Tag Archives: West Highland

Finlaggan

In 1995 I did not have the internet and I still watched TV! I remember seeing Time Team every weekend, was it Sunday early evenings? I was studying for my archaeology degree at that time, and the antics of the TV archaeologists was always an entertaining subject of discussion with my classmates. We had been out for week-long stints at Wroxeter and Bridgnorth and so had plenty of first-hand experience of what archaeology was like without film crews and national TV budgets…

I clearly remember the episode where the team visited Finlaggan, the medieval palace and administrative centre of the Lords of the Isles. I didn’t record it I don’t think, so I only saw it once live as it was broadcase, but I do clearly remember them showing a harp tuning pin from the excavations, and Alison Kinnaird playing her beautiful early clàrsach on site. I also remember the reproduction aketon that they made. I was actually inspired to make one myself – a very interesting exercise involving a lot of linen fabric and raw wool fleece!

I also recall sending off by post for the printed series brochure, which had a disappointingly small amount of background info on the programme. I don’t have this any more.

Anyway I suddenly thought, it must be possible to find info online about it, and sure enough there it is on Channel 4’s website. I haven’t watched the video yet but I listened to the audio and it brought back some memories!

Alison’s harp playing did make an impression on me; this was after I had got my first harp but before I had started seriously studying the playing technique and repertory. Listening again I recognised the English masque tune of the Battle of Harlaw.

I also found and downloaded the interim pre-publication versions of David Caldwell’s report on the NMS excavations at Finlaggan, from the NLS Repository.

All grist to the mill… one of my current projects is “music of the Lords of the Isles” (Ceol Rì Innse Gall perhaps?). Can I find / create enough medieval harp music to fill a programme of music that would have been heard played on the Queen Mary harp in the Great Hall at Finlaggan?

The Guthrie Bell Shrine

I was in the NMS yesterday and amongst other things I looked at the shrine of the Guthrie bell. This is a medieval silver confection which encases an early medieval iron bell – no-one seems to know which early saint the bell belonged to, but the silver decoration was made and applied in the West Highlands in mid-late medieval times.

My photo shows a late 15th or early 16th century figure of a West Highland bishop, and beside him some embossed silver panels of decoration which are a good match of the forepillar vines on the Queen Mary harp. The inscription is upside down and says “Iohannes Alexan/dri me fieri fecit”. I am not sure who John mac Alex was, though these are common manes amongst the Lords of the Isles who are likely patrons for the remodelling of the shrine in the late 15th century.

Tarbh

My new CD released today features five solo harp tracks of late 17th or early 18th century music attributed to a great local hero of the West of Scotland – Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig. These grand formal tunes come from the pibroch tradition of the pipes, and also from early fiddle and vocal sources, and I have turned them into dreamy, beautiful clarsach meditations. Each tune has a very different atmosphere, and the CD booklet includes five full-page illustrations made by Ealasaid Gilfillan especially for this project. These unique and intense montage images really give you a sense of the meaning of each tune.

For more info, please visit www.earlygaelicharp.info/tarbh

As a companion to the CD I have also made a set of web pages all about Raghnall Mac Ailein Òig – Ronald MacDonald of Morar, said to have lived 1662-1741. The pages include all the references I used as sources for the CD and also include links to a number of fascinating songs and stories on archive audio recordings at Tobar an Dualchais – the online portal for the tape recordings preserved in the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.
www.earlygaelicharp.info/ranald

Ian MacKenzie Memorial Calendar

Lovers of the West Highland photography of the late Ian MacKenzie will be pleased to know that the 2013 calendar is now available. Details from www.sonasmultimedia.com or phone 0131 446 0723 to order a copy.

 Iain worked as photographer for the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. If you haven’t already seen the student campaign to “save the School” then check out the campaign website http://scottishstudiescampaign.wordpress.com/ and read some background info at http://www.traditionalmusicforum.org/category/blog/

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 

Lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achaidh

AOC Archaeology have released a laser scan rendering of the lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave) on Skye. I had already been very interested in this fragment of a musical instrument from the iron age (the original interim report suggests a date of 450 to 550 BC).

Using the rendering, and scaling from the photo in the interim report, I have made a copy or reconstruction of the bridge. As you can see from the photos, the excavated bridge is burnt and broken, with perhaps 1/4 missing from one end. It seems clear to me that the four triangular spikes along the top edge are complete – the gap between the second and third is centered over the carved arch on the underside of the bridge. I confirmed this by cutting out profile views and trying different alignments. This suggests to me that the bridge was for an instrument with three or five strings.

For my bridge I used a piece of sycamore or maple which I had to hand. I made it entirely with hand tools (knives), and finished it by scraping and then sealed the surface with beeswax. Because it is hand carved from a slightly curious piece of wood with some tight flame in the grain, and also because I was only working from the laser scan screenshots not from proper dimensioned plans, it is not an exact replica, but I tried to get it fairly close.

