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The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century


Elizabeth C. Ford

It is a generally accepted truth that the flute was unknown in Scotland prior to 1725, and that it was played exclusively by wealthy men. Upon examination, these beliefs are demonstrably false. This book explores the role of the flute in Scottish musical life, primarily in the long eighteenth century, including players, repertoire, manuscripts, and instruments. Evidence for ladies having played the flute is also examined, as are possible connections between flute playing and bagpipe playing. Reasons for the flute’s disappearance from the pantheon of Scottish instruments are considered, and interviews with contemporary flute players in Scotland depict flute playing in contemporary Scotland. This work fills a major gap in knowledge of Scottish musical life and flute history.

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William Tytler’s origin myth for the flute in Scotland

I have heard, that Sir Gilbert Elliot, afterwards Lord Justice Clerk, who had been taught the German flute in France, and was a fine performer, first introduced that instrument into Scotland about the year 1725.1

The antiquarian, solicitor, and flute player William Tytler of Woodhouselee (1711–1792) wrote this in his 1792 essay on a St Cecilia’s Day concert in Edinburgh, and it has served as the origin myth of the history of the transverse flute in Scotland ever since.

The evidence, however, shows that Tytler’s statement is inaccurate. Travel between Britain and continental Europe brought flutes to Scotland much earlier than 1725. Letters and manuscripts from Scotland show that the German flute was known there by 1702 at least: a friend of the 1st Marquis of Montrose wrote about learning to play flute, and Alexander Bruce’s manuscript of flute duets is dated 1717. Mr Lily was making instruments in Edinburgh from 1708, and flutes were advertised for sale in Edinburgh in 1720. Pierre Bressan was making flutes in London by 1691,2 which would certainly have found their way to Scotland. The first Irish music published in Ireland was for flute, in 1724. There is absolutely no reason to suppose Scotland lagged behind Europe in terms of flute-related activities.

The flute’s role in Scottish music is something many amateur flute players are desperate to understand, and they in large part...

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