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.
In Karen Loomis’s PhD thesis (volume 3, p.379-380) she prints two photographs of a shim from tuning pin hole no.23 on the Queen Mary harp. One shows the shim extracted; it is made from a split section of a feather quill.
On my replica, pins 29 and 30 have needed shimming for some years now. I had originally tried paper, and subsequently sheet brass, but I was inspired by this discovery, to pull the pins and try quill shims.
I am preparing for Wednesday’s concert here in St Andrews. I am going to play a programme of “Ceòl Rígh Innse Gall”, my speculative re-imaginings of medieval West-Highland ceremonial music. This project is still very much a work-in-progress, and I am still thinking hard about how this music should work, and what sources of inspiration and musical material to raid.
In discussion with Siobhán Armstrong the other day, she challenged me to set out my ideas on how we can use modes to categorise or understand the old Gaelic harp music. Here is the scheme that I think I have been gradually bringing together for a while.
I was interested to hear Allan’s comments on ‘cronan’, and reflected on its use in the harp tradition to describe the string an octave below na comhluighe. I was pleased to hear Barnaby picking up on its relationship with the bass drone of the bagpipe.
I have acquired an interesting old tuning pin. This is an early Irish harp tuning pin, probably dating from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. I bought it from an Irish antiquities and coin dealer, who told me it was found in Co. Monaghan.
I’m very interested to consider this in the context of the surviving old harps, and to think about how most of us nowadays use modern pins, and how the differences have implications for the use and tuning of the harp.
I was pleased when I finally tracked it down, to find that the person holding the instrument is Aonghus, son of Boann and the Dagda, who lived in Newgrange, at Brú na Bóinne. This is the same Aonghus an Bhroga referred to in the praise poem to Aonghas Òig, Rì Innse Gall, which I was working on last year.
I find myself, before a Scottish audience, in a position of phonetic ambiguity. Do I say Kelt and Keltic, or Selt and Seltic? As an Englishman, I use the former pronounciation from habit, though aware that Scottish usage favours the soft ‘c’, as does the O.E.D., giving ‘Keltic’ only as a secondary alternative.
from Stuart Piggot, Celts, Saxons and the Early Antiquarians, The O’Donnell Lecture 1966, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, p.4