Celticsprite’s Blog

"The Celtic Harp" by Eliseo Mauas Pinto

Greetings to you all ! ☼

My New Ebook is already published!

Today is a special date, not only because it is Lugnasadh, but also because I am  celebrating  the 25th Anniversary of my first Live Performance along with my Salvi lever harp. 
A memorable date it was indeed, since it was the first time a celtic harp did sound in Buenos Aires; and with which I played by the way, original and arranged traditional tunes as a founding member of the “Poitín” line-up, the first celtic folk group ever established in Argentina. A nice event indeed for the occasion of the celebrations of the Lugnasadh Festival.

So what a worthier way to join this celebration but with the edition of a book about the “Celtic Harp”?…= :o)

“The Celtic Harp” is a very interesting quick guide not only approaching to questions regarding the origins of its name, its history and revival, but also to the surviving types,suggested Celtic Harpists and a list of related external links.

A very useful source indeed for all those interested in getting acquainted with this ancient instrument so related to the enchanting music of airs, songs, and jingling dance tunes. 

I hope you will be able to experience with this information much of the same evocative feeling I had while writing the book,the very emotional sense deep rooted in  the everlasting Celtic spirituality of the harp.

More than a compilation of useful information for all those interested in exploring the magical world  of the Celtic harp, this book is almost a labour of love,and my public recognition  for all those pleasant hours it gave to meand the portals I was able to trespass thanks to it .

Therefore the book is for FREE so you may download it thoroughly from this link  my Author’s Page on Smashwords.

I hope you’ve shared my passion and felt the wish to trace the same sacred paths  that lead us to a world of crystal sounds,a world enlightened by the vivid bonfires of love and remembrance of our ancients.

Let the Celtic Spirit keep on flaming on our souls… 
 Bliss and blessings to you all!

The Lamont Harp
June 30, 2011, 4:40 pm
Filed under: Celtic Harp, Surviving Folk Instruments
On previews posts I quoted that the Lamont Harp is along with the Trinity College harp and the Queen Mary harp, one of the only three surviving medieval Gaelic harps, dated to the 14th or 15th century .
As harpist and researcher Simon Chadwick comments on his information prepared by the Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society for their website , this harp was made in the West of Scotland about 500 years ago, and preserved in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

It had 32 brass strings, and is 37 1/2 inches (95 cm) high. But unlike the other two it is quite plain, with little decorative carving. It does however boast fine metal fittings.

Soon after it was made it twisted out of shape due to the tension of the wire strings. It can be difficult today, looking at its stooping form, to envisage how its maker intended it to be.


The Lamont harp started its life probably in the West Highlands in the mid to late fifteenth century. According to traditions in the Robertson family of Lude, the harp was brought there from Argyll by Lilias Lamont, when she married Charles Robertson of Lude (or of Clune) in 1460 or 1464.
The harp was handed down in the Robertson family and remained at Lude. It bears an inscription in late 18th century hand reading Al. Stewart of Clunie his harp 1650.

In 1805 it was sent to Edinburgh along with the Queen Mary harp (which was also kept at Lude), where both harps were exhibited to the Highland Society of Scotland. John Gunn was commissiond to write a book with a history and description of the harps, which he published in 1807.

In 1880 both of the harps were deposited by John Stewart of Dalguise in the National Museum, Edinburgh (now the Museum of Scotland), where they have remained since.


  • Robert Bruce Armstrong, “The Irish and Highland harps”. Edinburgh 1904.
  • John Gunn, “An Historical Enquiry respecting the Performance on the harp in the Highlands of Scotland”.Edinburgh 1807.

Technical Information

The Lamont harp, like most Gaelic harps, is made of four pieces of wood fitted together with mortice-and-tenon joints. The wood is often identified as hornbeam, though English Walnut has also been suggested.

At 37 1/2 inches (95 cm) high and 16 3/4 inches (42 1/2 cm) wide it is noticeably larger than the other two surviving medieval Gaelic harps (the Queen Mary and Trinity College harps). Its shape and design is also quite different, with a wider box and flatter neck. Its decoration is restrained, with only a few carved features.

The”salmon lips” that feature so prominently on the pillars of the other two are present only in vestigial form on the Lamont harp. In fact, though it has never been suggested that it was made outside of Scotland, its nearest parallel is the stone carving at Jerpoint Abbey, Ireland.


The Lamont harp boasts fine metal fittings; the two vertical metal pieces reinfocing the joint between pillar and neck are stylised foxes, the metal cap at the head of the harp is beaten out to imitate a gem setting and the square drives of the tuning-pins are filed to resemble cloves or rosebuds. The string shoes are of two designs; those illustrated in Figure 1 are very elaborate castings, and may be later replacements.

The harp survives in reasonable condition with the glaring exception of the multiple fracture of the forepillar andthe subsequent twisting of the neck, so that the whole harp now seems hunched and distorted.


Replicas of both the Lamont and Queen Mary Harps with gold and silver wire strings are played by harpists and built by David Kortier, based on his measurements from the original to reproduce its idiosyncratic string spacing, angles and overall ergonomics. Student replicas are available from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. The most accurate replica was made by Roscommon sculptor Davy Patton and is played by Simon Chadwick; it can be heard on his CD Clàrsach na Bànrighe . A complete detail information can be found on Simon Chadwick Official Site

Any modern replica of the Lamont harp has to deal with what is perhaps its most notable feature, the broken fore-pillar and subsequent twisting of the whole frame. This seems to have happened very soon after the harp was made, and is probably due to an error of judgement on the part of the harpmaker.

