The Child Ballads and Scotland

My husband recently purchased a CD by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer appropriately called, The Child Ballads. (As a side note, he first heard this group on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.


As we listened to the CD (in particular, the tune Riddles Wisely Expounded), we got into a discussion about the various renditions of the Child Ballads that we’ve heard over the years. Recording artists include Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel, and even Fleet Foxes. My personal favorite is Jean Redpath.

If you’re not familiar with this tune, it is a fascinating one. Wikipedia dates the origins of the poem to the 15th century, with the earliest surviving version about the devil kidnapping a maiden. Later versions involve slightly different characters, such as knights or the devil disguised as a knight or handsome traveler.

I think what has always attracted me to this song (particularly the Redpath version) is the fact that, in spite of the devil-traveler-knight’s best efforts, the young woman sees right through the efforts of the fiend and successfully (and easily) answers the riddles, exposing the traveler for who he is.



The Iceland Experience

The road that follows Eyjafjord, the longest fjord in Iceland.

The road that follows Eyjafjord, the longest fjord in Iceland.

We just came back from another trip to Iceland. And, we can’t wait to go back again. What an amazing county. Full of landscapes that take your breath away, awesome history, and wonderful people.

Having always been a bit obsessed with Scottish culture, I never gave much thought to Iceland or the Vikings. Frankly, I wasn’t that interested in Viking reenactment, clothing, or culture. I mean come on – what is there to know about Vikings? Another warrior culture that raped and pillaged. WRONG!!

Far_TravelerPrior to our initial trip to Iceland in the Fall of 2014, I had the chance to read some interesting books about Icelandic history. First, I became intrigued by the book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown. Ms. Brown explores the Greenlanders saga, in particular the story of Gudrid, and the archeological evidence that supports the Viking colonization of Greenland and North America (L’anse aux Meadows). I was truly intrigued by this woman’s experience.

Then there is the fiber. Ok, I’ll admit it. I am a bit of a fiber geek. (I’ll never forget my friend Emilysue (aka Mistress Amelie d’Anjou) handing me a drop spindle during a car road trip and saying “Here. You need to learn to spin!” Thank you, Emilysue – I love it and haven’t looked back!)

Woven into the EarthIceland is famous for its spinning and weaving. In fact, you can’t write a book about Iceland and its people, without recognizing that the entire economy (in the middle ages and even today) was built on sheep and wool. Gudrid and the Icelandic women that came before and after her, spent their entire lives weaving cloth for not only their own clothes, but for export to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. The book Woven Into the Earth by Else Ostergaard examines the textile finds from medieval Norse settlements in Greenland. The wool, while less soft and fine as some of the wool produced in Europe, was exceedingly unique and warm with the outer and inner layer of the fleece processed together to produce fabric that was water repellent, warm, and breathable.

IMG_1953During our most recent trip to Iceland we had the pleasure of visiting The Settlement Museum (also called Reykjavik 871 +2 for the earliest excavated portion of the exhibit) which houses the actual archeological site of the oldest human habitation found in Iceland. Discovered in 2001, the site includes remnants of a longhouse which dates to approximately 930 to 1000 AD, as well as the remains of a wall which dates to 871 AD, roughly the estimated time of the settlement of Iceland. In addition to the buildings, archeologists also discovered various tools and implements, including wool processing implements, axes, and farming equipment. The beauty of this archeological site is that it strongly supports the Icelandic historic documents, the Book of the Icelanders and the Book of Settlements, which maintain that Iceland was settled in the 9th century.

The wool-related relics discovered on-site are exciting and include weights for warp-weighted looms, as well as spindle whorls. One whorl in particular has a runic inscription which states: “Vilborg owns me”. This is one of only a handful of runic inscriptions discovered on archeological finds.

“Vilborg owns me” is inscribed in runic script on this spindle whorl.

Weights for warp-weighted looms in the Settlement Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Weights for warp-weighted looms in the Settlement Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if there is a Celtic connection to Iceland. In short, the answer is yes. We know, of course that Viking raiders regularly took Scottish and Icelandic captives. (There is the story of Melkorka from the Laxdæla saga, as well as the tales of Thorfinn Karlsefni, the husband of Gudrid and father to Snorri Thorfinnsson, the first recorded European child born in North America. Thorfinn Karlsefni was a direct descendant of Cerball mac Dúnlainge, King of Ireland.) But even stronger evidence for an Irish/Scottish connection exists in the archeological record. The Book of Icelanders claims that the first Norse settlers encountered Celtic monks. And archaeological remains from around 800 AD, from a Celtic monastic settlement have been found at Kverkarhellir cave, on the Seljaland farm in southern Iceland. At the site, crosses consistent with the Hiberno-Scottish style have been carved in the wall of a nearby cave. Finally, we know from genetic testing that the majority of female Icelandic settlers (62%) came from the British Isles.

