Celticsprite’s Blog

>Celtic Symbolism: Does Celtic Art is sheer celtic?
May 31, 2011, 4:37 pm
Filed under: Celtic Symbolism


Which is the basis of nowadays celtic art?…

As far as I could research on this subject, much of it’s present expresions are based on the so called Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland. Art historians typically begin to talk about “Celtic art” only from the La Tène period (broadly 5th to 1st centuries BC) onwards.

In this case, I rather prefer to employ the “Insular Art” label also known as “Hiberno-Saxon” art.

But does celtic art is sheer celtic?… Certainly not.

Masterpieces like the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow, pocket gospels like the Book of Mulling, Book of Deer, Book of Dimma, and the smallest of all, the Stonyhurst Gospel (now British Library), plus insular decorations and designs like spirals, triskeles, knotworks, carvings in stone, especially stone crosses, circles and other geometric motifs, are perhaps the most related examples of evoking celtic art.

But Celtic Art has it’s own influences from other peoples…. The animal forms probably derive from the Germanic version of the general Eurasian animal style, though also from Celtic art, where heads terminating scrolls were common. Interlace was used by both these traditions, as well as Roman art (for example in floor mosaics) and other possible influences such as Coptic art, and its use was taken to new levels in insular art, where it was combined with the other elements already mentioned.

The interlace patterns that are often regarded as typical of “Celtic art” were in fact introduced to Insular art from the Mediterranean, both directly and via the animal Style II of Germanic Migration Period art, though they were taken up with great skill and enthusiasm by Celtic artists in metalwork and illuminated manuscripts.

Some sources distinguish between a “wider period between the 5th and 11th centuries, from the departure of the Romans to the beginnings of the Romanesque style” and a “more specific phase from the 6th to 9th centuries, between the conversion to Christianity and the Viking settlements”. C. R. Dodwell, on the other hand, says that in Ireland “the Insular style continued almost unchallenged until the Anglo Norman invasion of 1170; indeed examples of it occur even as late as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”.

Most Insular art originates from the Irish monasticism of Celtic Christianity, or metalwork for the secular elite, and the period begins around 600 AD with the combining of ‘Celtic’ styles and Anglo-Saxon (English) styles (‘zoomorphic interlace’ decoration as found at Sutton Hoo).

The finest period of the style was brought to an end by the disruption to monastic centres and aristocratic life of the Viking raids which began in earnest in the late 8th century. These are presumed to have interrupted work on the Book of Kells, and no later Gospel books are as heavily or finely illuminated as the masterpieces of the 8th century.

But perhaps the most relevant matter is that the influence of insular art affected all subsequent European medieval art, especially in the decorative elements of Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts.

The so called “Celtic Revival” movement was the responsible of recovering and supporting celti arts expressions, including a variety of movements and trends, mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, which drew on the traditions of Celtic literature and Celtic art, or in fact more often what art historians call Insular art.

It began as a conscious effort mostly in the British Isles, to express self-identification and nationalism, and became popular well beyond the Celtic nations, and whose style is still current in various popular forms, from Celtic cross funerary monuments to interlace tattoos.

Coinciding with the beginnings of a coherent archaeological understanding of the earlier periods, the style self-consciously used motifs closely copied from works of the earlier periods, more often the Insular than the Iron Age. Another influence was that of late La Tène “vegetal” art on the Art Nouveau movement.

The late 19th century reintroduction of monumental Celtic crosses for graves and other memorials has arguably been the most enduring aspect of the revival, and one that has spread well outside areas and populations with a specific Celtic heritage. Interlace typically features on these, and has also been used as a style of architectural decoration, especially in America around 1900, by architects such as Louis Sullivan, and in stained glass by Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy, both based in Chicago, with its large Irish-American population. The “plastic style” of early Celtic art was one of the elements feeding into Art Nouveau decorative style, very consciously so in the work of designers like the Manxman Archibald Knox, who did much work for Liberty & Co..

Interlace, which is still seen as a “Celtic” form of decoration, somewhat ignoring its Germanic origins and equally prominent place in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian medieval art, has remained a motif in many forms of popular design, especially in Celtic countries, and above all Ireland, where it remains a national style signature.

The Secret of Kells is an animated feature film of 2009 set during the creation of the Book of Kells which makes much use of Insular design.

As Stephen Walker comment in Dalriada Magazine , “a few Celtic motifs have meanings that are more-or-less a consensus of contemporary Celtic designers and artists. The meanings attached to these symbols can often be traced to the rediscovery of Ireland’s cultural history in Victorian times as well as the emerging sense of national identity in Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany as these cultures struggled to maintain their unique traditions and characteristics”.

