The Legendary Scot’s March

Music, Scotland

Originally Published May 2007.

The Legendary Scot’s March

This article was something I wrote along with Jeff Nordin for Clann Tartan Historical Reenactment while we were researching 17th century military music for that group to use.

We were masters of their cannon, and consequently of the field, but the smoke being great and the dust being raised, we were as in a dark cloud, not seeing the half of our actions, much less discerning either the way of our enemies, or yet the rest of our brigades: Whereupon, having a drummer by me, I caused him to beat the Scots March, till it cleared up, which recollected our friends unto us…” -Robert Monro.

References to “The Scot’s March” are made in a number of primary sources. It was is referred to as “odd” sounding and that the mere sound of this ominous march could frighten off any army who was not anxious meet the fierce Scots. In the words of historian Th. A. Fischer, the “March of the Scots was the terror of the Spaniards and the Austrians in Germany. German and Swedish troops often used it to secure their positions from attacks.” Swedish Chancellor Oxenstierna once ordered his Dutch regiments to sound it, “thinking thereby to affright the enemy.” In this instance, the ploy misfired, the foe advanced and the Dutch troops were forced to retreat. In his memoir, Scottish mercenary Colonel Robert Monro described the Battle of Breitenfeld in which he ordered a drummer to “beat” the “Scots’ March” to reform his troops in the smoke and dust of the battle.

Thus, it seems a “Scot’s March” was obviously a drum beat, suggesting that a melody may have been assigned the title in later times, or that the drum beat was recognizable alone. This would seem plausible since drummers were the only required musicians in the infantry of the time, pipers, or fifers being used only at the discretion of the unit commander. The early references imply that the “Scots March” was easily recognized, and historians have claimed that this drum beat survived up to the 1700’s. Yet, for some reason it passed out of popular knowledge by the time of the Scottish romantic revival of the mid 19th century.

Unsubstantiated tradition credits the composition of the “Scots’ March” to James V’s siege of Tantallon Castle in 1527. The cadence is supposed to express the sound: “ding doun Tantallon.” In broad Scots, this means to push, or knock down. Tantallon castle is the East Lothian seat of Clan Douglas to this day, and it is true that a drum beat “Tantallon” was known and used by the Jacobites during the ’45 Rebellion, possibly as their signal to advance. However, music historian Henry G. Farmer argued that there is no historical trail to follow that confirms this was the “Scots March” of early centuries. The story of the eclipse of this march may, in part, be the decline of the fife’s role in military music from the late 17th to early 18th centuries. That this span of years saw the union of Scotland with England and suppression of Scottish nationalism may also have been a factor.

In the quest to rediscover “The Scot’s March,” speculation first fell on two marches, “Dumbarton’s Drums” and “The Lowlands of Holland.” The justification for these speculations were discussed by Henry G. Farmer. “Dumbarton’s Drums,” with its Clan Douglas association, and thus fits the Tantallon tradition, and it is the present regimental march of The Royal Scots. Furthermore, Samuel Pepys heard a “odd sounding” march played by the Royal Scots in June of 1667 and considered it not only the “Scots March”, but also thought it the oldest march in existence. A version of the air does date from the Skene Manuscript (Circa 1625-20) under the title “I Serve a Worthy Ladie”. The first few bars of these tune do not agree, but the 8th note runs in them are certainly recognizable in both versions.

There are three primary arguments as to why Dumbarton’s was thought to be the “Scots March”, as well as later counter-arguments:

  1. The title dates the melody and lyrics to about 1675. Although the air appears to date from even earlier, it does not appear under the title “Dumbarton’s Drums” any earlier than 1724. It was at that time published in Allan Ramsey’s Tea-Table Miscellany the tunes in which were “done by some ingenious young gentlemen, who… are obliged for some of the best songs in the collection” -A. Ramsey.
  2. It is a distinctly “martial” air. According to Farmer, “this music never appeared in print as a march until the nineteenth century.” Moreover, the authors that made this claim based the
    assumption simply on the martial theme of the lyrics.
  3. There is no evidence that the regimental march of the Royal Scots ever changed. Actually, until the 1800’s regimental marches changed frequently, and were often chosen at the whim of the colonel. It is thought that the words were written during the colonelcy Lord George Douglas, Earl of Dumbarton. That in itself argues against it never changing. Douglas was a Jacobite/Catholic who went into exile with his Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than retain command under William III. It seems unlikely that a tune named after a Jacobite would have been retained by his Protestant successor.

“The Lowlands of Holland,” has also been suggested as the “Scot’s March” (Ferguson, The Scots Brigade in the Netherlands.) Did the Scots Regiment that served in Holland from the 1500’s to the 1870’s create the “Scot’s March?” To-date, there are no substantiating arguments, or documentation for this belief. Farmer found two versions of songs by this name. The oldest of which he could find dated only as early as 1742. Like Dumbarton’s, the air itself dates from the Skene Manuscript (c. 1615-’20) under the title “My Love shoe winns not her Away.”

In 1947, H.G. Farmer established “pretty” conclusively that the “Scot’s March” found in Elizabeth Roger’s MS Virginal Book, 1656 is the “Scot’s March”. His argument stems primarily from the fact that it is the only contender that was clearly titled “The Scots March” during the 1600’s. While this may be the case, he contradicts himself slightly when he says that it is the oldest of the three. After all it was he who pointed out that the melodies of both “Dumbarton’s”, and “Lowlands” appear in the Skene MS (c. 1615-’20). Thus, the argument may still be unsettled in some minds. Farmer also claims that the beat “Ding-doun-Tantallon” fits in with the rhythm of this air, “but certainly not with the accepted airs of “Dumbarton’s Drums,” of “The Lowlands of Holland.” But, that will have to be left to individual interpretation.

military, music, Scotland
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