Originally published April 2009
The Scots Musical Museum is probably the most significant early collections of Scottish tradition song. The first volume was published in 1787 and included three songs by Robert Burns. Burns eventually contributed about one third of the 600 songs contained in the final six volume collection, and in many ways is considered to have been the work’s editor in all but name. The final volume was published in 1803.
The project was begun by James Johnson, a struggling printer and seller of music, who had a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. Johnson was a respected, but not too prosperous printer and was the first in Edinburgh to print sheet music using pewter plates rather than more expensive copper engraved plates. (Pewter being a softer metal would be easier to engrave and probably easier to “recycle” since it could be melted and recast at a relatively low temperature.)
The introduction to a 1991 reprint of the “Museum” claims his motivation was more patriotic than commercial. In Scotland, some believed that the 1707 union of the Scottish and English parliaments would enable Scotland to recover from the financial disaster brought about by the Darien Scheme. But the loss of independence caused by further unification with England was deeply felt by some Scots In the words of Robert Burns:
“We were bought and sold for English Gold,
Sic (such) a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.”
The feelings may have spurred interest in preserving Scots literature, song and other aspects of the national culture including the creation of the “Scots Musical Museum”
In the winter of 1786 Johnson met Robert Burns through a gathering of the Crochallan Fencibles, a loose social club of men who met at Dawnie Douglas’ tavern “the Anchor Close” in Edinburgh. He found that Burns shared his interest in folk songs and it seems that they may have come to an agreement that very evening to collaborate on the project. As the work began, Burns soon seems to have discovered that Johnson, in spite of being a printer, was not much of a speller… and Burns found it necessary to proof-read the final text of the songs prior to printing. However, it seems Burns had little difficulty working with Johnson compared to other printers he had worked with since Johnson rarely suggested changes to words, and had no musical aspirations of his own.
One of the reasons the Scots Musical Museum became one of the most valuable collections of its kind is the publisher’s adherence to a policy of presenting the tunes of the songs in simple forms, with minimal instrumental ornamentation, therefore preventing the basic melodies from being obscured by elaborate arrangements and harmonies that are found in similar collections of the time.