Home» Publications» SLD Newsletter» Newsletter April 2008» The Recorder in Scotland

The Recorder in Scotland

In Scotland the recorder has been noted as a popular amateur instrument from as early as the 17th century. The recorder was a sociable instrument since it fitted into orchestras and ensembles, but was played only by men, for whom music-making was a group activity. Women tended to make music individually, on instruments such as the spinet, which were harmonically complete.1

One of the first music concerts ever held in Scotland took place in Edinburgh on St Cecilia's Day in 1695, and the orchestra included both professional musicians and amateur players of recorders. As the enthusiasm for music grew, the Musical Society of Edinburgh was established in 1728. It organised regular concerts in which works by Corelli, Handel, Haydn, Stamitz and Geminiani were regularly performed. Thomas Erskine became the Director-General of the Society and oversaw the construction of the original St Cecilia's Hall in 1762 in the Cowgate, Edinburgh. In 1763 the current St Cecilia's Hall was built for the Edinburgh Musical Society; designed by Robert Mylne, the Hall is the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland and is still used as a concert venue. Presently owned by the University of Edinburgh, St Cecilia's Hall now houses the University's Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments.

The Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments includes five recorders which date back to the eighteenth century. Only one of the five originates from Scotland, that being a treble which lacks mouth and end parts.

The German flute was introduced into Scotland in 1725 by Sir Gilbert Elliot, who had learned to play the flute as an instrument for chamber music in France. The flute became increasingly popular but never quite replaced the recorder entirely: in 1728, the master of the music school in Haddington (east of Edinburgh) was expected to teach the German flute alone, but nine years later in 1737, an advertisement for a Master of the Musick School in Aberdeen included requirements to "teach publickly... German Flute [and] common flute", the common flute being the recorder.2 Recorders of all sizes continued to be advertised for sale in both Edinburgh and Glasgow throughout the 18th century.

There is considerable evidence that recorders were still being played in small groups, or "in consort", until the late 1700s. But what sort of music did they play? Any music which fitted the range of the recorder would have been enjoyed, including music originally written for the viol, violin and German flute. Music publications increased after the 1720s; Scottish airs and tunes became available along with more classical pieces written specifically for the recorder, for example "Airs for the Flute" was written for the flute beque, i.e. the recorder, by Alexander Baillie, and published in 1735.

Recorder music continues to be popular in the twenty-first century. Programmes range from 18th century compositions, such as the charming Seasonal Airs of James Oswald, to modern compositions especially written for recorder consorts. Modern Scottish ensembles often include performances of early music in which the recorder is given parts originally written for flute or violin.

Scottish Early Music Groups and Societies

1 Plant, Marjorie (1952) The Domestic Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, Edinburgh University Press

2 Ibid.

This article was adapted from "The Musical Shoremaster: David Allan 1760" by Jillian Galbraith in The Recorder Magazine Vol. 27 No. 3, Autumn 2007.