The current Renaissance of Celtic Art adds new agendas and a new imagination about how the old relates to the new. Some recent Celtic symbolism is very innovative adaptations of contemporary concerns, intellectual fashions and spiritual trends. Artists are by their nature creative and imaginative. An intuitive sense of symbolism should be recognized for what it is; the communicative intent of the artist.

Related Sources

>Celtic Cookery : How much more basic can you get Oatcakes?
May 30, 2011, 5:52 pm
Filed under: Celtic Cookery


On a previous post I wrote about the Beltaine festival and it’s widely spread traditional Scottish food the “Bannocks” which are in fact ate on every celtic festival. Let’s have a further review on it’s irish parallel quoted from the book “Ireland: Dublin, the Shannon, Limerick, Cork, and the Kilkenny Races” by Johann Georg Kohl , 1844 . Posted by kind permission of Conrad Bladey . All rights reserved by the author.
Take oats, mix them in water and let it dry out. Quite basic. Oatcakes are pan Celtic-wherever oats were found. In Scottish farm houses in the 19th century left over oat porridge was placed into a wooden drawer. There it dried out and was sliced and heated to crisp. Surely the oat cake is ancient and a root food.

I returned on foot to the little cabin upon the barren hillock where we had left our cars, and as a hard shower of.hail was falling over the dark plain and among the old ruins, I was compelled, for the sake of shelter, to take a closer inspection of the interior of this cabin.

This gave me an opportunity of watching the preparation of those oat-cakes which play so important u part in the national cookery both of Ireland and Scotland, and which are even found carved upon their monuments, as I have above described, These far-famed cakes are made of oats very roughly ground. The coarse flour is mixed with water, into a thick gritty paste, and spread upon a warmed iron plate. This round iron plate, which is found in the poorest Irish, cabins, is warmed by a handful of lighted straw placed underneath it, and in a few moments the cooking process is over, the paste being taken off in the shape of a hard, thin, dry biscuit. This paste is dignified by the name of cake, and is eaten daily by the poor Scotch and Irish. These cakes are not much more palatable than a mixture of flour and water, made dry and hard, would be, yet many people are passionately fond of them.

The Irish generally assure the stranger, when they show him their oat-cakes, that these are a particularly wholesome, nourishing, nndstrengtheningkindof food, which can be true only when they are compared with the watery, tasteless, and meager potatoes upon which the Irish have to subsist.

The English, generally very curious about our black bread, and to whom the word ” black” seems to convey a kind of horror,* often repeat that with them people would never think of giving such a mess to any but horses ; forgetting that with us nobody would think of giving oats to any but horses, and forgetting how many millions of hungry poor there are in their empire who would be most thankful for this despised black bread, and whom it would certainly nourish much better than oat- paste which they call cake, and the nourishing qualities of which they praise so highly.-

The Ancient Oaten Past

Oats as it turns out are also healthy. Lower your fats! Here is how to connect with the ancient oaten past.


Take a quantity of rolled or other oats. (I ground my oats till it filled a standard quisinart sized food processor bowl after grinding)

Place in food processor- run on high adding oats slowly till a powdery flour is obtained. As fine as you can get it without too much work.

Add in a teaspoon of salt- to taste try and see…

If you don’t’ mind fat add in a few tablespoons of bacon fat. If you don’t mind oil add in a few tablespoons of some form of oil- I found olive oil worked. So be healthy….

Once you grind the flour add in about a cup of whole oats. Place flour mixture in electric mixer- a strong one.

Use the flat paddle blade.

Slowly add cold water till it thickens to a stiff dough but not too hard. The paddle should still turn well enough. Switch paddle to dough hook and run on high for about two minutes.

Let dough sit for about three hours.

The dough will now be hard- don’t worry break it into small bits and pout back into your mixer. Add more cold water and beat with paddle blade till you have a medium stiff mixture. The paddle turns but does not strain.

Once dough is re-constituted roll out to thickness of choice- I like about 1/8 inch. Thinner ones tend to scorch and cook too fast. Toss oat flour and whole oats on the board to flour it so that some oats get stuck to the surface of the dough- not many just the occasional one or several per oatie….

Using a glass or cutter cut out rounds of the dough.

Place the rounds on a dry cookie sheet and bake at low heat- 275-300.
Basically all you are doing is drying them out so if you want to get it done quicker simply raise the temp but keep an eye on them. They are done when between crisp and slightly chewy. Some like them totally crisp. Beware of scorching. Watch carefully even when on low heat.

Place hot oaties into a metal tin with tight lid right out of oven. This helps redistribute the heat and even out the cooking.

Serve with home made butter (take heavy whipping cream beat through whipped cream stage (add salt if you wish-to taste-) till butter separates, strain out curds compress and cool… The oaties are great with cheese. A dram of whiskey should not be refused. The texture should
not be too fine the occasional whole oat should be evident but not too many.

