Celtic harp

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Celtic harp
Celtic harp dsc05425.jpg
The medieval 'Queen Mary harp' (Clàrsach na Banrìgh Màiri) preserved in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
String instrument
Other namescláirseach, clàrsach, telenn, telyn[citation needed]
Hornbostel–Sachs classification322.221
(manually tuned frame harp)
Related instruments

The Celtic harp is a triangular frame harp traditional to Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. It is known as cláirseach in Irish and clàrsach in Scottish Gaelic. In Ireland and Scotland, it was a wire-strung instrument requiring great skill and long practice to play, and was associated with the Gaelic ruling class. It appears on Irish and British coins, the coat of arms of the Republic of Ireland, Montserrat, the United Kingdom and Canada as well as the flag of Montserrat.

Early history[edit]

Earliest Irish harp on the Breac Máedóc reliquary.png
1805 Irish penny depicting an Irish harp, long used as a national symbol.

The early history of the triangular frame harp in Europe is contested. The first instrument associated with the harping tradition in the Gaelic world was known as a cruit. This word may originally have described a different stringed instrument, being etymologically related to the Welsh crwth. It has been suggested that the word clàrsach / cláirseach (from clàr / clár, a board) was coined for the triangular frame harp which replaced the cruit, and that this coining was of Scottish origin.[1]

A notched piece of wood which some have interpreted to be part of the bridge of an Iron Age lyre dating to circa 300 BC was discovered on the Isle of Skye, which if actually a bridge would make it, (although images of Greek lyres are much older) the oldest surviving fragment of a western European stringed instrument.[2][3] The earliest descriptions of a European triangular framed harp, i.e. harps with a fore pillar, are found on carved 8th century Pictish stones.[4][5][6][7][8][9] 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.[10][11][12][13] Exactly thirteen depictions of any triangular chordophone instrument from pre-11th-century Europe exist and twelve of them come from Scotland.[14]

The earliest Irish references to stringed instruments are from the 6th century, and players of such instruments were held in high regard by the nobility of the time. Early Irish law from 700 AD stipulates that bards and 'cruit' players should sit with the nobility at banquets and not with the common entertainers. Another stringed instrument from this era was the tiompán, most likely a kind of lyre. Despite providing the earliest evidence of stringed instruments in Ireland, no records described what these instruments looked like, or how the cruit and tiompán differed from one another.[15]

Only two quadrangular instruments occur within the Irish context on the west coast of Scotland and both carvings date two hundred years after the Pictish carvings.[13] 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,[8][13][16] 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.[17] The Utrecht Psalter was penned between 816–835 AD.[18] However, Pictish Triangular Chordophone carvings found on the Nigg Stone date from 790–799 AD.[19] and pre-date the document by up to forty years. Other Pictish sculptures also predate the Utrecht Psalter, namely the harper on the Dupplin Cross from c. 800 AD.

The Norman-Welsh cleric and scholar Gerald of Wales (c.1146 – c.1223), whose Topographica Hibernica et Expugnatio Hibernica is a description of Ireland from the Anglo-Norman point of view, praised Irish harp music (if little else), stating:

The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments… they are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen[20]

However, Gerald, who had a strong dislike of the Gaelic Irish, somewhat contradicts himself. While admitting that the style of music originated in Ireland, he immediately added that, in "the opinion of many", the Scots and the Welsh had now surpassed them in that skill.[21][22][23] Gerald refers to the cythara and the tympanum, but their identification with the harp is uncertain, and it is not known that he ever visited Scotland.[24]

Scotland and Wales, the former by reason of her derivation, the latter from intercourse and affinity, seek with emulous endeavours to imitate Ireland in music. Ireland uses and delights in but two instruments, 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.

Early images of the clàrsach are not common in Scottish iconography, but a gravestone at Kiells, in Argyllshire, dating from about 1500, shows one with a typically large soundbox, decorated with Gaelic designs.[26] The Irish Saint Máedóc of Ferns reliquary shrine dates from c.1100, and clearly shows King David with a triangular framed harp including a "T-Section" in the pillar.[27] The Irish word lamhchrann or Scottish Gaelic làmh-chrann came into use at an unknown date to indicate this pillar which would have supplied the bracing to withstand the tension of a wire-strung harp.

Three of the four pre-16th-century authentic harps that survive today are of Gaelic provenance: the Brian Boru Harp in Trinity College, Dublin, and the Queen Mary and Lamont Harps, both in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.[28] The last two are examples of the small low-headed harp, and are both made from hornbeam, a wood not native to Scotland or Ireland.[29] All three are dated approximately to the 15th century and may have been made in Argyll in western Scotland.[30][31]

One of the largest and most complete collections of 17th–18th century harp music is the work of Turlough O'Carolan, a blind, itinerant Irish harper and composer. At least 220 of his compositions survive to this day.

