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"Some Old Lake Country Fiddlers and their Tune Books"

By Anne Geddes Gilchrist.

Extract from The Journal of The Lakeland Dialect Society, Issue No.1, November 1939, p16.

"My acquaintance with most of these old lake-country musicians is limited to what one may learn from the little oblong manuscript tune-books they have left us for their memorial. But from the faded ink of their generally beautiful manuscript the tunes of well over a hundred years ago spring to life again, and thus it is possible still to call up a picture of the social amenities of old country life and custom in the Lake District - not greatly changed between the latter part of George III's reign and the early years of Victoria's - atime when the waltz, the polka, and the schottische were beginning to supplant the old hornpipes, reels,strathspeys, jigs, and country-dances.

The social customs of the dalespeople were closely associated with music and dancing, and the fiddler was an indispensable part of every "lake", wedding, loosening,tea-party, "auld wife's hake", young folk's assembly, hay fair, flower show, and friendly society's ball. Most of these gatherings were held at inns and taverns, for, as has been remarked, a century ago and earlier every decent country inn possessed a room large and pretentious enough for such festivities. "Dancing was dancing in those days and fiddling , fiddling." Speaking of the furious energy of the dancing, the son of one of the old fiddlers says: "It was no uncommon thing to see a dalesman throw off his coat, rol up his trousers, and go for it, till he had to desist from sheer exhaustion - the women entering into the contest with equal vigour." Local poets describe this fury of energy, as at the "Worton Wedding", where Tamar, in her stocking feet banged out Wully in his clogs," and again in Mark Lonsdale's "Th' Upshot," where it is recorded that Tom Little, the dancing master, took the floor, and while dancing a "famish" jig gave such a spang that the loft boards broke and he "stuck a-straddle cocked o' the hallan." No wonder there was a favourite hornpipe called "Iron Legs!"

There were famous fiddlers in the old days, Gillespie, of Keswick, being a king among them. William Irwin, of Elterwater, his pupil, who had the highest admiration for his playing, became probably as famous in his own day. The best of these fiddlers could also compose their own hornpipes, reels, and jigs - especially hornpipes - and one notices that they were more apt to name them after the places they visited and where they played them than after the ladies and gentlemen of the nobility, as in Scotland. Thus we get "Bonny Cumberland" and equally "Bonny Westmorland", "Keswick Bonny Lasses" "Latrigg Side" "Stybarrow Crag" "Raughton Head" "Dalston Forge" (composed by Bill Adams), "Windermere Regatta" "Orton" "Brampton", and many another town or village celebrated in reel, quickstep, or hornpipe. William Irwin's wife was also commemorated by "Miss Greenup's Reel" before he married her, but one finds no flattery of patrons.

Irwin's diary has been preserved - he was born in 1822 and died in 1889 - and although it is a purely business one, dealing with his receipts for performing at various events, and covering the years from 1839 into the sixties of last century, it sheds light upon the usage of the times. A fixed sum was sometimes agreed upon for a night's fiddling, while other entries containing odd pence and halfpence suggest more homely gatherings. At some, a penny for the fiddler would seem to have been collected off each dancer, at others it has been suggested that the fee was a halfpenny a dance for each person. In the forties Irwin started a long connection with the King's Arms, Hawkshead, but from his home at Elterwater he visited many other localities, "travelling - often alone - over the lonely mountain passes under almost every condition of weather," thus fully earning his fees. His "Elterwater Quickstep is here printed. (see W.Irwin ABC file, Village Music project).

One of the most profitable of his engagements was connected with "hunsupping" at Christmas - an old and delightful custom now apparently extinct. It took its curious name from the old music of arousal which became known generically as a "hunt's - up", from a tune and song "The King's Hunt Is Up" which dates from the reign of HenryVIII, and was one of the popular secular tunes converted to pious or political uses.
["The hunt is up, the hunt is up,
And it is well-nigh day,
And Harry our king
Is gone a-hunting
To bring the deer to bay"]

In the Dales a small band of musicians would go the round of their neighbour's houses ("It wad be deeth to leave oot a hoose") in the early hoursof Christmas morning, playing this ancient air in a traditional version, modified by centuries of usage, to arouse the inmates. The tune was played over once for each person, and each time an announcer, chosen for his stentorian voice, would thereafter wish that member of the household by name, down to the infant in the cradle, a happy Christmas, the greeted one being expected to appear at the window to acknowledge the compliment. [Wordsworth alludes to the custom as observed at Grasmere, in the Introduction to the Duddon Sonnets, 1820.] The money seems to have been collected at a later date. This custom of "hunsupping" (ie hunt's upping) was carried into the Isle of Man, possibly by the retinue of the Stanleys when L:ords of Man, and here again, though the custom survived, the meaning of "hunsup" became so obscure that a new folk-etymology was furnished for it, and "Yn Unnysup" or "Antisop" or even "Wandescope" came to denote the money given to the fiddler;  and being translated (as if a Manx-Gaelic word) as meaning "The deserving", thence more widely as "one's deserts", so descending reached the last stage as indicating a fitting punishment! [ See the Journal of the Folk Song Society Vol VII, pp190-194 for further notes on the tune and custom].

Meanwhile, in its native dales a "hunsup" lost its high estate in coming to mean a noisy clamour or disturbance, as illustrated in "Dick Watters":
"Thy fadders comin' frae the croft-
A bonny hunsup, faith, he mek!"
- or as addressed to quarrelling children: "What's all this hunsup about?"

