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Scotlandmarker is internationally known for its traditional music, which has remained vibrant throughout the 20th century, when many traditional forms worldwide lost popularity to pop music. In spite of emigration and a well-developed connection to music imported from the rest of Europe and the United States, the music of Scotland has kept many of its traditional aspects; indeed, it has itself influenced many forms of music.

Scottish traditional music, although both influencing and being influenced by Irish traditional music, is very much a creature unto itself, and, despite the popularity of various international pop music forms, remains a vital and living tradition. There are several Scottish record labels, music festivals and a roots magazine, Living Tradition.

Many outsiders associate Scottish folk music almost entirely with the Great Highland Bagpipe, which has indeed long played an important part of Scottish music. Although this particular form of bagpipe developed exclusively in Scotland, it is not the only Scottish bagpipe, and other bagpiping traditions remain across Europe. The earliest mention of bagpipes in Scotland dates to the 1400s although they could have been introduced to Scotland as early as the sixth century. The pìob mhór, or Great Highland Bagpipe, was originally associated with both hereditary piping families and professional pipers to various clan chiefs; later, pipes were adopted for use in other venues, including military marching. Piping clans included the MacArthurs, MacDonalds, McKays and, especially, the MacCrimmonmarker, who were hereditary pipers to the Clan MacLeod.

Folk music

Folk music takes many forms in a broad musical tradition, although the dividing lines are not rigid, and many artists work across the boundaries. Culturally, there is a split between the Gaelic tradition and the Scots tradition.

The oldest forms of music in Scotland are theorized to be Gaelic singing and harp playing. Although much of the harp tradition was lost through extinction, the harp is being revived by contemporary players. Later, the Great Highland Bagpipe appeared on the scene. Initially, pipers played traditional pieces called 'piobaireachd', meaning 'piping' in Gaelic, which consist of a theme and a series of developments. Later, the style of 'light music,' including marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, and hornpipes, became more popular. The British army adopted piping and spread the idea of pipe bands throughout the British Empire. Presently, piping is closely tied to band and individual competitions, although pipers are also experimenting with new possibilities for the instrument. Other forms of bagpipes also exist in the Scottish tradition; they are detailed in the piping section below.

The piping tradition is strongly connected to Gaelic singing (some piping ornaments mimic the Gaelic consonants of the songs), stepdance (the traditional dance meters determine the rhythm of the tunes), and fiddle, which appeared in Scotland in the 17th century. These components are part of the dance music which is played across Scotland at country dances, ceilidhs, Highland balls and frequently at weddings. Group dances are performed to music provided typically by an ensemble, or dance band, which may include fiddle, bagpipe, accordion, tin whistle, cello, keyboard and percussion. Many modern Scottish dance bands are becoming more lively and innovative, with influences from other types of music (most notably jazz chord structures) becoming noticeable.

Vocal music is also popular in the Scottish musical tradition. There are ballads and laments, generally sung by a lone singer with backing, or played on traditional instruments such as harp, fiddle, accordion or bagpipes. There are many traditional folk songs, which are generally melodic, haunting or rousing. These are often very specific to certain regions, and are performed today by a burgeoning variety of folk groups. Popular songs were originally produced by music hall performers such as Harry Lauder and Will Fyffe for the stage. More modern exponents of the style have included Andy Stewart, Glen Daly, Moira Anderson, Kenneth McKellar, Calum Kennedy and the Alexander Brothers.

Folk song collecting

The earliest printed collection of secular music in Scotland was by publisher John Forbes in Aberdeenmarker in 1662. Songs and Fancies: to Thre, Foure, or Five Partes, both Apt for Voices and Viols, printed three times in the next twenty years, contained 77 songs, of which 25 were of Scottish origin. Most are anonymous. The other songs in the book are mostly in English, and include works by John Dowland.

