“Like medieval clockwork” – copying the missing Queen Mary harp iron tuning pins.

When I was commissioning my replica of the Queen Mary harp in 2006, I paid attention to the 30th tuning pin, which is obviously a later addition, shorter, made of iron, split end, different drive, and off the main row. This pin is now missing but I made a copy of it based on descriptions and old photos. I made the 29 brass pins with their scores on their shafts copying the museum photo of the 21 pins now in the harp, and for the 8 missing pins I made the same design of brass pins without scores.

If I had been more on the ball back then I would have noticed that those same old photos and descriptions I used for the 30th pins, also show the missing 8 from the main row, and those missing 8 are plain iron not decorated brass, and 5 of them have split ends.

So today’s project was to make 8 handmade iron pins, and install them in the harp. The contrast of the iron and brass pins is subtle but interesting in appearance, reminding me of my initial reaction to the handmade decorated pins: “like medieval clockwork”.

I broke the lowest gold B string taking it off but there was enough spare to rewind the toggle and reuse it. The string had thinned where it went over the pin – presumably a gradual process over seven years since I fitted it in 2007.


The past week or two have continued the making things theme. I have done a series of tuning keys as test-runs; I have made a page advertising them which I will send out for my 1st May Emporium Update.

I also have made the set of pins for my HHSI Student Downhill harp, and today while it was here with my student who has it, I fitted the pins – pulling each of the old steel pins out in turn and then replacing it with a new brass pin. I had to shim all of the brass pins because for some reason they are marginally smaller than the steel pins, and I used thin brass sheet to make the shims. Plenty of the antique Gaelic harps have brass shims in their pin holes and I find it works well.

We instantly noticed how much better the harp worked to tune, with the new pins – the key fits much more snugly on the new pins with their tapering drives, giving a much more positive touch to the tuning. And the new pins look rather good with their decorated drives. I am very pleased with the result.

I have always thought that handmade pins with tapering drives work so much better than machine made steel pins with parallel drives, but inertia has meant I have not bothered doing anything about it until now. Hardly anyone has handmade pins on their harps, even top players with quality decorated instruments. I can only think of 3 or 4 off the top of my head.

I am going to make a few more pins and then I think I will make a page advertising them for sale for the 1st June update! I think that this would make a fantastic upgrade to anyone’s harp, to replace the pins!

Tuning key

I lost my tuning key in Edinburgh last weekend. At first I was rather irritated; the replica Queen Mary clarsach has handmade tuning key drives, copying the original, which are rectangular rather than the usual square. So the key is also custom-made with a rectangular socket, and also has a second socket in the end of the handle to fit the square drive of the 30th pin. Basically it is useless to anyone else! I did have a rather ill-fitting spare with me

However after a while I realised this was a great opportunity. I made this key not too long after the harp was new, and while it was comfortable to use with its  roundwood quince handle from the garden here, the rectangular socket was always a bit oversized and was loose on all the pins. Also it was rather “rustic” in appearance.

So today I made a new key for the Queen Mary harp. This one builds on my experience making the first. The design is the same – a T shaped pin, with a brass socket made from a rod soldered inside a tube, the end of the rod slit with saw and files to fit the drives. The second socket, from a large clock key, fits in the end of the handle. Both sockets are fixed in with little brass pins running through the wood, and secured with glue to stop them shifting.

For the handle of this key I used a piece of ancient Irish bog oak which Davy Patton gave me years ago. I had thought of carving medieval West Highland designs into it, and even gilding the designs, but as the handle took shape it became very spare and elegant. The bog oak does not carve very cleanly anyway. So in the end the only decoration was a pair of parallel incised bands at each end of the handle and each end of the main socket shaft, echoing the pairs of incised bands on the Queen Mary harp tuning pins.

I have to make another soon as my student who has the Student Downhill harp has lost the key for it. It ought to have a brass socketed key anyway as the commercial steel-socketed key it used to have was starting to chew up the decorated brass pins I have started fitting to it. Which reminds me, I need to finish the set of brass pins for that harp. So many jobs lining up…

Dupplin Cross

On the way back from Edinburgh this afternoon we enjoyed a large detour which included a stop at the old church in Dunning. Inside this preserved medieval building in the care of Historic Scotland, is the early medieval Dupplin Cross.

The cross is very well presented in the base of the tower, and is extremely well lit with raking light from above, allowing a good appreciation of the relief carving. Of course I really wanted to see the harpist, King David I suppose, but all of the carved panels were really lovely. The inscription was on the back side and was the least well illuminated so there was no possibility of reading any of it.

Once everything is tidy and I am feeling less tired I will have a better look at my photographs and maybe will have somthing more to say about the David panel on the cross!

Until 1999, the cross stood on the nearby hillside, and although obviously the 1200-year-old carving and inscription is much better preserved now the cross is inside, it seems a shame that it no longer stands in situ, looking down over the ancient Pictish royal site at Forteviot.  I don’t believe the original site is signposted or marked in any way – wouldn’t it be wonderful if a cast or replica could be installed there?

Edinburgh Harp Festival

We are exhibiting at the harp festival. We have had a good time so far, making sales, restringing harps and running an ad-hoc fingernail repair salon! The medieval harp chocolate bars have been a great talking point!

This afternoon two pedal harpists are at the Holywell stand next to ours, practicing classical duets on two pedal harps. It is very civilised and pleasant here out at the end of the school campus.

Hidden Door festival

Last night I was playing at the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh’s old town. The festival itself was amazing, a beautiful collaboration of installation arts and performing arts. I loved the spontaneous nature of everything, and the DIY volunteer ethos of the festival organisers and the people running it on the ground. You do not find anything like this in St Andrews.

Everything was set in disused vaults on Market Street – bare, spartan stone underground caverns. Some of them were music venues and some were spaces for art installations. I was particularly intrigued by an art installation in a completely blacked out vault, which consisted of a garden of lichtsuchende, robot plants, light sensitive and light emitting – torches were provided by the entrance curtain. There was also a very nice exhibition in another vault of framed collage pictures by Miriam Mallalieu on the theme of lichens. Some of the colours and structures in these images reminded me of some of Ealasaid’s work.

I played in one of the vaults, which was a “hidden” music venue in amongst the installation art vaults. Unsuspecting art-lovers stumbled in and listened to some of the Tarbh music before leaving to explore the next installation. Sometimes I felt like some kind of strange robot flower in the centre of the vault, beneath a star-like lighting installation, playing this weird meditative music to an audience unprepared to hear it but open to new artistic experiences.