Sing the Psalms 

with the Worthy to be Praised CDs

Articles about the Scottish Psalter   

Here are two valuable and complementary articles about the Scottish Psalter.


The first looks primarily at the music and tunes in the Psalter, and was written initially for the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) young people's magazine.


The second considers more specifically the development of the words used.



The Scottish Psalmody by Mrs Isobel Scott

 (To view the complete article in PDF, please click here )


What a wonderful Psalmody we have!   Words which have been given to us by God himself and which have been sung by the people of God in worship down through the ages.  The most important thing when we sing the Psalms is to think about the words we are using as we seek to worship God, but it is helpful to know a little about the tunes we use to sing those words.   In this article we take a look at some of the tunes we use and set you some puzzles at the same time. See if you can answer the questions asked.

In our present Psalter we have 193 tunes, some of which date back several hundred years.   Let’s have a look at the names of some of them. 

Q      Can you put a name to a Psalm tune when you hear it?   If the minister announces the names of the tunes to be sung during the service that can help us to get to know them.   Do you have a Psalter? 

Q      Look at all the tunes called after place names in Scotland.   There’s Glasgow, Argyll, Ayrshire and many more.   Do you know where Ericstane is?   See if you can find it on a map. 

Q      Have you noticed that in our Scottish Psalter we also have many tunes called after English place names, such as York, Liverpool and Huddersfield?   

Q      What other countries can you find represented among our Psalm tunes? 

Q      I’m sure you’ve noticed how many tunes begin with Saint.   We all know who Saint Paul was but what others can you find that begin with Saint?   Do you have any idea who Saint Etheldreda was?   

Q      Can you think of a tune called after a person’s name but without the Saint? 

Q      It’s interesting to look at the small bits of information that are given on the half page where the music is printed.   Notice for example that the first nineteen tunes in the Psalm Book all have (L.M.) after them.   You probably know that the L.M. stands for Long Metre.   Because the words of the Psalms have been put into a form that we can easily sing, we say that they are in metre.   How many different metres can you find in the Scottish Psalmody? 

Below the name and the metre we are told what key the music is in, that is, where to pitch it.   No — not throw it away — but to sing it so that the highest note and the lowest note are within our singing range.   We are also given a clue as to what scale a tune belongs to.   A scale is a bit like a musical alphabet; we take notes from the scale to make up our tunes. 

Tunes with the home note Doh are Major Scale tunes.   Most of the tunes we sing are Major.  Tunes with the home note Lah are Minor Scale tunes.   Coleshill is a Minor tune.   Can you find some others?  Some tunes which sound Major only use five notes.   They belong to what is called the Pentatonic Scale.   You can play Pentatonic tunes on a piano or keyboard using only the black notes.   Kilmarnock and Torwood are Pentatonic tunes.   Martyrs is an interesting tune.   Its home note is Ray and it is based on a very old scale called the Dorian Mode. 

On the right hand side of the page of the Scottish Psalmody we are told either the name of the composer of the tune or the source.   This takes us into Church history and the history of music.   


Psalmody in the Years 1500 to 1600

Have you ever thought about how the Psalms were sung in Biblical times?   Throughout the history of the Jewish people, music played an important part, not just in their worship but also in celebrating important occasions.   The melodies they used to sing the Psalms to have not survived but there are references in the Bible and in other writings which give an idea as to how they would have been sung. 

In our present Scottish Psalmody we have preserved for us many old tunes from as far back as the Reformation — the 1500s and 1600s.   Some were written by famous composers of the time, e.g. Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons.   Some come from collections of tunes from Scotland, England, Germany and France.   Often the name of the person who composed the tune has been forgotten.   Often it was only the melody that was in the collection and the harmony parts were written at a later date.   However, there is evidence that the Scots of the 16th century delighted in singing parts. 

Let us have a look at some of the collections which are mentioned in our Psalm Book. 

Firstly from the French-Genevan Psalter (1551), we have four tunes — Old 134th (or St. Michael), Old 100th, Geneva and Old 124th.   The name associated with all four tunes is Louis Bourgeois, a very fine musician of his time.   He lived around the same time as the great protestant Reformer, John Calvin.   Both were born in France and found their way to Geneva where, along with believers of other nationalities, they found refuge from the fierce persecution that was raging against the Reformation.   One of those spiritual refugees was John Knox, who was to have such an important influence in Scotland. 

