Landmarks in Scottish Church Music: Prior to Reformation (Part 1)

Douglas Galbraith begins the first of his six part series "Landmarks in Scottish Church Music" by taking us through the time prior to The Reformation.

Celts, Picts and Aberdonians

You might say that the first recorded musical 'landmark' was the conversion of the Picts, when King Brude (according to Adomnán) heard 'in amazement and fear' St Columba singing one of the 'royal' psalms, Psalm 45. Legend perhaps – an outstanding ability to sing was attributed to numerous saints – but not unreasonable given that Columba's monks were said to carry at their belts a small harp ('cruit') as they tramped the glens. The rich musical culture of the Celts was finding a new outlet; the druidic and the biblical intermingled, evidenced in illuminated manuscript and carving. On the shaft of the Martin Cross outside Iona Abbey is the figure of David singing to mad Saul, while on the Dupplin Cross he is seated on a throne like a Celtic bard. On the eighth century cross slab in the beautiful church at Nigg, vivid with images from the Bible and the lives of the saints, and what looks very much like a contemporary Communion service, there also is David and his harp, and some cymbal players too (albeit scaring game). Rock gongs, bull horns and quadrangular handbells (of which 19 survive), used for assembling the people and in ceremonies of healing, complete the register of sounds surrounding monastic communities and the life of the people in general in these early centuries.

As towns grew, the focal point passed from the monastic community to the local church. In this article, it is the story of one such local church that will pilot us through the changing fashions and practices in church music as the medieval gives way to the modern. The story of the Kirk of St Nicholas, the 'Mither Kirk' of Aberdeen, and its music is the story of church music in Scotland. A rare survivor of pre-Reformation liturgical books is the St Nicholas' Missal (Mass Book), of which only three copies are extant. Dated 1506, its place of printing, Rouen, shows the ready comings and goings with the continent. Indeed it is said that new French and Flemish worship practices found their way here faster than they got to Rome! Its pages show that this local church (with most of Scotland) conformed to the worship style followed by the cathedral at Salisbury, 'Sarum Use'. However, it is fascinating to find that the Missal carries a lot of scribbled material in the margins and spaces, about 100 entries in all, which 'customised' the service for Scotland, namely references to and prayers to the saints, a good proportion of them Scottish, as did the more famous Aberdeen Breviary, which had been commissioned about the same time by the Bishop of Aberdeen for the church at large, although interestingly the two lists are by no means identical.

There is music in this missal, and it is the music characteristic of Christian worship from early times – plainchant (or 'Gregorian' chant), unadorned and unaccompanied. Simple it may have sounded but it was founded on a highly organised musical scheme of 'modes' which brought variety and flexibility to the music and suited it to carry texts of very different character and import. These modes were the same as lay behind the rich tradition of Scottish popular song which formed the soundscape against which life was lived; work and worship were kissing cousins. Indeed, in Britain and Europe generally, whether carol or chorale, or the mass settings built upon folk melodies, or the 'Christianising' of monks' favourite melodies with new lyrics ('contrafacta') to save their blushes, the sacred and the secular have preserved their secret association in the church's music, whatever has been happening at any one time in its theology – and every so often a blast from an anxious Council or sour prelate showed that the church knew this fine well.

As well as the chants used across the Western Church, there is evidence of home grown compositions. The unique Inchcolm Antiphoner from the Columban community on that Forth island, possibly thirteenth century but representing an even earlier tradition, contains 'local' chants in honour of Columba, different in flavour from the prevailing style, also represented. These leap and soar with intensity and expressiveness, shaping the music to the rhymes of the text, calling for a wider vocal range, more formally patterned than the more restrained Gregorian tones, bringing to mind those sophisticated Celtic designs we know from parchment and stone.

The musical equivalent of splitting the atom came when people in the Middle Ages found the way to write and sing in formal parts. The world's music histories always refer to the very early Orkney Hymn to St. Magnus, perhaps twelfth century, where the two voices uniquely run parallel to each other. Then the landmark St. Andrews Music Book, which sadly, in a later century, was lost to a European library. Compiled about 1250, and reflecting the new music of Paris, it contained innovatory compositions thought to be local in origin, lively in rhythm and daring in decoration. The innovation was seeing the voices which had been 'tied' to each other beginning to have independence of movement, something we take for granted now.

The Sang Schules

We return from these digressions prompted by the St Nicholas Missal to the musical establishment which lay behind it. In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, arrangements for music in worship could be quite elaborate. In major churches, places in the choir would be funded by revenues from rural parishes. In the Collegiate Church of St Salvator, the university church in St Andrews, for example, certain staff and students had an obligation to sing at services. Extra chaplains could be appointed as much for their singing voices and their ‘proficiency in plainsong’ as for ability to perform the usual duties. All together some 30 adult and young choristers (from the sang schule) would be mustered for the daily offices and Sunday mass. There are many similar examples, such as St Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, where documents show that in 1506 there were 20 vicars choral and 6 boys.