As you can see it works just perfectly. The lyre has six strings, so I just ran the last two together and this does not seem to be a problem. The strings are further apart at the bridge than on other lyres I have seen. The backwards slant of the bridge is curious – unless I am misunderstanding the laser scan, I wonder if it is designed for a much sharper break angle than I am using?

I’ll be playing this lyre at my cathedral concert in the ruins of St Andrews cathedral on Tuesday 5th June at 12.45pm. The music will however be medieval, not iron age!

Concerts on the West Coast

At the end of this week I am performing a couple of concerts in the West Highlands, presenting my new programme of Old Gaelic Laments as premiered (in slightly trimmed form) in Dundee yesterday.

On Thursday night, I will be at Dunollie, just outside of Oban. The seat of Clan MacDougall, Dunollie has been the scene of recent restoration and my event is to be an exclusive evening in the 1745 house. Fore more info about the house and the recent restoriation work there, please see www.dunollie.org

On Friday I’ll be further north, in Acharacle on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Highlands and I’ll be performing in the community hall.

Both events start at 7.30pm. Full details are on my forthcoming events page.

Dundee Wighton concert

On Saturday, October 22nd, the Friends of Wighton’s monthly cappuccino concert will be performed by historical harp specialist, Simon Chadwick.

In the bright and atmospheric surrounds of Dundee Central Library’s Wighton Heritage Centre, the event starts at 10.30am with complimentary coffee and newspapers. Then from 11 to 12 Simon will perform a selection of rare and beautiful old harp tunes, using a very special replica of the famous medieval Scottish Queen Mary harp.

Simon is the regular tutor of the Friends of Wighton harp class, held every Saturday afternoon in the Wighton Centre. He has done a large amount of research with the collection of old Scottish music books housed in the centre, and his music brings back to life Scottish music from centuries past.

The Wighton Collection of Scottish music books was brought together by collector Andrew Wighton, a Dundee merchant, in the early 19th century. After his death, it was given to the city and is now housed in display cabinets in the specially built study and performance centre at the top of the Wellgate library.

Saturday 22nd October, 10.30 for 11 am
Friends of Wighton Cappuccino Concert
Old Gaelic Laments
in the Wighton Centre, Dundee Central Library, DD1 1DB
Admission £5
Followed at 2.00pm by Simon’s regular harp class. All welcome, admission £5 (£2.50 under 25s)

More details:
07792 336804
http://www.friendsofwighton.com

Old Gaelic Laments: concerts in October

Historical harp specialist Simon Chadwick is performing a series of concerts of old Gaelic laments around Scotland in October.

Performed on a unique and beautiful decorated replica of a medieval West Highland clarsach, the concerts will uncover unusual and little known treasures of old Scottish music.

The concerts focus on laments, composed by the old Gaelic harpers to commemorate famous people or to express sorrow and longing. From grand, formal memorial pieces for bishops and noblemen, to complex and subtle bagpipe-style variation sets, to personal expressions of loss, the music ranges across the emotions including anger, grief and love.

The clarsach used for Simon’s concerts is an important art object in its own right. Commissioned in 2006, it is the most accurate and detailed replica yet made, of the “Queen Mary harp”, a medieval West Highland clarsach now considered a national treasure and preserved and displayed in Edinburgh in the National Museum of Scotland. The replica harp copies every last detail of the medieval original, including the fantastically intricate designs of mythical beasts, interlace and plants, which are carved, inked and painted onto the wooden parts of the harp.

Simon Chadwick is based in the medieval university town of St Andrews, and specialises in the medieval and Renaissance harp music of Scotland and Ireland. His music is based on years of studying the old music, techniques and idioms preserved in old books and manuscripts.

As well as performing concerts with the replica harp, Simon teaches regular classes in Dundee and Edinburgh, and is Assistant Director of the main international summer school for historical Gaelic harp music, held every August in Kilkenny, Ireland. Previous concerts presented by Simon include gallery recitals in the National Museum of Scotland beside the original Queen Mary harp and a regular series of medieval concerts for Historic Scotland, in the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral and Arbroath Abbey.

Simon has written two method books for historical harp music, and has also released a CD featuring the Queen Mary harp and music connected to it, “Clarsach na Banrighe”. He is currently working on his next CD which is focussed on the old Gaelic laments.

For more information including photos, bio, and sample tracks, please visit http://www.simonchadwick.net/

Saturday 22nd October, 10.30am – Wighton Centre, Dundee
Thursday 27th October, 7.30pm – Dunollie Castle, near Oban
Friday 28th October, 7.30pm – Shielbridge Hall, Acharacle