Medieval Gaelic harp setup and repertory

At Scoil na gCláirseach last month I presented a lecture and a workshop on the medieval Gaelic harp traditions. The lecture outlined my recent work on the setup and tuning of the medieval Gaelic harps, while the workshop later in the week explored the different strands of evidence for medieval Gaelic music.

The first lecture presented my work over the past six months on trying to work out a more plausible setup and tuning for replica medieval Gaelic harps. Here’s a complete video of the event:

And here is the slide show as a PDF, along with copies of the handouts.

A few days later I presented a participatory workshop on the medieval repertory. This was less tightly structured, being an overview of my work from the past number of years trying to understand the breadth of traditions and approaches that can be used to try and get a sense of how the lost medieval Gaelic harp traditions may have worked.

Once again, you can download the slideshow and handouts here.

Originally posted at


3 thoughts on “Medieval Gaelic harp setup and repertory

  1. The problem with this sort of subject, especially with the question of what may have been played on the earlier harps, is each part is a study in itself and does not therefore lend itself to such overviews. Unless each part rests on a firm foundation and the whole is qualified by the wider background then although the intention is noble the result is a rather bland and sometimes misleading addition to the corpus of such material already available.

    Starting with the example of Piobaireachd Dhomhnuill Duibh. This tune and its titles was the subject of some extensive study of all the various versions from the early lists submitted to the HS competitions among others, in the course of the work on Donald MacDonald. What can be said is that the simple ‘Black Donald’s march’ (in Gaelic or Scots) was the most usual with the coupling to Inverlochy next. The introduction of ‘Black Donald Balloch’ and the date of 1427 was possibly Donald MacDonald adding ‘history’ or firming up a MacDonald claim for the tune.

    It was clearly a case of conjoining several separate events. Donald ‘Balloch’, (or freckled) was certainly at Inverlochy, (fought in 1431 not 1427), but he was not Donald Dubh. That was the son of Angus Og born circa 1490 and spent most of his life in captivity until his death in 1545. However the weight of evidence for this tune suggests that it was for Donald Dubh chief of the Camerons and involves the second battle of Inverlochy in 1644, although the words may be later still. This brings it into the period where several tunes, ‘The piper’s warning’ and Kiss of the King’s hand’ for example can be placed more firmly in historical context.

    With so few harps actually surviving ignoring the Lamont because it asks difficult questions is like given modern research, simply lumping Ireland and Scotland together, a rash move. The sound box of the Lamont harp clearly has a date of 1451 which has to be taken into account. I have previously demonstrated that in ‘style’ those numbers are comparable with other such dates on contemporary documents from that time and place, while following further research an explanation of how and why that date is relevant can be explained by the history of the family and instrument.

    It is true that in around 1200 AD a standard form of Gaelic was adopted by the Poets in Ireland, thought to have been in response to the Norman Incursions, but that had little penetration into Scotland. Indeed as one of the quotes you use from the Book of the Dean of Lismore illustrates that manuscript was actually written in a Scots orthography rather than Gaelic script. The quote from page 279 of that work also shows how complicated it is to define what is ‘Gaelic’ and what is not. Those lines are attributed to Gearoid Iarla, though some commentators seem to have reservations which if correct would affect the dating. Unless of course as he was said to have disappeared in 1398 and sleeps below Loch Gur, they were composed during one of the occasions when every seven years he emerges to surf the ripples of the loch.

    Gearoid Iarla was of course one of those ‘Norman’ families and apart from his accomplishments with Gaelic verse would also have spoken Norman French during his earlier life and also would have have supported those Norman minstrels with their own gut strung harps. But both that and the earlier quote you have from the 13th C again demonstrate how much such quotes are grey areas and also shows the divide between Ireland and Scotland. The instruments in those quotes are described as ‘Cruit’ which in the earlier of the two could have described not a harp but a lyre. Even when on later and safer ground when it can be assumed that a harp was meant the presence of those gut harps have to be considered.

