Wednesday, 28 December 2016


On the southern edge of the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides there is an arm of land, the Ross of Mull, that reaches out westwards towards the holy island of Iona. On the map, the end of this peninsula looks a little like a hand wearing mittens, or perhaps a cat’s paw reaching towards a mouse. The inlet between the hand and the thumb is Loch na Làthaich, and on the shores of the loch sits the village of Bunessan. This is a landscape defined by the brown-green of the hills and the grey-blue of the sky and sea. It is a beautiful landscape but also a harsh one, where crofters scraped out a precarious living.

Bunessan village viewed from Lower Ardtun
© JaneMcArtney [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Just outside Bunessan is a stone monument commemorating a woman named Mary MacDonald. In some ways Mary’s life was unremarkable: in outline it was the same as hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other women who lived in the highlands and islands of Scotland. She was a farmer’s daughter, born in 1789 in Ardtun, a crofting settlement to the east and north of Bunessan. She married Neil MacDonald and lived her whole life here as a crofter’s wife, till her death in 1872.
Monument to Mary MacDonald outside Bunessan, Isle of Mull
from the Isle of Mull website:

Like all of her community Mary was a Gaelic speaker; but more significantly, she was a Gaelic singer. As she sat at her spinning-wheel in her tiny cottage she would sing. Sometimes she would make up her own songs, setting them to the old folk melodies of the islands: her monument outside Bunessan describes her as a poetess. She was a devout Baptist, and her songs were often hymns. Some of these became well-known in the area, perhaps being sung in the little church in Bunessan that was built in 1804. Her cairn outside the village quotes from one of these hymns:


In 1888 a journalist and Gaelic scholar named Lachlan Macbean brought out a collection of Gaelic lyrics named Songs and Hymns of the Scottish Highlands. In his introduction to the book, Macbean paints a romantic picture of the region as portrayed in its folk-songs:
The listener is at once transported to the bens and glens, brown moorlands, bounding deer and whirring blackcocks, foaming cascades, tree-fringed watercourses, thatched cottages, lonely lakes, and ever in the background the eternal mountains, silent and solemn. Such is the scenery through which move before us the characters which the songs introduce. These characters are few—a fair maiden tending her flock, a stalwart hunter breasting the hill, a venturesome boatman on the treacherous loch, a wild outlaw who delights in deeds of derringdo, a frantic widow wailing over her fatherless child, and perhaps a ghostly shape peering through the gloaming on the margin of the eerie woodland. That is the stage scenery and these the dramatis personae of northern minstrelsy. Its imagery is equally native. A damsel’s bosom is white as the mountain cotton, her cheeks red as the berries of the rowan tree, and her hair yellow as the clouds of evening or black as the raven’s wing. In fine, there hangs over Highland poesy an unmistakeable odour of the mountain air, heavy with the breath of the heather, with an occasional dash of ozone from the western sea.
But away from the white-bosomed damsels Macbean also turned his attention to the spiritual life of the Highlands:
A stern theology harmonises well with the environment and history of the Highlander, and whether as Pagan or as Calvinist he is most like himself when chanting eternal ‘Misereres’ of unutterable pathos.
One of the hymns he included in the book has words by Mary MacDonald. It is in fact the one quoted on her memorial cairn near Bunessan, though Macbean’s version has slightly different words. (Being sadly ignorant of Gaelic, I cannot judge how significant these differences are.) 
Leanabh an àigh!
Leanabh bh’aig Màiri;
Rugadh an stàbull,
Righ nan dùl!
Thainig do’n fhàsach,
Dh’fhuiling ’nar n-àite
Son’iad an aireamh
Bhitheas dha dluth!
MacBean translated this into English as follows:
Child in the manger!
Infant of Mary;
Outcast and stranger,
Lord of all!
Child who inherits
All our transgressions,
All our demerits
On Him fall!
You can see what he meant about the Highlanders’ stern theology and unutterable pathos: even the tender crib-scene of this Christmas carol is infused with a strong sense of sin.

This carol, in its English translation, began to be more widely known in the decades following the publication of MacBean’s collection. It was included in a number of hymnbooks aimed at the Nonconformist churches, starting with The Revised Church Hymnary in 1927. In MacBean’s book the hymn had been set to an old Gaelic melody, presumably the one to which Mary MacDonald had sung it. As it passsed into hymnbooks this tune acquired the name BUNESSAN, after the village on the Isle of Mull near which Mary MacDonald had lived.

