Flowers of Edinburgh is a traditional Scottish Reel. I had heard it a few times before tonight, and most recently when one of my fiddle students, Eva, played it at the Rocky Mountain Irish Festival fiddle contest.
I really didn’t keep my arrangement in the traditional Celtic vein. It’s got a lot of me in it, and sounds more American than the Celtic purists might appreciate. It’s how the tune feels to me, so I hope you enjoy it.
FLOWERS OF EDINBURGH  (Blata Duin-Eudain). AKA ‑ “Flooers o’ Edinburgh.” AKA and see “Cois Lasadh/Leasa” (Beside a Rath), “Earl of Hopetown’s Reel,” “Flowers of Donnybrook,” “My Love’s Bonny When She Smiles On Me,” “My Love was Once a Bonny Lad,” “Rossaviel,” “To the Battle Men of Erin,” “Old Virginia.” Scottish (originally), Shetland, Canadian, American; Scots Measure, Country Dance Tune or Reel: English, Reel, Country or Morris Dance Tune (4/4, cut or 2/2 time); Irish, Reel or Hornpipe. Originally from Scotland, Lowlands region. USA; New England, southwestern Pa., Missouri, New York, Arizona. Canada; Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton. G Major (most versions): Morris version in D Major (Mallinson). Standard tuning. AB (Bacon, Kerr): AAB (Bain, Mitchell): AABB (most versions): AA’BB (Phillips): AA’BB’ (Beisswenger & McCann). Gow and others credit composition of the melody to James Oswald (Gow). Its earliest appearance in print is in Oswald’s c. 1742 collection of Curious Collection of Scots Tunes (II), which appeared in London and contained the “Flowers” tune as a “crude” song entitled “My Love’s bonny when she smiles on me.” He printed the melody again in 1750 with the words “My love was once a bonny lad.” The first version of the song and tune with the title “The Flower of Edinburgh” appeared in The Universal Magazine, April, 1749. That same year it was printed in John Johnson’s Twelve Country Dances for the Harpsichord. Oswald himself republished it in 1751 in his volume Caledonian Pocket Companion under the title “The Flower of Edinburgh.” Flowers of Edinburgh is a Scottish country dance, for which the namesake tune is played, often followed by “The Lass o’ Patie’s Mill,” “The East Neuk of Fife” and “Bottom of the Punch Bowl” (Martin, 2002).
As regards the title, the convention “Flower of…” usually referenced a woman, although in the case of “Edinburgh” the plural form was appended at some point and stuck. The plural title appears in Herd’s Scots Songs (without music) and in The Scots Musical Museum (1787, No. 13). Gow notes parenthetically in his Complete Repository (Part 4, 1817) that the ‘flowers’ of Edinburgh did not refer to comely females but in fact referenced the magistrates of the town. Some say the ‘flowers’ were female, although the females in question were prostitutes. It has also been suggested that the title refers to the stench of the old, overcrowded urban Edinburgh—a city fondly referred to as “Auld Reekie”, which does not bespeak of a putrid, reeking smell, but rather comes from the Norwegian word røyk, meaning smoke. Thus ‘Auld Reekie’ refers to the pall of smoke that once hovered over the city, having been constantly spewed forth by its hearths. Finally, the ‘flowers of Edinburgh’ has been taken to refer to the contents of chamber pots which were, in the days before modern sewage systems, once disposed of by being thrown into the city streets (with or without the shouted warning “Gardez l’eau!” or “Mind yourself!”). Paul de Grae finds this latter interpretation in modern times incorporated by novelist Ian Rankin in one of his Inspector Rebus crime novels. Rebus, an Edinburgh detective, is being addressed by a “hard man” whose warning narrowly averted the Inspector’s stepping in canine excrement. It will help to know human waste is called keech or keach in Ulster and Scotland (similar to the French caca, Italian cacca, Finnish and Icelandic kakku, and German kaka):
“Know what ‘flowers of Edinburgh’ are?”
“A rock band?”
“Keech. They used to chuck all their keech out of the
windows and onto the street. There was so much of it
lying around, the locals called it the flowers of Edinburgh.
I read that in a book.”
The renowned County Donegal fiddler, John Doherty (1895-1980) had his own idiosyncratic take on the title. In the notes for the album “The Floating Bow,” Alun Evans writes of Doherty:
I can only say that I never found him to be other than exhilarating
company. Yet he was hard to pin down on detail, for in his mind fact and
fantasy were so tightly interwoven as to be indivisible – at least he led
you to believe so. He would tell how James Scott Skinner had composed the
tune ‘The Flowers of Edinburgh’ after a Miss Flowers with whom he was
besotted at the time. John must have known that this didn’t ring true but a
story was a story, perhaps an example of the ‘true Celtic madness’ which is
said to be ‘not psychotic but merely a poetic confusion of the real and the
English morris versions are from the Bampton area of England’s Cotswolds and the North‑West (England) tradition (where it is used as the tune for a polka step). Cecil Sharp collected the slower Cotswalds version from Harry Taylor, mainstay of the Longborgough and Lower Siwell Morris sides in Gloucestershire. Editor Seattle remarks of William Vickers’ Northumbrian country dance version that it is “A fine setting with some distinctive 18th century touches.” The tune is contained in the 19th century Joseph Kershaw and the 1823-1826 Joshua Gibbons music manuscript books. Kershaw was a fiddle player who lived in the remote area of Slackcote, Saddleworth, North West England, who compiled his manuscript from 1820 onwards, according to Jamie Knowles. Gibbons was a papermaker and a musician from Tealby in the Lincolnshire Wolds.