Characteristics and function[edit]

In construction the Irish and Scottish harp may in general be considered as one. A characteristic feature is the metal strings. Historical sources mention various types of wire,[32] including brass and iron; and some scholars also argue for the use of silver and gold.[33] The wires were attached to a massive soundbox typically carved from a single log, commonly of willow, although other woods including alder and poplar have been identified in extant harps. This harp also had a reinforced curved pillar and a substantial neck, flanked with thick brass cheek bands. The strings, usually played with the fingernails, produced a brilliant ringing sound.[34] This type of harp is also unique amongst single row triangular harps in that the first two strings tuned in the middle of the gamut were set to the same pitch.[35]


The Bunworth Harp (1734), a later example of a more characteristically "Irish Harp" from County Cork
Replica of the 'Queen Mary harp' (Clàrsach na Banrìgh Màiri) by Davy Patton, 2007

In Scottish Gaelic, the names of the components of the clàrsach were as follows:

  • amhach (neck)
  • cnagan (pins)
  • corr (pin-board)
  • com (chest or soundbox)
  • làmh-chrann (tree or forepillar)
  • teudan (strings)
  • cruidhean nan teud (string shoes)
  • urshnaim (toggle?).[36][37]

The corr had a brass strap nailed to each side, pierced by tapered brass tuning pins. The treble end had a tenon which fitted into the top of the com (soundbox). On a low-headed harp the corr was morticed at the bass end to receive a tenon on the làmh-chrann; on a high-headed harp this tenon fitted into a mortice on the back of the làmh-chrann.

The com (soundbox) was usually carved from a single piece of willow, hollowed out from behind. A panel of harder timber was carefully inserted to close the back.

Cruidhean nan teud (string shoes) were usually made of brass and prevented the metal strings from cutting into the wood of the soundbox.

The urshnaim may refer to the wooden toggle to which a string was fastened once it had emerged from its hole in the soundboard.

Playing technique[edit]

The playing of the wire-strung harp has been described[by whom?] as extremely difficult. Because of the long-lasting resonance, the performer had to dampen strings which had just been played while new strings were being plucked, and this while playing rapidly. Contrary to conventional modern practice, the left hand played the treble and the right the bass. It was said[by whom?] that a player should begin to learn the harp no later than the age of seven. The best modern players have shown, however, that reasonable competence may be achieved even at a later age.

Social function and decline[edit]

During the medieval period the wire-strung harp was in demand throughout the Gaelic territories, which stretched from the northern Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland to the south of Ireland. The Gaelic worlds of Scotland and Ireland, however, while retaining close links, were already showing signs of divergence in the sixteenth century in language, music and social structure.

The function of the clàrsach in a Hebridean lordship, both as entertainment and as literary metaphor, is illustrated in the songs of Màiri Nic Leòid (Mary MacLeod) (c. 1615c. 1705), a prominent Gaelic poet of her time. The chief is praised as one who is skilled in judging harp-playing, the theme of a story and the pith of sense:

Tuigsear nan teud,
Purpais gach sgèil,
Susbaint gach cèill nàduir.[38]

The music of harp and pipe is shown to be intrinsic to the splendour of the MacLeod court, along with wine in shining cups:

Gu àros nach crìon
Am bi gàirich nam pìob
Is nan clàrsach a rìs
Le deàrrsadh nam pìos
A' cur sàraidh air fìon
Is 'ga leigeadh an gnìomh òircheard.[39]

Here the great Highland bagpipe shares the high status of the clàrsach. It would help supplant the harp, and may already have developed its own classical tradition in the form of the elaborate "great music" (ceòl mòr). An elegy to Sir Donald MacDonald of Clanranald, attributed to his widow in 1618, contains a very early reference to the bagpipe in a lairdly setting:

Is iomadh sgal pìobadh
Mar ri farrum nan dìsnean air clàr
Rinn mi èisdeachd a’d' bhaile... [40]

There is evidence that the musical tradition of the clàrsach may have influenced the use and repertoire of the bagpipe. The oral mnemonic system called canntaireachd, used for encoding and teaching ceòl mòr, is first mentioned in the 1226 obituary of a clàrsair (harp player). Terms relating to theme and variation on the clàrsach and the bagpipe correlate to each other. Founders of bagpipe dynasties are also noted as clársach players.[40]

The names of a number of the last harpers are recorded. The blind Duncan McIndeor, who died in 1694, was harper to Campbell of Auchinbreck, but also frequented Edinburgh. A receipt for "two bolls of meall", dated 1683, is extant for another harper, also blind, named Patrick McErnace, who apparently played for Lord Neill Campbell. The harper Manus McShire is mentioned in an account book covering the period 1688–1704. A harper called Neill Baine is mentioned in a letter dated 1702 from a servitor of Allan MacDonald of Clanranald. Angus McDonald, harper, received payment on the instructions of Menzies of Culdares on 19 June 1713, and the Marquis of Huntly's accounts record a payment to two harpers in 1714. Other harpers include Rory Dall Morison (who died c. 1714), Lachlan Dall (who died c. 1721–1727), and Murdoch MacDonald (who died c. 1740).[41]