While ballads had been written for centuries, and had begun to be printed in the seventeenth century, the 18th century brought a number of collections of Scots songs and tunes. Examples include Playford's Original Scotch Tunes 1700, Sinkler's MS. 1710, James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems both Ancient and Modern 1711, William Thomson's Orpheus caledonius: or, A collection of Scots songs 1733, James Oswald's The Caledonian Pocket Companion 1751, and David Herd's Ancient and modern Scottish songs, heroic ballads, etc.: collected from memory, tradition and ancient authors 1776. These were drawn on for the most influential collection, The Scots Musical Museum published in six volumes from 1787 to 1803 by James Johnson and Robert Burns, which also included new words by Burns. The Select Scottish Airs collected by George Thomson and published between 1799 and 1818 included contributions from Burns and Walter Scott.



Though often derided as Scottish kitsch, the accordion has long been a part of Scottish music. Country dance bands, such as that led by the renowned Jimmy Shand, have helped to dispel this image. In the early twentieth century, the melodeon (a variety of accordion) was popular among rural folk, and was part of the bothy band tradition. More recently, performers like Phil Cunningham (of Silly Wizard) have helped popularize the accordion in Scottish music.


Though bagpipes are closely associated with Scotland by many outsiders, the instrument (or, more precisely, family of instruments) is found throughout large swathes of Europe, North Africa and South Asia. The most common bagpipe heard in modern Scottish music is the Great Highland Bagpipe, which was spread by the Highland regiments of the British Army. Historically, numerous other bagpipes existed, and many of them have been recreated in the last half-century.

Bagpipe band performing in a parade in the U.S.

The classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe is called Pìobaireachd, which consists of a first movement called the urlar (in English, the 'ground' movement,) which establishes a theme. The theme is then developed in a series of movements, growing increasingly complex each time. After the urlar there is usually a number of variations and doublings of the variations. Then comes the taorluath movement and variation and the crunluath movement, continuing with the underlying theme. This is usually followed by a variation of the crunluath, usually the crunluath a mach (other variations: crunluath breabach and crunluath fosgailte) ; the piece closes with a return to the urlar.

Bagpipe competitions are common in Scotland, for both solo pipers and pipe bands. Competitive solo piping is currently popular among many aspiring pipers, some of whom travel from as far as Australia to attend Scottish competitions. Other pipers have chosen to explore more creative usages of the instrument. Different types of bagpipes have also seen a resurgence since the 70s, as the historical border pipes and Scottish smallpipes have been resuscitated and now attract a thriving alternative piping community.

The pipe band is another common format for highland piping, with top competitive bands including the Victoria Police Pipe Band from Australia (formerly), Northern Irelandmarker's Field Marshal Montgomery, Canada's 78th Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band and Simon Fraser University Pipe Band, and Scottish bands like Shotts and Dykehead Pipe Band and Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. These bands, as well as many others, compete in numerous pipe band competitions, often the World Pipe Band Championships, and sometimes perform in public concerts.


Scottish traditional fiddling encompasses a number of regional styles, including the bagpipe-inflected west Highlands, the upbeat and lively style of Norse-influenced Shetland Islandsmarker and the Strathspey and slow airs of the North-East. The instrument arrived late in the 17th century, and is first mentioned in 1680 in a document from Newbattle Abbeymarker in Midlothianmarker, Lessones For Ye Violin.

In the 18th century, Scottish fiddling is said to have reached new heights. Fiddlers like William Marshall and Niel Gow were legends across Scotland, and the first collections of fiddle tunes were published in mid-century. The most famous and useful of these collections was a series published by Nathaniel Gow, one of Niel's sons, and a fine fiddler and composer in his own right. Classical composers such as Charles McLean, James Oswald and William McGibbon used Scottish fiddling traditions in their Baroque compositions.

Scottish fiddling is the root of much American folk music, such as Appalachian fiddling, but is most directly represented in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, an island on the east coast of Canada, which received some 25,000 emigrants from the Scottish Highlands during the Highland Clearances of 1780-1850. Cape Breton musicians such as Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, and Jerry Holland have brought their music to a worldwide audience, building on the traditions of master fiddlers such as Buddy MacMaster and Winston Scotty Fitzgerald.