The second collection mentioned is Este’s Psalter (1592).   From it we have the tunes Cheshire and Winchester.   Thomas Este was one of the greatest music publishers, publishing much of the Elizabethan music of the time as well as Metrical Psalm tunes.   

There then followed a number of editions of the Scottish Psalter.   The 1615 edition contained some of the best known Common tunes — among them Dunfermline, French and Martyrs.   These Common tunes were written for those who could not read, and they would learn the tunes by ear.   There were editions in 1625 and 1634, but it was the 1635 edition that is most notable.   From this excellent Psalm Book we get the tunes Glenluce, London New, Wigtown and Duries 124th.   In this Psalter there are tunes of three categories.   Proper Tunes: which were tunes specifically intended for individual psalms as the Reformers wanted each psalm to have its own tune.   Hence we have Old 100th and Old 124th; Common Tunes — these were as the 1615 edition; and Tunes in reports — These were more challenging to sing as there was some imitation between the parts.   Tunes in reports include Aberfeldy and Bon Accord.   This edition seemed to represent the peak of Psalmody.   In fact the first Psalm Book to be published with any music had only twelve tunes! 

Whatever happened musically speaking, one thing was certain; the words of the Metrical Psalms had taken deep root in people’s hearts.   The words were stored in their memories in such a way that when trials came and persecution raged they came readily to their lips.   The Psalm Book was precious to them.   It gave them words of strength, courage and comfort which helped them through very dark and cruel years. 

In 1685 a young woman named Margaret Wilson was tied to a stake at the mouth of the river Bladenoch near Wigtown.   An older woman, also Margaret, was bound to a stake further out.   The older one would drown first when the Solway tide came in.   It was hoped that the younger Margaret would recant and give up the desire for freedom to worship God as the Bible teaches and not as the government was enforcing.   However the young Margaret did not flinch.   As the waters lapped about her she was heard singing from Psalm 25:

To thee I lift my soul:

O Lord, I trust in thee:

My God, let me not be ashamed

Nor foes triumph o’er me. 


Have you got such words stored in your memory and heart to help you in the day of trouble? 


The Years c. 1700 to c. 1800

After the turbulence of the 1500s and 1600s more peaceful times returned to Scotland.   There was a national revival of musical interest but it was slow to reach the “man in the street”.   Traditional songs had lived on in the memories of the people and new collections began to be published.   However, in the Church, the twelve tunes mentioned in the last article seem to have been the complete repertoire.   One step forward was that they were harmonised. 

Attempts were made to try and improve general musical standards in church singing.   In a publication of 1726, a schoolmaster, Thomas Bruce, included explanatory notes along with the twelve tunes.   He also included eight tunes which had not been published before.   They did not gain acceptance!

And then exciting things began to happen.   In 1753, at the request of a number of ministers in the Aberdeen Synod, Thomas Channon, who had been in General Wolfe’s Regiment and quartered in Aberdeen, was granted discharge from the army in order to instruct church people to sing “in the reformed way ”. 

Channon’s method was to organise choirs, seating them in a choir gallery; to abolish the adding of “graces” (extra notes) to tunes and to insist that tunes were sung as written in the music.   He also encouraged singing at a brisker tempo (speed, pace), restored part singing, used a pitch-pipe so as to sing at the correct pitch and taught the people to read music using the Sol-fa method of notation (the one we use in our blue psalter).   In those days it was considered irreverent to use the actual words of the Psalms to practise and so practice verses were used instead.   The movement began in the Monymusk area of Aberdeenshire but soon spread through other parts of the country. 

Two years later, in 1755, the Corporation of Glasgow engaged a Thomas Moore to do in Glasgow what Channon was doing in Aberdeenshire.   He was a well-known teacher of Psalmody in Manchester.   He also compiled books of Psalm tunes.   From one of his books comes the tune Glasgow which you will find in your Psalmody.   Moore became precentor in Blackfriars Church in Glasgow.  Moore’s tune books supplied music for all the choirs that were springing up all over the country.   The monopoly of the twelve tunes was well and truly broken.   Although the choir movement was very popular with so many people there was opposition to it.   