By the middle of the eighteenth century the "violer" (fiddle player) had replaced the harper, a consequence, perhaps, of the growing influence in the Gaelic world of Lowland Scots culture.[41]


A modern 'Celtic harp' in Canada

In the early 19th century, even as the old Gaelic harp tradition was dying out, a new harp was developed in Ireland.[42] It had gut strings and semitone mechanisms like an orchestral pedal harp, and was built and marketed by John Egan, a pedal harp maker in Dublin.

The new harp was small and curved like the historical cláirseach or Irish harp, but it was strung with gut and its soundbox was lighter.[43] In the 1890s a similar new harp became popular in Scotland as part of a Gaelic cultural revival.[44]

There is now, however, renewed interest in the wire-strung harp, or clàrsach, with replicas being made and research being conducted into ancient playing techniques and terminology.[45]


  • Armstrong, Robert Bruce (1904). The Irish and The Highland Harps. Edinburgh: David Douglas.
  • Bannerman, John (1991). "The Clàrsach and the Clàrsair". Scottish Studies, vol. 30 no. 3.
  • Budgey, Andrea (2002). "Musical relations between Scotland and Ireland" [in] McDonald, R. Andrew, [ed.] Literature and Music in Scotland: 700–1560. University of Toronto Press, ISBN 0802036015; ISBN 978-0802036018.
  • Caldwell, D.H., [ed.] (1982). Angels, Nobles and Unicorns: Art and Patronage in Medieval Scotland. Edinburgh: NMS.
  • Cathcart, Cynthia (Summer 2009). "Silver report: Precious metal strings on the wire-strung harp". Folk Harp Journal, no. 143, pp. 34–43. available via wirestrungharp.com .
  • Chadwick, Simon (November 2008). "The Early Irish Harp". Early Music, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 521–532.
  • Collinson, Francis (1983)[1966]. The Bagpipe, Fiddle and Harp. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966; reprinted by Lang Syne Publishers Ltd., ISBN 0946264481, ISBN 978-0946264483.
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  • Heymann, Ann & Heymann, Charlie (Summer 2003). "Strings of Gold". The Historical Harp Society Journal, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 9–15. available via annheymann.com .
  • Lanier, Sara C. (1999). "'It is new-strung and shan't be heard': Nationalism and Memory in the Irish Harp Tradition". British Journal of Ethnomusicology, vol. 8.
  • Lawlor, Helen (2012). Irish Harping, 1900–2010. Dublin: Four Courts Press, ISBN 978-1-84682-367-1.
  • Newton, Michael & Cheape, Hugh (n.d.) "The Keening of Women and the Roar of the Pipe: From Clársach to Bagpipe, ca. 1600–1782". available via academia.edu .
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  • O'Donnell, Mary Louise (2014). Ireland's Harp: The Shaping of Irish Identity c.1770–1880. Dublin, IE: University College Dublin Press, ISBN 978-1-90635-986-7.
  • Rensch, Roslyn (1989). Harps and Harpists, pp. 125–127. Indiana University Press.
  • Rimmer, Joan (1964). "The Morphology of the Irish Harp". The Galpin Society Journal, no. 17.
  • Rimmer, Joan (1984)[1969] The Irish Harp: Cláirseach na hÉireann, 3rd ed. The Mercier Press, ISBN 0-85342-151-X [1st ed. 1969; 2nd ed. 1977].
  • Sanger, Keith & Kinnaird, Alison (1992). Tree of Strings – Crann nan Teud. Kinmor Music, ISBN 0-95112-044-1.
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  • Yeats, Gráinne (1980). Féile na gCruitirí, Béal Feirste [The Belfast Harpers' Festival] 1972. Gael Linn, ISBN 0-86233-025-4.


