The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection

Edited by Pat Shuldham-Shaw and Emily B Lyle, together with the assistance of Peter Hall, Andy Hunter, Elaine Petrie, Adam McNaughtan, Sheila Douglas and Katherine Campbell

Published by Mercat Press for the University of Aberdeen in association with
the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh.  Eight Volumes.

Vol 1: Nautical, military and historical songs and songs in which characters adopt the dress of the opposite sex; Vol 2: Narrative Songs; Vol 3: Songs of the countryside and of home and social life; Vol 4: Songs of courtship, night visiting songs, and songs about particular people; Vols 5, 6 & 7: Songs of love and marriage; Vol 8: Songs of parting and children's songs, general indexes and commentaries on the whole collection (1981-2003).  Individual volumes £35.00 each.  The entire set £225.
With the last volume (8) of this magnificent collection of over 3000 songs and tunes finally published in December - a hundred years to the day almost that the project was first mooted by the Aberdeen-based New Spalding Club on 12 December 1902 - we can at last appreciate the late Pat Shaw’s 1973 accolade:
Such then is Scotland’s biggest and finest manuscript collection of folk-song; biggest in sheer size and finest on account of the integrity, breadth of vision and high scholastic ability of its own two collectors.
But over and above these fine words of praise from the man who commenced their editing, what’s so special about these eight volumes?  The many possible answers include: sheer breadth and range; the quality of content; the thoroughness and ‘modernity’ of the collecting techniques employed; the relationship of the collectors to their informants; the revolutionary nature of the songs (especially as far as Scotland is concerned).

How it all came about: The time - largely the decade before the Great War of 1914-18.  The place - mainly the North-East of Scotland, but with postal contributors from throughout Britain and the Empire.  The informants - a very wide strata; doctors, ministers, farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, farm workers and labourers.  The collectors - two sociable middle-aged men, themselves ‘natives’, brought up and educated in the region, and who spoke the North-East Scots (‘the Doric’) with ease and fluency.

The time: An era of rapid change and social instability, with people throughout Europe afraid that their ‘traditional’ cultures might soon be lost forever.  There were plenty throughout the industrialised world who were driven to ‘rescue’ and ‘glean’ as many ‘last leaves’ as possible in the short time they feared was left.  It’s best to see Greig and Duncan’s efforts as part of a universal interest and activity, appearing in newspaper columns, popular and scholarly writings and lectures, and by the formation of ‘rescue’ groups such as the British Folk-Lore Society in 1878 or the Folk-Song Society in 1898. 

The place: The ‘cold knuckle’ of the North-East of Scotland, a largely rural, farming region with fishing communities fringing its coasts; the Highlands to the west, more farming lowlands to the south, beyond the mountains.  Not as isolated as it looks at first, thanks to centuries of commerce and trade with its neighbours, with the rest of Britain, and with the Continent, the Empire and the Americas.

The informants: Practically anyone is assumed to be a potential ‘tradition-bearer’, with something worth contributing, whether playground chants or great ballads.  Every contribution, from scraps to screeds, gratefully received and scrupulously acknowledged.  Class no barrier, down, up or sideways.  Home visiting a speciality.

The collectors: Two professional men in their fifties.  Gavin Greig, a parochial village school master; James Bruce Duncan, a minister, educated in what was to become Greig’s school, now living some forty miles to the south.  They are similar in that they both are local lads made good (Scottice: ‘lads o’ pairts’), educated in local schools, bursary winners educated by Aberdeen’s University, both highly interested in music.  But Greig is ebullient, outgoing; knows the value of publicity.  Duncan is so quiet you have to check at intervals he is still in the house; but thorough and dogged.  Duncan knows all about folksong - he comes from a family of singers; Greig knows all about music of every kind and what is thought to be ‘Scottish Song’ à la Rabbie Burns and co.  Both men, however, have the gift of putting folk at their ease, drawing them out gently as the evening passes.  (The minister is reputed to loosen memories with the aid of a ‘flaskie’ of whisky; there’s more to him than meets the eye).

The impetus: One of the late Queen Victoria’s surgeons thinks it would be good to collect all that remains of local traditional music and song.  Aberdeen’s historical research society, the New Spalding Club (Patron: King Edward) agrees a trial project in December 1902.  Project leader?  Why not young Greig - been in the region all his life, practically runs its musical life - writes operas, songs, hymns, runs choirs, orchestras, brass bands, plays organ in several churches - who better? 

The progress: Greig is doubtful.  He hasn’t come across much in the way of folk song.  In fact, he is on record that it is defunct.  Still, he has a go, cycling out in a four mile radius from the schoolhouse to see what’s doing.  Reports back to the Club in December 1904, somewhat shaken and embarrassed, with hundreds of good quality songs in the pannier.  All these years he has been lecturing on ‘real’ Scottish Song and all these years his neighbours have smiled politely - and gone on singing amongst themselves from what promises to be the biggest treasure house of song, ever.

