The strathspey is said to have originated from the Strathspey area, the strath or broad glen of the River Spey, in North East Scotland. It was originally written for the fiddle and used for dancing to: nowadays, the strathspey is played on many different instruments. It is actually a slow and stylised form of reel and was originally called a 'Strathspey reel' while the standard reel was known as an 'Atholl reel'. Like the standard reel, it is in 4/4 time, but it sounds quite different because it is slower and contains dotted rhythms. One of these rhythms has a special name and is called the 'Scotch snap' or 'Scots snap'. This consists of a very short note followed by a long note played in sequence, giving a 'snap' sound when played.
In Gaelic music, dance tunes can also be sung and are called 'mouth music' or puirt-à-beul. A port (the word for one of these pieces of mouth music) can be any of the dance tunes we have explored here, but reels and strathspeys are particularly popular. And the words that the tunes are sung to often echo the ornaments of instruments and enhance the rhythms of the tunes - strathspeys work very well as puirt.
Kenna Campbell and her daughters Mary Ann and Wilma Kennedy perform a tune called 'A' Mhisg a Chuir an Nollaig Oirnn' or 'The Christmas Spree'.
'Puirt à Beul' performed by Kenna Campbell (2nd tune only)
From Gaelic Women, CDTRAX167, Track 5, Greentrax
Kimberley Fraser is is a fiddler from Cape Breton Island, Canada. The fiddle music of the island is primarily influenced by the music of Highland and Gaelic Scotland that came with emigrants to the East coast of Canada. Kimberley is playing a traditional strathspey called 'Tullochgorm' which originated in Scotland and is full of these dotted-rhythm Scotch snaps.
'Tullochgorm' performed by Kimberley Fraser (first tune only)
From Falling on New Ground (s/release), Track 10
There are two basic kinds of strathspey dances. The first is the set dances that are danced as a 'longways set', with lines of men and women facing each other and interweaving across the central space in different patterns. The other is like a slow version of a reel of four, where two couples intertwine in figures of eight, and is one of the standard dances in Highland dancing. The ancient tune 'Hey Tutti Taitie' is a strathspey, although Robert Burns slowed it down when he used it for 'Scots Wha Hae'.
Arthur Johnstone performs his version of 'Scots Wha Hae'.
'Scots Wha Hae' performed by Arthur Johnstone
From Robert Burns: The Complete Songs, Vol 2, CK051, Track 16, Linn
Robert Burns's stirring song about freedom, and more about the original tune, called 'Hey Tuttie Taitie', and another Burns song, 'Landlady Count the Lawin', set to the same melody.