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The Wire Strung Harp in Scotland: Some Brief Quotations - Part One

Harpe and fethill both they fande,
Getterne and als so the swatrye; Lutte, and rybybe, both gangande, And all manner of mynstralsye. (Thomas of Ercyldoune (1219-99))

...to heare the sweet and delicate voice of cunning singers, intermedled with the melodious sound of lutes, cirters, clairshoes, or the other quiet instruments of that kind. (Alexander Hume (1556-1609))

These two quotations tell us much about the lute and clarsach in Scotland. Firstly, and to some surprisingly, the lute has been known in Scotland since the 13th century. Whether arriving via returned crusaders or visiting continental noblemen, it was instantly accepted and became an integral part of the Scottish chamber ensemble for a further 400 years. Secondly, when the lute is mentioned, the harp or clarsach is never far away:

From the household accounts of the Lord High Treasurers of Scotland we find the following, typical of many such accounts documenting payments to Musicians: 1507, Jan. 1. Item, that day giffen to divers minstrales schawmeris, trumpetis taubroneris, fitheralis, luteris, harparis, clarsacharis, piparis, extending to lxix persons ... x.li.xi.s

On previous posts I wrote about three surviving harps from this period: The "Queen Mary" harp (let us recall that Queen Mary Stuart, traditionally has been associated with the harp), at this point we cannot consider she perhaps played this instrument , now restored and preserved at the National Museum of Scotland, since it is dated to the 14th or 15th century and along with the "Lamont Harp" and the "Trinity Harp" aka the "Brian Boru" , is one of the only three surviving medieval Gaelic harps.

Here we should note the distinction between 'harparis' and 'clarsacharis'. Too often in our own time the one implies the other. In 1507 the harp referred to was probably the Lowland gut-strung harp; the clarsach was used in the Highlands and Ireland and was strung with brass wire.

They were clearly two different instruments, the gut strings being played with finger pads and finger nails being required to pluck the brass strings. However, they obviously existed side by side, and with the lute and 'other quiet instruments of that kind', joined in a mixed consort decribed by Gawain Douglass (d. 1522) in the "Palics of Honour" as a sound of 'soft releschings in dulce deliverning'.

The earliest descriptions of a European triangular framed harp i.e. harps with a fore pillar are found on carved 8th century Pictish stones, like the harper on the Monifeith Pictish stone, Scotland, 700-900 AD. Pictish harps were strung from horsehair. The instruments apparently spread south to the Anglo Saxons who commonly used gut strings and then west to the Gaels of the Highlands and to Ireland.

Exactly thirteen depictions of any triangular chordophone instrument from pre-11th century Europe exist and twelve of them come from Scotland.

Moreover, the earliest Irish word for a harp is in fact 'cruit', a word which strongly suggests a Pictish provenance for the instrument. Only two quadrangular instruments occur within the Irish context on the west coast of Scotland and both carvings instruments date two hundred years after the Pictish carvings. The first true representations of the Irish triangular harp do not appear till the late eleventh century in reliquary and the twelfth century on stone and the earliest harps used in Ireland were quadrangular lyres as ecclesiastical instruments

One study suggests Pictish stone carvings may be copied from the Utrecht Psalter, the only other source outside Pictish Scotland to display a Triangular Chordophone instrument.

The Utrecht Psalter was penned between 816-835 AD.While Pictish Triangular Chordophone carvings found on the Nigg Stone dates from 790-799 AD. and pre-dates the document by up to thirty-five to forty years. Other Pictish sculptures predate the Utrecht Psalter, namely the harper on the Dupplin Cross c. 800 AD.

Stone carvings in the East of Scotland support the theory that the harp was present in Scotland well before the 9th century and may have been the original ancestor of the modern European harp and even formed the basis for Scottish pibroch, the folk bagpipe tradition.

