Category Archives: Uncategorised

Medieval Scottish sword

I have a new sword, which I acquired secondhand. It was made in Czechoslovakia by Nielo – there seems to be a number of very good bladesmith craftsmen in Eastern Europe. It is nicely made and seems a quality piece of work. Though it is over 10 years since I last did any historical fencing this seems a very good sword.

I have been looking for a long time for a sword of this type. The drooping quillons with broad ends are the really distinctive thing here and these differentiate this “Scottish style”, and they are what develop to give the classic “claymore” or “twa-handit sword” of the 15th to 17th century.

The West Highland grave slabs, such as the ones at Keills, show similar swords but with viking style lobed pommels. Was there a real difference between the designs of the West and the East in the 14th and 15th century? Or were the late medieval West coast stone carvers deliberately showing an archaic design? I don’t think there are any extant examples of the lobed-pommel type whereas there are a number of this wheel-pommel type surviving. Here is an excellent example in Kelvingrove museum, Glasgow.

I could have done with this in 2011, when I ran my Battle of Harlaw music workshops. We spent part of one of the sessions looking at the effigy of Gilbert de Greenlaw, and discussing his arms and armour. He is carrying exactly this kind of sword – again in an East coast context. We also looked at some of the West highland effigies.

The sword does not have a scabbard, so making one is my next project. I need to look at more of the effigies and stone slabs to get a better idea of how they work.

Eskimo violin / Inuit fiddle / Tautirut

I have finally acquired a copy of archive recording of tautirut playing from 1958 held by the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.

Tautirut is the Inuit word for the bowed harp or box zither played in the area around northern Quebec and southern Baffin Island. It has strong connections to other bowed-harp traditions in Scandinavia and further afield. For more on the wider bowed-harp and bowed-lyre traditions I have made a bowed-harp web page.

The collector Asen Balikci was visiting Povungnituk in Quebec in 1958, and he seems to have commissioned the people there to make a couple of “reconstructions” of the tautirut. I assume the “reconstructions” were necessary because the tradition was moribund there by that date.

Cariola, then 38 years old, played tunes on the newly made instruments. Balikci recorded her playing and took the instruments and the tape recordings back to the Museum.

The instruments are similar to each other; each has three sinew strings. The bow is strung with a willow root. They have only one bridge, so the strings must be fingered where they come off the soundboard, not into the air as on the Icelandic Fiðla and earlier Tautirut.

Here are the catalogue entries for the two instruments:
IV-B-648 made by Peterussie
IV-B-649 made by Krenoourak

Krenoourak’s instrument looks better; it is longer (though still not as long and slender in shape as the late 19th and early 20th century instruments), and it includes two little bits of wood which are now separate but which I presume are connected to tuning the instrument. These things have no tuning pegs; the strings are just attached to the ends, or in Krenoourak’s case, to leather straps attached to the end. Peterussie’s instrument is extremely short and fat, but it does have an ivory nut at each end where the strings pass over the ends.

Here is the museum catalogue entry for the sound recording:
Control no. IV-B-46T 

Cariola’s playing is very interesting, fast and obviously improvised. She uses different tunings; in the earlier tracks she has the instrument tuned with the drone a 4th below the melody note; in later tracks the drone is dropped to an octave below the melody note. I am particularly interested in the track that sounds like a trumpet fanfare, with the melody on 1st, 3rd, half-sharp 4th and 5th of the scale, with the octave bass drone. Her intonation drifts; sometimes it is clean and deliberate, while at other times it is rather wayward.

Her instrument is tuned higher than Sarah Airo’s (see my earlier post) but the general style of playing and the sound is similar. Cariola seems to use the drone more sparingly, touching it at the same time as playing the stressed melody notes, whereas Sarah is more often alternating between the melody and drone strings so the drone becomes a rythmic part of the tune. I wonder about this being a woman’s music, and about the style – it does seem to be connected to other bowed-harp styles from Scandinavia. And the players were 200 miles apart – though perhaps that is not very far in Northern Quebec.

Now to listen and learn some of the motifs and playing techniques!

Edinburgh Harp Festival

I  am at the Edinburgh Harp Festival at the moment, running the Emporium stand. We have a great position in the Robertson Building – it is spacious, light and quite peaceful.

This is a portrait of harpmaker Tim Hampson, with the replica Erard single-action pedal harp that he made – one of the best harps at the harp festival each year in my opinion.

This is a photo (taken by Karen Loomis) of me playing a very interesting harp that was at the Telynau Vining stand. It is a Welsh triple harp made by the Llandudno maker Hennesy Hughes (I think) in the late 19th century. I was very keen to play this harp as it is set up for left-orientation player (right hand bass, left hand treble), with the bass singling out to the right side.  It was really a delight to try this harp – I usually have great troubles playing triple harps as they are almost always set up for right hand treble, left hand bass playing.

 

More info about this harp from Camac.

Mendelssohn on Welsh music

Ein Harfenist sitzt auf dem Flur jedes Wirthshauses von Ruf und spielt in einem fort sogenannte Volksmelodieen, d. h. infames, gemeines, falsches Zeug, zu gleicher Zeit dudelt eben ein Leierkasten auch melodieen ab … von kreischenden Nasenstimmen gegröhlt, begleitet von tölpelhaften Stümperfingern…

Letter from Mendelssohn’s tour of Scotland and Wales, 25 August 1829, cited in Gelbart, The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”, Cambridge 2007 p248. A nice snapshot of harp and crwth playing together.

Maol Donn

At the moment I am working on Maol Donn. This lovely pibroch is often given the romantic English title “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart”. Its original title means brown or tawny hummock, or rounded thing, perhaps referring to the bald hornless forehead of the cow that was lost in the bog, which some stories say is the origin of the tune. I like the story of Ranald MacDonald of Morar composing this tune to a smooth brown seashell he found on the beach.

There are a number of recordings available of this tune played on the pipes. The oldest is played by John MacDonald of Inverness in 1926:
http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/musicfiles/mp3s/jmcd-mcswthrt.mp3
from Ross’s Music Page

My favourite is played by Calum Johnston in 1955:
http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/53368/1 

Here’s the traditional song that goes with it, sung by Kate MacDonald in 1970:
http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/92097/1 

Daniel Tokar and The Willow Forge

Daniel Tokar is well known in the historical Gaelic harp world, as a superb artist and craftsman who has made some of the best quality metal harp fittings I have ever seen. Daniel made the silver studs on my Queen Mary harp replica. He also has done a lot of work on making historical metal wire harp strings, the results of which are written up in his book Dialogue on Historical Wire for Gaelic Harps (with Ann Heymann).

2 weeks ago Daniel’s workshop was burned down and his tools and materials were seriously damaged. This is a bad time for him – of course before Christmas he was working hard on many orders. Now he has to spend a few months rebuilding the workshop instead of pressing ahead with his work.

Photo on the right from The Journal.

Daniel’s website is  http://www.willowforge.com/ – there are contact details there if you can help him in any way.

Medieval art & the Queen Mary harp

I have been thinking for some years about the decoration on the Queen Mary harp, ever since medieval academics at the 2008 Leeds International Medieval Congress suggested that while the pillar is clearly 15th century West Highland, the box and neck look earlier.

Today I was down at the cathedral here in St Andrews and I took some photos of 12th century designs on the Cathedral stonework, to compare with the designs on the harp.

Left & right: replica Queen Mary harp soundbox designs; Centre: Outside of chancel end wall at St Andrews cathedral. (I understand this is a consecration cross. There is another, damaged, on the end wall of the south transept).

Above: arcade inside the South transept at St Andrews cathedral. Below: replica Queen Mary harp neck design.