Gaelic Harps & Harpers in Ireland & Scotland
by The Honourable Robert Ruadh of the Isles
The harp played by the Irish and Scottish harpers of the old Gaelic order
was an aristocratic instrument, played in the courts of kings and before
the chiefs of clans. It was much like other non-pedal harps in use in our
own time, but differs in that it was strung with bronze wire rather than
gut or nylon. Its sound-box was carved in one piece out of wood from the
bog. It had other-worldly associations, and in the hands of a master
harper had power over its listeners to bring them great joy, or cause them
to weep with sorrow, or lull them to sleep.
History of harp development
The earliest images we have of harps come from Mesopotamia, the Ęgean, and
Egypt. On Mesopotamian clay tablets dated to 2800 BC a simple carving of a
three-stringed harp is used as a pictographic sign. Images of musicians
with harps appeared at an even earlier date on seals and limestone
Wooden statuette of musician with an angled harp. Egypt, 750-656 B.C. British Museum, London.
These ancient harps had a variety of shapes and sizes, but generally were
either built from a sound-box and string-arm joined at an angle or on a
bow-shaped or arched frame.
The strings, possibly made of hair or plant fiber, were attached to a
diaphragm at one end, and tied around the string arm or neck at the other.
The strings were tuned by sliding or rotating the knots that held
Detail of a wall painting from an XVIIIth dynasty tomb at Thebes, showing a musician with a type of arched harp. Oriental Institute, Chicago.
From grave sites in the Cyclades islands of the Ęgean region come a number
of small marble statuettes of seated musicians playing round-topped
harp-like instruments. (It is not clear whether the instruments
represented are harps or lyres.) Because furniture was not in common use
at this time (c. 2700 BC), the use of a stool or chair suggests special
Marble statuette from the Cyclades Islands, ca. 2500 B.C. J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California.
European harps of the middle ages differed from ancient harps of the
Mediterranean region by their three-part construction. The addition of the
forepillar to the soundbox and string-arm, or neck, greatly strengthened
the instrument's structure, allowing the use of greater string tension and
stiffer string materials. These changes enabled the instrument to produce
greater volume and a longer-sustaining tone.
It is not known where or how the forepillar came into use.
The earliest drawings of triangular-frame harps appear in the Utrecht
Psalter, written and illustrated in the early 9th century. Ten of the
illustrations show figures holding harp-like instruments, and in six of
them the forepillar is clearly shown.
David the psalmist, carrying a harp, cittern and measuring rod. Detail from the Utrecht Psalter, codex 32, folio 63v. University Library, Utrecht.
(Although portraits of the biblical King David playing a stringed
instrument were already a feature of religious manuscript art, manuscripts
before this time show David with a medieval lyre rather than a
Manuscript illustrations of the 11th century show a more developed harp
with a deeper soundbox and a rounded shoulder at its junction with the
neck. Harps found in Scottish stone carvings of this time have a similar shape.
An Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as Caedmon's Metrical Paraphrase of
Scripture History, illustrated in the second quarter of the 11th
century, shows Jubal of Genesis playing a handsome harp of this kind. This
harp appears to be at least three feet in height. It rests on his right
shoulder, and he is clutching the bottom of the soundbox with his
Detail of Jubal playing the harp. 11th c., Caedmon's Metrical Paraphrase of Scripture History, ms. Junius 11, folio 54. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
By the 12th century, manuscript illustrations depict harps of a more
advanced design. The neck of the harp is now curved so as to make the
middle strings a little shorter, a feature of all later designs that gives
the strings a more uniform tension.
King David, as Keeper of Order in the realm of sounds, is often shown
tuning the harp with one hand while plucking the strings with the
Detail of King David from the Hunterian Psalter, ca. 1170. He holds a tuning key in his left hand. Ms. U.3.2, folio 21v. University Library, Glasgow.