Among native Scots, Alasdair Fraser and Aly Bain are two of the most accomplished, following in the footsteps of influential twentieth century players such as James Scott Skinner, John McCusker, Hector MacAndrew, Angus Grant and Tom Anderson. The growing number of young professional Scottish fiddlers makes a complete list impossible.


The history of the guitar in traditional music is recent, as is that of the cittern and bouzouki, which in the forms used in Scottish and Irish music only date to the late 1960s. The guitar featured prominently in the folk revival of the early 1960s with the likes of Archie Fisher, the Corries, Hamish Imlach, Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor. The virtuoso playing of Bert Jansch was widely influential, and the range of instruments was widened by the Incredible String Band. Notable artists include Tony McManus, Dave MacIsaac, Peerie Willie Johnson and Dick Gaughan. Other notable guitarists in Scottish music scene include Kris Drever of Fine Friday and Lau, and Ross Martin of Cliar, Daimh and Harem Scarem.


The harp, or clarsach, has a long and ancient history in Scotland, and was regarded as the national instrument until it was replaced with the Highland bagpipes in the 15th century. Stone carvings in the East of Scotland support the theory that the harp was present in Pictish Scotland well before the 9th century and may have been the original ancestor of the modern European harp and even formed the basis for Scottish pibroch, the folk bagpipe tradition.

Barring illustrations of harps in the 9th century Utrecht psalter, only thirteen depictions exist in Europe of any triangular chordophone harp pre-11th century, and all thirteen of them come from Scotland. Pictish harps were strung from horsehair. The instruments apparently spread south to the Anglo-Saxons, who commonly used gut strings, and then west to the Gaels of the Highlands and to Ireland. The earliest Irish word for a harp is in fact Cruit, a word which strongly suggests a Pictish provenance for the instrument. The surname MacWhirter, Mac a' Chruiteir, means son of the harpist, and is common throughout Scotland, but particularly in Carrick and Galloway.

The harper on the Monifeith Pictish stone, Scotland, 700 - 900 AD

The Clàrsach (Gd.) or Cláirseach (Ga.) is the name given to the wire-strung harp of either Scotland or Irelandmarker. The word begins to appear by the end of the 14th century. Until the end of the Middle Ages it was the most popular musical instrument in Scotland, and harpers were among the most prestigious cultural figures in the courts of Irish/Scottish chieftains and Scottish kings and earls. In both countries, harpers enjoyed special rights and played a crucial part in ceremonial occasions such as coronations and poetic bardic recitals. The Kings of Scotland employed harpers until the end of the Middle Ages, and they feature prominently in royal iconography. Several Clarsach players were noted at the Battle of the Standard (1138), and when Alexander III (died 1286) visited London in 1278, his court minstrels with him, records show payments were made to one Elyas, "King of Scotland's harper."

Three medieval Gaelic harps survived into the modern period, two from Scotland (the Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont Harp) and one in Ireland (the Brian Boru harp), although artistic evidence suggests that all three were probably made in the western Highlands.

The playing of this Gaelic harp with wire strings died out in Scotland in the 18th century and in Ireland in the early 19th century. As part of the late 19th century Gaelic revival, the instruments used differed greatly from the old wire-strung harps. The new instruments had gut strings, and their construction and playing style was based on the larger orchestral pedal harp. Nonetheless the name "clàrsach" was and is still used in Scotland today to describe these new instruments. The modern gut-strung clàrsach has thousands of players, both in Scotland and Ireland, as well as North America and elsewhere. The 1931 formation of the Clarsach Society kickstarted the modern harp renaissance. Recent harp players include Savourna Stevenson, Maggie MacInnes, and the band Sileas. Notable events include the Edinburgh International Harp Festival, which recently staged the world record for the largest number of harpists to play at the same time.

