Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Bonny Cumberland: Music from the manuscripts of fiddlers in the Lake District c.1750 – 1880. compiled by John Offord. Green Man Music. £18.50.
Tom Moses from Lanercost supplied the instructions for dancing the Cumberland Long Eight. The four couples stand facing each other. “First man leads in a single cast ‘out’ of the set to the bottom, while first lady leads the ladies in the same on the side. Partners meet up at the bottom and dance (perhaps swing) to the top, doing a double step.” And so the dance continues to a 32 bar reel. Or they might have danced a Cumberlandd Square Eight, or a Three Meet or a Cottagers or one of many other formations. Whatever the dance the fiddler played, repeating the reels, jigs, strathspeys, hornpipes, polkas, marches, minuets and waltzes until the company was exhausted. There’s 480 tunes in this wonderful compilation by John Offord.
The fiddler and other itinerant musicians were to be found at every “wedding, loosening, tea-party, ‘auld wife’s hake’, young folk’s assembly, hay fair, flower show and friendly society’s hall and wherever the people of the Lakes got together to enjoy themselves, usually in the village inn or tavern.
The music was fast and furious and, no doubt, grew even faster and more furious as the evening progressed into the early hours. “Dancing was dancing in those days, and fiddling, fiddling.” Everyone threw themselves into the action: “It was no uncommon thing to see a dalesman throw off his coat, roll up his trousers, and go for it, till he had to desist from sheer exhaustion – the women entering into the contest with equal vigour.”
The vigour, of course, has departed long ago with the old dalesmen, but the tunes have survived in remarkable numbers. The Lakes were peculiarly well-placed for a rich mixture of music. Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland and elsewhere in the north of England, brought their tunes and their dances. The area was, by its very nature conservative, and so much of the tradition was preserved.
They’re wonderful tunes, full of life and energy and the character of the county.
The names themselves convey something of their qualities. There’s ‘Bonnie Cumberland’ and ‘Bonnie Westmorland’, as you might expect. But there’s also ‘A Touch Under the Blanket’ and ‘Willie is a Wanting Wag’.
The tunes were known all over the Lake Counties. There’s an ‘Oughterside Rant’, ‘The Whitehaven Volunteers’, ‘Allonby Lasses’, ‘Trip to Cartmell’, Ullswater Regatta’, ‘Brampton Reel’, ‘Calgarth Hornpipe’, ‘Briggham Hornpipe’ and even a hornpipe for the ‘Bonnie Lasses’ of Keswick.
There’s pictures of Cumbrian life, of the shy young men in the ‘Doubtful Shepherd’ and the obstacles to courtship in ‘Over ye Moor to Betty’. Of the favourite tipples - ‘Brandy Bottle’ and ‘Willie Brewed a Peck o’ Malt’ and of the Highlanders who drove their cattle through the district:
‘The Hieland Man Came over the Hill’, ‘Highland Laddie’ and ‘Jimmy o’the Glen’.
And there’s many pictures of the merry goings-on as the fiddlers fiddled: ‘The New Way of Wooing’, ‘Maidenhead is a Folly’, ‘Kiss Her Sweetly’, ‘Squeeze me Softly’, ‘Bonny Lass to Marry Me’ and even ‘Lasses Keep Your Legs Together’.
John Offord has collected his tunes from the rich manuscript sources. In Carlisle Record Office is a manuscript of tunes that Joseph Barns of Abbeyholm began compiling in 1762. Mathew Betham, a Yeoman farmer of Towcett, Newby, north of Shap, kept a tune book in the early nineteenth century. The Browne family, prosperous farmers from Troutbeck, left five manuscripts. And there were others from William Irwin and his pupil, Henry Stables, of Langdale, John Rook of Waverton, and several found among the Senhouse papers.
Together they constitute a remarkable collection and John Offord is to be congratulated on preserving a wonderful tradition.