Bands, collaborations and sharing platforms

One question I’m often asked is whether I play with an orchestra, or, if the questioner is more aware of music scenes and genres, if I play with a group or band. I find it interesting that there seems a lot of subtle expectation or even social pressure on musicians to join forces, the modern symphony orchestra with choir I suppose being the ultimate manifestation of this. In classical music, performers are rarely truly solo – pianists and organists being the only ones to regularly perform unaccompanied.

In Scottish and Irish music I see it a lot as well, though to a lesser extent – groups are rarely more than 4 or 5 strong, much smaller than a symphony orchestra. But it’s fairly uncommon to find recordings or professional performances of unaccompanied singers or fiddle players. I think the more high profile and professional the gig, the more expectation there is of having other people performing at the same time.

Harp string labels

Recently I wrote a new page on, about possible inscriptions on the Queen Mary harp. As part of this I reviewed my photographs of the labels glued on the harp labelling some of the strings, and then I had the idea of photoshopping and cleaning up the photos, scaling them, printing them out and glueing them onto my replica in the appropriate positions.

For those of you with a Queen Mary replica who want to join in the fun, here is the image I ended up with. Print it out at 486dpi onto good old fashioned white or off-white laid paper, cut out along the black edges, and stick on using flour and water paste. The numbers go on the right hand side* of the string band (so they are visible for a left orientation player), and they are upside-down when the harp is in playing position, so the player can read the letters. They go in order, counting from the treble: 1 [illegible], 8 [c], 9 [b], 11 [G], 15 [C], 22 [C].

Any problems or questions let me know! If you send in a photo of your harp with the labels stuck on, I will feature it here!

*Right and left hand side of the harp are described as from the viewpoint of the player, not of an onlooker

Ian MacKenzie Memorial Concert

On Saturday 12th December I’ll be in Edinburgh for the first Ian MacKenzie Memorial Concert. I was honoured to be asked to play at Ian’s funeral in Kintail almost a year ago. The concert looks to have a very interesting lineup and should be worth attending, not least for the promised homebaking and the exhibition of Ian’s super photographs.

The concert is at 7.15 pm, at the Columcille Centre, Edinburgh, 2 Newbattle Terrace, Morningside, Edinburgh EH10 4RT

Full details on


Yesterday I was listening to In Our Time and they were discussing unicorns. The discussion of how unicorns were depicted in medieval art was very interesting and made me think of the unicorn on the forepillar of the Queen Mary harp, carved perhaps in South Argyll, Scotland, in the 15th century. That one is slightly unusual in that it has a short, thick, snout-mounted horn rather than the usual long twisted forehead-mounted one, but most strange of all is that it is stuffing a fish into the mouth of a Lindworm (wingless bipedal dragon). It is also not clear what the projection above its eye might be – a forelock or mane, or an eyebrow, or a rudimentary second horn?

The illustration here shows the Queen Mary harp unicorn as copied by David Patton on my replica of the harp.

Music of Patrick Byrne, ‘The Last Irish Harper’

An event of interest coming up at James J. Hill House, 240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102 USA:

Music of Patrick Byrne, ‘The Last Irish Harper’

Date: Nov. 20, 2010
Time: 7 p.m.

The bright, ringing sound of metal strings distinguish the ancient Irish harp from its other string relatives. Using historical techniques on a period replica, Ann and Charlie Heymann will perform the repertoire of Patrick Byrne — an Irish harper whose death in the mid-19th century brought a thousand-year-old tradition to a close. Byrne’s younger brother, Christopher, emigrated and settled in Faribault; Liam O’Neill of “Irish On Grand” will narrate and read excerpts of a letter between the brothers. Participants can meet the performers at a post-concert reception. Tours of the Hill House will also be available. Reservations recommended.

Video lessons

The latest Wire Branch Newsletter has an article about video lessons, with me as one of the four teachers interviewed. It’s a very interesting article, by Sam Tyler, which has some useful things to say about learning the harp through one-to-one lessons over the Skype videoconferencing system. Sam describes in turn the four tutors she interviewed, with comments and quotes about their very different approaches and working methods.

For more info please visit my Video Lessons page.

For November only: I am offering FREE trial video lessons! Just mention “Wire Branch” in your enquiry to

The same issue also has a great article by Karen Loomis about her recent work on the Lamont and Queen Mary harps, illustrated with two 3-D X-ray reconstruction images, one of each harp.

Provand’s Lordship concert in Glasgow

On Sunday, 12th September, at 2pm, Provand’s Lordship in Glasgow will host a concert of medieval and Renaissance Scottish harp music.

The concert is a unique opportunity to discover the music of the old Highland castles and great houses from hundreds of years ago. The early Gaelic harp, with metal wire strings sounded using long fingernails, was an important part of Scottish music and culture for centuries, until it died out in the 18th century.

Provand’s Lordship is Glasgow’s oldest house, built in 1471, one of only four medieval buildings to survive in the city. This is just the kind of domestic setting in which this music would have originally been heard hundreds of years ago. The house is now displayed as a museum, with period interiors and a medieval garden.

The recital will be performed by historical harp specialist, Simon Chadwick, using a beautiful replica of the medieval clarsach of Mary, Queen of Scots. The 500-year-old original, preserved in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, is too rare and fragile to string and play, so Simon commissioned his replica from a sculptor in Ireland. Decorated with woodburning, carving and paint, and strung with wires of brass, silver and gold, the replica harp is a stunning medieval art object.

The programme will feature historical Scottish harp music, brought back to life from books and manuscripts. As well as stirring battle marches, and salutes for the great Highland families, Simon’s speciality is the grand Gaelic laments, which would be composed by a harper on the death of his patron.

Simon has been studying the old Scottish and Irish harp traditions for over 10 years, and bases his work on the oldest sources of music and playing techniques, preserved in manuscripts and antique printed books. He teaches his discoveries to students in St Andrews, Dundee, and Edinburgh, as well as further afield using the internet. He has just returned from Ireland where last month he helped run the annual summer school for early Gaelic harp, and he has also just this week completed his fourth season of performances in the Cathedral ruins in St Andrews. His CD, “Clàrsach na Bànrighe”, features Scottish music from the 13th to the 18th century, performed on the replica Queen Mary harp.

Event details:
Sunday, 12th September
Concert starts 2pm, and runs for 30-40 mins
Admission free
Provand’s Lordship, 3 Castle Street, Glasgow G4 0RB

thoughts from behind the harp