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Robert Burns Lives!
Bringing The Jolly Beggars to Life! By Dr Kirsteen McCue

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

While visiting Glasgow several years ago to speak at the annual Burns conference put on by the University’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, Susan and I were invited by Kirsteen McCue to her lovely home on a snowy Sunday afternoon to enjoy some of the famous chicken she is known to put on her dinner table. What a special treat! This is the same Kirsteen who sings, writes, composes, teaches and who is a top speaker on the Burns circuit. She is also devoted wife to David (top-rated organist in Scotland) and loving mother of two very beautiful and lively children, Dora and Gregor. Kirsteen’s mother, Pat, lives nearby and is always a welcomed addition at mealtime. And, of course, I can’t leave out their loving dog, Winnie, who captivates the whole family. It was interesting to watch the two of them, mother and daughter, interact while setting the table and serving the main Sunday meal. Kirsteen is the first woman ever invited to attend a meeting at the Bachelor’s Club in Tarbolton (Ayshire) and to give the Immortal Memory, a treat only a few men have enjoyed over the years.

I hope you, our readers, enjoy yourselves reading and studying this piece of work by one who is a Burns scholar and a tremendous friend. Thanks, Kirsteen, for sharing another interesting article with us. (FRS: 2.22.17)

Bringing The Jolly Beggars to Life!
By Dr Kirsteen McCue

Some of you will already be aware of the exciting work of the ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ project at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies. This major project has been funded by the AHRC (Arts and Humanties Research Council of the UK) and our Prinicipal Investigator, Professor Gerard Carruthers, has been leading a team of editors and research assistants since 2011 on the first major research towards his new multi-volume Oxford Works of Robert Burns. Even better, the AHRC recently announced that it will fund the research on Burns’s poems and letters from the Spring of this year.

The first ‘phase’ of the project has involved editing Burns’s prose works and his contributions to the two major song collections with which he was involved during his lifetime. The first volume, Commonplace Books, Tour Journals and Miscellaneous Prose, edited by Nigel Leask, is out, and Murray Pittock’s new ground-breaking edition of Burns’s and James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum appears this spring. My own edition of Burns’s songs for George Thomson is due to be completed this Fall and will appear either late in 2018 or in 2019.

To complement the nitty-gritty work of volume editors, we’ve been producing a number of additional resources on our project website – where we can discuss things and share resources that we are not able to include in a printed edition. Here we’ve been able to foreground some of the additional work editorial teams do, when they are preparing for a scholarly edition like the Oxford Burns. Thus, we have some wonderful interactive maps of Burns’s tours and some readings from the Commonplace books and tour journals to complement the first volume. And, throughout the project, we’ve invited a range of performers to come in to the studio and perform songs from the Scots Musical Museum and Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. These can be listened to or downloaded by users, and we’re currently uploading a new ‘Song of the Week’ (which you’ll find every week on the homepage of our website at:

Two of the elements I’ve been working on relate directly to the contemporary publications of the Scots Musical Museum and Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, as the first printings of these volumes are the basis of our new editions for the Oxford Burns. Our ‘Performing Burns’s songs in his own day’ resource, launched last Fall, included 25 songs from both collections performed on period instruments by a group of 11 young Scottish musicians who have an interest in the period of Burns. We brought them together and told them all about our project and these early publications, about what they would have learnt in an 18th century singing lesson, about what they might have worn and how this might have affected their playing or singing. And we had a series of workshops where they explored these early printed editions of Burns’s songs and made performances of the songs, helped by some specialists in the field. To end it all off, we went to Glasgow’s 18th century Pollock House and recorded the performances there, with a world-class recording engineer who specialises in early music. It was an illuminating process for everyone involved and we captured the thoughts of the young musicians as we worked through each meeting – finding out what they had learnt about Burns and about his songs and the tunes he used. These songs are now on our website and you can find out more about the workshops too at:

The resource we launched on Burns’s birthday – 25 January 2017 – ties nicely with this period performance project. In tracking Burns’s songs through the many different editions of Thomson’s Select Collection we came across a musical setting of his cantata The Jolly Beggars. As our web resource illustrates, this has not been found with any musical notation before Thomson’s printing of 1818 – though the text of the cantata appeared in print before this. It was never published in Burns’s own day, and he was reluctant even to discuss it with Thomson when the editor asked him about it in 1793. But Thomson, encouraged by Walter Scott’s opinion of the work, decided it should be published with music. Rather than asking one of his European composers (Beethoven was working for him during this period), he opted for the London theatre composer Henry Bishop, known for his incidental theatre music for operas based on Walter Scott’s novels, and adaptations of major operas by Mozart or Rossini. Bishop was interested in music from all corners of the British Isles – along with John Stevenson, he furnished Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies with musical accompaniments, and he set Welsh and English songs too. Working with a text by Burns was an exciting commission for him and he responded enthusiastically. In the meantime, Thomson, who never wanted to publish anything too coarse or vulgar, amended some of Burns’s text, deleting or changing some of the elements which might offend.

I had first come across this setting of the cantata when I was doing my doctoral studies years ago, and had always wanted to know what it would have sounded like. So, I was thrilled when the project enabled us to piece all the elements together and to put on a performance of it. We used period instruments – a period fortepiano and early stringed instruments with gut strings – and pulled together a group of singers with a passion for this kind of material. Our Chapel Choir at the University provided us with the choral singers required. Thomson printed his collections in large folio format – rather beautiful and expensive books, often with illustrations. But he never produced the instrumental parts for violin, flute and violoncello along with the large volumes. They were always printed separately and just sold to the people who wished to buy them. Moreover, while Thomson was inclined to produce multiple issues of each volume, he only published The Jolly Beggars once, so we had a real problem tracking down the parts for violin and ‘cello. But we did find them in Kilmarnock – at the Burns Monument Centre there – thanks to them. We searched high and low for a separate flute part, because Thomson advertises one on his title-page. But I also managed to have a close look at Thomson’s and Bishop’s letters at the British Library, and, although Bishop appears to have agreed to write a separate flute part for Thomson, there is no manuscript or fair copy of this anywhere. We have concluded that Thomson perhaps decided not to print it separately after all.

Having made parts for all the performers and brought them together to work through the piece, we performed the cantata on the evening of 12 October 2016 in our University Chapel with an audience present and recorded the live performance to share on our website. The Oxford Burns will include the original printing of the cantata with a detailed note on the creation of the work and annotations to map the changes Thomson made to Burns’s original. And hopefully users will then find the performance on our website and listen along with their copy of the work.

In the 21st century we’re lucky as editors, not just to have generous friends who are willing to share their special collections and Burns materials with us, but having the technological foundation to be able to enhance print edition with online resources which can literally bring the work of Burns to life.

[You’ll find our performance of The Jolly Beggars at]

Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century. (KM:2/22.17)]

or view it here...

The Jolly Beggars
The performance of Burns’s cantata ‘The Jolly Beggars’ that you can see here is a live recording of a performance held in the Chapel at the University of Glasgow on 12 October 2016. The performance used the first edition of the piece to appear with both text and music in George Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (volume 5) published in 1818. Our new edition of this piece is part of the forthcoming Oxford University Press Works of Robert Burns edited by Kirsteen McCue.

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