William Shield

William Shield


Composer - (1748-1829)

William Shield is something of an oddity in our collection of "Great Scots" in that, being born and raised in Gateshead, Northumberland, he is not Scottish at all, even although there is indeed a popular saying that "Geordies are just Scotsmen with their brains kicked in."

And, Northumberland was once part of Scotland, but let's not get into that right now.

The simple, inescapable truth is, William Shield was an Englishman. So what is he doing here?

Well, FirstFoot believes in giving credit where credit's due, and it's fair to say that William Shield has never previously received his due share of that from the Scots, for providing what has to be one of the biggest contributions to Scottish culture ever made by an outsider.

We're here to put that right.

Of course, he wasn't actually conscious of making any kind of contribution to Scottish culture at the time, but that's not the point.

Here's how it goes. Sometime in 1788, according to his own account, Robbie Burns is in the pub, writing some words for his next hit single, to be called "Auld Lang Syne".

The lyrics are coming along nicely, but what about the melody? Needs something really catchy.

Burns hears a man singing in the bar, an obscure song he has never heard before. "That's the very tune for me!" thinks Robbie, and, being in the days when there was no such thing as musical copyright, thinks nothing of stealing the music for his own new words, lock, stock and semi-quaver.

When the song rocketed to the top of the hit parade, Burns of course took all the credit, and nobody questioned it for a minute.

Destined to be No 1 in the New Year worldwide charts for centuries to come, it's now as much a part of Scotland's image abroad as shortbread and kilts.

How ironic then to find that one of Scotland's greatest and best-loved musical icons was in fact written by an Englishman, the aforementioned Mr William Shield, former trainee boatman of Shalwell, Gateshead.

The recent discovery in Gateshead public library, by John Traherne, Gateshead's Director of School Music, of an original manuscript by Shield, has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the song heard by Burns that night in the pub was actually part of an overture for "Rosina", an obscure operetta written by the Northumbrian 5 years earlier, in 1783.

Why the man never made a big fuss about this blatant appropriation of his musical work can only be guessed at. Maybe Rabbie bunged him a few quid to pay for his silence, or threatened to send the boys round if he squealed. Or maybe he just didn't care. Who knows?

Shields certainly never complained, and his "accidental" part in one of the best known songs of the millennium remained neatly buried. He moved to London and went on to become one of the most popular musicians of his day.

Spookily, he died on January 25th (1829), the date now celebrated by Scotsmen everywhere as …..Burns Night.

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