154-157). He was a professional soldier whose contemporaries thought also could have been successful as a professional musician. He was a gambist - one who plays the viola da gamba, a common 17th century instrument similar to a violincello, only with six strings rather than four and frets as well.

In 1643, then-Colonel Hume offered his services to Puritan-controlled Parliament to help put down the Irish "revolt" then raging. The letter containing this offer still exists, but there is no record of Parliament's response. Hume is believed to have died two or three years later.

Apart from the above, not much else is known of him. The Humes were a Border clan. Apparently, only because of the quality of his music do the English claim him as one of their own. Given that literally hundreds of Scottish musicians followed King James VI south to London in 1603, and that Hume began publishing in London only two years later, one may just as easily entertain the notion that Tobias came from north of the border.

Regardless, in his work we have music written by a professional soldier documented right in the midst of Clann Tartan's chosen period.

Here's a Health unto his Majesty

tae hits awin toon a patriotic song

Here's a Health unto his Majesty,
with a Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la,
Conversion to his Enemies,
with a Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la,
And he that will not pledge his Health,
I wish him neither Wit nor Wealth,
nor yet a Rope to hang himself,
with a Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la,
with a Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la.

This charming little ditty is from John Forbes' Cantus, Songs and Fancies, published in Aberdeen, 3rd edition of 1682. It is set for three voices Forbes 1682, unpaginated)

It is considered to be the oldest form of "God save the Queen." It was written by a Mr. John Sevile (Forbes 1682, unpaginated), probably as a celebration of the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II was crowned king of England, although it could as easily be a song celebrating his being crowned king of Scotland in 1651. It possibly is a little older, being intended to rouse the spirits of the Royalists during the British Civil War.

Apart from his name, I have been unable to find any information on the composer.

When she cam ben she bobbit

tae its awin tune a folk song

When she came ben she bobbit,
And when she came ben she bobbit.
And when she came ben she kist COCKPEN,
And then deny'd that she did it.

And was nae COCKPEN right sawcy,
And was nae COCKPEN right sawcy?
He len'd his lady to gentlemen,
And he kist the collier-lassie.

And was nae COCKPEN right able,
And was nae COCKPEN right able?
He left his lady with gentlemen,
And he kist the lass in the stable.

O are you wi' bairn, my chicken?
O are you wi' bairn, my chicken?
O if I am not, I hope to be,
E'er the green leaves be shaken.

came ben = came inside
bobbit = bobbed i.e. 'curtsied'
Cockpen = tradition states that the flirtatious laird of Cockpen (in Midlothian) was a buddy of King Charles II.
gentlemen = middle-class Scots, as opposed to the upper-class laird and lady and the lower-class
collier-lassie = female coal miner
bairn = child

Although the lyrics as we have them were only published in David Herd's collection of "Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs" in 1776, the tune is considerably older. It appears as "When she came in, she bobbed" in the Balcarres Lute Book of about 1690s and the Bowie fiddle MS of about 1700. The tune itself is based on a 15th century English curanto - a type of dance.

Robert Burns wrote a version based on the above song, but was never happy with the result. In fact, Burns' version was printed against his own wishes. A later, non-saucy version by Lady Nairne was performed for Queen Victoria at her request in the 1840s.


Dauney, William. Ancient Scottish Melodies: from a manuscript of the reign of King James VI, with an introductory enquirey illustrative of the history of the music of Scotland, by William Dauney. Maitland Club, Edinburgh, 1838.

Dean-Smith, Margaret. Playford's English Dancing Master, 1651. A Facsimile Reprint. Schott & Co. London, 1957.

Forbes, John. Cantus: Songs and Fancies (1st edition). Edinburgh, 1662.

Forbes, John. Cantus: Songs and Fancies (3rd edition). Edinburgh, 1682.

Herd, David. Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs. Edinburgh, 1776.

Kallman, Chester. An Elizabethan Songbook. Lute Songs, Madrigals, and Rounds. Faber and Faber, London 1957.

Knutson, Charles. Music from the Skene Manuscript (Circa 1620). Rose & Pentagram Designs, Minneapolis, 1996.

Knutson, Charles and Jeff Nordin. The Drumme and Phifes Duetie. Clann Tartan, Minneapolis. 1995.

Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition unabridged. Random House, NY 1987.

Ravenscroft, Thomas. Deuteromelia. London, 1609. Facsimile by Da Capo Press, New York, 1971.

Vavreck, David, editor. The Straloch Lute Book 1627-1629. Forthcoming.

Winston, Lewis. Songs and Marches of the Roundheads and Cavaliers. Leo Cooper, London 1971.

Back to Articles