Perhaps this is a good point to remind ourselves that, although it is wonderful to hear good singing, and it is a wonderful experience to take part in good singing, it is not the high standard of singing that pleases God.   Yes, the Bible does teach us that whatever we do we should do it the very best we can but Heb. 11: 6 says “without faith it is impossible to please Him… ”

We are encouraged to sing praise to our great God:

“O come, let us sing to the Lord:

Come, let us every one

A joyful noise make to the rock

Of our salvation. 


Let us before his presence come

With praise and thankful voice;

Let us sing psalms to him with grace,

And make a joyful noise.”   Ps. 95:1,2.


The old Scottish tunes were syllabic, i.e., there was one note to each syllable.  This was fine for people learning a new art at the time of the Reformation, but it severely restricts musical interest.  What can help musical variety?  Bach achieved it in his masterly use of harmony.  He harmonised the tune of one chorale (a German Protestant hymn) eleven times!  The tune was the same each time but the other three parts (Alto, Tenor and Bass) were completely different each time.  Bourgeois, in the early French Psalter, on the other hand used varying rhythms.  But England and Scotland took the way of composing a melody so that is was less syllabic:  the notes to be sung to one syllable are marked with a slur or underlined f.m .

Bishopthorpe by Jeremiah Clark was a revolutionary tune.  It has a lovely melodic shape and is rhythmically interesting.

The Evangelical Movement in England produced a flood of new tunes.  Most of the tunes of this period (1700 – 1800) in our Psalmody come from South of the Border, including Doversdale, Liverpool, University and Warwick.  Can you find any Scottish ones?

As is the way, things got a bit out of hand.  People even searched classical music for tunes which could be torn out of context and twisted to fit a Psalm metre.  Decoration of the melody was carried too far.  Even old dignified tunes like Tallis and Old 100th were filled out with extra notes.  And, anyone could write a Psalm tune, couldn’t they?

Once again it was time for some sound guidance . . .

1800 to the Present

Things had reached such a state that improvement was needed - both to the way of singing the psalms and also in raising the standards of sound musical values.   Some of those who contributed to this improvement are mentioned below. 

R.A. Smith, the son of a Paisley silk weaver, was precentor (and Session Clerk) at the Abbey Church.   There he trained the very fine Abbey Harmonic Choir.   In 1823 he moved to Edinburgh and became leader of Psalmody in St. George’s Church.   The minister, Andrew Thomson, was also a musician and he and Smith composed and published arrangements of the psalms as Anthems (choir pieces) most of which have not survived.   Tunes that have survived from these men are St. Georges Edinburgh (Thomson’s) and Invocation, Selma, Morven, St. Lawrence and St. Mirren, (Smith’s).

Joseph Mainzer taught Sight Singing as well as other musical skills in Paris and then throughout Britain — he even got as far as Strathpeffer!   He lived in Edinburgh from 1842 to 1847 and lectured and taught enthusiastically.   While there he published the “Standard Psalmody of Scotland” and reintroduced many old tunes from the 1564 Psalter.   We have his tune Mainzer in our Psalm Book. 

T.L. Hately was born in Greenlaw, Berwickshire and was one of the few precentors who came out with the Free Church at the Disruption in 1843.   He was precentor at the Free High Church, Edinburgh and also to the Assembly.   Hately wanted to teach, not choirs, but congregations and he attracted huge classes — as many as 900 people in Greenock!   He not only taught people how to sing but provided them with historical and critical information as well.   Glencairn, Huntingtower and Leuchars were composed by him as was the melody of Cunningham. 

William Carnie was an Aberdeen precentor and journalist and was responsible for similar improvements in the North East.   He founded a “Psalmody Improvement Association” which was made up of 50 or 60 precentors.   In 1854 he gave a memorable lecture in Aberdeen to about 2000 people.   Such was his success that when John Curwen visited Aberdeen to propagate his Tonic Sol-fa System, a crowded audience showed him that they could already sing at sight, thanks to Carnie’s teaching. 