The T-shaped center section of the forepillar, a feature of most Gaelic harps, is present on the Lamont harp, but it is very short and only covers the central section of the pillar. It is not big enough to strengthen the pillar against the tension of the trings.

In these two Lamont replicas you can see two different approaches to the problem. Javier Sáinz’s harp, by Guy Flockhart (below left) has been made as a faithful copy of the original, but Alison Kinnaird’s instrument, by Bob Evans (below right) perhaps represents what the maker of the Lamont harp should have done, by including a significantly longer and stronger T-section reinforcing the forepillar.

>Suggested Albums: Celeste Howard – "Celtic Blessings" -2007-
June 13, 2011, 4:58 pm
Filed under: Suggested Albums, Surviving Folk Instruments


Celeste Howard Ray, is the founding member of the singular acoustic band “Four Celtic Voices, lined up along with the renowned harpist Erin Hill, Carol Crittenden, and Maria Johnson, whose album “Four Clover” I had already commented on my previous post. Let’s have an insight of this, her 3rd album.
A native of Los Angeles, began her musical studies at the age of six. Her main influences include Pat Metheny, Enya and Loreena McKennitt. But she has previously also issued previous solo albums such as “Strings of Gold” and “Celtic Blessings“. Travels throughout Europe inspired Arthurian legendry/poetry and music to produce “The Gateway“. On “Celtic Legend Ensemble” she is inspired by travels to the Celtic Lands and ancient poetry – crosses many boundaries, from eastern Indian to classical and folk stylings.

The music and vocals of Celeste are quite soothing and enchanting, Celeste Ray’s piano performance, vocals and psaltery arrangements captivated long-time meantor, Paul McCandless, who expressed “Celeste’s melodic compositions, and especially her vocals, give the music a sound which is instantly identifiable…I am impressed!”

Celeste Ray’s third album “Celtic Blessings,” was made possible by a grant received from the Arts Alliance of Ventura County. “Celtic Blessings,” inspired by ancient Celtic poems, reflects both original and traditional melodies illuminating the Celtic heart and soul.
International recording/performing artist, Celeste Howard Ray performs on both coasts of the United States; she has toured Europe and Australia, gaining audiences from Pete Seeger to the Governor of QLD, Australia. She has taken the ancient-styled Bowed Psaltery to an expert level featuring double bowing. Rooted firmly in classical and jazz training, Celeste’s inspiration into the Celtic-World realm began in the late 90’s with the release of “The Gateway” after a mind altering experience listening to Loreena McKennitt’s “Book of Secrets”.

Celeste currently performs Early Music Workshops and concerts in LA and NYC areas and focuses her time between teaching, composing and performing this rich heritage of Irish, Celtic and World music.

There are two outstanding poems “Blessing of the Elements” and “Blessing for Setting Forth” which were written by St. Patrick set to original music by Celeste Howard. The first time I listened to the latter I was instantly touched by the magical feeling of this song, and realized how enlightened she was to write a melody to this most known Irish blessing!.

She renders a worth listening version of “Greensleves” played on the double bowed psaltery. Psalteries are among the oldest of stringed instruments. It is generally accepted that the psaltery mentioned in the Bible was a ten stringed rectangular zither. The fretted dulcimer, the hammered dulcimer, and the autoharp are also in the zither family of stringed instruments. During the Renaissance, the psaltery’s simple design made it an ideal instrument for teaching music and musical theory to children. The bowed psaltry dates back to Ireland about 300-400 years ago.

“Blessing of the Elements” stands as a set with “E-Jam”, one of the most ethnic original tunes of the album, on which Celeste performs the harmonium, cute instrument that mingles sounds of a hurdy-gurdy, portable organ, and accordion. A tuen that reminds us of the

The harmonium evolved from Gabriel Grenie’s orgue expressif, a free-reed keyboard instrument of about 1810. The harmonium resembles a small organ and is often substituted for one. It is related to the concertina and accordion, and uses a set of free reeds whose varying lengths determine their pitch. Activated by a wind supply from hand or foot operated compression bellows, the harmonium’s ability to sustain a constant tone (or drone) is similar to that of the Scottish bagpipes.

“Celtic Blessings” is undoubtedly a stand alone on Celeste Ray’s musical career, a delicate, delightful album plenty of melodies that may touch the spirit of any listener.

Track List of the album
( with streaming links)

Blessing of the Guardian Angel
Lord of Grace
Live Your Dream

River’s End

Blessing for a Journey Home

Blessing of the Elements/E-Jam

Ten Penny Bit/Monk’s Jig

Blessing for Setting Forth

Brighit’s Lullaby

Gymnopedie #1

Southwind Air/Erin Shore

Greensleeves/What Child Is This

“Celeste’s voice is a warm and pleasant instrument. One of Celeste’s distinctive calling cards is her skill with the bowed psaltery…the sound is at once fresh and other-worldly.” -Los Angeles Times; Josef Woodard

You may find out further information and samples of Celeste Ray’s works on the Four Celtic Voices official site.

>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”