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

"Scotland, because of her affinity and intercourse [with Ireland], tries to imitate Ireland in music and strives in emulation. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the harp namely, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the harp, the tympanum and the crowd. In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances her and excels her in musical skill. Therefore, [Irish] people now look to that country as the fountain of the art. " Geraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146 – c. 1223)

Let us keep on rendering more quotes about this particular harp model. The precise Gaelic term for the harp of the Gael is clàrsach Ghàidhealach (Sc.)/cláirseach Ghaelach (Ir.), meaning Gaelic harp. Clàrsach or Cláirseach (depending on Scottish Gaelic or Irish spellings), is the generic Gaelic word for 'a harp', as derived from Middle Irish. In English, the word is used to refer specifically to a variety of small Irish and Scottish harps, 'clár' (board) and 'soileach' (willow), because their soundbox was usually carved on a single willow wood. is an excellent book describing these ancient harps.

There is historical evidence that the types of wire used in these harps are iron, brass, silver, and gold. As I have already posted there are three pre-15th century surviving harps nowadays; the "Brian Boru" Harp in Trinity College aka the "Trinity Harp", Dublin, and the "Queen Mary" and Lamont Harps, both in Scotland

In medieval Ireland and Scotland, harp music was the highest status art form along with learned poetry. In the 16th century, Elizabethan English noblemen employed Irish harpers and commissioned Gaelic harps for their households. In the 17th century, Irish harpers could be found playing in royal courts across Europe.

But by the 18th century, its modal and diatonic music had fallen from fashion; its place as the national instrument of Ireland and Scotland, and its names cruit and clàrsach were taken in the 19th century by the newly-invented gut-strung lever harp.

And what was there to be heard of Scotland's own music, the old Celtic art? Just as we have seen in Anglo-Norman times, Irish musicians were still finding a welcome in the Highlands and were even received at court. That the native music of the two countries was still considered as one and the same art, finds frequent expression. In the Annals of the Four Masters we read that about 1451, when Margaret the wife of O'Conor of Offaly gave a banquet of honour, she invited the poets and musicians of Ireland and Scotland. We are told in the Buke of the Howlate (c. 1450) of a "bard owt of Irland" who knew about the "schenachy" and the "clarschach," whilst we read in the Book of Lismore (1512-26) that "Cas Corach, the son of Caincinde, ... [was] the best musician of Erinn or Alba," which once more illustrates the one type of musical culture in these lands.

Many a Highland and Irish harper (clarsair) played at court in those days, especially when James IV sat on the throne, for he was possibly the last of Scotland's rulers to speak Gaelic. Here we see the "ersch clarschar" (1492) or "Ireland clarscha" (1502) "clawing" his strings, evidently to everyone's delight

In imitation of the ways of the court, and also with a view maintaining some of the old feudal dignity and clan independence, the nobility had their minstrels. We read of the Thane of Calder's harper (1502), the Countess of Crawford's harper (1503), Lord Semphill's harper (1504), and the Laird of Balnagownis' harper (1512).

As in the previous centuries, the great barons who were among the pares, as well as the lesser fry, and the higher clergy, possessed minstrels, generally one or two. We read of the clarsair to the Earl of Argyll (1503,1506), the Laird of Balnagownis' harper (1502), the Thane of Calder's harper (1502), the Countess of Crawford's harper (1503) and lutar (1505), Lord Semphill's harper (1504), the Lord of Ruthven's lutar (1505), "Maklanis [Maclaine's] clarscha" (1506), Lord Fleming's tabronar, Lord Hamilton's tabronar (1506-7). Nor were the clergy backward in this respect since there are entries of the Bishop of Ross' harper (1502), the Bishop of Caithness' harper (1503), and his lutar (1502), the Bishop of Moray's lutar (1505), who also had a tabronar (1506), and the "Ald Prior of Quhitherne's" clarsair (1507).

At the court of James IV, harpers were particularly encouraged, James Mylsoun (1496-1502), an "Inglis harper" (1502), Sowles the harpere, Alexander, as well as Henry Philp and Bragman (1506). Naturally the Highland clarsech appealed to the Gaelic-speaking king and in consequence we read of Martin Clareshaw and another "erche clareschaw" in 1490, Pate hapar, clarscha (1503), "Odenlis (Ireland man) harper" (1512), and others.

John Major, the Scottish historian, in his Annals of Scotland published in 1521, says (also in Latin) that 'for instrumental music and the accompaniment of the voice they make use of the Harp, which instead of strings made of the intestines of animals, they strung with brass wire, and on which they perform most sweetly'. Even the King, James I, was a performer on the harp, and indeed the historian Fordun, according to his continuator Bower, said that he touched it 'like another Orpheus', while Major comments that, 'on the harp he excelled the Irish or the Highland Scots, who are esteemed the best performers on that instrument.'

