Nathaniel Gow’s annual ball, 1817

On Friday 20th January, I will be in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, playing as part of a bicentenary concert. Nathaniel Gow introduced Quadrille dances to Edinburgh in 1817, at his annual ball at the Assembly Rooms, and this year Talitha MacKenzie has organised a series of events commemorating this. The main event will be a Regency ball on Saturday 11th March, but there will also be dance workshops and the concert on 20th Jan.

Talitha asked if I would be part of the concert, playing historical clarsach tunes as a kind of intermission between the main act. Aaron McGregor (Baroque violin), Alison McGillivray (Cello), Callum Armstrong (Scottish Smallpipes & Recorder), and Marie Fielding (Violin) will perform as “Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band”.

I agreed at once, but I quickly realised  that 1817 Edinburgh was a “cold spot” in the story of the Gaelic harp. Perhaps a generation earlier we might have expected to find Echlin O’Kane in town; a generation later Patrick Byrne was performing at the Waverley Balls. But I very much doubt that there was any Gaelic harp played at all in 1817 Edinburgh.

Yet we can use these earlier and later examples to imagine, what if there were a clarsach player in town? And they were employed to perform as part of the ball?

The Gaelic harp tradition, long shared between Scotland and Ireland, had split into two by around 1700, and the Scottish side of the tradition was dead by mid-century. But harpers from the thriving and developing Irish harp tradition toured in Scotland, from Thomas Connellan c.1700, Denis O’Hampsey in 1745, Echlin O’Kane in the late 18th century and Patrick Byrne in the 1840s.

It is notable that O’Kane and O’Hampsey both were old-fashioned in their use of the older fingernail playing style. But it’s not plausible to imagine anyone still using this style by 1817 and so I have my nails short just now.

The Queen Mary harp was in Edinburgh in 1805-6, when it was restrung with brass wire strings, but “it did not, however, then occur to us  that these Harpers had a peculiar manner of producing the tone from brass strings by their nails … the manner of producing the vibration of the strings, by the modern performers, is on a different principle altogether, can only be effected on strings made of the intestines of animals.”

So, the harpist Elouis, professor of pedal harp, directed the Queen Mary harp to be restrung with gut, and he performed “a number of different airs” on the Queen Mary harp for “Members of the Society, and other Gentlemen” (quotes from Gunn, Historical Enquiry, Edinburgh 1807). It would be a very fun experiment to take the brass and silver strings off my Queen Mary harp, and fit it with gut, and have it played by a historical pedal harp specialist! But not this month!

But this episode once again highlights that in 1806 Edinburgh there was no awareness at all that anyone would be able to play on a harp with brass wire strings.

The MacLean-Clephane sisters on Mull compiled their big manuscript book of Irish harp music, possibly originating in part from the repertory of Echlin O’Kane, in 1816. They played pedal harp, again underlining the lack of awareness of a living Gaelic harp tradition at that time. I’ll play a tune from their manuscript at the concert.

Tableau Vivant from ‘the Lay of the Last Minstrel’ – Mr Byrne, the Irish Harper. Illustrated London News, 12 April 1845 p.236. Thanks to Édouard de Saint-Ours for showing me this print.

Patrick Byrne came to Edinburgh in around 1845, where he was feted, photographed, and performed at the Waverley Ball. I am really using him as my inspiration for how my fantasy 1817 harper might have presented himself. Playing with finger tips, but left-orientation on a big early Irish harp with brass strings and tuned with na comhluighe (the unison drone strings in the tenor range), my harper has an Irish pedigree perhaps from the Irish Harp Society schools, set up in the early 19th century to preserve the tradition. He plays old “Irish, Scotch & Welch airs” (as Byrne’s 1849 poster advertisement says), in a slightly naïve harmonic style. His music is a little precious, quiet, solo, a little aloof from other music around him.

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