Hately and Carnie edited and published standard Psalters which helped to raise the standard of congregational singing.   Their success was helped by the general and cultural interest of the time. 

Curwen’s Solfa System also helped and made the reading of music possible for hundreds of people and “The evils of singing by ear and indifference to guidance began to become mere memories. ”

Those mentioned above had a big influence on the singing of Psalms and in educating people to sing from music.   However, there are one or two other Scottish names which appear in our present Psalter which may be of interest:

Hugh Wilson, a shoemaker and amateur composer, who was born in Fenwick, Ayrshire, wrote Caroline and Martyrdom. 

John Turnbull from Paisley and a music-seller in Ayr, was a precentor, first in the New Church, Ayr, and then at St. George’s Church, Glasgow.   He composed the tune Torwood within the ruins of Torwood Castle near Falkirk.   

John Campbell, another Paisley man who became a Merchant in Glasgow, gave us the tune Orlington. 

W.R. Broomfield, originally from Inverary, came to Aberdeen in 1850 and taught music.  His grave is in Allenvale Cemetery and notes of his tune St. Kilda are inscribed on a monument over his grave.

Kenneth George Finlay was born in Finnart and as well as being a Glasgow Merchant he was also an amateur musician and composer.  He composed the tune Stracathro.

Those of you who live in Edinburgh or who can visit there might like to scramble up Calton Hill.  Above the steps leading up from Waterloo Place there is a bronze plaque with three heads and three names.  The plaque commemorates three Edinburgh precentors who were well known for their very fine voices.  One of them had a famous daughter Marjorie Kennedy Fraser who collected and notated many Hebridean songs.

As exclusive Psalm Singers, our Church is part of a minority group of Christian worshippers.  We do not need to be ashamed of this however.  We sing words that God himself gave us and which have been part of our history for more than 400 years.  We must not let people suggest that we have no music in our churches.  Our music is unaccompanied vocal music.  We are called to sing with grace in our hearts, worshipping our Lord and Creator, knowing that he looks on the heart.  As congregations we are duty bound to sing in the best way possible, displaying to any who observe us and listen to us that our worship is dignified but not dreary; solemn yet cheerful, showing our calm devotion and trust.

Praise ye the Lord; for it is good

Praise to our God to sing.

For it is pleasant, and to praise

It is a comely thing.  Ps. 147:1.


The History of the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter by Dr Robert J Dickie

 (Extracts from a talk by Dr Robert J Dickie at the Scottish Reformation Society in Stornoway, January 2013.  To view the full text of his talk in PDF, please click here.) 


It took over a hundred years to develop the Scottish metrical version of the Psalms that we possess. Metrical psalmody began in 1542 with The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. The work proceeded with the introduction of the first Scottish Psalter in 1564, and it was brought to completion in 1650 with the second Scottish Psalter, the one which has remained in use to the present. The 1650 Psalter is the one which has united all the Scottish churches, despite all the denominational divisions over the years

Public worship before the Reformation

When we go all the way back to the fourth century we pick up the story of public worship as it altered at the time of the First Council of Nicaea, which took place in Bithynia in Asia Minor.  After deliberation, the Council decreed that ‘besides the appointed singers . . . . others shall not sing in the church.’  And that is precisely how the worship of God proceeded for well over 1000 years. Singing in the public worship of the Church until the sixteenth century was confined solely to the priests. In the monasteries and convents the monks and nuns also sang, and that included the Book of Psalms. These acts of worship were conducted in Greek in the early years following the Council of Nicaea, and subsequently in Latin. Note that the members of the congregations did not sing at all.

The Latin Psalms were chanted down through the centuries in churches, monasteries and convents. As time passed the music became more ornate, more ornamented. The singers sang what they wanted to sing, and each singer in the choir varied the volume and tempo according to personal preference. From contemporary records (even of persons sympathetic to the Roman Catholic system) we learn that public singing became a complete shambles.

