Scottish Ceilidh Music Forms




If you book or hire a Scottish Ceilidh Band for your wedding reception or birthday party, you'll want to know what music you might expect to hear. The hornpipe itself is an instrument and was a primitive double-reed wind instrument dating from around the 13th entury. The dance and its related music came to have its maritime associations around the aiddle of the 18th century. As many ships' companies carried a resident fiddler, music was readily available for dancing, thus providing a much needed form of daily exercise, and as I said in other articles, was a means of keeping rhythm when doing group tasks such as 50 people turning the large capstan. Similar functions were the origins of the jazz idiom, where the slaves would sing and chance to keep time when working in the plantations, and it was this rhythmical work music that was part of what developed into jazz, along of course with the religious music of the slaves.

Much of the even-rhythmed passage-work co-incides with the style of the reel, but the dotted rhythms, characteristic of so many hornpipes, were a later mid-19th century innovation, another thing that the Victorians can be thankful. .


Giga, Gigue and Geige are all titles for the "fidil", the modern violin's ancestor of twelve to fifteen hundred years ago. The Scottish Jig probably derives its name from the sort of music played on these instruments. Although mainly associated with the music of Ireland, the jig occupies an honourable place in Scottish traditional music.


Usually cast in the pastoral or slow air genre, this is a composition to commemorate a person's death.


Imbued with the spirit of the Scottish fighting man, the Scottish march is normally written in common time and played at a tempo of J = 92 - 100. Playing pipe marches on the fiddle is an important part of the repertoire .


Like the slow air and slow strathspey, this is music for listening to and was not designed for dance purposes. Played in a slow or moderate tempo ( J = 52 - 56), this was a form particularly cultivated by J. Scott Skinner, the Victorian who I have mentioned earlier.


Originating in Bohemia around the 1830's, the Scottish polka is usually written in 4 time and played at a tempo of J = 76 - 84. It is often associated with display-music of a rather virtuoso nature.


The word is of Germanic origin meaning to frolic or romp and denotes a lively reel or strathspey. Many tunes, familiar today as strathspeys, appeared originally as rants. The tempo is similar to that of the strathspey, i.e., J =132- 138.



Re Reel is a form common to Scotland, Ireland and England and today implies a sprightly, ev-rhythmed tune in fast tempo. Many of the reels in J. Scott Skinner's The Scottish Violinist marked to be played at J = 136 . Here is a quote from that ubiquitous Mr Scott Skinner:

"The reel should be played crisp and birly like a weel-gaun wheelie."


A strathspey-like tune accented in away which implies more of a § metre than the strathsp-common time; correspondingly the tempo can be rather faster than that of the average str spey.


This made its first appearance in print around 1700. It is distinguished by a use of anact-and a stressing of the first three quavers of the bar and tempi which can vary from a leisurely to a lively speed. The rhythmic structure of the Scots measure often hhr the hornpipe of over a century later.


A form of solo-music giving the player a chance to display beauty of tone and phrase


Here the form, rhythms and bowing technique of the dance-strathspey is applied to musi a slower tempo ( 60-69). Skinner applied the title "solo strathspey" to form.


These compositions, usually of the slow air genre, were once the melodies of songs and wee to a text.


The earliest examples of this form emerged around 1749 and were known as "straths reels". Its structure hinges upon the rhythms and undoubtedly provides our mu greatest challenge to bowing-technique. The dance-strathspey, moulded from the characte the fiddle itself, has developed into the most important form of Scottish traditional music, tempo can vary from J = 126 to J = 138.

So here we've been looking at an East Coast Scottish musical family involved with the traditions of the Scottish ceilidh as seen in that part of Scotland, plus some definitions of the tunes that they would think would be an important part of any Scottish ceilidh or Scottish country dance. Because I suggested earlier, with the difference between a Scottish ceilidh on the east coast Scottish ceilidh on the West Coast of Scotland, unless and forget the Scottish Highlands in particular the Orkneys and Shetland's. Sometimes the islands have their own tunes or they take the traditional tunes such as Willafjord, As played by Tom Anderson, the famous Shetland fiddle player.

This traditional Shetland reel came originally from Greenland, having been brought back at the end of the 19th century as a result of the Arctic whaling expeditions. It can be found in collection of Shetland fiddle-tunes entitled Haand me doon da Fiddle (1979) compiled by Tom Anderson and Pam Swing. This is the version that I play quite frequently at Scottish ceilidh's, and for that matter may put it into any general ceilidh as it's such a good tune.

The characteristic syncopations (a displacing of the normal order of the stressed beats) in this I tune are produced as a result of the tied note (notated with a curved line similar to the slur). This [is a method of lengthening the duration of a sound by tying it to another of the same pitch, is very characteristic.


Nonvegian and Swedish immigrants to America brought with them the strong fiddling traditions of the Scandinavian countries. I came across it first when I was about 16 and travel to Norway with my county youth orchestra, spending couple of weeks giving concerts in different Norwegian towns and cities. At one stop we were treated to Norwegian folk band, the equivalent of Norwegian ceilidh band I guess, where people were playing various instruments including Hardanger Fiddle, Trudy beautifully crafted instrument. .

Scandinavian fiddlers often play in harmony, and sometimes use eight- or nine-string, heavily-ornamented. Hardanger fiddles. These are tuned like a regular violin (except for the G string which is usually tuned up a step to "A" ),but have four or five drone strings running under the fingerboard and through the middle of the bridge.

