The harp is Scotland’s oldest national instrument. Long before the arrival of the bagpipe it was the mainstay of Gaelic courtly music. The earliest depictions of the instrument can be found on Pictish stones, dating back to the 8th century. It came in two different forms: the earlier Pictish harp, strung with gut or horsehair, and the Gaelic clarsach, strung with wire.
The clarsach was the primary instrument of the Gaelic courts until the introduction of the bagpipe in the 15th century and remained central to Gaelic courtly music until the mid 18th century. It also played a key role in the music of the early Celtic church.
Harpers themselves were a highly trained class of professionals who spent years perfecting their art and were held in esteem second only to that of the clan poet, or filidh. However, this ancient tradition died out following the failure of the Jacobite rebellion and the subsequent destruction of clan society and repression of Gaelic culture. The music was never written down by the harpers themselves and until recently it was believed to be entirely lost.
Attempts were made to revive the instrument in the 19th century using surviving clarsachs, but this was largely abandoned due to lack of information. Instead, miniature versions of the French pedal harp fashionable at the time were manufactured, with gut strings and semi-tone levers for changing key. However, this small “lever harp” was seen mainly as a practice instrument before progressing onto the pedal harp. (It was not unusual for makers to offer a free “practice harp” with every pedal harp ordered!)
Only in the 1970s did fresh research gain new insight into the original instrument. Pioneering players and academics such as Alison Kinnaird and Keith Sanger discovered that some tunes which could be traced back to the harpers still survived in lute, fiddle and piping manuscripts. Since then discoveries of further manuscripts such as the Welsh “Robert Ap Huw” and successful reproductions of early instruments have led to great advances in the understanding of playing techniques and musical styles. Player-researchers such as Ann Heymann and William Taylor have led this field, opening it out so that we can now hear expert performances of authentic repertoire on this ancient instrument.
In the meantime, the upsurge of interest in traditional music in general and the work of players such as Alison Kinnaird, Patsy Seddon and Isobel Mieras (but name but a few) has also led to a revival of the lever harp. It is no longer a “practice harp” but an instrument in its own right, with its own repertoire drawing from both a newfound knowledge of old harp tunes and the contemporary tradition of the fiddle and pipes.
The result is that the tradition of the harp in Scotland today is at its most vibrant since the age of the clan harpers, with old music more readily accessible than ever before and new music being composed all the time.