Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Harps

by Helena Heath

From very early times the inhabitants of our islands were skilled in the use of the harp. In Ireland the harp was called Clarsach, and in Wales, Telyn; in both countries it was the national instrument. Perhaps the oldest Irish harp known is that said to have been used by King Brian Boru. The story goes that his son left his native country for Rome, taking with him his father's harp and crown. These he presented to the Pope, hoping to induce him to grant his forgiveness for a murder he had committed. Whether he won forgiveness we do not know; but it is certain that a very old Irish harp remained at the Vatican until the reign of our Henry VIII., when the Pope sent it to England. Finally, after passing through various hands, it attained its rest in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. The instrument is about three feet high, and broad and strongly made, which no doubt accounts for its long existence.

One of the oldest and most beautiful of Scotch harps is known as Queen Mary's harp. The carving is still very fine; in former times it was also adorned with the portrait of the Queen of Scots, and with the arms of Scotland set in gold with jewels; but during the rebellion of 1745 the latter ornaments vanished. The harp is only thirty-one inches high by eighteen inches wide, and was played resting on the left knee of the performer, leaning against the left shoulder; the upper strings were played by the left hand. These harps were strung with brass or steel wire, and plucked with the finger-nails, which were kept long on purpose. Queen Mary took her harp for a tour in the Highlands, and while there gave it to a lady who, by marriage, passed it over to its present owners, the Stewarts of Galguse.

Harp of Brian Boru.
Harp of Mary Queen of Scots.
Harp of Brian Boru.Harp of Mary Queen of Scots.
Silver Prize Harp. Silver Prize Harp.

No amount of repression and misery during the ceaseless rebellions against their English masters seems to have affected the Welsh love for their national instrument. In the year 1568, Queen Elizabeth herself brought her mind to bear upon the matter, and ordered a congress of bards to be held at Caerwys. Here the really good players received degrees and rewards, whilst the indifferent performers were invited to seek some other honest profession; failing this they were liable to be apprehended and punished as rogues and vagabonds. From this meeting the Eistedfodd seems to have arisen, though after awhile Welsh music suffered an eclipse, only reappearing in force during the nineteenth century. The chief prize for many years of the musical contests was a model of a harp in silver, about six inches high, and beautifully executed.

England also had its harpists, and we all remember that King Alfred visited the camp of Guthram and delighted him with his music. Chaucer, in his Prologue to the 'Canterbury Tales,' speaks of one who played a sort of harp so well that when he sang,

'His eyes twinkled in his head aright,
As do the stars upon a frosty night.'