The Lowland Jig

Easy as 1 2 3

The terms 'Jig' and 'Reel' have been part of Scottish pipe music since at least 1760. Pipers are familiar with the time signatures of 6/8 and 9/8, and can be fairly confident about how to interpret them. However, anyone who have looked at 17th century manuscripts, or perhaps at Playford's 'Dancing Master' publications, will be aware that these time signatures do not appear until late in the 17th century, and their use was not common until the 18th.

During the major part of the 17th century there were only three time signatures in common use in Scottish manuscripts - Common time (C) and 'Cut time' will be familiar to pipers for tunes in 2/2 or 4/4. Everything else in 17th century manuscripts comes with one time signature, a simple '3'. [The matter is not really as simple as this; these sources frequently display inconsistencies in uasge - as someone said  'at first sight the matter appears complex; further examination however, reveals it to be incomprehensible']

A source such as the Balcarres Lute Book [1695-1700] has around a third of its contents marked with the '3' time signature. How should we go about interpreting this, and more to the point, how were these tunes notated when they were written down in the 18th century using more familiar symbols? I've battled on a number of occasions with the more obscure aspects of this subject, without ever feeling I had trully understood it; if it appeals to you you might start with the wikipedia entry on the subject. What I'm attempting here is to outline the various musical forms that I have identified that come with this 3 time signature, and to explore how these forms might have become obscured when notation conventions changed, until we find ourselves left now with the 'jig' and the 'waltz' and the 3/2 hornpipe' and little else.

You might expect the '3' symbol to indicate three beats in a bar, but in fact 'it ain't necessarily so'. alternatively, you might expect it to represent the 'triple' division of each beat; again, not so. This is well demonstrated by the tune from the Blacarres MS that I discussed in the 'Lowland Mazurka' post. There are two versions of this tune in the manuscript, one with three beats in the bar (the conventional mazurka notation) and the other with half as many bars, each with 6 beats in.

Rothes Rant in 6-4

Rothes Rant {Balcarres Lute Book #65]

It is interesting to compare this with the preceding tune in the manuscript ''Come Hither My Boonny Bird Chuck'; this is strain 2:

Come Hither

Now this second tune looks like a pretty standard 'single jig', or at least it would if we altered the note values and wrote it in 6/8, although its final cadence is more 17th century than 21st.

What about this tune, from George Bowie's 1705 manuscript?

Though there are still essentially two beats in the bar here, the way they are divided up by the quaver groups implies to me that we must count all three sub-divisions of each beat, so that we get a dird that goes 123-123|123-123|. This on the face of it is the same dird we might apply to the first tune here, The Rothes Rant, until we get to that strain of the tune that is essentially a mazurka and insists on stressing the dotted first of the three, 1&23 1&23|.

So we already have three different ways of interpreting the dird of what on the face of it are all '6/4' tunes. Of these the most important to the interpretation of the Lowland 'Jig', it seems to me, is this last one, since it applies to so much of the core repertoire - including Blanche of Middlebie...