We do not have comparable statistics for St Nicholas, but there is evidence that the traditions represented by their missal go back at least three centuries, with a record from 1256 of the grammar schoolmaster providing four singing boys for the service at the town church. Sometimes it was the other way round – the song school developed into the grammar school, or at least provided a wider education, as seems to have been the case with the Aberdeen song school, responsibility for which was shared by burgh and church. It was common for the pupils to be almoners, in continuation of the charitable initiatives of the monasteries in combining education for those who could not afford it with their need of voices for the music of the liturgy. By 1483 there is mention of Richard Boyle being appointed Maister of the Song School. Oddly to us, the assistant was described as Doctor; you dropped it when you moved to be the Master (and precentor or organist of the local church), since literally 'doctor' in Latin means simply teacher.

The pupils musical fare could extend beyond the Sunday requirements, and they were in demand for lykewakes and baptisms and other banquets. The publication in Aberdeen in 1662 of Cantus, Songs and Fancies seems to have reflected the musical repertoire of the Song School (the introduction was by the then Master). They would also have sung 'precat music' or prick song, meaning music 'marked' on manuscript (ie not improvised, nor handed down like plainsong). In effect this was music in several vocal parts, embracing what we would call 'counterpoint'. They might have known, for example, the music of the composer-monk Robert Carver, writing around 1500, whose music has only recently been heard again after centuries of silence. Carver demands an article to himself; suffice it to refer to the quite remarkable mass setting in ten parts, Dum Sacrum Mysterium, topped only by the sumptuous motet, O bone Jesu, for no fewer than nineteen voices.

But they could also look closer to home, for from their own St Nicholas stable was Sir John Fethy, the Master of their Song Schule and church musician from 1544. (The 'sir' in those days meant someone who was training for the priesthood but had not yet got his degree.) Fethy had studied on the continent and had brought back a 'curious new fingering and playing on organs'. There had been an organ in St Nicholas at least since 1437, when in the burgh records there is a payment of 26/8 for the blowing of the organ. What was new was that the player used all five fingers (ie instead of relying on the inner three), and Fethy was hailed as 'the first trim organist that ever was in Scotland' (ie neat, accurate). One of his compositions, still known, was the fine 'O God abufe', on a penitential text, for which Fethy, unusually, wrote both 'note and letter'. The contemporary composer Peter Maxwell Davies has written a short organ voluntary based on it, an austere and almost frightening piece. (You can listen to it on YouTube.

We are almost at the Scottish Reformation, which many see as a cut-off point for church music. We shall see in the next article that this is far from the truth. Not only did reform begin decades before the official date of 1560 but the old ways lingered on for an equal period thereafter, especially in the north east. Aberdeen Masters John Black, Andro Kemp and Andrew Melville (whose commonplace book is a mine of information about the Aberdeen song school) helped provide music for the new congregational psalmody, their minister John Craig made versifications for the first psalter, while their successors made significant contribution in later centuries. Unlike many song schools, which closed when their funds were transferred to the new grammar schools, theirs continued, proof being the construction in 1592 of a double seat in the church for 'ye bairns of ye Sang Skoull'. However, song schools were reinstated in 1579 by James VI as a 'timeous remeid' to increase standards across the country, now to be run by the burghs rather than collegiate churches and religious foundations. Like Aberdeen had been doing for centuries!

Further reading

Isobel Woods Preece, ed. Sally Harper, Our awin Scottis use: music in the Scottish Church up to 1603, Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, 2000.

Notis musicall: essays on music and Scottish culture in honour of Kenneth Elliott, Glasgow, Musica Scotica Trust 2005.

Henry George Farmer, A history of music in Scotland, Hinrichsen 1945 (out of print).

F.C. Eeles, 'Notes on a Missal formerly used in S. Nicholas, Aberdeen'. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. XXXIII (1899), pp.440-60.

Recordings and scores

John Fethy 'O God abufe', Dunedin Consort, on CKD 388, Linn Records.

John Black and Andrew Kemp, music downloadable free, with some MP3 files, on Church Service Society (the Wode Psalter project).

Robert Carver, recordings by Capella Nova and other leading Scottish choirs.

Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith worked in the Church of Scotland Offices between 1995 and 2006 running the former Office for Worship, Doctrine and Artistic Matters. He was founder-editor of the earlier print version of Different Voices. He is currently the Precentor of the General Assembly and is past Convener of, and the current Church of Scotland trustee on, Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS). He is also Secretary of the Church Service Society, which marks its 150th anniversary this year (, and helps run the Scottish Churches Organist Training Scheme (SCOTS). To discuss this article or the further reading in more detail, contact Douglas directly.