Playing the harp in Kisimul Castle

Steach gu Ciosamul an aighir,
Far a faighte cuirm ri gabhail
Ol fìon o oidhche gus an latha,
Pìobaireachd na feadan lagach,
‘s clàrsach bhinn ga gleusadh mar ris…

I was at Castlebay this past weekend, to play the harp at the Galley Castles Conference organised by the Islands Book Trust. I played three times for three different events during the conference, all of them fairly informal. Though I didn’t get a chance to formally present a paper on my research into the medieval Hebridean harp music and instrument tradition, I was pleased to be able to discuss my research and work with a number of interested academics working in this area on the history and archaeology of the castles and society of the medieval Western Isles and the Lordship of the Isles.

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Restringing the Otway harp

I first got hold of one of the HHSI Student Otway harps back in 2007, as part of the very first batch of two, made by David Kortier for the Historical Harp Society of Ireland. I believe there may only have been three made in total – one is in the north of Ireland, one was sold to a private buyer, and I currently have at my house one that was made in 2009.

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Facts, speculation, and making things up

The study of the historical Gaelic harp traditions of Ireland and Scotland is unusual in its scope, materials and foundations. Of course it shares many aspects with other disciplines. As a combination of historical research and performance art, it does not fit easily into mainstream historical or artistic disciplines. In this, it shares a lot with other historically-informed performance (HIP) practice disciplines, such as harpsichord, lute, or baroque violin. However, historical Gaelic harp is different from other HIP areas because of its nature as an oral tradition. Other areas of HIP deal with dead or extinct literate traditions; one can get hold of an 18th century harpsichord instruction manual, and sit at an original or reproduction instrument, and do what the book tells you to. This is not possible for an extinct oral tradition.

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