Now you have something that a Bronze Age Celt would recognize!

>The Wire Strung Harp in Scotland: Some Brief Quotations – Part Two
May 27, 2011, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Celtic Harp, Surviving Folk Instruments


“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.


  • 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

>The Wire Strung Harp in Scotland: Some Brief Quotations – Part One
May 26, 2011, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Celtic Harp, Surviving Folk Instruments


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”

>Britain’s Landscape Symbols and Mysteries: The Standing Stones of Stenness
May 23, 2011, 4:26 pm
Filed under: Celtic Symbolism


Stone circles and standing stones have always fascinated me, their symbolism and astronomical study undoubtedly render an extra quote to it’s complex ritualistic landscape.

The Standing Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland. Various traditions associated with the stones survived into the modern era and they form part of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site, and inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999.

The surviving stones are sited on a promontory at the south bank of the stream that joins the southern ends of the sea loch Loch of Stenness and the freshwater Loch of Harray. The name, which is pronounced stane-is in Orcadian dialect, comes from Old Norse meaning stone headland. The stream is now bridged, but at one time was crossed by a stepping stone causeway, and the Ring of Brodgar lies about 1.2 km (3/4 mile) away to the north-west, across the stream and near the tip of the isthmus formed between the two lochs. Maeshowe chambered cairn is about 1.2 km (3/4 mile) to the east of the Standing Stones of Stenness and several other Neolithic monuments also lie in the vicinity, suggesting that this area had particular importance.

Other megaliths in the vicinity, now thought to have been part of the original complex, are the Watchstone , a massive slab of stone that towers over the Brig o’ Brodgar, and the Barnhouse Stone , a solitary stone to the south-east, between Maeshowe and the Standing Stones.

Until the beginning of the 19th century, the complex contained at least one other significant monolith – the Odin Stone of Orkney legend.

The Standing Stones o’ Stenness were originally laid out in an ellipse. Although it is commonly written that the monument was once made up of 12 megaliths, excavations in the 1970s suggest that the ring was never “completed”, with at least one – possibly two – of the 12 stones were never erected.

Radio-carbon dates from the excavation show that the site dates from at least 3100BC, making the Standing Stones complex one of the earliest stone circles in Britain .

Like the Ring o’ Brodgar, the Stenness ring has been classed as a henge monument. The stone circle was originally surrounded by a rock-cut ditch (four metres across and 2.3 metres deep), outside of which was a substantial earth bank.

The layout of the Standing Stones o’ Stenness.
The surviving stones are sh
own in black, with the sockets in grey.
Doubt remains whether St
one 12 existed, and possibly Stone 9.
(as published by Orkneyjar)

With an approximate diameter of 44 metres (144 feet), the earth bank had a single entrance causeway on the north side, facing the Neolithic Barnhouse settlement on the shore of the Harray loch. Little remains of the bank, or ditch, today, although traces remain visible around the stone circle.

Today, at the centre of the ring, the visitor will see a large stone hearth, similar to those found in Skara Brae and other Neolithic settlements.

The hearth was constructed from four large stone slabs, and, according to Dr Colin Richards, the excavator of the nearby Barnhouse Settlement, an earlier hearth was transplanted from Barnhouse to the centre of the stone ring.

Close to the hearth stand two angular slabs, standing side by side, with a large prone stone beside them. This is the remains of the “dolmen” rebuilt in 1907 – although doubt remains that it was ever part of the original complex.

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Ritual Associations

Ring O’ Brodgar was supposedly known as “the Temple o’ the Sun”, with the Stenness henge being “the Temple o’ the Moon”.

James Wallace, in 1684, states: “Several of the inhabitants have a tradition that the sun was worshipped in the larger, and the moon in the lesser circle.”

Even in the 18th century the site was still associated with traditions and rituals, by then relating to Norse gods. It was visited by Walter Scott in 1814. Other antiquarians documented the stones and recorded local traditions and beliefs about them. One stone, known as the “Odin Stone” was pierced with a circular hole, and was used by local couples for plighting engagements by holding hands through the gap. It was also associated with other ceremonies and believed to have magical power.[1]

In 1814, shortly after the Standing Stones were visited by Sir Walter Scott, disaster struck. A tenant farmer, tired of ploughing around the stones, began to demolish them.

In August 1814, the novelist Sir Walter Scott visited the Standing Stones o’ Stenness. There, he rather naively proclaimed that the central stone slab was: “probably once the altar on which human sacrifices were made”

Scott’s description of the Stenness ring read:

“The most stately monument of this sort [circles of detached stones] in Scotland, and probably inferior to none in England, excepting Stonehenge, is formed by what are called the Standing Stones of Stenhouse, in the island of Pomona in the Orkneys, where it can scarcely be supposed that Druids ever penetrated.

