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C of I professor studies the impact of Scottish music

“We twa hae paidl'd in the burn, frae morning sun till dine; but seas between us briad hae roar'd, sin' auld lang syne." 

So goes a verse in perhaps the most famous Scottish song there is, Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.” With its traditional, olde tyme feel and bagpipe accompaniment, Scottish—and, more broadly, Celtic—music has spread from the British Isles across the globe.

And it is this musical phenomenon that led College of Idaho music professor Paul Moulton to visit British Columbia, Canada, this summer to look at the history of Scottish organizations. British Columbia—originally known as New Caledonia (or New Scotland)—has a strong history of Scottish influence, as noted by Simon Fraser University:

“Scots would come to play a disproportionate role in the history of British Columbia. Scots like Simon McTavish and John Fraser ran the fur-trading companies that commissioned fellow Scots like Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser to explore and map the west in hopes of finding a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean…Later, many Scots men and women settled in British Columbia and were prominent in the fields of politics and education.”

Moulton, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Scotland Abroad, specializes in 18th century Scottish music and literature. His studies explore why Celtic music hits a traditional string that resonates with so many.

“The more I do the research, the more I see people are drawn to the music and the culture and they adopt it in some ways,” Moulton said. “I think they adopt it because it gives them a sense of grounded-ness, tradition.”

Moulton stopped in the cities of Sooke and Victoria on Vancouver Island. While he was there, he went to a farmers market and met a sixth-generation Scottish woman who plays the harp, dropped in on a bagpipe band practice and even found a Scottish country dancing association.

“They were mostly older people, including one man as old as 90, in his kilt, who was pretty closely Scottish,” Moulton said.

Some of the members were very conscious of their Scottish ancestry. One lady talked about being raised with Highland dancing very much a part of her family, and joining the Scottish dancing association was a way to continue that. But what surprised Moulton was how many people were not Scottish, but enjoyed the country dancing nonetheless.

“I guess what I learned is Scottish music adapts in remarkable ways…and that is what they are doing in the B.C. area right now,” Moulton said.

When traditional music moves outside of the homeland, people try to preserve it. There are Highland dance societies and bagpipe societies that are very strict on how the music should be played, Moulton said.

“When tradition migrates, it tends to be cemented and less flexible,” Moulton said.

But take a closer look at traditional music, and you’ll find it is always changing, whether building upon an old melody, improvising or embellishing.

“It’s very much an alive, aural tradition,” Moulton said.

And Scottish music is very much alive and popular around the world, helping connect us with emotions that only music can produce. Music can reinforce who we think we are and sometimes shape who we are, Moulton said; whether listening to classical music to feel sophisticated and elegant, or traditional music to get back to old times past.

“It’s powerful,” Moulton said. “It’s more powerful than most of us know, I think.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.