Library and Information Services, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Friday, 6 March 2015

Robert Burns Thought Scottish Songs should be Performed Like This

A few years ago, we posted a blog entry about William Tytler.  Never heard of him?  Well, he lived a long, long time ago. 
Nonetheless, we think Robert Burns may have been influenced by William Tytler's "prescription" for good Scottish song performances.  He could have read Tytler's dissertation - it was published in several different books.  Or he could have read Joseph Ritson's book, Scotish Songs, where Ritson quoted from Tytler's dissertation.

So, let's find out more about what Tytler said.


William Tytler (image from ElectricScotland)
On 12th September, 1792, William Tytler died at the grand old age of 81.  Scottish musical history owes much to Tytler.

Tytler (1711-92) was an Edinburgh lawyer and historian. A founder member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780, his A Dissertation on the Scottish Musick was an influential commentary on the history of Scottish music for antiquarians and collectors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It was first published in Hugo Arnot’s The History of Edinburgh, attributed to ‘a learned and ingenious friend’, in 1779 (and again in 1788).  It also appeared under Tytler's name in 1783 and 1790, and was later read at a meeting, and subsequently published in 1792, in the first Transactions of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Tytler wanted to track down the origins of the earliest melodies, ‘and to trace the history of our music down to modern times.’ His comments were influential upon the song collection compilers who followed him - Johnson, Burns and Ritson. Tytler’s pronouncement about the correct kind of accompaniment for Scottish song became almost a ‘gold standard’ for contemporary antiquarian publishers of song collections.
  • Royal Conservatoire of Scotland - for books on Scottish music history in the Whittaker Library, click here.
  • Check COPAC (UK national and university libraries) to find your nearest copy of a Tytler source.
  • We have a photocopy of Tytler's dissertation in our own library - here.  (We downloaded it from

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