    In contrast in Scotland the use of ‘cruit’ disappeared fairly early, the only firm example of it being applied to a named musician being the ‘Cruitear’ of the Earl of Carrick who was given land in Ayrshire in 1346. Once again in a uniquely Scottish event it gave rise to a ‘surname’ as MacChruiter was corrupted into ‘MacWhirter’ all of whom can trace their names back to that one family. Likewise in Scotland not only the presence of gut strung harps interacting with the metal strung instruments has to be taken into account but as the harpers in Scotland were not under the same pressures as in Ireland and frequented the courts then lutes also come into the equation for musical exchanges.

    Evidence of changes were evident in Ireland where signs of chromatic harps emerging were overtaken by the events of the late 16th and 17th centuries devastating effects on the Gaelic arts. It is impossible to know with such an oral culture what may have been lost but you only have to consider how some parts of Munster were left totally devoid of people to such an extent that without a continuity of population all the older place names disappeared. Just as those place names cannot be replaced by looking to Scotland, so attempting to use Scotland to replace the lost repertoire of the pre 1600 harpers in Ireland has some severe limitations. Especially as up until that point the Scottish evidence suggests that the ‘clarsair’ in Scotland was far more exposed to a Gaelic environment that was more Scotland centric rather than the Irish version.

    However to attempt to end on a more positive note, we do have one example of what the musical sound expectations of our forebears in both medieval Scotland and Ireland may have been conditioned by. For most people back then music other than song would have been far less common than now. Musicians playing expensive instruments would have been relatively rare and mostly confined to entertaining the top end of society. There was though one instrument which was relatively cheap and is the most common find in archaeological excavations or with metal detectors, yet falls below the radar of most of these sort of discussions. It is of course the humble Jaws/ Jews Harp or Trump where apart from archaeological finds the contemporary documentation, customs accounts and so on record the very large numbers imported.

    1. Thanks Keith for all these useful thoughts. The more detailed commentary and investigation like this, the more secure any overview can become.

      And thanks especially for raising the issue of jews harps. I am not aware of any real study of jews harps in Scotland or Ireland, which would shed light on this. I have a jews harp and have experimented with playing ceòl mór on it, but I should think more about these issues. I’m also interested in the relationships between pipes, jews harp and trumpet.

      1. Well the best general study of the subject is ‘The Jew’s Harp in Western Europe; Trade, Communication and Innovation- 1150 to 1500’. in Yearbook for Traditional Music. vol 41 (2009).

        A more specific look at the British Isles was done by Michael Wright in his ‘The Jew’s Harp in Law, 1590 to 1825, in The Folk Music Journal, vol 9. No 3, (2008). and a close look at the actual instrument by Ola Kai Ledang, ‘On the Acoustics and Systemic Classification of the Jaw’s Harp’ in the Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council, Vol 14 (1972).

        Of course none of these looked specifically at Scotland and Ireland other than the fact that Michael Wrights article leans heavily at the beginning on a Scottish example but post medieval of course. While the metal detectors are producing large numbers of finds, a look in any of their databases searching on ‘harp’ makes that point, most if any are dateable other than by style of the manufacture.

        However trawling back through years of archaeology reports looking for harp pins I could not fail to notice the numbers of ‘jaws harps’ which were noted in far greater numbers than any actual harp pins that turned up. Then there are other indications of the numbers through early ‘customs’ reports in Ireland and Scotland. As can be seen by this Scottish Tariff of 1612 which indicates under their Scottish name of ‘trump’ that they were imported in quite some bulk. This is taken from the printed publication but it was back checked against the original document in the archives.

        ‘Relationship between pipes, jews harps and trumpet’. I would not have thought, at least in Scotland there was one. Trumpets were pretty much confined to the Royal Court and then the military, (cavalry up to around 1802 then used by the riflemen and light infantry). In Lowland Scotland both trump and the pipes were used to accompany dance but not at the same time while in Highland Scotland dance was mostly accompanied through ‘mouthmusic’ or ‘trump’ then fiddle.

        According to Collinson, apparently from something in the archives at the School of Scottish Studies, the trump/jews harp was the only instrument used in St Kilda, which is in keeping with the evidence from some of the more remote Irish Islands in those times where instruments of any kind were simply unaffordable .

Leave a Reply