Development of the Gaelic harp
In Scotland, the images of triangular harps appeared first about the 9th
century, on the east coast, in Pictish stone carvings. Later carvings are
found further west, and show a gradual development toward the advanced form
of the oldest surviving Gaelic harps, which date from the 15th
Pictish harp carved on sandstone cross at Dupplin Castle, Perthshire. Late 9th or early 10th century. After J. Romily Allen, Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1903, fig. 334B.
In Ireland, however, images of David carved on the high crosses (10th-11th
centuries) show quadrangular instruments, possibly lyres. The earliest
Irish images of a triangular harp do not appear until later: in metal, on
an 11th century reliquary , and in stone in the 12th century.
Quadrangular harp carved on 10th century sandstone cross at Durrow Abbey, Co. Offaly, Ireland.
Though it seems from the evidence that the triangular harp appeared first
in Scotland, it is reported by Geraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century
that the Irish were by then playing harps with brass, or bronze, strings.
Bronze plaque on the Shrine of St. Mogue showing King David playing a harp. National Museum, Ireland.
The word "harp" comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German, and Old Norse words
whose root means "to pluck". By the 13th century the term was being
applied specifically to the triangular harp.
The earliest Gaelic term for a wire-strung instrument was cruit. By
1200 this term was also being applied specifically to the triangular
A later word used in Scotland and Ireland for the harp was clarsach,
Scottish records of the 15th and 16th centuries show that both the terms
"harp" and "clarsach" were in use at the same time, and seem to indicate
that a distinction was made between gut-strung European-style harps and
wire-strung Gaelic clarsachs.
The earliest surviving Gaelic harps currently are dated to about the 15th
century. Two, the Trinity College harp, one of Ireland's national
treasures, and the Queen Mary harp in Scotland's Museum of Antiquities, are
so similar in size, construction, and decoration that they appear to have
been made by the same hands. Their resemblance to a Scottish 15th-century
stone carving of a decorated harp suggests their place of origin.
According to Sanger and Kinnaird (see Bibliography), opportunities for the
Trinity harp to travel across the Irish Sea from Scotland into Ireland were
"many, varied, and extremely colorful."
Harp at Trinity College, Dublin. 15th or 16th century.
These harps, and another in Scotland known as the Lamont harp, are
classified as small low-headed harps. They are about 31-38 inches in
height and have 29-32 strings each.
By the 17th century these low-headed instruments were being built larger,
with 34 or more strings. Some were carved ornately. The Castle Otway harp
still retains the shape of the smaller instruments.
Outline of Castle Otway harp, early 17th century, as it would appear restored. After R. B. Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps, Edinburgh, 1904, facing p. 1.
In the late 17th century Gaelic harps became much taller. The longer bass
strings of these high-headed instruments could produce a much clearer and
stronger tone, though the number of strings was still at about 33-39. The
overall height of the Sirr harp is 62 inches.
Sirr harp, 18th century. After R. B. Armstrong, op. cit., p. 82.
The Gaelic harping tradition
Music was an important part of life in ancient Ireland, and professional
harpers were honored above all other musicians. In social position the
harper ranked at the top of the bó-aire class of nobility,
who were without land of their own, but whose wealth was in cattle. There
may have been harp schools in Ireland, as there certainly were in Wales,
similar to the bardic schools, where harpers spent several years in
The Irish harpers gained a high reputation for their music. Even Geraldus
Cambrensis, who rarely had anything good to say about the Irish, praised
their music, adding, however, that Scotland was lately surpassing Ireland
in musical skill.
There were links among the poets and harpers of Ireland, Scotland, and
Wales. Gryffydd ap Cynan, ruler of Gwynedd, whose mother was Irish,
reformed Welsh music when he brought Irish musicians to his court.
On those occasions that compositions of the fili, or poet, were
recited, the poetry would be accompanied by the music of the clarsach. A
woodcut in John Derricke's Image of Ireland, 1581, shows an Irish
chief being entertained by a reacaire, or reciter, while the harper
plays. Another figure standing beside the chief, perhaps the fili
himself, seems to be directing the performance.
