29/01/2018
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Major Robert Burns discovery - 50 songs attributed to the national bard were not written by him

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Some 50 airs in an 18th century landmark publication credited with saving Scotland’s folk song tradition were not by Robert Burns, according to new research by a University of Glasgow team led by Professor Murray Pittock.

The songs are among 200 out of the 600 tunes included in The Scots Musical Museum attributed to Burns. Many of the songs are moderately well known including Hey, the Dusty Miller; O that I Were Where Helen Lies and O Let Me In Thes Ae Night, whilst one of Burns most famous pieces A Red Red Rose only just makes it as the great bard’s work - with enough of the poet’s input for it to be classed as his.

The new 2018 edition of The Scots Musical Museum settles which songs were by Burns, which were almost by him, which tunes he edited and which he collected.

Re-establishing Burns

Professor Murray Pittock, who led a research team from the University of Glasgow, said: “Burns has been for too long seen an author of Scots songs. But in fact his greatest role was as an editor - who collected, partially rewrote, tinkered with and on occasions wrote new words to traditional airs. On one level this has always been acknowledged: but despite this, Burns continues to have songs attributed to his authorship which he only edited.

“This is the first scholarly edition of The Scots Musical Museum ever, and the first edition of any kind of the first edition of the Museum, which differs markedly from the text we know.

“My research suggested removing 50 songs from the Burns canon. These songs are in the middle of the range not very well known but still well-known enough as Burns works until now. This new edition will settle the question as to what is a Burns song.”

Professor Pittock added: “In 1803 some 100 songs were attributed to Burns but by the 1960s that has risen to more than 230 plus. As the brand of Burns increased, more and more songs authorship began to be handed over to him. This newly edited Scots Musical Museum will return Burns from the brand to the editor. “

The Scots Musical Museum

The Scots Musical Museum, is a collection of traditional music of Scotland and features some 600 songs. It is considered to be a major text for understanding the history and development of Scottish song and music. The six-volume publication was initiated, printed and published by James Johnson between 1787 and 1803.

Burns was the main contributor to The Scots Musical Museum - collecting, reworking and writing new lyrics for folk tunes. He is also credited with single-handedly inspiring the movement that preserved these folk songs for future generations.

Up to the publication of this edition, some 230 of the 600 songs were credited to Burns, double the number he was first credited with in 1803.

The research

This is the first research edition of The Scots Musical Museum in its entirety in over 200 years. It goes back to basics - unearthing hundreds of previously unacknowledged variants between the first and 1803 editions. And it is also the first time that researchers have edited The Scots Musical Museum using the first edition and have also published all the first edition together.

The task of re-editing The Scots Musical Museum was herculean – this was due in no small part to the fact no one person is believed to own a full and complete set. Using four separate sources including a private collector and various university and national libraries, the researchers were able bring together all six first edition volumes to help with the editing of the 2018 publication.

Professor Pittock’s team also consulted a comprehensive range of previously published collections of songs and tunes produced through the British Isles in the 18th century to establish which songs were by Burns, which were almost by him, which were edited by him and which he just collected.

Period recordings of songs from the Museum can be downloaded free from the Editing Robert Burns of the 20th Century project website.  

(images copyright University of Glasgow)

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