Strathspeys

The Strathspey is a slow graceful dance. Its music, in 4/4 time, is characterised by frequent use of the “Scotch Snap,” a short-long rhythmic figure that is equivalent to a semiquaver (16th note) followed by a dotted quaver (8th note.)

The ‘Scotch Snap’ is synonymous with Scottish Music and only really appears in this this tradition; although, it has been exported into other traditional folk-music culture.

The dance originated around the early 1700's in the valley (Scottish Strath) of the River Spey in Scotland. Strathspey was originally synonymous with a Reel, but since the 18th century, the Strathspey has referred to a slower dance than the Reel.

Listen to an example of a Strathspey:

The actual Strathspey as a tune genre can be further sub-divided into different types or styles. All of these are represented in the repertoire of Scottish Country Dances and you can find out more on each style below.

Many of the Society’s Strathspey dances use old tunes composed by the great fiddle composers of the 17th and 18th Centuries.

Tunes by Gow, Marshall, Mackintosh all appear in the Society’s publications. Compositions by James Scott-Skinner, who named himself the ‘Strathspey King’ also appear regularly. Some of these tunes used were definitely composed for dancing as many of the great fiddle masters were also Dancing Masters.

Some of the tunes, however, were composed as concert pieces and would have had a less strict tempo rendition. For example, Scott Skinner’s The Bonnie Lass of Bon Accord. Often the names of the tunes acknowledge the patronage these musicians secured.

Gang The Same Gate (Book 36) uses Nathaniel Gow’s tune Mrs Dalziel, published in his Fifth Collection of Strathspeys and Reels (1809). Very much a tune for the fiddle the ‘Scotch Snap’ is also a prominent feature of this tune.

Listen to Gang The Same Gate.

Originally these types of tune were not intended to be danced to and the strict tempo associated with the Strathspey dance means that they can sometimes loose much of their original character. However, they are a type of dance that is becoming increasingly popular and if you compare the traditional type of tune with these the contrast is very clear.

The Lea Rig was the first slow-air Strathspey to be published by the Society in Book 21. It is not clear from the Society’s archives whether the dance was historically associated with the tune or whether it was a choice of the then Publications Committee. 

The tune is taken from the song which according to Robert Burns the original words for this song were mostly written by Robert Fergusson (1750-74), 'in one of his merry humours'. The old words begin: 

'I'll rowe thee o'er the lea-rig,

My ain kind dearie, O,

I'll rowe o'er the lea-rig,

The melody is better known by the title of Robert Fergusson's song The Lea Rig ('Leerigg' or 'Lea-rig' is an unploughed grass field).

Listen to 32 bars of The Lea Rig (Book 21) the characteristic lyrical melody of the song is clearly evident. Here the sequence played is: A, B, A, B.

This particular style of Strathspey was never originally intended to be danced to, and when played, was very much a ‘concert piece’ and strict tempo would be ignored.

Some concert Strathspeys also contained a set of variations; particularly those composed by the ‘Strathspey King’ James Scott Skinner.

Various other composers are strongly linked with this type of Strathspey, such as:

  • William Marshall
  • James Mackintosh
  • The Gow family
  • Joseph Lowe

The Aberdeen University website The Music of James Scott Skinner is a good repository for further information on Scott Skinner and his music. It includes fascimiles of his original compositions and also sound files of the 'The Strathspey King' playing his own compositions.

On the website The Music of James Scott Skinner look for the page relating to Our Highland Queen. It includes a sound file and we encourage you to listen.

The tune was originally published in The Harp and Claymore (1904), considered by many to be Scott Skinners magnum opus.

Our Highland Queen by James Scott Skinner is one such example of a concert Strathspey that has been used as an original for an RSCDS dance, which is linked to The Royal Wedding (Five Scottish Country Dances 1982).

Listen to 32 bars of Our Highland Queen.

If you compare it with the sound file referred to on the Aberdeen University website you will hear the difference in how it was intended to be played with much rubato and interpretation by the soloist.

Here the sequence played is: A, B, A, B, in ‘strict tempo’.

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