Pictish Harps

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Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in around the year 1188 about the use of various stringed instruments "Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the cithara and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the cithara, the tympanum and the chorus. Wales uses the cithara, tibiae (pipes) and chorus (crwth?)" Buckly p68

But if you want to soothe the troubled mind of a Taoiseach in a Viking era encampment, what sort of stringed instrument is most appropriate?

When did trianguler harps start to be used? Evidence of the construction and use of musical instruments is available from stories. Translation between languages and in the retelling of stories by the descendants of those who composed them can cause confusion as for the purpose of a story 'Harp' could refer to many plucked and possibly bowed string instruments. However, it is probably safe to assume that the writer of a text needed to be understood at the time they were writing in. For example descriptions of stinged instruments in gaelic include the terms like "crot", "clithora" and "cruit" which can all be translated "harp", but might also mean Lyre.

Whilst I am unaware of any archaeological finds of Pictish harps from the Viking era, there is also evidence of stringed instruments carved on stones in the regions now known as Scotland and Ireland. These carvings depict instruments which differ from lyres. If a harp is distinguished by the strings running perpendicular to and away from the soundboard, exposed on both sides, lyres can be described as having strings which run across the board, often over a bridge. (Clements p70) This difference is most obvious in the depictions of three sided chordophones (instruments which make sound using strings) in Pictish carvings. Contemporary Irish depictions have four sided which are less easily distinguished from Lyres. Therefore it seems that while harps are strongly associated with Ireland, the earliest evidence of their use in these islands comes from Pictish stone carvings in Scotland (C8th), (see list of stones at end of this). Further clues can be found by comparing the carvings with illustrations in the Utrecht psalter (C9th),

as well as the Breac Máedóc reliquary shrine in Ireland (C11th)

Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their book "Tree of Strings - Crann nan Teud") present a chronology for evidence of harp use in the British Isles.

"The general picture appears to be of a large, floor-standing instrument which may well have been strung with horsehair. These harps were probably introduced to Wales by British tribesmen during the waves of migration between the 6th and 9th centuries, when the earliest Brittonic poetry that survives was also transmitted from Southern Scotland to Wales. There, the harps were given the mocking nickname of 'Buzzing thing' by the Irish settlers, a name which was adopted (perhaps with some humour!) by the Welsh. Meanwhile, between the 8th and 9th centuries, the Irish had come into contact with the Pictish Harp through their Christian communities in the west of Scotland, and perhaps also through the exiled mercenary warriors who fled across the Irish sea from the failing British kingdoms of South West Scotland. The size and construction of the triangular harps was altered to carry their customary metal strings and it became what we recognise today as the Gaelic harp, the 'Cruit' or 'Clarsach'" P30

Strings In agreement with Gerald, Irish sources often describe musicians as playing the cruit and also the tiompan. The descriptions of these instruments in these stories suggest how they could have been made and played.

[[1]] "What was the Tiompan? A problem in ethnohistorical organology: Evidence in Irish Literature" by Ann Buckly

The colloquy of the Ancients (circa 1170) describes St Patrick and Cailte walking around Ireland learning of the Fianna and at one point being entertained on "Sweet-stringed tiompans and sweet nine-stringed cruits." and also "The women had a little tiompan with its leithrand of white silver, with its pegs of yellow gold, with its strings of white metal." both Buckly p57

These were the daughters of the legendary king of Hy-Kinsellach, Fionnchas, Fionndruine and Finninghen. In her article Ann describes several references to metal strings, both bronze and alloys of other precious metals. She also refers to descriptions of the tiompan having three strings while the cruit has many. The three strings may refer to the three types of music in Gaelic stories, those that make you cry, those that make you laugh and those that send you to sleep (If you have read this far, you really should find out about the Dagdas harp)

Her conclusion is that the tiompan "was an instument light in weight and made of wood which was sometimes decorated with precious or other metal, whil its strings were of brass or bronze, or sometimes possibly of gold.Where reference is made to a number of strings, it is always given as three" (Buckly p61)


The tiompan was probably plucked. However on p24 Buckly also describes a couple of possible references to the use of a bow. She attributes this to C15th/16th century descriptions. However she assumes that the bow was not known in western Europe before 1000AD. One of these references is from a note inserted in a glossary of the calendar of Oengus in a C16th manuscript. The original text is from the C8th. The other describes the bow as being made from 'cairche' translated as 'cows tails'. Again the existing text she refers to is from the C15/16th century but the story may be older. The reference to cow tales is interesting given the interest in Talharpa and other bowed lyres. The question is at what point is there evidence for their introduction? (there is a drawing of what looks to me like a bow in the Uchtrect psalter.

If you are looking for balance, a sceptical discussion of this topic can be read here THE HISTORICAL IRISH HARP: MYTHS DEMYSTIFIED ANDREW LAWRENCE-KING KATERINA ANTONENKO NATALIA O’SHEA

A selection of Pictish stones with harps It is suggested that the harp is used in Pictish sculpture to identify King David. This is fortunate for us, as it means that there are records of stringed instruments from possibly as early as the C8th. Both large harps played sitting on a chair and hand held harps are depicted, although as always the relative size of objects carved on stones might not be an accurate measure of actual sizes. On the Nigg Stone [[2]] Dupplin Cross Rossmarkie stone

Other wiki pages about early harps ["Origin of the Harp in Europe"], ["The Celtic Harp"]