The metrical psalms recorded for the Haddington project were sung in broad Scots pronunciation. But the source texts were not actually written in Scots, even though three of the authors of the texts were Scotsmen, namely William Kethe (Psalms 27, 100, 107 and 113), John Craig (Psalm 118) and Robert Pont (Psalm 76). Scots pronunciation was used in order to try to indicate just how congregation-focussed Scottish Reformed worship actually was. In the Lowlands, those congregations were Scots-speakers. The sermons their pastors preached for their benefit were in Scots, and when they sang to praise their God, they sang the psalms in the language they actually spoke in their daily lives. In writing, the Scots and English languages were anything but mutually incomprehensible; and this would have been true even of speech, not least because people in both kingdoms had ‘open ears,’ used as they were to coping with wide phonetic variations between the numerous dialects spoken within their own national borders. That said, it is worth reminding ourselves how little general exposure ordinary Scots had to the sound of spoken English – no radio, no cinema and no television, and precious few English visitors other than the occasional invading army. The first prolonged exposure large numbers of Scots got to the sound of English voices was during the British Civil Wars, when Scottish armies invaded England and Scottish clergy attended the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1643-1653). The whole country heard the sound of southern English during the ten years of the Cromwellian Occupation after the catastrophic Battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650. In the sixteenth century, there were Scots, including the Haddington minister James Carmichael, who had travelled to England, and even lived there for prolonged periods: but it would have been unthinkable for such men to alienate their fellow-Scots by talking to them in whatever kind of southern English they had picked up for use south of the Border.
Despite the fact that Scotland imported many English vernacular printed books and that almost all editions of the Scottish metrical psalter used English orthography, most Scots could not read or write, so written English was a mystery. Most people learned the psalms off by heart by hearing them. The early Reformed clergy, precentors and schoolmasters who had to teach the psalms did not use ‘English’ pronunciation, even supposing those teachers knew what an English accent sounded like. The post-Marconi phenomenon whereby Scottish, English and even non-anglophone pop-singers frequently employ a strange transatlantic sound when singing would have been unknown, and the 16th century equivalent – singing Scots lyrics in any kind of English accent – would have been regarded as bafflingly bizarre. The ability to speak ‘southeroun’ noted in individuals like John Knox and the Regent Morton – both of them had spent much time in England and in the company of native English speakers – was perceived as distinctly unusual. John Knox is our source for the fact that his great friend, the English pastor Christopher Goodman, minister at Ayr and then St Andrews between 1559 and 1565, had learned Scots in order to minister to his Scottish congregations.
The Cromwellian Occupation reportedly banned Psalm-singing in Scotland altogether; but in May 1650 the Kirk had in any case brought out a new psalter, which eschewed the musical and metrical variety of the ‘old psalter’ first printed in 1564, with its over 30 verse forms and 105 ‘proper’ tunes. The texts were generally printed in English spelling, which 16th century Scots would automatically have read ‘as if it were Scots’, just as today, we know how to read the bizarreries of English spelling according to the sound in our memories: there is no b at the end of thumb. However, three extant editions of the ‘old psalter’ were in fact printed using Scots orthography, the last of them as late as 1600. The editions for this project were created using the Psalters of Henry Charteris (1596) and Robert Smyth (1599) as base texts. There may have been other Scots-orthography editions, now completely lost after having been read and sung to pieces. But modern singers - while used to singing English bough and tough as rhyming with how and bluff, are not used to the conventions of Scots orthography (ai sounded as eh, ei as ee, kn as k-n, quh as hw, wr as vr, etc.). So, for the recording project, the verbal underlay to the musical notation had to be provided in a form of ‘phonetic Scots’, in order to circumvent months of training the singers to reprogramme their verbal reading skills. The sheer vigour, conviction and enthusiasm with which all those involved in the Haddington psalms project sang their herts oot in braid Scots movingly transports us back to the pre-Cromwellian times when Scots was the everyday tongue of the Kirk, and the music of the psalms incomparably richer than it was after the introduction of the 1650 Psalter.
Jamie Reid Baxter, June 2016