To return to our fiddler after this excursion, Irwin, who was born in Keswick, was by trade a cooper - for not all these old musicians found full employment in fiddling - and worked for the Elterwater Gunpowder Company most of his life. He was considered a "character" and was a well read man, interested in literature and various sciences, acquiring most of his library by the money he earned by his fiddle. He collected one of the first sets of "musical stones" from Skiddaw and the bed of the Greta. His music books, dating from 1838 onwards, contained hundreds of tunes, including popular airs of the day as well as a large number of hornpipes, reels, et., and at a later period waltzes, polkas, and schottisches. His own "La'al Schottische" might still be heard on the concertina in the Lake District not so many years ago.

Irwin's pupil, Henry Stables, of Walthwaite, was another Lakeland fiddler, (d1906) and it is from his music book that I quote the old "hunsupping" tune, here called "hunsup through the wood", from one of the old verses attatched to it.
["Hunsup through the wood,
Hunsup through the wood,
Merrily goes the day!
Get up, old wives,
And bake your pies,
It's Christmas day in the morning"]
 He probably learnt it from Irwin.

Another old fiddler's book in my possession is that of Matthew Betham, of Towcett (near Shap). Of him I know nothing except his name and the date "1815" after it on one page. This, though a good collection of current airs of his day, contains few tunes with local names. (It seems to have come later into the possession of William Docker, of Newby Head). Some of these old dance airs have intriguing titles which leave one guessing how they got them. "Due Mungo" (brilliantly played by Gillespie), "Soldier's Joy", "The Wind That Bloeth The Barley", ""The Devil's Dream", a whole set of Morgiana tunes, showing that this mysterious lady was at different times in England, Scotland , Ireland, France, and "Lord Wellington's Camp In Spain"; and in a Carlisle collection a tune called "The Birthday Of The Little Doctor" (who, Ihave been told, was as Carlisle worthy of some hundred years ago). It is evident that one fiddler often learnt a tune from another without ever seeing its name in print, hence "Heel And Fling (Highland[Hieland] Fling)", "The Self (Sylph)", and a localisation of "Maggie Lauder" as "Maggie Lowther".
A famous Cumberland fiddler was William (Bill) Adams, an excellent country musician, particularly noted for jigs and strathspeys.... Well known at fairs, Merry nights, kern suppers and "clay daubins" (at which it is said a primitive cottage might be raised in a single day by many willing hands, to make a home for a bridal pair).

The hornpipe and the jig seem to have been the usual music measures for step-dancing, for which the dales were famous, and there are still dancers who remember some of these steps. Some years ago, at a wedding party in Liverpool, one of the guests, who came from Elterwater, astonished the company by his Westmorland step-dancing performance for their entertainment, the verdict being that they had "seldom seen neater stepping" on the stage. A friend of mine, born in Crosthwaite, Kendal,  learnt step-dancing as a girl from one of  the possibly still surviving dancing masters, Thomas Casson, Punch Bowl, Underbarrow (afterwards removing to Gretna) and furnished me with a list of the various steps he taught. Though these were solo dances, more than one took part in this "exhibition" dancing as  it would now be called, the hornpip, for instance, being performed by a row of dancers advancing across the ballroom or assembly floor. But each of them had been taught some special steps, which became,  as it were, his or her own property. This list may be worth recording for its curious titles:-
Shuffle Off
Crow Walk
Single Shuffle
Side Step
Double Shuffle
Hagram Crawl [hagworm ie snake]
Heel and Toe Step
Over and Cranch
Over and Cranch Twice
Treble Shuffle
Highland Fling
Half Cut
Double Cut
Pick and shovel
Rocking Step
Double Cranch
Treble Shuffle Sideways
Shuffle, Cranch, and Kick Forward
Pick and Shovel Cranch Step
Slip, Kick Over, Cranch
Treble Shuffle, Over and Kick
To this last I may add the oddly name "Leather te Patch" (which may be the same as the equally obscure "Clutter de Pouch") and "Cross the Buckle", mentioned in Anderson's "Bleckell Murry Neet".

As to the village dancing schools which seem to have existed as far back as the last years of the eighteenth century, an old statesman at Grayrigg told me (in 1903) that it was the custom in the early years of last century for a dancing master with his fiddle to settle in a village for two or three months. The lads and lasses went regularly to dancing school in the winter evenings, the school being generally held in a barn. Each pupil would learn a few steps at a time of a hornpipe, jig, or other dance, and then retire to a corner to practise the steps till perfect, returning to learn another set.

And then at the country assemblies or balls, the dancing was something to see! In his own words, it was "chronic!" To this long past period belongs an allusion, in an old rhyme probably dating from the last party of the eighteenth century and describing places in the neighbourhood of Lancaster:
Poulton and Torrisholme are good places for the poor,
And as for Little Heysham it sits upon the shore,
[Theres Heaton for windmills] and Middleton for grips,
There's Overton for dancing schools and Sunderland for ships.

Poulton-le-sands was renamed Morecambe when the railway reached it in 1848. Little Heysham was Lower Heysham. (I have filled the gap in memory by introducing Heaton Hill, where a windmill formerly stood). "Grips" are wide drainage ditches. But though there may still be dancing in Overton, ships no longer lie before Sunderland - once the port of Lancaster. All-all is changed. But surely some echoes still linger among the hills and dales of Cumberland and Westmorland and northern Lancashire of the nimble and untiring fingers on the fiddlestrings and the nimble and untiring steps on the floor - the "Merry nights" of a sturdy dalesfolk who entertained themselves and each other independent of the outside world - a time I have here tried to recall for a later generation.


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