So perhaps, my Scottish roots do connect somehow to Iceland…

The Clarsach and Tartan Day 2014

The clarsach is unquestionably a 15th century instrument, particular to Scotland and Ireland. And, the best part is that it lives today! I recently caught up with my good friend and outstanding harpist, Cynthia Cathcart at the April 2014 Washington, DC area Tartan Day festivities. For those of you that haven’t had the privilege of listening to the traditional clarsach, check out Cynthia’s CD, Alchemy of a Rose, at


Cynthia Cathcart performs on the clarsach at the Washington, DC area Tartan Day.

Europe & Medieval Teenagers

While this entry is not specifically about Scotland, I had to share this, as I suspect the contents of this BBC article are entirely applicable. As a mother of a teenage daughter, as much as I love her, there have been times when I’ve contemplated some of the solutions in this story (well, maybe not really, but there is a part of me that perhaps understands the motivation!)

What medieval Europe did with its teenagers

by William Kremer, BBC World Service


Scottish Queens

ImageI recently discovered The Freelance History Writer blog by Susan Abernathy. Fun blog. Especially if you like Scottish history. The other day on (another really great blog if you like medieval things), I read an article Ms. Abernathy wrote about the wardrobe of Margaret of Denmark, Queen to King James III of Scotland. In the article she references a book called Scottish Queens: 1034 – 1714 by Rosalind K. Marshall. An entire book devoted to the other half of the Scottish throne! Yeah. How did I miss this book over the years? While I try to get books out of the library these days, this was one that I decided I just had to add to my personal collection. It just arrived and I plan to begin reading it very shortly (particularly the chapters about Margaret of Denmark and Margaret Tudor!) Undoubtedly there will be interesting nuggets that I will post forthwith! Stay tuned.

Crann Nan Teud: The Tree of Strings

ImageTree of Strings: Crann Nan Teud by Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird is one of those history books that I love. Although I’ve read and reread it several times, it still contains nuggets of information that I find riveting. Published in 1992, it still remains one of the definitive early works on the history of the harp in Scotland.

Harp vs. Clarsach

Historically, both the harp and the clarsach are triangular framed, plucked string instruments. However, the clarsach was strung with wire (usually bronze or brass) and played with the fingernails. The harp, on the other hand, was strung with gut or possibly horse hair and played using the finger pads. The earliest known reference to the word clarsach may come from the composition of a Scottish poet – Giolla Brighde Albanach. (Although Albanach’s 13th century work is considered Irish, both his name and content within his poetry suggest he was Scottish.) According to Tree of Strings, Albanach “uses the phrase “char shoileach” to describe how “fair hand never played on willow board, strings as musical as his speech.” In the next couple of centuries, the word seems to have spread from Gaelic into Scots as a term to differentiate the harp with wire strings. By the 15th century, the term “clarsach” with all its glorious 15th century spelling versions: “Kerscharch“, “Clarescheouch“, “clarsaghours“, and “Clairseach” (to list a few), is frequently found in records throughout Scotland, Ireland, and even once in England. (Although the one English reference appears to be a record of Henry VI banning the Irish musicians and poets as subversives! Darn English!)

The Earliest Harps were Scottish!

ImageOne of the things that Tree of Strings did was codify the harp (the triangular-framed harp, with three distinct components, the neck, pillar, and soundbox) as an instrument that existed in Scotland possibly 200 to 300 years before it appeared in Ireland. Located at the entrance to the grounds of the parish church in Nigg, Easter Ross, Scotland, the Nigg Stone (dated to approximately the 8th century) is not only one of the finest surviving Pictish carved stones, but also the earliest image in Europe of the triangular harp.

Other stones throughout Scotland, including those at Dupplin, Aldbar, and Monifeith, all dated to pre-10th century, also contain images of triangular-framed harps. (The first known example of a triangular-framed harp in Ireland is found on the Shrine of St. Mogue, which probably dates from the 11th century).

Clearly, the harp is a Scottish instrument. And it stayed a Scottish instrument well into the 16th century.

Coming Soon: The Harp in the Court of James IV

Scottish/Flemish Connection

It seems there was a deep Scottish/Flemish connection with Flemish immigrants one of the largest groups settling in Scotland over a 600 year period between the 11th and 17th centuries. The University of St. Andrews has an entire program devoted to it. (You can find more information here.) The really interesting thing is that the university researchers estimate that up to 1/3 of Scotland’s people are descended from a Flemish ancestor.

This project is just underway at St. Andrews, but there are some exciting things afoot, including:

  • Flemish influence and settlements in Fife and the Glenshee area of Perthshire including the possibility of the ruins of a settlement.
  • Immigration of Flemish people to Scotland due to religious persecution between 1550 and 1635
  • YDNA tests, linked to Scottish surnames to determine Flemish ancestry

Musings on 15th Century Scottish Clothing


John Knox, Scottish Protestant Reformer, 1514 – 1572

Very little is known about SCA-period Scottish fashion. Why? Well, we can thank John Knox and his band of ‘merry’ men for some of it, as monasteries, including their art, were destroyed over the years of the protestant reformation. Other reasons vary. Scotland was a poor country. According to the ledger of Andrew Halyburton “Conservator of the Privileges of the Scotch Nation in the Netherlands” or “Conservator of the Scotch Staple,” Scotland’s main exports to its biggest trading partner, The Netherlands, were salmon, hides, and wool. There was little of value possessed by Scotland that the rest of the world wanted. With no money flowing into Scotland, it was unlikely that the illuminators and painters of France and the Netherlands would be employed there.