In America the melody has also been used for country dances for over two hundred and twenty years. It was included by Greenland, New Hampshire, dancer Clement Weeks in his MS dance collection of 1783, and by Giles Gibbs (East Windsor, Ellington Parish, Connecticut) in his 1777 fife manuscript (Van Cleef & Keller, 1980). In the latter MS it is also called “Darling Swain.” Another early American version appears in the music manuscript copybook of Henry Livingston, Jr. Livingston purchased the estate of Locust Grove, Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1771 at the age of 23. In 1775 he was a Major in the 3rd New York Regiment, which participated in Montgomery’s invasion of Canada in a failed attempt to wrest Québec from British control. An important land-owner in the Hudson Valley, and a member of the powerful Livingston family, Henry was also a surveyor and real estate speculator, an illustrator and map-maker, and a Justice of the Peace for Dutchess County. He was also a poet and musician, and presumably a dancer, as he was elected a Manager for the New York Assembly’s dancing season of 1774-1775, along with his 3rd cousin, John Jay, later U.S. Chief Justice of Governor of New York. As “Old Virginia (Reel)” it was printed by George P. Knauff in Virginia Reels, volume II (Baltimore, 1839). Much later it was cited as having commonly been played for country dances in Orange County, New York, in the 1930′s (Lettie Osborn, New York Folklore Quarterly), and was in the repertoire of Arizona dance fiddler Kenner C. Kartchner in the early twentieth century. This famous Scottish reel is as well known to Pennsylvania fiddlers as it is to country players everywhere in the area of British folk music tradition, says Bayard (1944), and is one tune to which a single title has been transmitted intact through the generations of folk process. The title also appears in a list of traditional Ozark Mountain fiddle tunes compiled by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph, published in 1954. Howard Marshall writes that Art Galbraith (d. 1992) of Springfield, Missouri, “had the most famous version in his area which was handed down through his family from at least 1840. Art’s version is distinctive for its retention of the old ‘extra beat’ that has been lost in other versions.” Galbraith believed the tune had come down through his family from his great-grandfather, Andrew Galbraith, who had been a dancing master in east Tennessee and a veteran of the War of 1812. Drew Beisswenger (2008) believes the reel may have been introduced to the Southern states through the settlement schools, but notes that, while it is not unknown to Southern musicians it never achieved a great deal of popularity there.
In Ireland “Flowers of Edinburgh” is most common rendered as a hornpipe. The Irish “Cois Leasa” (Beside a Rath) is a version of this tune, maintains O’Neill (Dance Music of Ireland), who perhaps found it in Haverty’s 100 Irish Airs, 2nd series, 1859, where “The Flowers of Edinburgh” is given in parenthesis as an alternate title for the “Rath” tune. Bayard (1981) agrees with O’Neill, though Sullivan (Bunting Collection) and Alfred Moffat do not, and the connection is not addressed in the Fleischmann index (Sources of Irish Traditional Music, 1998). Stanford/Petrie notes his Arranmore-collected Irish tune “Rossaveel” is “the old form of ‘Flowers of Edinburgh.’” Finally, a version is played under the title of “The Flower of Donneybrook” in Ireland.
Early sound recordings include a waxing by Charles D’Almaine (1905), John Witzmann (1920) and Ohio fiddler John Baltzell (1928).
Sources for notated versions: Fennigs All Stars (New York) [Brody]; John Kubina, (near) Davistown, Pennsylvania, September 3, 1943 (learned from traditional players in Pittsburgh) [Bayard]; Gilpin, Yaugher, Hall, Wright, Shape (all southwestern Pa. fiddlers whose versions were collected in the 1940′s) [Bayard]; Arnold Woodley (Bampton, England) via Roy Dommett [Bacon]; Art Stamper (Mo.) [Phillips]; piper Willie Clancy (1918-1973, Miltown Malbay, west Clare) [Mitchell]; Elliot Wright (b. 1935, North River, Queens County, Prince Edward Island) [Perlman]; fiddler Dawson Girdwood (Perth, Ottawa Valley, Ontario) [Begin]; Borders fiddler Tom Hughes [Martin]; Charlie Pashia (1909-1994, Old Mines, Missouri) [Beisswenger & McCann].