Balls in St Andrews and other Strange matters


Nothing to do with the fiddle revival but…

Recently, I, and some others, received a tweet from a member of the Bass Culture team, the 3-year AHRC-funded research project involving the Universities of Glasgow and Cambridge and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. This seeks to challenge the assumption that British and European folk musics are based on melody, through an examination of the bass cultures which are represented in the historical sources of Scottish fiddle and pipe music. She asked if we knew anything of musical life in Regency St. Andrews. I replied that although something relevant came to mind I could not quite remember the precise details.

Some years ago I was visiting the studio of a painter friend in Edinburgh who showed me some copies of historical images from St Andrews showing a ball in progress. At the time I was absolutely fascinated but failed to make a reliable note and when I went back to the artist he could not remember what he had done with the prints or where he had them from. I had a hunch that they may have been from St Andrews University so earlier this week I checked their website to get contact details for an email and… there they were, posted only a short time ago on the library pages.

The excellent blog Echoes from the Vault hosted by the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews has a posting Fortune and Frivolity: Letters from home in the time of Jane Austen on the family letters to Lt Thomas Harriott (msDA536), who was serving in the Staff Corps of the British Army in the peninsular Wars between 1812 and 1814. There are a number of references to dancing in the south of England, including a reference to the new waltz that was “not much admired by the Parents of Children as it is thought too loose an accomplishment and apt to hurt their morals.”

The post is illustrated by images from the album of portraits and watercolours by John Cook (1771-1824) that dates from 1797 (ms38799).Cook was minister of the parish of Kilmany, Fife, from 1793-1802 and studied and taught at St Andrews University where he held chairs in Hebrew (1802-9) and Biblical Criticism (1808-24). Cook is also the subject of a separate post at Echoes from the Vault.

Of special interest here are two paintings, but there may be others. The first a view of a ball in progress (top) and the second a portrait of Mr Clarkson, Dancing Master (below, left). These are the same images that I remember seeing some years back.


There were two fiddling John Claksons, father and son. Baptie (Musical Scotland p. 31) tells us that the senior, who died on 12 Juanuary 1812 at St Andrews, was

Violinist, dancing-master and compiler. About 1796 he published Clarkson’s Musical Entertainment, being a Selection of Various Tunes and Pieces of Music, adapted for the Piano or Harpsichord, 2 vols. His son John was also a violinist and dancing master. About the beginning of this century he issued A Complete Collection of the Much Admired Tunes, as danced at the Balls and Publics of the late Mr Strange, Teacher of Dancing in Edinburgh. Further details wanting.

The Scots Magazine (Vol. LXXIV 1812, p. 158) notes that Clarkson Senior’s influence covered the whole of urban Fife, noting that he was for: “many years an eminent teacher of dancing there, and at Kirkcaldy, Cupar and Dunfermline.” According to the catalogue of the National Records of Scotland there is correspondence from late 1794 held in Perth and Kinross Archives that relates to the appointment of a music teacher at Perth. This includes references to Provost James Ramsay, John Clarkson, Junior of Stirling, J E Wells of Elgin, James Robertson of Perth and A Grant of Elgin. This material has still to be viewed but I wonder whether Strange was the candidate or an advisor. (National Records of Scotland, B59/24/6/113). It is no surprise that a copy of his Musical Entertainment is in the Finzi Collection at St Andrews (Cedric Thorpe Davie, Catalogue of the Finzi Collection (St Andrews, 1982), Item 65).

Clarkson Jnr.’s Complete Collection was published by John Hamilton of Edinburgh. David Strange is an interesting character who is worthy of further attention. He lived at Todrick’s Wynd, Edinburgh, in the 1780s and was known for his highly fashionable dance events. (Williamson’s directory for the city of Edinburgh, Canongate, Leith and suburbs, June 1784-June 1785). (Edinburgh, 1784).Mary Anne Alburger writes that Strange was from Ayrshire and she quotes a descriptive recollection of him by a former pupil, Mary Somerville  (Scottish Fiddlers and their Music (London, 1983), pp. 61-62). She also reproduces, from a private collection, an engraving of a dancing lesson at Hopetoun House that is thought to show Strange taking a class. There is short but brilliant description of a ball held by Mr Strange in J. Moir, The Edinburgh Budget of Wit and Amusement … Containing Also Allan Ramsay’s Scots Proverbs (Edinburgh, 1808) pp. 196-7.

JF Flett and TM Flett (Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1996)) suggest that Strange was “perhaps the greatest of the Edinburgh teachers of the time and became almost an institution” and how in the 1760s he had studied in London and Paris before introducing improved minuets and other material into Scotland. They also say he introduced vocal parts into the music of slow dances. Could this have been as an aid to learning and remembering?