David Buchan and James Moreira, eds. The Glenbuchat Ballads. University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Pp. lxxiv + 274, multiple indices, glossary. $60.00 hardbound.
In the early decades of the 19th century, the Reverend Robert Scott compiled a collection of ballads in the small community of Glenbuchat, located in a relatively isolated valley in Northeastern Scotland. Unlike similar collections, this gathering of some 68 ballads was never anthologized into the Francis James Child collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Virtually unknown until 1949, it was donated to the Aberdeen University Library by one of Scott’s descendants.
At the University Library, it eventually caught the interest of ballad scholar David Buchan, who worked on the project on and off for years. By the time of his death, he had edited and annotated most of the ballads, but had not yet been able to research and write the contextualizing introduction. This task fell to his former student, James Moreira. In 2007, the collection was published in a joint venture of the University of Aberdeen and the University Press of Mississipi as The Glenbuchat Ballads.
Moreira’s excellent and thoughtful introduction seeks to provide a comprehensive context for the ballad collection, and “attempts to situate the Glenbuchat ballads within an appropriate historical and ethnographic framework” (xviii). The work is as clearly Moreira’s own as it is an homage to Buchan.
The introduction first treats the manuscript itself, showing through reasoned study that the collection was likely compiled around 1818 by the Reverend Scott, that most of the ballads appear to be largely from oral sources, and that the manuscript was a work in progress for Scott, not a verbatim transcription of field notes.
Next, Moreira addresses the compiler himself, linking the ballads to the circumstances of Scott’s life. He proposes multiple possible motives for Scott’s collection, from a means to entertain his unhappy wife (who disliked Glenbuchat), to a way to flesh out his resume for one of his many bids for transfer to another parish, to a way to boost morale during the hard years of post-war depression.
Finally, under the premise that “folksong, if understood as community based expression, needs to be assessed in dynamic relation to the social world of the singers” (xxxvii), the introduction attends to the important community context of Glenbuchat in the early 19th century. This section, along with the discussion that follows, stands out as particularly excellent. Glenbuchat, it seems, was in the throes of modernization during the time of Scott’s collecting—and the dual forces of modernity and tradition play themselves out in the community’s balladry. Printed sources and oral sources vied for influence over the ballad’s style and diction as the community sought to cope with changing rent structures and farming arrangements. The social tension over the move from communal-based farm allotment to individual holdings is mirrored by a tension within the ballads of the “little community” of Glenbuchat. “The forces that influenced the pragmatics of living,” Moreiera states, “the methods of land holding and work, accommodation, and social networks—also affected cultural life in Glenbuchet: its language, its political and ideological attachments to the outside world, and its arts, including of course its ballads” (li).
The introduction ends by suggesting the way the collection should be conceptualized. “The collection, very much a record of its own time and place, properly belongs to a multi-layered discourse about many cultural transitions and movements that were underway in the Northeast around the turn of the nineteenth century” (lxviii). Time, place, people and cultural transitions all provide ample context for situating the collection which follows. One minor drawback is that there is only one image of the actual manuscript at the beginning of the volume. More images would allow the reader to get a better sense for the flavor of the original.
The collection itself is well-arranged and arrayed. Editorial notes are kept to a minimum, and the original notes are left intact—including some informative original insertions. For example, an excerpt from Spalding’s “History of the Troubles” is inserted between pgs 10 and 11 of the MS, after the ballad “Lord John and Rothiemay” (Child 196, “The Fire of Frendraught”). Scott’s notes on the ballads and the tradition are as revealing as the ballads themselves.
Following the collection is an excellent set of notes on each ballad in the collection. These annotations, the authors state, “are intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. The principal aim has been to place the Glenbuchat texts within the regional tradition, textually and historically” (225). This they do admirably. In the space of one to three paragraphs per ballad, the authors concisely provide valuable details on historical events associated with the songs, sourcing information, metrical notes, and comparative data. Lastly, the collection has a commendable works cited list, a brief (but helpful) glossary of Scots terms, and several indices. The collection, overall, is valuable not only for adding to the corpus of balladry from this time period, but also for being a localized collection in the midst of a transitional culture. The contextual information on the community, the compiler, and the manuscript itself paints a rich and intricate picture of the tradition, and fills an important niche in the ballad corpus. The Glenbuchat Ballads—both the ballad collection itself and the carefully researched annotations—is a welcome contribution to the scholarly discourse on balladry, community, and the mediation of tradition and modernity.