Yet, we cannot assume that Scotland’s people dressed in rags or knew nothing of the fashion of England or the continent. In fact, we know the opposite is true. According to the Halyburton accounts, the wealthy were buying fine linens, velvets, silks, and taffeta with the proceeds from their exports. The Spanish Ambassador to England, Pedro D’Ayala tells in his account of Scotland“They spend all they have to keep up appearances. They are as well dressed as it is possible to be in such a country as that in which they live.” And, as the poem The Garmont of Gud Ladeis tells us, people from the large cities (and likely non-Gaelic speaking rural areas) were wearing the same types of clothing as most others in Europe, albeit likely with some regional variation. (What was being worn in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland at this time is more unclear and a discussion for a different blog entry.)

"The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle", Southern Netherlands, 1495-1505. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”, Southern Netherlands, 1495-1505. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But, what about those regional variation? Because as many of you know, a gown from the Netherlands in 1505 can look vastly different from a German gown of the same time period.

There are some tantalizing clues about the Scottish dress and appearance. D’Ayala also wrote: “(James IV) never cuts his hair or his beard. It becomes him very well.”  On Scottish women he writes: “They dress much better than here (England), and especially as regards the head-dress, which is, I think, the handsomest in the world.”

The statement that intrigues me is the headdress. Presumably this is a gabled hat, similar to what they were wearing in France, England, and The Netherlands. But, clearly Ayala found it different enough to remark on it.

Castle of Love, Royal MS 16; f. 188, Charles d'Orleans, 1483; 1492-1500

Castle of Love, Royal MS 16; f. 188, Charles d’Orleans, 1483; 1492-1500

Also, since we know that Scotland’s main trading partner was The Netherlands, then it is fairly safe to assume that Scottish women wore similar dress to Netherlandish women.

Scotland also maintained a deep alliance with France, often called the “auld alliance,” (although the marriage between James IV and Margaret Tudor temporarily ended it.) Therefore, it can be safely assumed that French fashion influenced Scotland.

Finally, we know that there was a Scottish national dress of sorts. There are references to a painting, now lost, of Mary, Queen of Scots as a young girl dressed in the traditional costume of Scotland. (For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read this, and my google searches are currently fruitless, so I will caveat the above statement by saying that the source could be dubious. I promise to post a link to a reference when I find it. Note to self, bookmark these things!) Possibly, in the painting she is wearing an Arisaid, such as those illustrated here. But, I am somewhat wary of this reference as a source for everyday 15th and 16th century Scottish costume for the same reason that we cannot rely on an image of someone in a prom dress as indicative of the everyday dress of a 21st century teenager. Further, much more reliable sources suggest that unless you were deep in Gaelic country (which at this point was limited to the north and the western islands), you probably wore clothing very similar to people in England and Western Europe.

Where to Begin?

I’ve always been interested in Scotland. Both of my father’s parents were born there, and the culture and food of Ackroyd's Scottish BakeryScotland was very much a part of my childhood. (Yes, I do actually like Haggis – although my family does not and Akroyd’s Bakery in the Detroit area is still a go-to for meat pies and bridies!)

In the mid-90s, I discovered the Clarsach (the traditional wire-string harp of Scotland) and have been exceedingly privileged to now own three of them (an Ardival Kilcoy, a Triplet high-headed Irish, and a Musicmaker’s kit harp) I was also extremely fortunate to study early harp music with some leading harpists around the world including Alison Kinnaird, Ann Heymann, Cynthia Cathcart, and Alison Attar (former teacher).

As an active participant in SCA reenactment during the 1990s, my passion for the clarsach was a good fit. As I immersed myself in the early clarsach music of Scotland, I found that pre-16th century extant clarsach music was not easily found. If it existed at all, its remnants could possibly be found in the lute manuscripts or piping or fiddling traditions. The reasons for this are many, including the Clarsach was taught by ear and many Scottish manuscripts disappeared or were destroyed during the protestant reformation.

Fast forward 25 years. I have been out of the reenacting world for about 12 years and no longer live in the Mid-realm. I miss it. I loved being able to ‘get my nerd on’ so to speak discussing early music with my “laurel” Mistress Amelie d’Anjou of the Midrealm, talking about a newly found tidbit of medieval research with some of my many friends, or learning new things, like sprang and naalbinding. While I’ve periodically toyed with the idea of getting involved in the SCA again, nothing ever really fell into place. Until recently.

My son is 8 years old now and the idea of knights and the middle ages thrills him. I have recently met some great people in the local SCA group that share many of the same interests as me. And, as a result I have stared re-exploring Renaissance Scotland. Ironically, with as much information is available on the internet, there is a noticeable gap in any series Scottish re-enactment research, for many of the same reasons as those I faced when doing Scottish music research. Which is why I started this blog.

Now, with a little research under my belt, a dress underway, the Clarsach in my hands, and ideas flowing through my head, I want to share my research, discoveries, and questions for anyone interested. And, get your comments and ideas back!