Greig is an enthusiast - but an amateur.  Songs are taken down on bits of paper to be transcribed later; scruffy technique.  But he has joined the Folk-Song Society and, in early 1905, they suddenly bring out a volume of songs recorded - words and music, location, informants, etc. - and edited to the highest standards, involving an array of expensive reference books.  The day of the amateur antiquarian is clearly over - and Greig knows it.  Within months he has gained not only the first of many large grants from the Carnegie Trust to buy reference books, but also his college friend Duncan as a collaborator.

The next ten years are a switchback of successes and setbacks as the pair spread their searches wider and wider.  The notebooks get fatter, their efforts increase.  Greig has the (too) clever idea of running a folksong column in the papers, fishing for new songs or variants, so their net starts getting cast Empire-wide in a period of history when everyone is news-mad (real news, not the prattle of today’s commentariat).

The problems: There are two very serious catches.  One, Greig, an inveterate smoker in a family decimated by tuberculosis, starts dying, albeit slowly; Duncan gets more Church business and travel heaped on his shoulders.  Two, they are overwhelmed by their task, up to their ears in songs - which are accumulating daily.  So much for rescuing a few remnants - they have (as we now know) at least enough for eight large volumes.  They try to get a couple of volumes, especially one of the Child ballads, into shape for publication by a still waiting, if bemused, New Spalding Club, but Greig dies in 1914, Duncan in 1917, and the country is on a war footing.  It is no time for such frivolities - but at least the manuscripts get deposited on the shelves of Aberdeen University’s archives.

The fate of the manuscripts: After the war, their old friend, William Walker, the doyen of Scots ballad researchers and Child’s correspondent for the area, sits down to take a better look - and is sorry he has.  For Greig and Duncan, instead of going for all the ‘good’ stuff, have actually recorded virtually everything offered them, as offered them.  ‘Give exactly what you get’ had been their motto.  Walker is horrified:

the Collectors ...  having defined ‘Folk-Song’ as ‘songs which people sing’, opened the door for an inflow of Music Hall Ditties, popular street songs, and the multitudinous Slip-Songs of the Ballad hawker.  These ...  have nothing traditional about them ...  Many of these in passing from mouth to mouth among the people ...  have ...  acquired a kind of traditional character - but ...  I do not consider them ‘folk-song’ at all.  Some of the tunes ...  have a real ‘folk-song’ smack about them but probably belong to something better than the texts they are now attached to.  Apart from these, however, the Collection contains many songs and ballads of or from the people, genuinely traditional stuff, though frequently having traces of defective memories and careless hearers, during the course of their long descent.
This will never do.  He makes absolutely sure that only the ‘genuine traditional stuff’ - the Child ballads, some 13% of the whole - gets published in 1925 by his young protégé, Alexander Keith, and seals it with a ‘That’s all, Folks!’ title of Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs collected in Aberdeenshire by the Late Gavin Greig.  (Which is odd, because he knows the singing tradition in the region is far from dying out).

Current publication of the Collection: It is a wonder that Walker didn’t have the remainder burned.  And next, Duncan’s daughter takes away her father’s notebooks, some of which have songs and verses suspiciously written in shorthand.  Everyone thinks she has destroyed them, but they turn up in a bank box when she dies - in 1959

Within less than five years, Paul Duncan, Duncan’s grandson, takes the Duncan notebooks to the people in the English Folk Dance and Song Society; they get excited and the School of Scottish Studies and Aberdeen University are quickly brought into the picture.  The Society provides the first editor, Pat Shuldham-Shaw, and Edinburgh provides the research and editing resources.  Aberdeen provides not only the precious notebooks and related correspondence, but also agrees to meet the publishing costs of what is clearly going to be a considerable series.

To compress the history of a great effort: Pat Shaw dies in 1977 and Emily Lyle takes over the editing, later bringing in a team of volume editors for the later volumes.  Volume One appears in 1981; Volume Eight in 2002.  This is the final and highly important volume, for it not only has the last of the songs, but also the crucial indices and background details.

What’s in the Collection?

So it’s a catalogue of regional Scottish song, of interest to ‘traditional’ Scots singers and bothy balladeers?  Far from it.  Yes, Greig and Duncan had hoped they might bring before a grateful country ‘true’ Scottish Song (just like young Cecil south of the border), but their hopes soon faded as they realised that their collection transcended regional, national (Scottish and British) and international boundaries.  For apart from a relatively small number of North-East historical ballads and the unique farm-servant bothy ballads, the collection largely consists of a huge variety of ballads and songs which have ended up in Aberdeenshire over the past few centuries.

[There was another interesting factor which soon came to light.  Greig had spent most of his working life extolling the (drawing-room) songs of the ‘National Songbook’ composers - Burns, Hogg, Lady Nairne and the like - the ‘glories’ of ‘Scottish Song’.  (Modern English folkies who envy the state and status of Scottish traditional song forget the hard reality that these composers form an almost impenetrable layer over Scottish song culture in general.  As far as the songbooks, schools, media and expatriates are concerned, that’s all that there is to it).  But Greig and Duncan found that ‘the people’ virtually disregarded such fine stuff - and although both were willing to take anything, from music hall to playground songs, they were not offered the ‘glories’ of Burns et al.]