Barring illustrations of harps in the 9th century Utrecht psalter, only thirteen depictions exist in Europe of any triangular chordophone harp pre-11th century, and all thirteen of them come from Scotland. Pictish harps were strung from horsehair. The instruments apparently spread south to the Anglo-Saxons, who commonly used gut strings, and then west to the Gaels of the Highlands and to Ireland.

Perhaps earliest is the example carved on a monument known as Aberlemno No. 3, a red sandstone slab over nine feet in height, standing beside the narrow road leading from the town of Forfar to the village of Aberlemno (Angus). Originally this monument must has looked like a much-enlarged version of an illuminated page from a precious religious book, as a decorated wheel cross surrounded with angels, zoomorphic interlace and other patterns, is carved in relief on the slab front which faces the road. The back of the slab, divided into three sections, includes carvings of Pictish symbols (designs of an earlier era whose true meanings have yet to be discovered), a hunting scene and a carving of David Rending the Jaws of a Lion. Above and to the right of David two of his iconographic symbols, a sheep and a harp, are carved.

The appearance of the harp alone provides a sort of 'shorthand' interprestation of the David and Harp motif; the harp itself thus becomes an important iconographic symbols for David's association with music, and all that this implied to the medieval mind. The same theme appears on a second Angus monument, the Aldbar cross-slab, and also on the most northern of the Pict area monuments, the Nigg cross-slab.

A harp, proportioned and rounded in appearance like the Tenison Psalter harp, appears several times on tiles, made c. 1270, for the English Abbey of Chertsey (a once great establishment some ten miles from Windsor Castle), where the romance of Tristan and Iseult is again recorded pictorially. In individual scenes done in white clay on the dark red tiles, Tristan plays the instrument for King Mark, plays it while floating alone in a small boat, and gives the lovely Iseult a harp lesson. The activity of each scene might have had its counterpart in contemporary secular life. On the island of Iona, at St. Oran's chapel, the representation of another harp player seated in a small boat is carved on a much-weathered stone slab. The boating figure has been identified as a harpist [sic] of the clan MacLean; whether or not this is true, a secular figure probably inspired this carving.

From this era and later, Celtic names for the triangular frame harp appears in manuscripts. The Irish, in addition to cruit, had clairsech, the Scots, clarsach, and the Welsh, telyn. (Also: the Manx, claasagh, the Cornish, telein, and the Breton, telen.) Early evidence of the harp in Wales is lacking, and no extant harps predate the seventeenth century, but telyn is mentioned in a late twelfth-century manuscript of the so-called Laws of Wales. According to the Laws (codified c. 945), a telyn, cloak and chessboard were indispensable to a gentleman, while a virtuous wife, his cushion for his chair, and his harp in tune, were prerequisites for his home.

Although it was the king's minstrels who were at the Battle of the Standard (1138), it is not until the following century that we get definite information concerning them. When Alexander III (d. 1286) was in London paying homage to Edward I in 1278, his court minstrels were with him, since we know of payments being made to Elyas the "King of Scotland's harper," two of his trumpeters, and two of his minstrels, as well as to four other Scottish minstrels. In this same year a menestrallo Regis Scociae is fouund at Durham Priory.

When this king married Yolande Countess de Montfort in 1285, Fordun mentions multi modis organis musicis at the ceremony. Elyas le Harpur, above mentioned, comes in greater prominence in 1296, at the close of the regal career of John Balliol. Seemingly, Elyas had been deprived of his lands by Edward I, who was then in a conquering mood in Scotland, but in this year the English king issued a write to the sheriffs of Perth and Fife which restored to this harper the lands previously held by him. This is one of the many instances of the survival of the old Celtic custom of gifting land to court musicians.

  • Roslyn Rensch, "Harps and Harpists", Indiana University Press, 1989
  • Henry George Farmer, "A History of Music in Scotland", London, 1947
  • Robert Phillips, William Taylor, Notes to "The Rowallan Concert, Notes of Noy, Notes of Joy"

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