Jane Austen and the music of Scotland, England and Ireland

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


In my forthcoming book She Played and Sang: Jane Austen and Music (Manchester University Press), I include a survey of British song in Austen’s surviving music collection, digitized by Southampton University Library, and in her fiction. So-called ‘Scotch airs’ were enormously popular during Austen’s lifetime. Given Austen’s well-known Jacobite sympathies, it is not surprising that she felt no impulse to resist this musical tide from the north. Her music collection shows that she was drawn to Scottish music, and two of the four songs her young relatives remember her singing in her later years were Scottish: ‘Their groves of sweet myrtle’ and ‘The yellow-haired laddie’ – the other two being respectively French, and English (by an Irish composer). Roger Fiske proposes that one of the reasons for the popularity of Scottish songs was ‘the piquancy of their Scots characteristics’. Other political or ideological reasons might be adduced, but these characteristics do set them apart from the common run of pastoral love songs and help to explain their attraction for Austen. Even if they were not all genuinely Scottish, the genre of ‘Scotch song’ allowed non-Scottish songwriters a certain licence to include musical and lyrical elements which would be thought out of place in the English ‘art’ song. During the eighteenth century, the melodies of Scottish songs found their way into sonatas, symphonies and overtures of composers based in England, and onto the London stage in ballad operas and plays. Arrangements of the tunes multiplied: among the sets of variations on pre-existing themes in the Austen collection, traditional tunes labelled as Scottish outnumber all other sources.
Period20 Jul 2023
Held atInstitute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Jane Austen
  • Traditional music
  • Scottish music
  • Irish music