So what will you get if you buy the eight volumes?  Some 2,000 named songs, with variant texts and tunes for many of them.  Extensive songs notes, many written by Greig and Duncan.  This is a singable collection, and broadside aficionados will be delighted not only to find tunes for many of their texts, but also further evidence of the print/oral interplay (you will recall how this shocked Walker earlier).  You won’t find a study of individual singing techniques, for the tunes were simply noted down first in sol-fa, then transferred to equally simple staff notation.  Both Greig and Duncan commented in general terms on such matters as style and ornamentation in their lectures - and it is a great pity that the editors have not included Greig’s 1905 Presidential Address to the Buchan Field Club entitled ‘Folk-Song in Buchan’ (later reworked into a 27,000 word monograph in 1906) which goes into such matters, nor Duncan’s 1908 ‘Lecture to the Aberdeen Wagner Society’, which also covers such ground.  Indeed it is regrettable that there is no bibliography of either collector’s writings.  Admittedly the song notes are lavishly adorned with extracts from them, but that is not as valuable as including complete works; to find most of these you will have to go to the ‘Greig-Duncan Provisional Bibliography’ in Folklore 95 (1984), pp.204-9.

Victorian editing?  You are also getting songs collected by two men - one the son of a forester the other of a carpenter - who were not only known, liked and trusted in the region, but who had been brought up there, attended the local schools, spoke the local ‘Doric’ and had been exposed to the area’s song culture from childhood.  It has been suggested that because they had gained middle class occupations then either the singers might withhold ‘doubtful’ songs or they themselves would bowdlerise their findings.  The first suggestion falsely imposes English class attitudes on an ‘anyone-can-make-it-if-they-try’ society.  This was not the squire and the parson summoning poor folk to the Great Hall to sing in their Sunday Best (so vividly described by Bob Copper) but two local lads-made-good interacting with neighbours and childhood friends.  You won’t find the type of ‘bawdy pub ballad’ regretted by one early reviewer but many of the songs are risqué enough.  Indeed this caused at least two problems.  Greig at one point pressed hard that they publish a ‘popular’ volume of the songs; Duncan dug his heels in, saying that this would necessarily entail bowdlerisation, and that they must simply wait and bring out a ‘Great Thesaurus’ with everything included.  It nearly caused a rift, but Duncan won.  The minister’s habit of writing out doubtful songs and verses in shorthand (such as The Cluster of Nits[Nuts] or Pit the Lassie till her Beddie), however, seems to have provoked his daughter, Katharine - a secretary to trade - to take and hide them away.  She also wouldn’t have been too happy with the idea that the songs concerned might either have come from Duncan’s own family (not to mention his mother), or been elicited with the help of the ‘flaskie of whisky’ the enterprising minister is reputed to have carried when visiting ‘the wandering tinkers ...  and farm workers’. 

Visiting wandering tinkers?  That was the firm family legend, although few appear as named contributors.  In the final volume Emily Lyle regrets that the collectors did not break through the barrier ‘separating the settled community from the travellers’.

But would they have gained any more songs if they had ‘broken through’?  This would require that the travellers at that time had a unique body of Lowland song, unshared by the rest of the community.  This is not only hard to prove, but judging from Greig and Duncan’s huge haul from the region, highly unlikely.  What does seem likely is that fifty years later, when the likes of Hamish Henderson began collecting, the custody and performance of the songs Greig and Duncan had collected had come to remain largely with the travellers, together with a few members of the general public, such as John Strachan of Fyvie.  Such folk as John, who had held on to their songs against the march of literacy in general and the onslaught of gramophone and radio (which substituted concert hall songs for the old bothy ballads, and - ironically - filled the air with ‘Scottish Song’ - a process promulgated by television and ‘White Heather Club’ broadcasting).

Indeed, knowing what we now know about the extent of the powerful ‘print to oral’ transfer process (whose marked presence in the Collection so upset Walker) even in Greig and Duncan’s time, considerable transfer of song must have been from what was the highly literate general community of the North-East to the far less literate travellers. 


This is a huge singable collection of ballads and songs sympathetically drawn by two liked and trusted men from the society of which they were an integral part.  It reflects not only the singing of one of the richest musical cultures in Britain, but also of the British Isles - and beyond - in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Two meticulous and honest Victorian/Edwardian collectors have had their work finally published as they wanted ‘in proper form’ thanks to the efforts of descendants, local folk, the English Folk Dance and Song Society, the University of Aberdeen, and over thirty years of devoted, sheer hard work by the late Pat Shaw and Emily Lyle of the School of Scottish Studies (not forgetting her additional volume editors).

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Ian A Olson - 5.2.03

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