Tin whistle

One of the oldest tin whistles still in existence is the Tusculum whistle, found with pottery dating to the 14th and 15th centuries; it is currently in the collection of the Museum of Scotlandmarker. Today the whistle is a very common instrument in recorded Scottish music. Although few well-known performers choose the tin whistle as their principal instrument, it is quite common for pipers, flute players, and other musicians to play the whistle as well.

Tin whistles in a variety of makes and keys.

Modern Scottish music

In the twentieth century, collections like Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs, collected by Reverend James Duncan and Gavin Greig, helped inspire the ensuing folk revival. These were followed by collectors like Hamish Henderson and Calum McLean, both of whom worked with American musicologist Alan Lomax. Earlier, the first Celtic music international star, James Scott Skinner, a fiddler known as the "Strathspey King", had gained fame with some very early recordings.

Among the folk performers discovered by Henderson, McLean and Lomax was Jeannie Robertson, who was brought to sing at the People's Festival in Edinburghmarker in 1953. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, pop-folk groups like The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were leading a folk revival; the singers at the 1951 People's Festival, John Strachan , Flora MacNeil, Jimmy MacBeath and others, began the Scottish revival.


Like many countries, Scotland underwent a roots revival in the 1960s. Folk music had declined somewhat in popularity during the preceding generation, although performers like Jimmy Shand, Kenneth McKellar, and Moira Anderson still maintained an international following and mass market record sales, but numerous young Scots thought themselves separated from their country's culture. A new wave of Scottish folk performers inspired by American traditionalists like Pete Seeger soon found its own heroes, including young singers Ray and Archie Fisher and Hamish Imlach, and, from the tradition, Jeannie Robertson and Jimmy MacBeath.


Scottish folk singing was revived by artists including Ewan MacColl, who founded one of the first folk clubs in Britain, singers Alex Campbell, Jean Redpath, Hamish Imlach, and Dick Gaughan and groups like The Gaugers, The Corries, The McCalmans and the Ian Campbell Folk Group. Folk clubs boomed, with a strong Irish influence from The Dubliners. With Irish folk bands like The Chieftains finding widespread popularity, 60s Scottish musicians played in pipe bands and Strathspey and Reel Societies. Musicologist Frances Collinson published The Traditional and National Music of Scotland in 1966 to surprising popular acclaim, as part of the burgeoning Scottish folk revival. Still, until the end of the 60s Scottish music was rarely heard in pubs or on the radio, though Irish traditional music was widespread. The Corries had established a fan-base, while the English band Fairport Convention created a British folk rock scene that spread north in the form of JSD Band and Contraband. A more conventional approach was taken by Andy Stewart, Glen Daly and The Alexander Brothers.


Music had long been primarily a solo affair, until The Clutha, a Glasgowmarker-based group, began solidifying the idea of a Celtic band, which eventually consisted of fiddle or pipe leading the melody, and bouzouki and guitar along with the vocals. Though The Clutha were the first modern band, earlier groups like The Exiles (with Bobby Campbell) had forged in that direction, adding instruments like the fiddle to vocal groups. Alongside The Clutha were other pioneering Glasgow bands, including The Whistlebinkies and Aly Bain's The Boys of the Lough, both largely instrumental. The Whistlebinkies were notable, along with Alba and The Clutha, for experimenting with different varieties of bagpipies; Alba used Highland pipes, The Whistlebinkies used reconstructed Border pipes and The Clutha used Scottish smallpipes alongside Highlands.

Bert Jansch and Davy Graham took blues guitar and eastern influences into their music, and in the mid-1960s, the most popular group of the Scottish folk scene, the Incredible String Band, began their career in Clive's Incredible Folk Club in Glasgow taking these influences a stage further.

The next wave of bands, including Silly Wizard, The Tannahill Weavers, Battlefield Band, Ossian and Alba, featured prominent bagpipers, a trend which climaxed in the 1980s, when Robin Morton's A Controversy of Pipers was released to great acclaim. By the end of the 1970s, lyrics in the Scottish Gaelic language were appearing in songs by Nah-Oganaich and Ossian, with Runrig's Play Gaelic in 1978 being the first major success for Gaelic-language Scottish folk.

