Lost music histories: researching Scottish music in private and special collections

In this post Brianna Robertson-Kirkland and Elizabeth Ford discuss their experience of researching Scottish music in private and special collections before outlining their plans for the creation of a new digital resource for the history of Scottish music education. Brianna Robertson-Kirkland is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini (1746–1810) and his effect on the development of female opera students. Elizabeth Ford is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the flute in musical life in eighteenth-century Scotland.


During our research into sources for Scottish music education, we have discovered several difficulties in accessing materials, which has created the assumption that these sources are either ‘lost’ or non-existent. Though we draw from our own research areas of vocal pedagogy and early Scottish music, this is a common issue in music research, which we believe is a massive oversight considering that other disciplines such as film and literature already have large-scale digitisation projects, which are redefining the histories of these subject areas. Here we present our story and our plans for a possible solution.

Private collections, research conducted by Elizabeth Ford

Working in private music collections is both highly frustrating and highly rewarding. Frustrating in that collection catalogues are not easily available, and often don’t even exist; frustrating in that most collections don’t know what they have; frustrating in that they may hold treasures that may never be found; frustrating in the sense that there’s an inner circle of people who know about and have access to the collection. Whereas (almost) anyone can walk into a library and look at (almost) anything, a relationship needs to be established and nurtured in order to work well with a private collection. Rewarding that most private collections, once accessed, are rich in sources, and have very limited restrictions on use, unless most libraries. Most owners want their collections to be used, rather than languish in a country house, and are eager to draw in scholars to use their resources, but often lack the ability to attract scholarly attention. Once a relationship is established, between the owner or curator and the scholar or institution, the relationship is (ideally) easy going and user friendly. Networking skills are, therefore, indispensible when attempting to access a private collection.

I have had success with three private collections, all them in aristocratic homes, one of them purely by accident. While visiting Castle Fraser, a volunteer guide asked me a question, and when I answered he observed I didn’t have a Scottish accent, and asked what I was doing in Scotland. I explained I was working on PhD in 18th-century Scottish music, and he began to tell me about the castle’s music collection. Next thing I knew, he was on the walkie-talkie to his boss, and I was on my way to the library, where a curator was opening cabinets, telling me how rich and varied the collection was, and asked what I wanted to see first, and handed me a catalogue that doesn’t begin to indicate what may be on site. Happy accidents such as this are exactly that: accidents, but a willingness to engage in conversation with anyone about a research project can lead to many unexpected places.

Lord Balfour of Burleigh’s music collection, at Brucefield House in Clackmannanshire, includes two major pieces of Scottish music history: James Oswald’s song book, and Alexander Bruce’s flute manuscript, showing the earliest physical evidence for the one-keyed flute in Scotland, and a unique fingering chart going to the B-flat far above the staff. The National Library of Scotland has these on microfilm; when I wrote Lord Balfour for permission to use images, he invited me to see them in person. Once at Brucefield, I spent the afternoon assisting Lord Balfour in re-organizing his library and looking through boxes of music to see if I could tell him what else he had.

One of the largest music collections in Britain still in private hands is the Montagu Music Collection at Boughton House, Kettering, Northamptonshire, in the possession of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry. This collection has only recently been made available for scholars to use, and the University of Glasgow has managed to establish a strong working relationship with the Duke and his staff, leading to portions of the collection being is on loan to the University of Glasgow Special Collections for student use. The collection has been catalogued, but the catalogue is only available by request, and is often inaccurate. The collection is vast and particularly rich in printed opera scores and early Scottish manuscript sources, some of which are believed lost. Visiting is the only way to determine the actual size, significance, and importance of the collection. Something I’ve learned from these experiences are that collectors and people on site are often more than willing to grant access once interest is expressed.

This is the problem with private collections: important sources that were once known have become unknown or ‘lost’ because of cataloguing errors and lack of access. We aim, through our project, to work with private collections such as these to make their treasures available digitally.

Working in the University of Glasgow Special Collections, research conducted by Brianna Robertson-Kirkland

The library is my first port of call when embarking on a research project and Special Collections—that area set aside for the oldest, most precious works—is one of the most mysterious and exciting places to visit but it is not an area that I can simply browse. A visit requires careful planning, which in the digital age can consist of many hours spent searching the online catalogue. Online catalogues may appear easy and efficient to use, an upgrade from paper catalogues, but in my case, when researching 18th century musical treatises it is anything but. These online catalogues have their own idiosyncrasies, requiring awareness of the correct use of search terms in order to gain maximum results. Even after making careful selections and emailing the collections to retrieve the items prior to a visit, gems can be hidden within the publications, having been bound together with another publication or even unexpectedly turning up due to an item being miscataloged.

The online catalogue for Special Collections at the University of Glasgow is quite extensive and does reveal a number of sources previously unexamined (such as Vocal Harmony by Israel Terril, published in 1806, which required several pages to be cut open during my visit). In addition, some sources are not held on location but are held off campus in the research annexe, for example ‘Treatise on Singing Containing Anatomical Observations by the late John Hunter’. Though the items held in the annexe appear in the digital catalogue, there is a longer waiting time for the items to arrive and it is even more difficult to get a sense of the extensive collections which are held in this location. This leads to the realisation that libraries for centuries have imposed their own history simply by drawing attention to certain materials while disregarding others. During my search for 18th century British singing treatises, I discovered several treatises written by Scottish authors, which have received very little attention, including An introduction to singing by R.A. Smith. Yet these discoveries were made by chance, and led me to wonder what else could be in other collections, which could produce a new history?

A solution to this issue is to bring together musical treatises published in Britain in one place. Many projects in other disciplines such as film, literature and history are already utilising digitisation to make their collections more readily available. The large-scale digitisation of library sources uncovers new histories as the gaps in collections and the discovery of sources are realised.


We aspire to create a multifaceted resource for the history of Scottish music education, and we are now commencing the search process for funders. Starting with the Montagu Music Collection, University of Glasgow Special Collections, and the A. K. Bell Library, we will first digitise and then create useable, modern editions of the sources (at this stage Scottish music treatises) with the capability of adding notes and commentary, seeing the original and the modern editions side by side, and making relatively unknown and potentially lost sources available to both the scholarly and performing communities online. With the recent surge of interest in Scottish culture and history, and the preceding centuries of neglect of anything Scottish that isn’t pipe music, the time is right for such a resource.


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