Scottish Psalter
of 1635

Edited With Modal Harmonies


Richard Runciman Terry
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"This Psalter represents the high-water mark of the psalmody of the Reformation in Scotland. Here the Church music of the period comes to its climax."

Dr. Millar Patrick, "Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody"
Oxford University Press, 1950

After such a build up we were very pleased and surprised when we found a copy of Mr. Terry's  20th century reproduction of this rare and little known Psalter. The title of the reproduction is shown above. The book is in two sections. The first section contains the tunes of the original Psalter re-set in modern musical notation. The second section contains a reproduction of the original Psalter, including its music.

The Scottish Psalter of 1635 uses the Psalm versifications of the 1564 Scottish Psalter, which in turn was the continuation of the work of Sternhold and Hopkins and the the Anglo-Genevan Psalters. (See "The Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter")

J.W. MacMeeken tells us the following about the 1564 Scottish Psalter: (original spelling retained)

"In 1564 an important Version was printed at Edinburgh, under sanction of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The book is now remarkably rare and valuable. The Psalms have no separate title page, but form part of a volume designated and described as follows:--"The Forme of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, &c., used in the English Church at Geneva, approved and received by the Churche of Scotland.

"On the 25th of December, 1564 the Assembly ordained "That every Minister, Exhorter, and Reader, sal have and of the Psalme Books latelie printed in Edigburgh, and use the order contained therein in Prayers, Marriage and Ministration of the Sacraments." This is the earliest edition of the Psalms printed for the use of the Kirk of Scotland which is known to exist."

History of the Scottish Metrical Psalms
Rev. J. W. MacMeeken, Lesmagagow
Printed for Subscribers Only
M'Culloch & Co., Printers, 7 Alston Street

The Scottish Psalter that was published in 1564 included a much more varied selection of metres than the English Psalter. It also included some 21 settings done in Scotland after the return from exile. Opinions about the overall quality of the poetry of this version is varied. Most critics do not give it very high marks. For example, Dr. Millar Patrick comments that

"The versification of this Psalter as a whole has the characteristics of its time. There was little that was poetic in it; the aim was rather to give a close rendering of the original text."

Patrick also quotes another critic as saying:

"The wording is flat and homely, and wholly fails to render the majesty of the Hebrew Psalms."

Not all who read these versifications of the Psalms are put off by their  lack of modern poetic graces. For example:

"I must acknowledge quite frankly in the face of critics of both this and the past century that I always read Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms with a delight, a satisfaction that I can hardly give reasons for. Many of the renderings, though unmelodious and uneven, have a rough vigor and a sweeping swing that is to me wonderfully impressive, far more so than many of the elegant and polished methods of modern versifiers.
     I love them for their penetrating savor of the olden times; and they seem no more to be compared and contrasted with modern verses than should an old castle tower be compared with a fine new city house. We prefer the latter for a habitation, but we can admire also the rough grandeur of the old ruin."

Alice Morse Earle,
"The Sabbath in Puritan New England"
Corner House Publishers, 1974
(reprint of 1891 original publication)

So why are we so enthusiastic about this Psalter whose poetry seems so difficult to appreciate? The reason is the richness of the music of this Psalter. Some authorities believe this to have been the first Psalter to include harmonized versions of all of the tunes. (Originally all Psalm tunes were sung in unison with the melody only.) Most of the tunes come from the musically rich Anglo-Genevan Psalter, or its French counterpart.

About the Music

Although the music of the 1635 Psalter represents a high point in music of its type, it will probably sound a bit odd to contemporary ears that are not accustomed to hearing it. Here is a discussion of that music provided for us by Dr. David E. Hoover, Professor of Music at California State University. (Dr. Hoover is a member of United Church of God):

The musical language that our ears hear as "normal" today came on the scene just before the year 1700 in Europe. This musical vocabulary of major and minor scales for melodies, and the emphasis on the relationship between the first and fifth degrees of the scale ("do" and "so") for harmonies has spread to every modern nation and influenced it to a great or greater degree. (In fact, the popular "Do, Re, Mi" from The Sound of Music is a celebration of this neat and consistent musical system. Not only is each note of the major scale lauded one step at a time, but each big chorus of the tune always ends with that most important leap of "so-do.")
        Because our ears have been programmed to this at least from birth, it is understandable that almost all musical pieces we listen to regularly today, including our oldest classical favorites, were written after 1700. On the other hand, the further we go backward from 1700, the odder the music sounds to modern ears. This is because melody (the "tune") was conceived as a string of almost exclusively step-wise tones, without consideration of how it would be harmonized or even how it might be set into a nice, square, repetitive rhythmic pattern. This would be rather like taking the white keys on the piano, starting from any key at random, meandering up and down at will but without skipping over a key, and ending on the starting note. Actually a couple of small leaps were permissible in a tune, but steps were the rule. "The Star Spangled Banner," not having anything but leaps among its first eight tones, would have sounded like a kitten on the keys to ancient ears, and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" would have been dumped after the first word with its huge leap up from the first to the second note.
          To oversimplify we might say that the modern (post-1700) philosophy is "Make sure the harmony and rhythm are good and we can fit a nice tune on top," while the ancient (pre-1700) philosophy was "Make sure the tune is smooth and easily singable and we can live with whatever harmonies, scales, and rhythms happen along the way."
         It follows that a hymnal from 1635 will have music that seems a bit strange at first, and the uneven rhythmic patterns probably won’t lead to an immediate, uncontrollable urge to jump up and dance. But step back a moment and let the words and music speak on their own terms, and it will soon become clear why the ears of the time found the combination to be a perfect fit.

The 1635 Scottish Psalter was the work of Edward Millar. Little is known about him except that he graduated from Edinburgh University in 1624 and then taught "bairns"** in Blackfriars Wynd. Millar did much of the harmonization himself, but he also gives generous credit to many other musicians, both living (at his time) and dead for their work and their help. In his introduction, Millar says:

"I would bee most unwilling to wrong such shyning lights of this art, by obscuring their names, and arrogating anything to my selfe, which any wayes might derogate from them."

It will be an interesting adventure as we transcribe these tunes so that all can hear and sing them. They hark back to the earliest days of modern Psalm singing, and in many cases have not been improved upon for their solemn dignity and reverence for the Word of God which they are intended to be used to sing.

Authors and Publishing detail:

Here are:
     Biographies of the Authors
     A table showing authorship of each Psalm and year first published

NOTE: This page is under revision and expansion. We have posted it now because we wanted there to be at least some information about this Psalter as we begin to present samples of its words and music.  We eagerly seek input, correction, additions, requests, etc. send mail to

**  bairns:  children -- thanks to a Scottish visitor for translating this for us.


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Page last modified on: 07/29/2004