In 1907, Scott’s “altar” was reconstructed to form just that – a table-like dolmen structure in the centre of the stone circle (see pictures right).

The ‘altar’ in a picture from 1957

This construction remained standing until September 1972, when the dolmen was toppled – officially explained away as the result of a drunken prank.

In 1906, the Stones o’ Stenness were taken into state care and the toppled stone re-erected. While this was being carried out, another, smaller, stone was found under the turf and raised using an existing socket-hole.

At the time, doubts were raised as to whether this small stone (pictured right, alongside the remains of the “dolmen”) belonged in a circle that contained such huge megaliths.

‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ was inscribed as a World Heritage site in December 1999. In addition to the Standing Stones of Stenness, the site includes Maeshowe, Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and other nearby sites. It is managed by Historic Scotland, whose ‘Statement of Significance’ for the site begins:

The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation…Stenness is a unique and early expression of the ritual customs of the people who buried their dead in tombs like Maes Howe and lived in settlements like Skara Brae.

Cool Links and Main Sources for this review:

>Celtic Friendship Harp Angel ☼
May 20, 2011, 3:16 pm
Filed under: Celtic Harp, Celtic Poems


Friendship angel

When I have no one to turn to
And I am feeling kind of low,
When there is no one to talk to
And nowhere I want to go,
I search deep within myself
It is the love inside my heart
That lets me know my Angel is there
Even though we are miles apart.

A smile then appears upon my face
And the sun begins to shine.
I hear a voice, so soft and sweet
Saying, ‘Everything will be just fine’
It may seem that I am alone
But I am never by myself at all.
Whenever I need my Angel near
All I have to do is call.

An Angel’s love is always true
On that you can depend.
He will always stand behind you
And will always be your friend.
Through darkest hours and brightest days
My Angel sees me through
he smiles when I am happy, and will cry when I am blue..

Thanks for being my Angel my friend

I will be there for you until the end.


>Suggested Albums: Brendan Hendry, Paul McSherry & Nodlaig Brolly -2010- ‘Stringtones’
May 19, 2011, 5:19 pm
Filed under: Suggested Albums


I share with you this interesting album review previously posted by Mike Wilson on his awesome blog. All rights reserved by the author and posted under his kind permission. Brendan Hendry hails from Bellaghy in South Derry. November 2008 saw the launch of the instrumental album TUNED UP an album which has capured the heart of those people who have listened to it and reviewed it.
“Stringtones” offers a selective trio of distinguished musicians from Northern Ireland, playing slightly more than a trio of instruments: Brendan Hendry on fiddle, Paul McSherry on guitar and bouzouki, and Nodlaig Brolly on Cláirseach (harp), piano and vocals. I’m of the opinion that where music is concerned, trios always work really well, and my theory is proven well by this crisp and pleasant recording. Ample variety is provided by the three musicians to maintain interest from start to finish, yet there also remains plenty of room to appreciate their plentiful individual talents across a range of traditional and self-penned material.

Raw energy is supplied by the combination of Hendry’s fluid fiddle and the supple rhythmic edge of McSherry’s guitar and bouzouki, demonstrated to great effect on a number of sets of jigs and reels. A rumbustious set of reels, “The Street Cleaner/McDonagh’s/The Bluffer’s Guide,” races away from the outset, lead by the pulsating pace of Hendry’s flirtatious fiddle. “Mick Hendry’s/Maisie Hendry’s” is a beautiful pairing of two jigs, composed by Hendry for his parents, and striding forward with real purpose, brimming with a knowing sense of pride. The jigs are served particularly well by the rippling undercurrent provided by Brolly’s shimmering cláirseach.

Heralding the start of “Deirdre’s Lament,” the sheer elegance of Brolly’s piano is only surpassed by the understated, natural beauty of her voice, as she delivers this achingly gorgeous ballad with Hendry’s weeping fiddle heightening the emotions of the story. Brolly similarly demonstrates the haunting lilt of her voice on “An Leanbh Aimhréidh,” where the restrained, sparing musical accompaniment turns this compassionate tale into a real delight. A similarly tender treat awaits on “Ceann Dubh Dílis”.

A typically beguiling Phil Cunningham composition, “The Tin Hut On Staffin Island,” provides a wonderful opportunity for each musician to display their utmost grace as they glide with fluid majesty through this beautiful slow reel. The slow air, “Mrs Jameson’s Favourite,” scales these heights of alluring composure even further, bearing a sumptuous elixir to sooth the heart and mind.

Stringtones is a genuinely lovely album: devoid of any pretentiousness, but basking in that warm glow that can only be the result of genuine talent and devotion.

Feel free to find out more info on the official Web site of the Irish traditional fiddle player, Brendan Hendry.