The Revised Church Hymnary was a Presbyterian collection of hymns. It was a collaboration of churches the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but its roots were very much Scottish: the original Church Hymnary of 1898 was the fruit of a committee set up five years earlier by the three main non-Anglican churches of Scotland. 

Meanwhile in England, by the time the The Revised Church Hymnary was published, hymn-singers could choose from not only successive editions of the monumental Victorian Hymns Ancient and Modern, but also The English Hymnal (first published in 1906), edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams. One of the characteristics of The English Hymnal was its use of a number of folk melodies, adapted and in many cases ‘tidied up’ to make them suitable for congregational singing. Vaughan Williams was a firm believer in the idea that music was rooted in a particular place: just as the English language is different from German, French, Gaelic or Italian, so English music also has its distinctive character. And he thought that the songs that come from the land, from the ordinary people, reflected that character more clearly than music from composers trained in the academic schools of music.

In 1925 Vaughan Williams and Dearmer brought out another hymnbook, called Songs of Praise, which they explained was meant to be a ‘national collection of hymns for use in public worship’. It is fairly clear that by ‘national’ they meant ‘English’. For this book Vaughan Williams shared the duties of Music Editor with the composer Martin Shaw. In 1931 an Enlarged edition of Songs of Praise was brought out. Shaw had seen the tune BUNESSAN in MacBean’s book and was enchanted by the charming simplicity of the melody. As so often in the collaborations between Dearmer, Vaughan Williams and Shaw, the music was the impetus, with the quality of the tune alone ensuring that it took its place in the hymn-book, even before suitable words were found. In the case of BUNESSAN, they decided they needed completely new words, partly because they could not find a suitable existing hymn to fit the tune and partly because they wanted to include a hymn on ‘thanksgiving for each day as it comes’. Martin Shaw approached Eleanor Farjeon, a Hamptsead resident who was well-known as the author of successful children’s books, a memoir about the War poet Edward Thomas, and some collections of verse. Farjeon’s response was a poem entitled Thanks for a Day:
Morning has broken
Like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing
Fresh from the Word!
Her words were printed in Songs of Praise Enlarged, set to BUNESSAN, and in this form the hymn became immensely well-known. Given the target audience of Songs of Praise, it was perhaps inevitable that Morning has broken became popular (or at least frequent) in school assemblies; and its popularity spread even more widely when the American singer Cat Stevens released his recording of the song in 1971.

In some ways we have come a long way from Mary MacDonald sitting at her spinning-wheel in her cottage near Bunessan and singing a darkly tender Christmas lyric to an old Gaelic melody. I wonder whether those crofters subsisting in the harsh climate of the Inner Hebrides would have appreciated the sentiment of lines like Sweet the rain’s new fall; but when there is a break in the clouds these islands really do appear to be sunlit from heaven.

Saturday, 22 October 2016


Vaughan Williams appears frequently in my book and has cropped up not a few times in this blog too, probably more than any other composer. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, he's one of my favourite composers. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, his influence on hymn music in England is enormous, thanks to his work as Music Editor of important books such as The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise. Some of the best-known hymn-tunes owe their success to RVW, and indeed many of them would not have become hymn-tunes at all if it had not been for him. Most of the folk-songs that he adapted for use as hymns were given names referring to the place where the tune was collected, so this means that his work is a rich source for someone who is interested in the link between the place and the music.

While I was researching the book I contacted the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society for some information about the origins of FOREST GREEN. The Chairman of the Society, Simon Coombs, not only kindly provided me with some interesting leads for my research, but also offered to review the book in the Society's Journal, and invited me to address the AGM as their guest speaker, on 2nd October this year.

The meeting was held at the Surrey Performing Arts Library, in the grounds of Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking. The Library has a room dedicated to Vaughan Williams, and it was here that the members of the RVW Society gathered for their AGM. After the main business of the meeting I gave a talk on O Little Town: hymn-tunes and the places that inspired them, with musical illustrations provided by members of the English Arts Chorale conducted by their founder and Artistic Director, Leslie Olive. The talk was well-received and I even managed to sell a few copies of the book!

Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking
Vaughan Williams' childhood home, Leith Hill Place, is not far from Dorking, and as an adult the composer lived in Dorking during the 1930s. The Dorking Halls, which was originally built as a performance venue for the Leith Hill Festival, has a statue of him just outside the entrance, honouring the great composer who did so much for the area.
Statue of Vaughan Williams by William Fawkes
The hymn-tune DORKING is not very well known. It appears in the enlarged edition of Songs of Praise, the hymn-book which Percy Dearmer compiled for use as a 'national' hymnal suitable for public singing and for use in schools; the music editors were Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw (the latter being the composer of LITTLE CORNARD, about which I have written in an earlier post). In Songs of Praise the tune DORKING is used for a hymn beginning 'Hail, glorious spirits, heirs of light'. The tune is described as being 'Adapted from an English Traditional Melody'.