Singing God’s praises in the early Reformation

Initially when Luther considered the public worship of God he made very few changes to the pre-Reformation practice. But he soon realised that singing the praise of God was fundamental to the worship of God, a scriptural position. Luther himself was quite poetical and he was also musical, being an accomplished lute player. He introduced rhymed poetry to the worship of God, both psalms and rhymed versions of scriptural narratives (which later developed into hymns and chorales). Rhymes helped people to memorise the words. The rhymes were written in stanzas of equal length and that meant the one melody could be used for each stanza of a particular psalm or chorale. Hence metrical music was introduced to the reformed church at an early stage.

To begin with, Luther proposed and introduced music which consisted solely of the melody. At a later stage, the music was harmonised. One of the notable features of the Reformation was that people turned away from vain songs and began singing music such as psalms, hymns and chorales. People sang them not only in churches, but also in their own homes, at work, and when walking in the streets. This was a remarkable transformation. We can get some idea of the change which took place when we consider that Roman Catholic opponents of the Reformation used the terms ‘psalm singing’ and ‘heresy’ interchangeably. That shows how fundamental a transformation took place, and how psalm singing was associated intimately with the Reformers.

The musical performances – and I use the word advisedly – in churches had grown so complex that even the Papacy realised that this needed some form of change. In the event, the Council of Trent considered that the only cure for musical excesses would be to exclude music from church altogether. So there was an interesting situation, namely that the Reformers had restored congregational singing in the vernacular whereas the Council of Trent considered abolishing music altogether.

Developments in Scotland

Let us turn now to consider what happened within Scotland as the Reformation proceeded apace on mainland Europe.

The Gude and Godlie Ballatis – 1542

Lutheran influence began to affect Scotland in the 1520s and the Reformation was complete in 1560 when the Parliament accepted Knox’s Confession of Faith and abolished Papal authority. The year 1542 saw the introduction of The Gude and Godlie Ballatis (The Good and Godly Ballads).  These Reformed ballads first appeared in 1542, probably as individually printed sheets. The Gude and Godlie Ballatis were never used in the public worship of the Church: they were for private use only. But the book helped to mould the religious opinions of the Scottish people.

I would like to draw your attention to the word ‘ballad’ as it refers to a popular form of poetry and song in mediaeval times. They were easy to sing, but the ballads of popular culture were often anything but edifying. The aim of Luther . . . was that people should sing godly songs to familiar tunes, with the express hope that the godly songs would encourage people to avoid sin and to avoid harlotry, as we see from the title of this book. The Wedderburns translated Psalms and Lutheran hymns from German directly into the Scots language to compile The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. In other words, these were not originally composed in Scots, and they bore no direct relation to ecclesiastical Latin or the original languages of the Bible.

The Gude and Godlie Ballatis contained a lot of material – not only Psalms and hymns based on scriptural narratives, but also metrical forms of the Apostle’s Creed, material about the sacraments, graces, prayers, and much more. And it should be noted that some ballads relating to doctrinal matters contained distinctly Lutheran teaching (as opposed to the teaching of Knox or Calvin). From our point of view in considering the history of metrical psalmody, the compendium contained 22 Psalms. Let us look at the first stanza of Psalm 23 as it appears in the book:

                The Lord God is my pastor gude,
                Aboundantlie me for to feid:
                Then how can I be destitute
                Of ony gude thing in my neid?
                He feidis me in feildis fair
                To Reueris sweit, pure and preclair,
                He dryuis me but ony dreid.

The First Scottish Psalter - 1564

Let us turn now to the Reformation in Scotland, which took place in 1560. Due to the strong popular influence of Lutheran ballads in circulation up to that time, it might be thought that Scotland was likely to follow Lutheran doctrine and Lutheran practice. However, with the thorough-going Reformation under Knox and his colleagues, the Regulative Principle was applied to the public worship of God, namely that there should be exclusive psalmody according to scriptural precept. For this reason it was decided that the Church of Scotland would produce a new metrical psalm-book, which would exclude hymns. Hence we have the first Scottish Psalter appearing in 1564, four years after the Reformation.

In 1562 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland set aside £200 to an Edinburgh printer to buy printing irons, paper and ink, and for him to fee craftsmen to produce the Psalter. It was disseminated widely. The General Assembly insisted that every Minister, every Exhorter, and every Reader should have his own copy.

