Whistle o'er

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WHISTLE OVER/O'ER (THE LAVE O'T). AKA and see “Maggie Pickens,” “Nancy Wants Her Own Share.” Scottish (originally), English; Rant or Strathspey. England, Northumberland. G Major (most versions): E Flat Major (Emmerson). Standard tuning (fiddle). One part (Emmerson, Hunter): AAB (Davie, S. Johnson, Kerr, Lees, Neil, Skinner): AABB (Alburger, Hall & Stafford, Raven): ABCCDD (Martin): AABCCD (Athole), AABBCCDD (Bremner, Glen, Gow, McGlashan): AABBCCDDEE (Oswald). The tune (and song, both extent in several versions) appears to be an early 18th century set of "De'il Stick the Minister," although it has often been attributed to dancing master John Bruce of Dumfries (c. 1720–1785, born in Braemar), the poet Robert Burns being the first to do so. Others (e.g. Mayne) say the air was composed long before him, and Emmerson (1971) finds in all little evidence to support claims for Bruce. A colorful character, Bruce was a Jacobite, born in Braemar between 1700 and 1720, who was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle after the rising of 1745 and the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Reportedly his skill as a fiddler helped free him, and he went to Dumfries where he became acquainted with Robert Burns (who called him "an honest man, though a red wud Highlander") before passing away in 1785 (Collinson, 1966/Alburger, 1983). Grattan Flood (1906), whose scholarship always requires a skeptical reading, says the tune was originally an Irish air dating back to the 17th century called "Maggie Pickens," which the Scots appropriated c. 1715–1740 and set to the song "Whistle o'er the Lave o't" (whose words were so indelicate, according to Flood, that Robert Burns had to rewrite them in 1790).

The tune has long been employed as a march. For example, it was a favorite march of the Irish Volunteers (1774–1784), and (alternating with “The British Grenadiers”) it has been the march-past melody of the Royal Highland Fusiliers.

"Whistle's" first printed appearance was in 1757 in either Robert Bremner's Scots Reels {as Glen, 1891, finds} or James Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion where it appears in rant form. Alburger searched the Blaikie Manuscript (1692), as it had been reported by James Dick to be contained there, however she could not locate it in the Wighton copy. It is one of the "missing tunes" from William Vickers' 1770 Northumbrian dance manuscript, but is contained in the 1768 Gillespie Manuscript of Perth. O’Neill (1922) prints a version from the Caledonian Muse (1785) that he says is identical to that published by Bremner.

Today, the version that was published by James Scott Skinner (1890) is commonly associated with the Scottish traditional dance "Sean Triubhas," along with "Gin Ye Kiss My Wife I'll Tell the Minister," which Skinner says is the “original tune” of the dance. Seann Triubhas (‘The Shoddy Breeks’) is performed in tartan trousers, not kilts, although other items of Highland dress remain the same. Christine Martin (2002) says the Seann Triubhais is the youngest of the traditional Highland dances and was devised sometime after the Battle of Culloden, when the wearing of the kilt was outlawed and tartan trousers were substituted. Martin dates the dance to 1783, and says Bruce (the dancing master, noted above) employed the “Whistle o’er the Lave o’t” tune for it. In fact, states Emmerson (1972) "Whistle" is so intimately associated with the dance that it is now commonly known as "Seann Triubhas" (see also note for "Seann Triubhas Willighan," the original tune for the dance). O’Neill (1922) noted that it was “the statement of Joseph Cant of Chicago, a first prize winner at several piping competitions; that it was the favorite tune for the Sean Truis or "Old Man's Dance" in his native Perthshire. The rhythm of it was deemed more suitable to the requirements of dancers burdened with years than the preceding tune (“Shaun Truish Willichan”). On such excellent authority it has been included in this classification.” David Murray, writing in his book Music of the Scottish Regiments (Edinburgh, 1994), says: “The dance is said to express the disgust of the Highlanders at being forced to wear trousers instead of the kilt under the terms of the Disarming Act of 1747—although some of the steps and arm movements, which are claimed to illustrate this disgust, owe more to the ballet training undergone by a prominent Highland dancer of the nineteenth century than to the native Highland tradition.” (p. 179)

The song "Whistle o'er the lave o't" was written in the 17th century and contains ribald lyrics which can be found in David Herd's Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs. “One of many Scots songs with indelicate suggestions,” notes Purser (1992), “‘fiddling’ has long been a double-entendre and whistling a way of avoiding the over-explicit.” Burns’ words (which poke fun at the institution of marriage) go, in part:

I am a fiddler to my trade
An' a' the tunes that e'er I play'd
The sweetest still to wife or maid
Was Whistle owre the lave o't.

My mother sent me to the well,
She had better gang hersell,
I got the thing I dare nae tell,
Whistle o'er the lave o't.

The first verse of this version first appears in the Merry Muses where it is the chorus of "Let me ryke up to dight that tear,' while the 2nd verse is from Herd's book of Scots Songs (1769), referenced above.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Alburger (Scottish Fiddlers and Their Music), 1982; Ex. 87, p. 140. Bremner (Scots Reels), 1757; p. 56. Cumming (A Collection of Strathspey or Old Highland Reels), 1780; No. 33, pp. 10-11. Davie (Davie’s Caledonian Repository), Aberdeen, 1829-30; p. 38 (air and strathspey versions). Dick (The Songs of Robert Burns), 1859; p. 77. Dick (The Songs of Robert Burns), 1903; No. 250, p. 225. Emmerson (Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String), 1971; No. 36, p. 133. Glen (Collection of Scottish Dance Music, vol. 1), 1891; p. 6. Gow (Complete Repository, Part 1), 1799; p. 12. Hall & Stafford (Charlton Memorial Tune Book), 1974; p. 1. Hardie (Caledonian Companion), 1992; p. 53. Henderson (Flowers of Scottish Melody), 1935. Hunter (The Fiddle Music of Scotland), 1988; No. 87. Johnson (Scots Musical Museum, vol. 3), 1790; no. 249, p. 258. S. Johnson (Kitchen Musician No. 20: A Twenty Year Anniversary Collection), 2003; p. 12. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 1), c. 1880; Set 16, No. 3, p. 11. J. Kenyon Lees (Balmoral Reel Book), Glasgow, 1910; p. 7. Manson (Hamilton’s Universal Tune Book, vol. 2), 1846; p. 56. Martin (Traditional Scottish Fiddling), 2002; p. 53. McGlashan (A Collection of Strathspey Reels), c. 1780/81; p. 31. Neil (The Scots Fiddle), 1991; No. 96, p. 129. O’Neill (Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody), 1922; No. 104. Oswald (Caledonian Pocket Companion, Book 12), c. 1760. Raven (English Country Dance Tunes), 1984; p. 180. Skinner (Harp and Claymore), 1904; p. 59. Stewart-Robertson (The Athole Collection), 1884; p. 172.

Recorded sources: “James F. Dickie’s Delights” (1976). “The Fiddler’s Companion” (1980).

See also listings at:
Alan Snyder’s Cape Breton Fiddle Recording Index [1]
Jane Keefer’s Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [2]




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