Pop and rock were slow to get started in Scotland and produced few bands of note in the 1950s or 1960s. However, by the 1970s bands such as the Average White Band, Nazareth, and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band began to have international success. The biggest Scottish pop act of the 1970s however (at least in terms of sales) were undoubtedly the Bay City Rollers.

1980s, 1990s and 2000s

Scotland produced a few punk bands of note, such as The Exploited, The Vaselines, The Rezillos, The Skids, The Fire Engines, and the Scars. However, it was not until the post-punk era of the early 1980s, that Scotland really came into its own, with bands like Cocteau Twins, Orange Juice, The Associates, Simple Minds, Maggie Reilly, Annie Lennox (Eurythmics), Hue and Cry, The Proclaimers and Josef K achieved critical acclaim. Since the 1980s Scotland has produced a more or less constant stream of important rock and alternative rock acts.

In the 1980s, Edinburgh saw the emergence of Jock Tamson's Bairns with a style called Scots swing. The 1980s also saw the rise of Scottish progressive rock/metal, with Marillion receiving worldwide recognition. Bands such as these have given inspiration to countless hundreds of 21st century Scottish rock bands resulting in the fruitful and diverse underground music culture present in Scotland today.

Most recently, Scottish piping has included a renaissance for cauldwind pipes such as smallpipes and border pipes, which use cold, dry air as opposed to the moist air of mouth-blown pipes. Other pipers such as Gordon Duncan and Fred Morrison began to explore new musical genres on many kinds of pipes. The accordion also gained in popularity during the 1970s due to the renown of Phil Cunningham, whose distinctive piano accordion style was an integral part of the band Silly Wizard. Numerous musicians continued to follow more traditional styles including Alex Beaton.

More modern musicians include Shooglenifty, innovators of the house fusion acid croft, along with Peatbog Faeries. The Easy Club, jazz fusion bands, Talitha MacKenzie and Martin Swan, puirt a' bhèil mouth musicians, pioneering singers Savourna Stevenson, Heather Heywood and Christine Primrose. Other modern musicians include the late techno-piper Martyn Bennett (who used hip hop beats and sampling), Hamish Moore, Hamish Stuart, Jim Diamond, Sheena Easton and Gordon Mooney.

Scotland produced many indie bands in the 1980s, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Blue Nile, Teenage Fanclub, 18 Wheeler, The Pastels and BMX Bandits being some of the best examples. The following decade also saw a burgeoning scene in Glasgow, with the likes of Belle & Sebastian, The Delgados, Bis and Mogwai . The late 1990s and 2000s has also seen Scottish guitar bands continue to achieve critical or commercial success, examples include Franz Ferdinand, Biffy Clyro, Travis, KT Tunstall, Amy Macdonald, Paolo Nutini, The View, Idlewild, Glasvegas and The Fratellis.

Classical music

Pre 20th Century

Perhaps the first notable Scottish composer was Robert Carver. However, despite this promising start, few Scottish composers since then have achieved international renown. Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie was well known in the 18th century, but his work was quickly forgotten (although there are now signs of a revival). Scotland produced little of note in the 19th century(although the violin concerto of Alexander Mackenzie was much prized by Sarasate).

20th and 21st Century

Towards the end of the 19th century there were signs of a revival, with composers such as Hamish MacCunn, John Blackwood McEwen and William Wallace, all of whom wrote in the Romantic tradition. Many modernist composers of the period (such as Francis George Scott and J. Murdoch Henderson) tended to concentrate on shorter forms like songs, rather than symphonies or operas. After World War II Robin Orr, Thomas Wilson, Thea Musgrave, Edward McGuire, James MacMillan, James Dillon, Gordon McPherson, John McLeod, James Douglas and Judith Weir attracted international attention. Movie soundtrack composers Muir Mathieson, Patrick Doyle and Craig Armstrong achieved international renown.

