Frances Tolmie’s Skye Songs: manuscript sources from the National Library of Scotland

The National Library of Scotland is continuing to add to its digital archives material and recent press releases draw our attention to Gaelic songs from Skye collected by Frances Tolmie (1840-1926).  Tolmie’s fieldwork on work songs (which she called ‘songs of occupation’), and her classifications of the latter were formative for 20th century writing and research.  The NLS material adds to this a body of work additional insights into her work on children’s songs.

The NLS Gaelic Manuscripts project includes many sources of poetry and song alongside a wealth of material that demonstrates the depth of erudition to be found in Highland collections on topics such as medicine and classical literature.  Musical highlights include several manuscript copies of Tolmie’s notes on Skye songs.

Tolmie published details of 105 songs in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society vol.4, (1911).  Individual songs have appeared in subsequent collections of folk songs, but these and more can be investigated using the NLS manuscripts.  In particular, her work on children’s songs emerges more clearly from these manuscripts than it does from the published essays.  The manuscripts also give researchers insights into her working methods.

Tolmie herself was a native of Skye, but was far from being a simple countrywoman.  Her home circle was clearly well-read and well-travelled, and she herself studied for a while at Newnham College in Cambridge.  Her work with folksong was informed by wide friendships, with Alexander Carmichael, editor of the Carmina Gadelica (1900), amongst others.

Female friendship was important to Tolmie’s musical networks. Tolmie’s preface to the 1911 edition of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society introduces her material modestly as being “merely the notes and fire-side memories of two friends [herself and Mary Ross], natives of the Hebrides, who are fully aware of many gaps amongst the verses.”  However, the articles in that publication show her working alongside two of the leading female song collectors active in British song collecting at the time – Lucy Broadwood and Annie Gilchrist.

Biographies of Tolmie e.g. by Ethel Bassin also discuss her contacts with Marjorie Kennedy Fraser, another energetic female collector of Hebridean songs.  In contrast with Kennedy Fraser, however, Tolmie was rather more concerned to preserve the oral characteristics of the songs, while Kennedy Fraser’s collections included more commercial arrangements and adaptations for drawing room performances accompanied by the piano.  While Kennedy Fraser is better known and her publications found a much wider audience, Tolmie’s material is probably rather more true to its sources.

Recent monograph publications relevant to study here include Dorothy de Val’s biography of Lucy Broadwood, a member of the Broadwood piano family and one of the founding members of the Folk Song Society.  Broadwood’s fieldwork in Scotland and Ireland, and discussion of her activities with the Folk-Song Society in the early years of the 20th century, helps us to understand how Tolmie’s work on these songs found its way into print .

Together, this material demonstrates the important interventions made by women in curation of this material, with room in the research chronicle for closer attention to her records of children’s voices.

NLS manuscripts

St Andrews University Library Special Collections

Tolmie in print – 1911

The 1911 vol.4 edition of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society included a concentration of essays on Gaelic song with Tolmie’s work edited and with additional notes by Annie Gilchrist and Lucy Broadwood.  Each song is shown with a melody transcription, the Gaelic lyrics, an English translation, and analytical and contextual notes.

Further Reading on Tolmie and Skye Work Songs

  • Ethel Bassin, (Derek Bowman, ed.), The Old Songs of Skye: Frances Tolmie and her Circle (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977) – rich in information about Tolmie’s life and times, and includes musical examples but not a lot of detailed musical analysis.
  • J L Campbell and Frances Collinson:
    Hebridean Folksongs I: A Collection of Waulkings Songs (OUP Clarendon Press, 1969) – uses 1983 fieldwork on South Uist by Donald MacCormick.
    Hebridean Folksongs II: Waulking Songs from Barra, South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula (OUP, Clarendon Press, 1977) and Hebridean Folksongs III: Waulking Songs from Vatersay, Barra, South Uist, Eriskey and Benbecula (OUP, Clarendon Press, 1981) – both draw on John Lorne Campbell’s recordings made 1938-1965. Volume 3 compares contents with songs collected by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser and Kenneth Macleod.
    All later republished by John Donald.
  • Dorothy de Val, In Search of Song: the Life and Times of Lucy Broadwood (Routledge, 2016), which discusses her work alongside Tolmie.


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