Rather like Ralph Vaughan Williams researched and compiled and edited collections of English folk music, in between composing is symphonic works, similar has happened with Scottish folk music is a compilation of The Scottish Fiddle Music Index (published 1994) which involved in its compilation a detailed inspection of every page of music processed, preferably in the original or failing that, a readable photocopy - in all probably between 30-40,000 pieces, a final total of around 12,500 actual melodies. This was to ask the Tom Anderson, the fiddle player was involved with, together with others. He says:

It soon became evident that much of what was appearing hadn't been re-published within the last 200 years and was likely to be unknown to the traditional musician of today. At the time it was impossible to do more than note the details and pass on. Now it becomes all too apparent that much of the music in question was collected and composed by individuals who had faded from history, not because their work was in any way inferior, but simply because the collections they published have become very difficult to find. Whereas the better-known "fiddler-composers" (like Gow and Marshall) have been kept in the public eye by writers, artists and the music publishing world, others are now all but forgotten. Some of their collections are down to a handful of copies, mostly held in the great libraries of Britain and North America. They fall into the category of rare books and can only be studied under the strictest surveillance.

His is just little idea of the immensity of the task of rescuing music, and the reason why musicians just play by ear are very often not passed on their creations, wearers the Beethoven's and Mozart's of this world who have written it all down, even though Mozart was a jazz improviser and effect, have been passed on to the string quartets who play at wedding ceremonies today.

The Scottish ceilidh is also been affected by huge changes in dance fractions. Between about 1820 and 1840, the waltz, the polka and the quadrille with the most popular. Then there was quite a revival of interest in reels and strathspeys for dancing, but nothing so marked for the traditional jig, once such an evident favourite. Half dozen large collections of traditional jigs appeared during the 1880s and 90s which have become our best known reference works for much of the remaining unforgotten repertoire of the 18th century.

James Scott Skinner (1843-1927), who we hear about again, was a prolific composer as well as performer, added a mere handful of dance jigs, a fact no doubt connected to the ever-changing fashions of dance. He composed the music for the Highland Sword dance, which most people think goes back to ancient history, but is really a relatively recent invention. So folk music and ceilidhs beat Scottish ceilidh or any other kind of ceilidh, is not necessarily all music of the people and all going back to the dim and distant past history of minstrels plying their traditional tunes. So I see nothing wrong in a ceilidh band using modern instruments, like an electric bass guitar instead of an acoustic bass, and having a full Rock band drum set, and even including some pop covers if that is what people like, because the Scottish ceilidh or any other ceilidh is not as traditional as some people would like to think and has been in continual development as fashions come and go, and music gets lost and rediscovered.

In Ireland, the 6/8 remained popular; the Scottish version of the dance jig had to wait until the 1920s revival to return to favour. So there remains a great reservoir of quite excellent dance music - strathspeys, reels, quicksteps, as well as jigs - all asking to be re-discovered

Scotland's traditional dance jigs have a delicacy and charm not so often to be found in the 6/8 melodies of other nations. Of course, this depends on which part of the country the tune is being played, and in fact not even just whether it is a Scottish ceilidh that is being played at, but whether it is in English barn dance or an Irish ceilidh, as many jokes are claimed to be originating in Scotland, in Ireland, and in England depending on where your allegiances lie. First in print in 1680 in John Playford's Dancing Master, they joined the reel, strathspey, quickstep and hornpipe in their glorious heyday (1760-1820). The Gows, William Marshall and a long list of other composers made their worthy contribution to the 6/8 (also 9/8, 12/8) repertoire during those years, in all probably between 2 - 3000 tunes. Only a few hundred of these are now widely known or readily available in print, but new collections and discoveries are always being made, so now is what will be found in the future.

The music is being nurtured and rediscovered by all sorts of organisations ranging from The English Folk Song and Dance Society, Based at Cecil Sharp House in London, for English folk music to Scotland's Shetland Musical Heritage Trust. The Trust has as its wider aim the preservation and development of all aspects of the musical heritage of the Shetland Islands. The members of the Trust are proud to present this book, the first of a collection of four, consisting of Dr. Tom Anderson's unpublished music

so, the Scottish trick a tradition is alive and well, not only in Scotland but in the rest of the UK, and throughout the United States of America, Canada and Australia, all countries brimming with expatriates Scots. And we at The Midsummer Music Agency are doing our bit to keep the ceilidh tradition alive, offering hundreds of superb Scottish ceilidh bands, as well as Irish ceilidh bands English barn dance bands and American barn dance bands, for everything from weddings to birthday parties, fundraising events to wedding anniversaries, or just people who want to have a ceilidh just for the enjoyment of it.

If what you have read has inspired you, you can follow the links below to see the bands that perform in your county. Enjoy!

Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Bedfordshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Hertfordshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Suffolk
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Berkshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Huntingdonshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Surrey
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Berwickshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Kent Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Sussex
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Buckinghamshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Lancashire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the East Midlands
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Cambridgeshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Leicestershire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the East of England
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Central Scotland Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Lincolnshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the North East
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Central Wales Scottish Ceilidh Bands: London Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the North West
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Cheshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Mid Wales Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the Scottish Borders
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Cornwall Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Norfolk Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the Scottish Highlands
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: County Durham Scottish Ceilidh Bands: North Wales Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the South East
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Cumbria Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Northamptonshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the South West
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Derbyshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Northumberland Scottish Ceilidh Bands: the West Midlands
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Devon Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Nottinghamshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Wales
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Dorset Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Oxfordshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Warwickshire
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: England Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Scotland Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Wiltshire
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Essex Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Shropshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Worcestershire
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Gloucestershire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Somerset Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Yorkshire
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Hampshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: South Wales Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Yorkshire and the Humber
Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Herefordshire Scottish Ceilidh Bands: Staffordshire