The traditional melody in question is 'Queen Eleanor's Confession'. The words of this song appear in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a scholarly collection first published in the 1880s and 1890s by Francis James Childs. A recording of the ballad by Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span can be heard on YouTube here.

I haven't found a recording of the hymn tune so here is an artificial one played on organ, with no singers. The picture is of a Dorking chicken, an ancient breed introduced by the Romans; the town of Dorking was an important centre of poultry production during the nineteenth century.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016


I have not often been to Ireland, I am sorry to say, but whenever I have it has been a delightful experience. The first time was in 1984, when as a newly-graduated fresh-faced lanky youth I did a sailing trip starting and ending in Poole and taking in the Channel Islands and Brittany as well as Baltimore in the south-west of Ireland. Since then I have visited Dublin a handful of times, and visited places along the east coast including Howth, Dún Laoghaire, Wexford and the wonderful Carlingford Lough, right on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In each case I have arrived by sailing boat, which perhaps contributes to the fact that the experience was in every case a delight.

The profile picture of me that you can see on this blog was taken in Dublin. It is my first and - to date - only selfie. The expression on my face is a mixture of satisfaction with the haircut I have just had, and frustration with the fact that my friends insisted on eating at a pizza restaurant, while I hankered after a pint of Guinness in a proper Irish pub. I did later get my pint, and here it is:

Dún Laoghaire is a port to the south-east of Dublin, with a massive marina, a Royal Yacht Club (which must date from before the Republic), a ferry port and the National Maritime Musem of Ireland. Both Samuel Beckett and James Joyce have connections to the town. The name of Dún Laoghaire is pronounced Dun Leary by English speakers; it means 'the fort of Laoghaire' and is named after Lóegaire mac Néill, the 5th-century High King of Ireland.

According to the seventh-century monk and chronicler Muirchú moccu Machtheni, King Lóegaire once lit a fire on the Hill of Tara to celebrate a pagan festival. This hill (whose Irish name is Cnoc na Teamhrach) is about 20 miles to the north-west of Dublin, not far from the River Boyne; it is traditionally supposed to be the ancient seat of the High King of Ireland, and there are some important Iron Age archaeological monuments there. Muirchú describes how the King decreed that no other fires were to be lit while his festive bonfire was burning, but St Patrick defied him and lit a fire on the hill of Slane, about nine miles north of Tara, to celebrate Easter. This hill is named after the very first High King, Sláine mac Dela. Lóegaire was so impressed by St Patrick's chutzpah that he allowed him to continue his missionary work in Ireland.

Stone of Destiny, Hill of Tara
© Germán Póo-Caamaño
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Irish scholars were researching the culture of their island, their folklore and language, perhaps as part of a movement to break free of the political and cultural dominance of England. Among these scholars was Máiri Ní Bhroin (1880-1931), who also wrote under the Anglicised name Mary E Byrne. She worked on a grammar of the Irish language and did extensive research into medieval manuscripts. One of these manuscripts, from the 8th century, included a lyric beginning:

Rop tú ma baile a Choimdiu cride:
ní ní nech aile acht Rí secht nime.

In 1905 Mary Byrne published a translation of this text which starts:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

This was subsequently turned into a poem by Eleanor Hull (1860-1935), who was born in Manchester and died in Wimbledon, but was very proud of her Irish background and education. She kept the first line exactly as Mary Byrne had translated it, and used it as the metrical pattern for the rest of her versification:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart,
Nought is all else to me, save that Thou art.

Hull's poem was published as a hymn, in slightly amended form, in The Church Hymnal, in 1915.

P W Joyce

Patrick Weston Joyce (1827-1914) was a historian and writer of books on Irish culture, including grammars of the Irish language and books about Irish placenames such as Dún Laoghaire, Slane and Tara. He also collected Irish folk-music, most notably in Old Irish Folk Music and Songs (1909), a book of over traditional 800 tunes and songs. One of these, called With my love on the road, was adapted for the music edition of The Church Hymnal (1919) and used as the melody for Be Thou my Vision. The tune was given the name SLANE, after the hill on which St Patrick defied the pagan king Lóegaire. Joyce did not print any words for With my love on the road  in his collection, and I have not yet been able to find a text to go with this tune, though the title of the song fits the last phrase of the tune so well that I am convinced that it must have had some words. These words were probably in English, unless by some good fortune the Irish for 'with my love on the road' has exactly the same rhythm; my knowledge of the language unfortunately starts and ends with sláinte, which means 'cheers' (literally 'health') and, by the way, does not seem to be related to the name 'Slane'.