Reciter and harper performing before a chief. John Derricke,
Image of Ireland, 1581.
In Scotland there is no evidence of a formal position as reciter, but a
bard of lesser training than the fili would sometimes recite the
fili's poetry, or his own poetry, and sometimes the recitation and
harping would be done by the same person, thus blurring the distinctions of
The war in Ireland that ended with the Flight of the Earls in 1607 was a
heavy blow to the Gaelic order, and resulted in the collapse of the Irish
bardic schools. In Scotland the bardic schools stayed alive for about
another hundred years.
The music of the harpers was the product of an unwritten tradition,
transmitted orally from teacher to student. Although some of the old tunes
were popular enough to make their way into manuscripts for lute and other
stringed instruments, there was no organized attempt at this time to
collect them, and most of the music was forgotten.
With the Anglicisation of the Irish nobility, the traditional harpers more
and more were reduced to itinerant musicians traveling the countryside.
The most famous harper in Irish history, Turlough Ó Carolan, lived
during this time, 1670-1738. Ó Carolan adapted features of European
Baroque music to his compositions for his Anglo-Irish patrons. Other
harpers as well were composing in the popular idioms.
By the late 18th century it was clear that traditional Irish harpers were
nearly extinct. In order to encourage and preserve the old harping
tradition, a festival was held in Belfast in July of 1792, and newspaper
advertisements invited all Irish harpers to come and play. Prizes were
offered for the three best, but no one was to go away empty-handed. Even
with this encouragement (and a large audience brought to town by the
celebration of the fall of the Bastille) only ten Irish harpers and one
Welsh harper showed up. The youngest was a boy of 15 years; the oldest was
Denis Hempson, who was 97 years old.
The Belfast Festival of 1792 failed to stimulate the growth of traditional
harping, but it was an outstanding success in preserving the last remnants
Edward Bunting, a 19-year-old church organist, was hired to write down the
tunes of the harpers. This he did with so much enthusiasm during the four
days of the festival that he continued to collect traditional tunes
throughout his life, publishing three collections, in 1797, 1809, and 1840.
Bunting collected not only the music, but much lore and technical
information from the harpers. It is only through his work that many of the
clues to the method and style of playing used by the old harpers come down
to our own time.
Hempson was the last of the old harpers who played with the harp on his
left shoulder, using his nails to pluck the strings. In the late 18th
century he was considered a musical anachronism, a relic of another time,
who played tunes so old and forgotten that they were unfamiliar to the
other harpers. Hempson himself refused to play some of his tunes for
Bunting; "There was no use in doing so, they were too hard to learn, they
revived painful recollections."
Though much music has been lost, we owe Denis Hempson and Edward Bunting a
debt of gratitude for preserving for us the last remnants of this once
In more recent times the old wire-strung harps became museum pieces. The
Trinity College harp was restored to playable condition in 1961 and made a
debut on the BBC, but for some time after, it remained a symbol of
Then in the 1970s musicians became interested in bringing back to life the
sound of the old harps. Harp building was becoming a cottage industry, and
although most harps were built for nylon strings, a few were being built
Reading the work of Edward Bunting, Ann Heymann became curious
about the Gaelic harp and began her own research. She had a copy of the Castle
Otway harp built for her by harp builder Jay Witcher. Guided by the
writings of Bunting and her own experimentation, she proceeded to
rediscover the techniques of playing, damping, arranging and ornamentation
required by the long-sustaining tone of the wire strings.
Other researchers and harpers also have assisted in the recovery of the
lost tradition. In particular, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird have
uncovered much fascinating information about the Gaelic harp in
As in other areas of research, the real discoveries come from doing. In
learning to play the clarsach, we are recreating the tradition anew.
I feel that that's part of the excitement of playing the Gaelic harp.