The English composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies founded the St Magnus Festival of music on Orkneymarker, where he lives. The Edinburgh International Festival each year attracts some of the best musicians in the world to Scotland. The East Neuk Festival presents a range of international performers in historic churches and other venues in the North East of Fifemarker. Sound is North-East Scotland's festival of new music, presenting events in Aberdeenmarker and venues throughout Aberdeenshiremarker.

Scotland has provided the inspiration for international composers, most notably Felix Mendelssohn, Benjamin Britten and Sir Malcolm Arnold. Britten in particular arranged several Scottish folk songs for voice and piano as well as the orchestral Scottish Ballad, a reworking of the old hymn tune Dundee.

Classical Performers

Scotland has produced several notable performers of classical music, including the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, the pianist Murray McLachlan, the violinist Nicola Benedetti, the violist William Primrose, singers Isobel Baillie, Henry Herford, Margaret Marshall and Kenneth McKellar, classical guitarist Paul Galbraith, and conductors Bryden Thomson, James Loughran, Donald Runnicles and Sir Alexander Gibson.

Scotland has three international standard orchestras: Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO) and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO), all based in Glasgow: the RSNO's home is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hallmarker, whilst the BBC SSO and the SCO are residenced at City Halls. Scottish Opera is the national opera company whose home venue is the Theatre Royal, Glasgowmarker. There are also several chamber ensembles, such as the Hebrides Ensemble, specialising in contemporary music, the Edinburgh Quartet, Concerto Caledonia, and the Scottish Ensemble.

The independent classical record labels Linn Records and Delphian Records are based in Scotland.


Scotland has a strong jazz tradition and has produced many world class musicians since the 1950s, notably Jimmy Deuchar, Bobby Wellins and Joe Temperley. A long-standing problem was the lack of opportunities within Scotland to play with international musicians. Since the 1970s this has been addressed by enthusiast-run organisations such as Platform and then Assembly Direct, which have provided improved performance opportunities.

Perhaps the best known contemporary Scottish jazz musician is Tommy Smith. Again, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival brings some of the best jazz musicians in the world to Scotland every year, although, increasingly, other cities (such as Glasgow and Dundeemarker) also run international jazz festivals.


  • of "Na cuperean", a traditional Scottish song from Nova Scotiansmarker in Californiamarker from the Library of Congress' California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection; performed by Mary A. McDonald on April 11, 1939 in Berkeley, Californiamarker

See also


  • Emmerson, George S. Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String - history of Scottish dance music. Second edition 1988. Galt House, London, Ontario, Canada. ISBN 0-9690653-3-7
  • Eydmann, Stuart "The concertina as an emblem of the folk music revival in the British Isles." 1995. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 4: 41-49.
  • Eydmann, Stuart "As Common as Blackberries: The First Hundred Years of the Accordion in Scotland." 1999. Folk Music Journal 7 No. 5 pp. 565-608.
  • Eydmann, Stuart "From the "Wee Melodeon" to the "Big Box": The Accordion in Scotland since 1945." The Accordion in all its Guises, 2001. Musical Performance Volume 3 Parts 2 - 4 pp. 107-125.
  • Eydmann, Stuart The Life and Times of the Concertina: the adoption and usage of a novel musical instrument with particular reference to Scotland. PhD Thesis, The Open University 1995 published online at [48584]
  • Hardie, Alastair J. The Caledonian Companion - A Collection of Scottish Fiddle Music and Guide to its Performance. 1992. The Hardie Press, Edinburgh. ISBN 0-946868-08-5
  • Heywood, Pete and Colin Irwin. "From Strathspeys to Acid Croft". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 261–272. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Gilchrist, Jim. "Scotland". 2001. In Mathieson, Kenny (Ed.), Celtic music, pp. 54-87. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-623-8

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