Jan Struther was the pen-name of Joyce Anstruther (1901-1953), a socialite and journalist who married a Scottish landowner and impressed Winston Churchill with her series of articles about the fictional Mrs Miniver, portraying an ordinary middle-class family coping with the challenges of life in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. These articles were later published as a book and made into a successful film. Churchill thought that their propaganda value, portraying the resourcefulness and pluck of an ordinary English family, was worth a flotilla of battleships.

The Church did not loom large in Jan Struther's life, but Percy Dearmer, the editor of The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise, persuaded her for a brief while to turn her lyrical talents to hymn-writing. The results included When a knight won his spurs, which was a favourite at my primary school, sung to the tune STOWEY, based on a folk-song from Somerset collected by Cecil Sharp and named after a village on the edge of the Mendip Hills. But perhaps Struther's most enduring contribution to hymn-writing was Lord of all hopefulness, written specifically to fit the tune SLANE, and first published in 1931, in Songs of Praise Enlarged. Here is a link to a recording of the hymn being sung in St Paul's Cathedral.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

More book reviews please!

Many thanks to the two people who have reviewed my book on Amazon and Lulu, both of whom have kindly given me a five-star rating! It has also been favourably reviewed in the latest edition of the journal of the Vaughan Williams Society. I am also expecting a review to appear in the next issue of Church Music Quarterly, though I don't yet know if that will be favourable!

If you have read and enjoyed the book, please do contribute a review on Amazon or Lulu - the more the merrier!

If you haven't read the book, click on the link to get your hands on a copy for just £10 plus postage!

I will continue to add to this blog from time to time, so if you haven't already done so do please enter your email address in the box opposite, to receive automatic notification when I post something here. This will not give me access to your email address.

Thank you

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Without a city wall: the ‘little towns' that inspired Passiontide and Easter hymn-tunes

'Hymn-tunes that are named after places' is a bit of a mouthful to say and a handful to type, so I've been trying to think of a single word that I can use instead. 'Toponhymn' suggests itself, but perhaps looks a little like a character from Gulliver's Travels. Do any readers have a suggestion? Assuming, of course, that there are some readers out there...

A journey to the places that inspired the tunes is, I suppose, a 'hymnodyssey'. My journey this week must, of course, take in the little towns whose names are enshrined in Passiontide and Easter hymns. 


Without thinking I set out (in my imagination, at least) for Horsley in Gloucestershire, hoping to find there some trace of the tune HORSLEY, which is used for C F Alexander's There is a green hill far away. The hill referred to in the hymn is, of course, Calvary, and the city wall is that of Jerusalem; but Mrs Alexander had the hills of Northern Ireland before her when she wrote the well-known words, and the city walls of Derry/Londonderry. Before I got too far along the road to Horsley I found that the tune is not, in fact, named after the place, but after its composer William Horsley.

William Horsley, composer of the tune for There is a green hill far away
By Richard James Lane -, Public Domain,


Let us go instead to Rockingham in Northamptonshire. Rockingham Castle, not far from Corby, was the seat of a very distinguished family, the Watsons (later Watson-Wentworth), who at different times in their history were Earls, Barons and Marquesses of Rockingham. One of the most distinguished members of this family was Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), who was Prime Minister from 1765 to 1766 and then again in 1782, the year of his death. 
Rockingham Castle, Northamptonshire
By Brian Coleman, CC BY-SA 2.0,

One of his first acts on taking office for the second time was to argue in favour of recognising the independence of the USA. The war came to an end in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, but unfortunately Rockingham did not live to see this. He also worked hard to bring in legislation to help relieve the suffering of the poor. 
The 2nd Marquess of Rockingham
After Joshua Reynolds -, Public Domain,

Rockingham was also a supporter of the arts, and was a patron of the composer Edward Miller (1735-1807). Miller's most enduring composition is the hymn-tune ROCKINGHAM, used for When I survey the wondrous Cross, and named in honour of his patron. 


Herongate is a village in Essex, about five miles west of Basildon. Just along the road from the village is Ingrave, and it was here, in 1903, that Ralph Vaughan Williams first heard a shepherd called Mr Pottipher singing the folk-song Bushes and Briars. This sparked a life-long interest in folk music which influenced Vaughan Williams' music profoundly. It also had an important impact on hymn music: as Music Editor of The English Hymnal Vaughan Williams introduced or adapted many folk-songs for use as hymns. I have written about some of these already in earlier posts (see Forest Green and Sussex hymn-tunes parts I and II.) 

