Strathspeys, Reels, and Instrumental Airs: A National Product

Research output: Contributions to books, editions, reports or conference proceedingsChapterpeer-review



In two recent AHRC-funded projects, the Glasgow University-led Bass Culture project, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland-led Claimed From Stationers’ Hall research network, it was observed that although printed Scottish dance tune-books often claimed to be ‘Entered at Stationers’ Hall’, the evidence of the registers more often than not belied this claim. Few Scottish dance music books are listed. It has been suggested that publishers were more likely to enter books more susceptible to piracy and subsequent loss of revenue; we could furthermore conjecture that publishers might have considered that it was enough to enter the first book in a series. Or did compilers, self-publishers and publishers consider this repertoire to be relatively unthreatened by piracy, or not to have a large enough circulation to make it worth the effort?
The lengths of the subscribers lists in some of these tune-books certainly suggest very healthy circulation numbers, and let us bear in mind that, whilst the subscribers made the publication possible, further copies would enter circulation once the books were commercially available.
One can interrogate these lists in closer detail. Different publications – even of this fairly narrowly-defined genre – allow us to form an impression of the kinds of people subscribing to Scottish dance music. The ratio of nobility to more middling-class purchasers varies between books, and we can also ascertain the ratio of men to women subscribers, not to mention picking out other defining characteristics, such as military men, clergymen or academics, or the occasional overseas subscriber. Some books reveal a distinctly local geographical reach, whilst others draw subscribers from other parts of the UK – not only London, but (significantly) also Bath, not to mention other less predictable towns.
Digitisation for the Bass Culture project’s HMS.Scot website, as well as the National Library of Scotland’s Digital Gallery and individual publications appearing on IMSLP and, make a good number of volumes of this genre now available, although sadly earlier book-binders appear not always to have retained the subscribers lists in their finished volumes. Notwithstanding this, sampling a dozen or so volumes – mostly strathspeys and reels, but also two books of Highland and Lowland Scottish airs (songs) in instrumental versions - will reveal valuable insights into the demographics of the kinds of people financing and using these books, and will afford future scholars the opportunity to compare these findings with those examining more mainstream ‘classical’ musical repertoire.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMusic by subscription
Subtitle of host publicationcomposers and their networks in the British music-publishing trade, 1676-1820,
EditorsSimon Fleming, Martin Perkins
Place of PublicationNew York
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781003163558
ISBN (Print)9780367748500
Publication statusPublished or Performed - 3 Jan 2022

Publication series

NameRoutledge Research in Music

Author keywords

  • Music publishing, Music subscribers, Music by subsciption