Gaelic Harps & Harpers in Ireland & Scotland
by The Honourable Robert Ruadh of the Isles

The harp played by the Irish and Scottish harpers of the old Gaelic order was an aristocratic instrument, played in the courts of kings and before the chiefs of clans. It was much like other non-pedal harps in use in our own time, but differs in that it was strung with bronze wire rather than gut or nylon. Its sound-box was carved in one piece out of wood from the bog. It had other-worldly associations, and in the hands of a master harper had power over its listeners to bring them great joy, or cause them to weep with sorrow, or lull them to sleep.

Angle harp

History of harp development

The earliest images we have of harps come from Mesopotamia, the �gean, and Egypt. On Mesopotamian clay tablets dated to 2800 BC a simple carving of a three-stringed harp is used as a pictographic sign. Images of musicians with harps appeared at an even earlier date on seals and limestone plaques.

Wooden statuette of musician with an angled harp. Egypt, 750-656 B.C. British Museum, London.

Arched harp These ancient harps had a variety of shapes and sizes, but generally were either built from a sound-box and string-arm joined at an angle or on a bow-shaped or arched frame.

The strings, possibly made of hair or plant fiber, were attached to a diaphragm at one end, and tied around the string arm or neck at the other. The strings were tuned by sliding or rotating the knots that held them.

Detail of a wall painting from an XVIIIth dynasty tomb at Thebes, showing a musician with a type of arched harp. Oriental Institute, Chicago.

Cyclades harper From grave sites in the Cyclades islands of the �gean region come a number of small marble statuettes of seated musicians playing round-topped harp-like instruments. (It is not clear whether the instruments represented are harps or lyres.) Because furniture was not in common use at this time (c. 2700 BC), the use of a stool or chair suggests special importance.

Marble statuette from the Cyclades Islands, ca. 2500 B.C. J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California.

Triangular-frame harps

European harps of the middle ages differed from ancient harps of the Mediterranean region by their three-part construction. The addition of the forepillar to the soundbox and string-arm, or neck, greatly strengthened the instrument’s structure, allowing the use of greater string tension and stiffer string materials. These changes enabled the instrument to produce greater volume and a longer-sustaining tone.

It is not known where or how the forepillar came into use.

Utrecht harp The earliest drawings of triangular-frame harps appear in the Utrecht Psalter, written and illustrated in the early 9th century. Ten of the illustrations show figures holding harp-like instruments, and in six of them the forepillar is clearly shown.

David the psalmist, carrying a harp, cittern and measuring rod. Detail from the Utrecht Psalter, codex 32, folio 63v. University Library, Utrecht.

(Although portraits of the biblical King David playing a stringed instrument were already a feature of religious manuscript art, manuscripts before this time show David with a medieval lyre rather than a harp.)

Jubal's harp Manuscript illustrations of the 11th century show a more developed harp with a deeper soundbox and a rounded shoulder at its junction with the neck. Harps found in Scottish stone carvings of this time have a similar shape.

An Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as Caedmon’s Metrical Paraphrase of Scripture History, illustrated in the second quarter of the 11th century, shows Jubal of Genesis playing a handsome harp of this kind. This harp appears to be at least three feet in height. It rests on his right shoulder, and he is clutching the bottom of the soundbox with his knees.

Detail of Jubal playing the harp. 11th c., Caedmon’s Metrical Paraphrase of Scripture History, ms. Junius 11, folio 54. Bodleian Library, Oxford.

12th-c. harp By the 12th century, manuscript illustrations depict harps of a more advanced design. The neck of the harp is now curved so as to make the middle strings a little shorter, a feature of all later designs that gives the strings a more uniform tension.

King David, as Keeper of Order in the realm of sounds, is often shown tuning the harp with one hand while plucking the strings with the other.

Detail of King David from the Hunterian Psalter, ca. 1170. He holds a tuning key in his left hand. Ms. U.3.2, folio 21v. University Library, Glasgow.