Ingrave was also the place where Vaughan Williams collected a song called In Jessie's City, sung to him by a maid at the rectory. He adapted this tune for the hymn It is a thing most wonderful, with words by W Walsham How, and named the tune HERONGATE after the nearby village.

In Jessie's City, collected by Vaughan Williams
The source of the tune HERONGATE

Here is the hymn being sung by Trinity College Choir, Cambridge:


Judging by their website, the people of Bow Brickhill are proud of their village and its history. It is in Buckinghamshire and is now effectively part of Milton Keynes. Church music has thrived there for a long time: the church and its choir feature in a painting by Thomas Webster that now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A Village Choir by Thomas Webster The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 26400, Public Domain,
The tune called BOW BRICKHILL is sung to the Passiontide hymn We sing the praise of him who died, by Thomas Kelly. The tune is by Sir Sydney Nicholson (1875-1947). Nicholson studied composition under Stanford at the Royal College of Music and subsequently served as organist in Carlisle Cathedral, Manchester Cathedral and finally Westminster Abbey. In 1927 he founded the School of English Church Music, which would later become the Royal School of Church Music. Among his achievements is editing the Parish Psalter (1928), a standard collection of chants for the Psalms, which is still very much in use today.

Nicholson's association with the village of Bow Brickhill dates from his time at Westminster Abbey. In 1923 he brought a group of choirboys to the village for a summer camp, where they delighted the locals with their singing. The tune that he named after the village is probably the best-known of his hymn-tunes.

And finally

This is supposed to be a post about Passiontide or Easter hymns, but I hope you will forgive me if I make a brief reference to the Ascension hymn Hail the day that sees him rise, with words by Charles Wesley. The tune is by Robert Williams (1781-1821) and is called LLANFAIR after a well-known little town on the Welsh island of Anglesey. It is mainly the name of the village that makes it well-known. It was originally simply Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll, and it was not till the 1860s that someone had the bright idea of attracting more visitors to the village by changing its name to the preposterously long Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Please review the book

Thank you to everyone who has read this blog and been encouraged to buy the book. If you have read and enjoyed the book, please could I ask you to write a review on Amazon and/or on You don't have to write much, just a brief appreciation of the book, and a rating of one to five stars.

Of course, in the interests of balance I should mention that you can also write a review if you didn't enjoy the book - but I hope there will be fewer of these!

Thank you.

In the fen country

The Leys School is an independent school in Cambridge, founded in the 19th century by the Methodist Church. Its grounds are extensive and its red-brick buildings are handsome. It has an air of being a safe haven of learning, an atmosphere it shares with the colleges of the University. Notable alumni include the author J G Ballard, the journalist Martin Bell, tennis star Jamie Murray and assorted members of the Tongan royal family. Another former pupil was the author James Hilton, whose book Goodbye Mr Chips was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole. It tells the story of a teacher at an independent school in the Fens, presumably based on the Leys.

The Leys School, Cambridge
From 1953 to 1980 the music master at the Leys School was Kenneth Naylor. Naylor was born in Sunderland but educated in Bath at Kingswood School, before going on to read music at Magdalene College, Cambridge. He was the composer of a number of works, but for our purposes the most significant of these is the hymn-tune COE FEN. This may not be quite as well known as some of the other tunes that have been featured in this blog, but if you are familiar with it I'm sure you'll agree it is a superb melody.

COE FEN is usually sung to How shall I sing that majesty? - a hymn by the 17th century writer John Mason. The words are as superb as the tune to which they are sung: vivid poetic images written with economy and balance, with such memorable phrases as 'I shall, I fear, be dark and cold, with all my fire and light' and 'thou art a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere'. It is the perfect marriage of music and text.

The Fens are an area of marshy green land in East Anglia. In and around Cambridge several areas of open green land are named fens. The one after which Naylor named his tune, Coe Fen, is right next to the Leys School. The River Cam flows through it, and on warmer days people glide down the river on punts, mysteriously standing on what is patently the bows of the boat and pushing it backwards with a long pole. (I went to another, slightly older university, where punts go fowards.)

Dormant punts in winter on the Cam, Coe Fen, Cambridge
Bridge over the Cam, Coe Fen
After leaving the Leys School Naylor taught at Christ's Hospital in Sussex. It therefore seems appropriate to include a link to a performance of the hymn recorded at Christ's Hospital.