Bonny Cumberland: Music from the manuscripts of fiddlers in the Lake District c.1750-1880. Compiled by John Offord (Green Man Music, £18.50)

Tom Moses from Lanercost supplied the instructions for dancing the Cumberland Long Eight.

The four couples stand facing each other. “First man leads in a single cast ‘out’ of the set to the bottom, while first lady leads the ladies in the same on the side. Partners meet up at the bottom and dance (perhaps swing) to the top, doing a double step.”

And so the dance continues to a 32-bar reel. Or they might have danced a Cumberland Square Eight, or a Three Meet or a Cottagers or many other formations. Whatever the dance the fiddler repeated the reels, jigs, strathspeys, hornpipes, polkas, marches, minuets and waltzes until the company was exhausted. There’s 480 tunes in this wonderful compilation by John Offord.

Itinerant musicians were to be found at every “wedding, loosening, tea-party, ‘auld wife’s hake’, young folk’s assembly, hay fair, flower show and friendly society’s hall and wherever the people of the Lakes got together to enjoy themselves, usually in the village inn or tavern.

“It was no uncommon thing to see a dalesman throw off his coat, roll up his trousers, and go for it, till he had to desist from sheer exhaustion – the women entering into the contest with equal vigour.”

The vigour, of course, has departed long ago with the old dalesmen, but the tunes have survived in remarkable numbers. The Lakes were peculiarly well-placed for a rich mixture of music. Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland and elsewhere in the north of England, brought their tunes and their dances. The area was, by its very nature conservative, and so much of the tradition was preserved.

The tunes were known all over the Lake Counties. There’s an Oughterside Rant, The Whitehaven Volunteers, Allonby Lasses, Trip to Cartmell, Ullswater Regatta, Brampton Reel, Calgarth Hornpipe, Briggham Hornpipe and even a hornpipe for the Bonnie Lasses of Keswick.

There’s pictures of Cumbrian life, of the shy young men in the Doubtful Shepherd and the obstacles to courtship in Over ye Moor to Betty; of the favourite tipples - Brandy Bottle and Willie Brewed a Peck o’ Malt and of the Highlanders who drove their cattle through the district: The Hieland Man Came over the Hill, Highland Laddie and Jimmy o’the Glen.

And there’s many pictures of the merry goings-on as the fiddlers fiddled: The New Way of Wooing, Maidenhead is a Folly, Kiss Her Sweetly, Squeeze Me Softly, Bonny Lass To Marry Me and even Lasses Keep Your Legs Together.

In Carlisle Record Office is a manuscript of tunes that Joseph Barns of Abbeyholm began compiling in 1762. John Offord has collected his tunes from the rich manuscript sources. He is to be congratulated on preserving a wonderful tradition.

  • You can order copies of Bonny Cumberland from Bookends here.