Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Flowers of Edinburgh

The Flowers of Edinburgh is known to all Scottish traditional musicians, and is played all over the world, with distinctively different American and Irish versions. The tune has a long and muddled history. It dates from near 1740, may have been written by Oswald though he didn't claim it, and has been attached to several different sets of words, all of them unsingably bad except for Duncan Ban Macintyre's strange selection of it as the melody for one of his masterpieces, Cumha Choire a'Cheathaich, the Lament for the Misty Corrie. There is even a song to it in the Greig-Duncan collection about a woman singing The Flowers of Edinburgh, which begins to recall Lewis Carroll's "the name of the song is called..." gag in Through the Looking Glass. The title has no clear explanation; one theory has it that it was about the young women of Edinburgh, another (from a weirdly-engraved title in Nathaniel Gow's Fourth Repository, as if he'd scraped a longer previous title for it off the plate) that it was dedicated to the city's magistrates, and a third (which I have only encountered orally) that it refers to the smell of the city in the 18th century when chamberpots were tipped out of windows each night, and that the steps of the associated country dance evoke people skipping over fallen turds in the street.

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