Violence and murder: why the street ballads of 18th century Old Town Edinburgh were the true crime podcasts of their day

These days the Fringe brings Edinburgh’s Royal Mile alive with music and theatre, but the Old Town has been a hub of performance and culture for centuries, as Lucy Ribchester discovered when researching Murder Ballad, her latest novel

At the start of 2020 my plan was to write a novel set in London’s 18th-century music scene. The gaudy glamour of the Georgian era had been fixating me for years. I was fascinated by the horrific practice of mutilating bodies into castrati to create angelic voices, by the extravagance of the clothing, the gender fluidity of operatic roles.

When lockdown happened however, confined to Edinburgh, I began to lose connection with that world. Indoors for most hours of the day, I lost my passion for reading as research and yearned to get outside and see and touch real things.

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In the evenings when my kids were asleep I would walk up to the castle esplanade and enjoy its eerie quiet, empty of tourists. Later when the nurseries re-opened, I started taking morning walks through the Old Town, aimless, directionless, weaving up and down closes that I’d either forgotten about or had never been down before.

You could spend a year wandering up and down the closes of the Royal Mile, and by the end of it there would still be secrets to discover. During the pandemic, it felt like the blank canvas of quiet (compared to the Mile’s usual bustle), allowed me to see back through to the past a little more clearly.

One day I stumbled on a plaque I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed. It was welded to the gateway of Old Playhouse Close, and it marked the site of the Canongate Playhouse, a theatre open from 1747 to 1769. I began to wonder what plays, operas and concerts might have been staged there, but also: why did it close?

I suddenly felt my novel’s story pulling me into Edinburgh.

I already knew a little about the Old Town’s more famous 18th-century concert venue, St Cecilia’s Hall, on the corner where Niddry Street (Niddry’s Wynd in 1763 when the Hall was built) meets the Cowgate. Once the home of the Edinburgh Musical Society, St Cecilia’s was a place where amateur musicians from the gentry would play alongside hired professional masters and soloists in weekly concerts of Scarlatti, Handel and Gluck. The local aristocracy would pick their way in fine gowns and pattens through the Cowgate’s muck to enter the Hall's pavilion façade, listen and mingle afterwards.

Now I began to research both venues more thoroughly.

I found a PhD thesis, written in 1999 by Sonia Tingali Baxter, entitled Italian music and musicians in Edinburgh 1720-1800 (ironically taken via Glasgow University). Through it I learned that musicians from Italy, Germany and Bohemia came to Edinburgh on retainers for the Musical Society. These weren’t flying visits for isolated concert dates but year-long contracts, which would see them take on regular appearances at St Cecilia’s, as well as give performances at the Canongate Playhouse, and offer private music tuition. It was through the Edinburgh Musical Society that the famous castrato Tenducci came to Edinburgh, immortalised in Robert Fergusson’s poem, ‘The Canongate Playhouse in Ruins’.

I had already begun researching female composers from that era for the London book, coming across several women writing music prolifically in the 18th century. One of them, Sophia Corri Dussek, was born in Edinburgh, daughter of an Edinburgh-based Italian family, the Corris, who had travelled from Rome at the invitation of the Edinburgh Musical Society. Another was Maria Barthélemon, whose scores I found in the British Library. Flicking through them, it had struck me how pristine they looked, how unsmeared the 18th-century paper was: barely researched, seldom (if ever) performed.

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One of Barthélemon’s compositions had been for a charity benefit concert for London’s Magdalen Asylum choir. I wondered how she had felt composing that piece; what it had meant to the women trapped in the asylum to know there was a composer dedicating her time to writing music for them.

How was it that we could bury for centuries in an archive the creative output of this woman who poured her passion into her work?

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Though there is no evidence that either Sophia Dussek or Maria Barthélemon ever had their compositions played at the Edinburgh Musical Society (Dussek could well have sung there, as both her parents and her uncle are mentioned in the Society ledgers), it is by no means inconceivable that there could have been a woman contemporaneous with them – with ambitions, desires, a thirst to create music – living within spitting distance of St Cecilia’s and the Canongate Playhouse. A woman perhaps hoping against the misogynistic odds of the Enlightenment Age to one day have a full-length opera produced.

That still, however, didn’t seem to me to be the full story.

Much as the Royal Mile springs to life with buskers in the summer season (and pipers year round), in my research I had come across the 18th-century culture of street ballad singing. According to the historian Tim Fulford, singing street ballads in the 18th century was overwhelmingly a woman’s trade; one of the few ways in which women dominated the cultural scene of cities. Hogarth sketched a woman singing a ballad in his 1741 print ‘The Enraged Musician’. Poets such as Wordsworth and Robert Southey romanticised the plight of female ballad singers in works like Lyrical Ballads and ‘The Complaints of the Poor’. There was a great interest during this period in collecting ballads too, which we know from ballad collections such as Thomas Percy’s 1765 Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and from poets such as Coleridge, whose 1798 ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ undoubtedly draws upon the vernacular, yarn-spinning, popular rhyming form.

Later, rummaging online in the National Library of Scotland’s The Word on the Street archive, I found multitudes of printed street ballads, from haunting traditional tales to the last words of criminals about to be hanged. They were the 18th-century equivalent of true crime podcasts, many of them involving violence, sexual transgression, and murder. Unusually for the period, the Edinburgh Musical Society concerts at St Cecilia’s also featured traditional Scots music. (In 1794 the Caledonian Mercury advertised that the violinist Stabilini was to perform a ‘Solo Concerto’ at St Cecilia’s, ‘In which will be introduced a favourite Scots Air’, and Tenducci performed ‘Scots Airs’ alongside Handel’s opera Artaxerxes at the Canongate Playhouse in 1769.)

However, the Society delineated clearly between respectable folk music and vulgar vernacular songs. Society treasurer George Thomson hailed ‘the most favourite of our national melodies’, while at the same time denigrated ‘rhymes so loose and indelicate as cannot be sung in decent company.’ How did he make this distinction?

Why were the middle classes so interested in ballads, only to cherry pick the ones that suited their tastes? And could the latter quote of Thomson’s be referring to tawdry murder ballads and street broadsides?

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All of these questions, combined with my love of the dark, winding closes of the Old Town, felt too irresistible not to weave together. A very clear story began to emerge to me; of two women from different musical backgrounds; a story of creative frustration, betrayal, lust, violence, a labyrinth of lies. Murder Ballad is both my twisted love letter to the 18th-century Old Town, and a memento mori of the musical women time has forgotten.

Murder Ballad by Lucy Ribchester (Black & White Publishing) is launched on 26 June at St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, sponsored by Port of Leith Distillery. Alongside a Q&A with Lucy Ribchester, the event will feature a harpsichord recital of the music of Maria Barthélemon and a performance of the traditional Scots murder ballad, Binnorie O. Tickets are available from Blackwell’s here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lucy-ribchester-murder-ballad-tickets-893690802247 or by calling 0131-622 8222.

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