New Chart: “Fires of Edinburgh” by Nick Keir

Cowgate Arch
The Cowgate Arch of George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, 1860
Source: National Galleries of Scotland Commons

Here's a special treat for traditional music buffs: A chart for a gorgeous, epic tour of the history of Edinburgh written by the obscure Scottish songwriter Nick Keir.

"Fires of Edinburgh" by Nick Keir (the first of the two songs)

Transcribing this song was a big task, but immensely rewarding. Almost always there are lyrics available for the songs I chart, but because this is an obscure tune, the lyric-deciphering was up to me. And because I knew nothing about Edinburgh before the project, getting the many place names right required that I dig deep into Wikipedia. I had become a musical archeologist for a day.

What I unearthed brought the song to life: The "trail of gunpowder," for example, refers to the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots' second husband, whose house, located near the catacomb-riddled Cowgate neighborhood pictured above, was destroyed by a gunpowder explosion but who appeared to have been strangled, his body unmarked by the explosion. Discovering these details was a thrilling treasure hunt.

The musicianship and songwriting is top-notch. Keir (who, according to YouTube comments, tragically died recently) was a skilled flatpicker, playing fast, clean arpeggios at the beginning and ending of the song. The melody in this song is lovely, and his voice is clear and honest.

I don't expect I'll ever teach this song again, and I'd be surprised if more than a handful of people will ever use the chart I've posted. But those who do are in for a great adventure.

Comments 4

    1. Post
  1. Post

    I got this great email today:

    I came across your transcription of the above song the other day.
    I am based in Edinburgh and I play the guitar and sing (mainly for my own amusement).
    I discovered Nick Keir only last year when I heard a couple of his songs at a folk gig.
    I have since become a huge fan and have been working my way through the songs on the double CD that was released in his memory.
    For this song, I initially couldn’t find any lyrics online and was 90% of the way through my own transcription when I had one more go and found yours.

    The first thing to say is .. well done! I come from Edinburgh and you picked up a few references I wouldn’t have got, such as the Casket Letters, also I hadn’t got “ghosts” in the final verse.

    However, I can help you with one correction in verse 2. Where you have “dairy in” it should be “Darien”.
    The Darien scheme was a disastrous Scottish venture around 1690 when the country sent 5 ships with 1200 people to Panama to try to establish a new colony and compete with the Spanish and English in international trade. It was a complete failure and cost 20% of the national wealth, though the idea had some merit as they tried to colonise the area that now has the Panama canal! The humiliation and financial loss were significant factors in Scotland agreeing later to the union of the parliaments with England in 1707. I thought you might be interested.

    This is definitely what is being referred to, though I still can’t pick up the words just before. My best guess is

    “With news of Darien, the far and promised land”

    I have tried out your chords including the intro and think you’ve got those spot on, many thanks.
    One thing I like about Nick’s songs is that the chords are generally pretty accessible.
    I have always played fingerstyle, with arpeggio and claw-hammer type patterns and generally accompany Nick;s songs in that way
    However, I am now trying to play arpeggios with a pick the way he does to try to get closer to his sound.
    Not sure I will every master it on this song though as he picks pretty fast!

    Anyway, thanks again for your transcription, it was a great help.



Leave a Reply