A few years later, in 1565, we have an informative account of the instrument by George Buchanan, in his History of Scotland. Writing of the people and customs of the Western Isles, he says, 'They delight very much in music, especially in harps of their own sort, of which some are strung with brass wire, others with intestines of animals. They play on them either with their nails grown long or a plectrum. Their only ambition seems to be to ornament their harps with silver and precious stones. The lower ranks, instead of gems, deck theirs with crystal.'

Perhaps, however, as has been suggested, the music which 'some hundreds of Scots harpers' composed in the years the instrument flourished in Scotland, instead of being totally lost, was appropriated by other musicians, including the pipers, when the bagpipes supplanted the harp in favour.

Various records indicate that some Highland chiefs retained their harpers well into the eighteenth century, and place names, such as Harper's Pass (Madhm na Tiompan) and Harper's Field (Fanmore nan Clairsairean) are still noted on the island of Mull, while Duntullim [sic] castle on the Isle of Skye retains its Harper's Window, and Castlelachlan in Argyll has its Harper's Gallery. The names remain to remind us of the one-time importance of the harp in these areas, and this seems especially appropriate when it is recalled that the earliest representations of the triangular frame harp, in this part of Europe, are provided by the ninth-century stone carvings of Scotland.

Nor can we forget the harp, although this national instrument had already been pushed aside by the lute, mandore, gittern, and viol. It was however, still cherished in the Highlands, as William Kirk tells us in his Secret Commonwealth, wherein we read of "our northern Scottish and Athol men" being "much addicted to and delighted with harps." That was in 1691. A letter to Robert Wodrow in 1700 also mentions that the music of the people about Inverlochy and Inverness-shire included playing on the clarsech or Highland harp. Among the "Upper Ten" a harper was still attached to a household as part of feudal dignity, in precisely the same way as in Ireland, as Barnaby Rich shows (New Description of Ireland, 1610). Indeed, harpers from Ireland were frequent in Scotland. Rory dall O'Cahan spent most of his life there (1601-50), and left his imprint in the many puirts (ports), notably Rory dall's port in the Straloch MS (1627-29) which Burns used later for Ae fond kiss. With those who went south to the "Promised Land" with James VI in 1603 and after, the clarsech still found acceptance, since in the inventory of the belongings of Robert Ker or Carr, afterwards Earl of Somerset under the accolade of James, we find "two Irish harps." These were doubtless Scottish harps, but they still carried the name of their original provenance—"ersch clarsechis." ... John Gunn (An Historical Enquiry) tells of a Roderick Morison, "one of the last native Highland harpers," who composed the port called Suipar chuirn na Leod "about 1650," and a certain John Garve Maclean, "an excellent performer on the harp," who flourished even earlier. He was in the service of the Macleans of Coll.

Save perhaps in the Highlands, the old clarsech or harp was becoming neglected. John Gunn (Historical Enquiry) gives 1734 as the approximate date of disuse. He says the Murdoch Macdonald "appears to have been the last native harper of the Highlands of Scotland." It is claimed that he was a pupil of Rory dall, but this could not have been Rory dall O'Cahan. He then entered the service of the Macleans of Coll as their clarsair, and was functioning as such in 1734. He retired to Mull, where he died. Still, the most famous Irish harpers were welcomed even in the Lowlands, just as Rory dall O'Cahan had been fêted there in the previous century. Both Denis Hempson (1696-1807) and Ecklin O'Cahan (fl. 1773) performed in Scotland, which shows that ears there were still attuned to the clarsech's delightfully quiescent tones. The former played before the Pretender in Edinburgh, and the latter is alluded to by Boswell in his Tour in the Hebrides.

The Gaelic harp tradition died out in the 19th century. Harps played in Scotland and Ireland since then have almost all been of a modern European design with only a superficial nod towards the old tradition. The most common harp tradition in Ireland and Scotland today is the neo-Irish harp or neo-clarsach, also called Irish harp, clarsach, lever harp, gut-strung harp, nylon-strung harp, folk harp, Celtic harp, or small harp.

The wire-strung harp, also known as wire-strung clarsach or wire harp, is a curious hybrid tradition between the strict historical early Gaelic harp tradition and the modern neo-clarsach tradition. With antecedents going back to the late 19th century, and with people such as Arnold Dolmetsch (1930s) and Alan Stivell (1970s) working on it, the wire-strung harp has become relatively popular in Scotland especially in the last decade or so. Much of the work on this tradition is done under the aegis of the Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society.

Sources

  • Henry George Farmer, "Music in Medieval Scotland",London, 1930
  • Francis Collinson,"The Bagpipe, Fiddle and Harp,from Traditional and National Music of Scotland",Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966,reprinted by Lang Syne Publishers Ltd., 1983
  • Roslyn Rensch,"Harps and Harpists", Indiana University Press, 1989
  • "The Irish and Highland Harps" by Robert Bruce Armstrong
  • Simon Chadwick's Early Gaelic Harp Site
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