Having earlier looked at the first stanza of Psalm 23 in The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, let us now look at the equivalent stanza in the 1564 Psalter:

                The Lord is only my support,

                and hee that doth me feede :

                How can I then lacke anie thing

                whereof I stand in need?

                Hee doth me fold in coates most safe,

                the tender grasse fast by:

                And after driv’th me to the streames

                which run most pleasantly.

The versification is an improvement on what appeared in The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. It runs more smoothly. This is a stanza of eight lines, in double common metre – that is, 86868686 – to be sung to a tune which was equivalent to two stanzas of common metre.

The 1564 Psalter was an improvement on The Gude and Godlie Ballatis, but nevertheless there were problems with the Psalter…..clumsy versification and similarly rough poetry was seen in many . . . Psalms. This is perhaps unsurprising as poetry had been largely neglected since the days of Chaucer and poetic skills were not well developed.   In the second place, the music was largely unfamiliar . . .  . . .  the new 1564 Psalter contained 105 melodies for 150 Psalms. In other words, the majority of Psalms had a unique melody which could not be transferred to any other Psalm. This meant that either precentors needed to master a pretty wide range of melodies, or else the congregations could only sing a limited number of Psalms. The Psalters were often printed without music, so there were even fewer opportunities for people to learn the melodies.

The Scottish Psalter of 1650

Even by the end of the sixteenth century it was fairly obvious that the 1564 Psalter, good as it was, was nevertheless not completely suitable. However, quite a period of time had to elapse before the second Scottish Psalter saw the light of day in 1650.   Its full title was The Psalms of David in Meeter, Newly translated, and diligently compared with the originall Text, and former Translations:More plaine, smooth and agreeable to the Text, than any heretofore.

Turning once more to Psalm 23, we see the accuracy of these assertions in the familiar words of the 1650 version:

                The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want.

                He makes me down to lie

                In pastures green: he leadeth me

                the quiet waters by.

Comparison with the Authorised Version demonstrates how close the 1650 metrical version is to the prose version – it is indeed ‘more plaine, smooth, and agreeable to the Text, than any heretofore’: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.’

And thirty years further on, in 1680, here is the judgment of a number of worthy men in England about the Scottish Psalter when they introduced it to their own congregations, even though some of the terms and language were distinctively Scottish:

 ‘The translation which is now put into your hands comes nearest to the Original of any that we have seen, and runs with such a fluent sweetness, that we thought fit to recommend it to your Christian acceptance; some of us have used it already, with great comfort and satisfaction.’

Who said that? This was in a letter written by Thomas Manton, John Owen, William Jenkyn, Thomas Watson, Matthew Poole, Nathanael Vincent, Edmund Calamy, and nineteen others.

To begin with, no music was printed with the new Psalter. Eventually in 1666, some sixteen years later, one edition of the Psalter was issued with twelve common metre melodies. Some of these melodies remain in common use to the present day – Dundee, Dunfermline, French, London New, Martyrs, and Stilt (York).

You will know from Covenanting history the account of the two Wigtown martyrs, Margaret McLachlan and Margaret Wilson, who were drowned in the Solway Firth in 1685 for upholding Reformation principles. As they were tied to the stake, shortly to be drowned by the incoming tide, the older of the two, Margaret McLachlan, sang the short metre version of Psalm 25 from verse 7:

                My sins and faults of youth

                do thou, O Lord, forget:

                After thy mercy think on me,

                and for thy goodness great.

She had remembered the melody from older times, from the 1564 Psalter, as no short metre melody had been used publicly for the past 35 years.

There were simply twelve common metre melodies for singing to all the Psalter. In a sense, that is the beauty of the 1650 Scottish Psalter. It was written using a uniform metre, and so all Psalms could be sung to any common metre tune, which was convenient when precentors or heads of households had a restricted repertoire of tunes.

The 1650 Psalter is the one which has united all the Scottish churches, despite all the denominational divisions over the years. It has united congregations down through the centuries, not only in Scotland but also overseas where there were expatriate congregations and missions. Ladies and gentlemen, these remarks conclude a brief history of how we came to have the Psalter in the form that we know it and love it.