Tree 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!
One 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