Silent no more as secret songs return to rude health in print after 150 years

THEY were titled Secret Songs of Silence and you certainly wouldn't hear them sung at your average soiree.

This collection of bawdy and sexual folk songs was accumulated by the well-known Aberdeenshire collector Peter Buchan during the first half of the 19th century and it has taken more than a century and a half for them to finally appear in print. Now Secret Songs is the first book to emerge from Hog's Back Press, a new small publishing company in Edinburgh specialising in folk and cultural history

Hog's Back has been established by Dr Ian Spring, who recently took early retirement from Cardiff University, and Linda Henderson. Spring's interest in Secret Songs of Silence – the manuscript of which now resides at Harvard University – goes back as far as 1980 when the late Hamish Henderson (to whom the book is dedicated) put him on to it for his PhD.

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In an ironic twist, having finally published the once-taboo manuscript, Spring is bemused to see yet another "first publication" of Secret Songs, under the title The High-Kilted Muse, edited by Murray Shoolbraid and published by the University Press of Mississippi in association with Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute.

So, as with buses, you can wait two and a half centuries for song collections, then two come along together. Spring appears philosophical about the rival publication, however, and knew it was in preparation (his edition sells at 16.99, the Mississippi publication goes for $55, about 37).

These are songs you're unlikely to have heard at your mother's knee, with clear parallels with Robert Burns's legendary collection of bawdry, The Merry Muses of Caledonia, which Burns never intended for publication.

However, the ever penurious Buchan, adopting the florid pseudonym "Sir Oliver Orpheus, Bart of Eldridge Hall", tried desperately to sell it to publishers, none of whom would touch it. Finally his friend William Gordon bought it in 1837. "But Gordon didn't want to publish them either," explains Spring, "so Buchan was bought off, if you like."

Spring agrees there are similarities with The Merry Muses, "but it's a wider collection, because Buchan spent time in London (where he died of cholera in 1854], so you'll get songs from north-east Scotland but also others from the south of England." Unlike Burns, however, Buchan rarely mentions tunes for the songs he collected.

Spring sees Secret Songs as an important contribution in redressing the balance in an authentic – and unsanitised – appraisal of the folk culture of early 19th-century Scotland.

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A psychoanalyst might have a field day with some of this material, with its sexual politics, cuckoldry, castration fears, bestiality ... you name it. Then there's the extraordinary Farto-Turdoniad, a scatological barrage attributed to James "Balloon" Tytler, the eccentric journalist, printer and pioneer balloonist who, it seems, could turn his pen as fluently to OTT toilet humour as to editing Encyclopaedia Britannica.

What is particularly intriguing is the venerable lineage of some of these gloriously off-colour ditties, suggesting that people's bawdy inclinations haven't changed that much over the centuries. The Crab Fish, for instance, can be traced back to Levantine tales circulating in Italy around 1400, yet modern versions can be trawled from the internet.

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However, Hog's Back Press isn't just about disseminating unbowdlerised bawdry. A new collection of essays about Hamish Henderson is promised, along with an anthology of Scottish gothic literature. Due shortly is a reprint of John Geddie's Thomas the Rhymer, published in 1920 by the Rymour Club of Edinburgh, while a compilation of songs and other material by the Rymour Club itself is expected around September.

"The Rymour Club existed between 1904 and 1928, and many of its members were well-known folk song collectors, such as Robert Ford and Gavin Greig, but also other people eminent in the arts – even Harry Lauder was a member."

One can't imagine Sir Harry singing select items from Secret Songs, but who knows what he got up to in private?

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