Development of the Gaelic harp

Pictish harp In Scotland, the images of triangular harps appeared first about the 9th century, on the east coast, in Pictish stone carvings. Later carvings are found further west, and show a gradual development toward the advanced form of the oldest surviving Gaelic harps, which date from the 15th century.

Pictish harp carved on sandstone cross at Dupplin Castle, Perthshire. Late 9th or early 10th century. After J. Romily Allen, Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1903, fig. 334B.

Quadrangular harp In Ireland, however, images of David carved on the high crosses (10th-11th centuries) show quadrangular instruments, possibly lyres. The earliest Irish images of a triangular harp do not appear until later: in metal, on an 11th century reliquary , and in stone in the 12th century.

Quadrangular harp carved on 10th century sandstone cross at Durrow Abbey, Co. Offaly, Ireland.

11th-c. harp Though it seems from the evidence that the triangular harp appeared first in Scotland, it is reported by Geraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century that the Irish were by then playing harps with brass, or bronze, strings.

Bronze plaque on the Shrine of St. Mogue showing King David playing a harp. National Museum, Ireland.

The word “harp” comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Old Norse words whose root means “to pluck”. By the 13th century the term was being applied specifically to the triangular harp.

The earliest Gaelic term for a wire-strung instrument was cruit. By 1200 this term was also being applied specifically to the triangular harp.

A later word used in Scotland and Ireland for the harp was clarsach, or cláirseach.

Scottish records of the 15th and 16th centuries show that both the terms “harp” and “clarsach” were in use at the same time, and seem to indicate that a distinction was made between gut-strung European-style harps and wire-strung Gaelic clarsachs.

Trinity harp The earliest surviving Gaelic harps currently are dated to about the 15th century. Two, the Trinity College harp, one of Ireland’s national treasures, and the Queen Mary harp in Scotland’s Museum of Antiquities, are so similar in size, construction, and decoration that they appear to have been made by the same hands. Their resemblance to a Scottish 15th-century stone carving of a decorated harp suggests their place of origin. According to Sanger and Kinnaird (see Bibliography), opportunities for the Trinity harp to travel across the Irish Sea from Scotland into Ireland were “many, varied, and extremely colorful.”

Harp at Trinity College, Dublin. 15th or 16th century.

These harps, and another in Scotland known as the Lamont harp, are classified as small low-headed harps. They are about 31-38 inches in height and have 29-32 strings each.
Otway harp By the 17th century these low-headed instruments were being built larger, with 34 or more strings. Some were carved ornately. The Castle Otway harp still retains the shape of the smaller instruments.

Outline of Castle Otway harp, early 17th century, as it would appear restored. After R. B. Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, Edinburgh, 1904, facing p. 1.

Sirr harp In the late 17th century Gaelic harps became much taller. The longer bass strings of these high-headed instruments could produce a much clearer and stronger tone, though the number of strings was still at about 33-39. The overall height of the Sirr harp is 62 inches.

Sirr harp, 18th century. After R. B. Armstrong, op. cit., p. 82.

The Gaelic harping tradition

Music was an important part of life in ancient Ireland, and professional harpers were honored above all other musicians. In social position the harper ranked at the top of the bó-aire class of nobility, who were without land of their own, but whose wealth was in cattle. There may have been harp schools in Ireland, as there certainly were in Wales, similar to the bardic schools, where harpers spent several years in intensive training.

The Irish harpers gained a high reputation for their music. Even Geraldus Cambrensis, who rarely had anything good to say about the Irish, praised their music, adding, however, that Scotland was lately surpassing Ireland in musical skill.

There were links among the poets and harpers of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Gryffydd ap Cynan, ruler of Gwynedd, whose mother was Irish, reformed Welsh music when he brought Irish musicians to his court.