  1. ^ John Bannerman, 'The Clàrsach and the Clàsair' in Scottish Studies 30, 1991, pp. 3–4.
  2. ^ "'Europe's oldest stringed instrument' discovered on Scots island | Highlands & Islands". News. 28 March 2012. Retrieved 1 August 2015.[permanent dead link]
  3. ^ "Skye cave find western Europe's 'earliest string instrument'". BBC News. 28 March 2012.
  4. ^ Montagu, Jeremy (2002). "Harp". In Alison Latham (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Music. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 564. ISBN 978-0-19-866212-9. OCLC 59376677.
  5. ^ The Anglo Saxon Harp, 'Spectrum, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr. 1996), pp. 290–320.
  6. ^ The Origins of the Clairsach or Irish Harp. Musical Times, Vol. 53, No. 828 (February 1912), pp. 89–92.
  7. ^ Scotland, Insight Guides. Josephine Buchanan 2003, pp94 Published 2003 Langenscheidt Publishing Group.
  8. ^ a b John T. Koch Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia 2006. Published ABC-CLIO, pp1276.
  9. ^ Scotland's Music: A History of the Traditional and Classical Music of Scotland from Early Times to the Present Day. John Purser (2007) Mainstream Publishing Group.
  10. ^ A New History of Ireland, prehistoric and early history. Daibhi OCoinin (2005). Oxford University Press.
  11. ^ J. Keay & Julia Keay. (2000): Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland, Clarsach, p. 171. Harper Collins publishers.
  12. ^ History Literature and music in Scotland 1700-1560 Russell Andrew McDonald 2002 University of Toronto Press, Arts Medieval Recent introduction from Scotland to Ireland of the triangular harp.
  13. ^ a b c Celtic Music History and Criticism Kenneth Mathieson 2001 Backbeat books p192
  14. ^ Alasdair Ross, "Pictish Chordophone Depictions", in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 36, 1998, esp. p. 41; Joan Rimmer, The Irish Harp, (Cork, 1969) p. 17.
    Also: Alasdair Ross discusses that all the Scottish harp figures were copied from foreign drawings and not from life, in 'Harps of Their Owne Sorte'? A Reassessment of Pictish Chordophone Depictions "Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies" 36, Winter 1998
  15. ^ "Early Gaelic Harp". earlygaelicharp.info. Retrieved 21 September 2021.
  16. ^ The Story of the Irish Harp its History and Influences Norah Joan Clark (2003) North Creek Press
  17. ^ Alasdair Ross discusses that all the Scottish harp figures were copied from foreign drawings and not from life, in 'Harps of Their Owne Sorte'? A Reassessment of Pictish Chordophone Depictions "Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies" 36, Winter 1998
  18. ^ Snyder's Medieval Art, 2nd ed, p32. Luttikhuizen and Verkerk
  19. ^ "The Nigg stone is dated before the Utrecht Psalter and cannot have influenced the Pictish carvers to copy harp figures from the Ross study". Strathclyde University : STAMS Pictish Stones Search Facility. Archived from the original on 26 December 2007. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  20. ^ "How the harp became the symbol of Ireland". The Irish Emigration Museum. Retrieved 21 September 2021.
  21. ^ "Irish Music Before the Anglo-Norman Invasion". William H Grattan Flood. Retrieved 21 September 2021.
  22. ^ "The Peculiar Case of Gerald of Wales Liking and Disliking Irish Music". thegreatcoursesdaily. Retrieved 21 September 2021.
  23. ^ Dimock 1867 (ed.), pp. 154–5: Multorum autem opinione, hodie Scotia non-tantum magistram aequiparavit Hiberniam, verum etiam in musica peritia longe praevalet et praecellit. Unde et ibi quasi fontem artis jam requirunt.
  24. ^ Budgey 2002, p. 209.
  25. ^ Gerald of Wales, "Topographia Hibernica", 94; tr. John O'Meary, The History and Topography of Ireland (London, 1982).
  26. ^ Rimmer 1969, pp. 35–37.
  27. ^ Murray, Griffin. "The Breac Maodhóg: A unique medieval Irish reliquary". Cavan: History and Society (Edited by J. Cherry & B. Scott).
  28. ^ "Early Gaelic Harp Info: old harps in museums". www.earlygaelicharp.info.
  29. ^ Rimmer 1969, p. 35.
  30. ^ See Sanger & Kinnaird 1992
  31. ^ See Caldwell 1982.
  32. ^ "Early Gaelic Harp Info: stringing". www.earlygaelicharp.info.
  33. ^ See Heymann 2003.
  34. ^ Rimmer 1969, p. 34.
  35. ^ Rimmer 1969, p. 54.
  36. ^ Dwelly 1901–11, 1977, p. 206: clàrsach.
  37. ^ "Irish Terms". Early Gaelic Harp Info. 21 October 2002. Retrieved 9 October 2013.
  38. ^ Watson (1934), 46 – Crònan an Taibh.
  39. ^ Watson (1934): 62 – An Crònan.
  40. ^ a b Newton & Cheape, pp. 77–78.
  41. ^ a b Sanger, Keith (ed.). "The final chords". WireStrungHarp. Last Scottish harpers.
  42. ^ "History (19th century)". Early Gaelic Harp – via www.earlygaelicharp.info.
  43. ^ Rimmer (1969), p. 67.
  44. ^ see Collinson (1983)
  45. ^ "Ann Heymann". Portland Clarsach. Retrieved 9 October 2013 – via Pdxclarsach.wordpress.com.

External links[edit]