On those occasions that compositions of the fili, or poet, were recited, the poetry would be accompanied by the music of the clarsach. A woodcut in John Derricke’s Image of Ireland, 1581, shows an Irish chief being entertained by a reacaire, or reciter, while the harper plays. Another figure standing beside the chief, perhaps the fili himself, seems to be directing the performance.

Reciter and harper performing before a chief. John Derricke, Image of Ireland, 1581.
In Scotland there is no evidence of a formal position as reciter, but a bard of lesser training than the fili would sometimes recite the fili’spoetry, or his own poetry, and sometimes the recitation and harping would be done by the same person, thus blurring the distinctions of function.

The war in Ireland that ended with the Flight of the Earls in 1607 was a heavy blow to the Gaelic order, and resulted in the collapse of the Irish bardic schools. In Scotland the bardic schools stayed alive for about another hundred years.

The music of the harpers was the product of an unwritten tradition, transmitted orally from teacher to student. Although some of the old tunes were popular enough to make their way into manuscripts for lute and other stringed instruments, there was no organized attempt at this time to collect them, and most of the music was forgotten.

With the Anglicisation of the Irish nobility, the traditional harpers more and more were reduced to itinerant musicians traveling the countryside. The most famous harper in Irish history, Turlough Ó Carolan, lived during this time, 1670-1738. Ó Carolan adapted features of European Baroque music to his compositions for his Anglo-Irish patrons. Other harpers as well were composing in the popular idioms.

By the late 18th century it was clear that traditional Irish harpers were nearly extinct. In order to encourage and preserve the old harping tradition, a festival was held in Belfast in July of 1792, and newspaper advertisements invited all Irish harpers to come and play. Prizes were offered for the three best, but no one was to go away empty-handed. Even with this encouragement (and a large audience brought to town by the celebration of the fall of the Bastille) only ten Irish harpers and one Welsh harper showed up. The youngest was a boy of 15 years; the oldest was Denis Hempson, who was 97 years old.

The Belfast Festival of 1792 failed to stimulate the growth of traditional harping, but it was an outstanding success in preserving the last remnants of it.

Edward Bunting, a 19-year-old church organist, was hired to write down the tunes of the harpers. This he did with so much enthusiasm during the four days of the festival that he continued to collect traditional tunes throughout his life, publishing three collections, in 1797, 1809, and 1840.

Bunting collected not only the music, but much lore and technical information from the harpers. It is only through his work that many of the clues to the method and style of playing used by the old harpers come down to our own time.

Hempson was the last of the old harpers who played with the harp on his left shoulder, using his nails to pluck the strings. In the late 18th century he was considered a musical anachronism, a relic of another time, who played tunes so old and forgotten that they were unfamiliar to the other harpers. Hempson himself refused to play some of his tunes for Bunting; “There was no use in doing so, they were too hard to learn, they revived painful recollections.”

Though much music has been lost, we owe Denis Hempson and Edward Bunting a debt of gratitude for preserving for us the last remnants of this once proud tradition.

In more recent times the old wire-strung harps became museum pieces. The Trinity College harp was restored to playable condition in 1961 and made a debut on the BBC, but for some time after, it remained a symbol of something past.

Then in the 1970s musicians became interested in bringing back to life the sound of the old harps. Harp building was becoming a cottage industry, and although most harps were built for nylon strings, a few were being built for wire.

Reading the work of Edward Bunting, Ann Heymann became curious about the Gaelic harp and began her own research. She had a copy of the Castle Otway harp built for her by harp builder Jay Witcher. Guided by the writings of Bunting and her own experimentation, she proceeded to rediscover the techniques of playing, damping, arranging and ornamentation required by the long-sustaining tone of the wire strings.

Other researchers and harpers also have assisted in the recovery of the lost tradition. In particular, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird have uncovered much fascinating information about the Gaelic harp in Scotland.

As in other areas of research, the real discoveries come from doing. In learning to play the clarsach, we are recreating the tradition anew.

I feel that that’s part of the excitement of playing the Gaelic harp.

–Robert Ruadh of the Isles