Horsehair string on a fairy fiddle

Jeemsie Laurenson describes the music played by the Picts at a mill on Fetlar:

And they said, “well, we’ll play a bit tune”. They had a string instrument that they call a porsh. They didn’t call it the fiddle you know, but they could play a tune on a string, a horse hair you know.

I assume the “porsh” is the French word “pochette” for a mini fiddle, rather than the Gaelic word “port” for a tune. The horse hair may be following the idea of the fairies playing on a tiny instrument with a single hair for a string, or it may be a memory of horsehair strings used on the gue. Jeemsie was very interested in the Picts (i.e. the trows or fairies).

Listen at Tobar an Dualchais: this excerpt is from 2:42 to 3:10

Eskimo violin recording

I got hold of a recording of Tautirut (“eskimo violin”) playing. Not the recording from the 1950s I was after, but a 50 second track recorded in the early 1970s in Ungava Bay in the far north of Quebec. The player is an Inuit musician, Sarah Airo, and she also plays a bit on Jew’s harp, a fragment of a tune that reminds me very much of a Norwegian hardanger fiddle tune I have heard.

But it was the bowed strings I was really wanting to hear. Sarah’s instrument has a startlingly hoarse low-pitched sound. It sounds to me like she has three strings tuned c#, a, c#’. She is play a very formulaic melody, mostly alternating rythmically between c#’
and f#’. She is using some fast finger ornaments and some fast bowing ornaments to lift the repetitive two-note melodic figure. In the second section she also seems to be playing a passing note (c natural or I suppose b#’ it should be. I fancy she might be fingering this note on the second string but it is hard to say.

Sarah does not really bow the strings together as a continuous drone, but she is definitely using the lower strings as strong steady drone notes. I have a feeling that some of the Karelian jouhikko players use this alternation between the fragments of melody and the drone, as an alternative to the more common technique of playing the melody continuously with the drone(s) also sounding continuously. Sarah’s drones are interesting being a sixth apart; my ear is hearing the high melodic f# as a kind of modal centre, giving the melody a minor sonority.

The recording is track 21b on the 1986 LP, Inuit Games and Songs, UNESCO Collection / GREM LP G1036

Now I am even more interested to get the 1950s recording for comparison!

Books at the Wighton Centre

Yesterday I was at the Wighton Centre in Dundee, helping organise the 10th anniversary events. I was in charge of displaying some of the books from the main Wighton Collection as well as new acquisitions from the Jimmy Shand Collection and the Alice Palmer Collection.

After the concert and the presentation some of my students joined in the informal music making.

Grant of Sheuglie’s Contest betwixt his Violin, Pipe and Harp

I was contacted recently by a descendent of Alexander Grant of Shewglie, the early 18th century poet, piper, harper and fiddler. Alex Grant was a very interesting character, heavily involved in the Jacobite risings. He is said to have been a good poet or songwriter, but as far as I can see none of his poems survive. We know some details about two of them, but we dont have the text of either.

Grant composed a song in welcome to Charles Edward Stewart; it begins

Do bheatha Thearlaich Stiubhart,
Do bheatha do ar duthaich

which means basically, “welcome, Charles Stuart, welcome to our place”. Keith Sanger  (West Highland Notes & Queries 20, March 1983) suggests it may be in a manuscript belonging the National Library of Scotland (no. 6 of the MacNicol collection, MS Acc2152), but this manuscript appears to be missing from the library.

Grant also composed a song, a “contest betwixt his Violin, Pipe and Harp”. The tune of this, and also an English paraphrase of the words, was published in Simon Fraser’s book in 1816. We are told that the fiddle is addressed as “Mairi nighean Dheorsa” (Mary the daughter of George), and this seems to have been also a title of the tune.

I think the tune is an older traditional song air; Allan MacDonald in his Thesis connects it to the pipe “March for a Beginner” in Joseph MacDonald’s Complete Theory. Perhaps more intriguingly, the tune is said to have been used for other songs in the 18th century, a poem by Ardnabi in praise of a fiddle, Mairi nighean Dheorsa, and another famous poem in praise of MacCrimmon’s bagpipes. What is the connection between this tune and the name Mairi nighean Dheorsa given to a fiddle? The later Ardnabi poem not only uses the name for the fiddle but also says that the air to be used when singing the poem is “Mairi nighean Dheorsa”. Did both Ardnabi and Grant pick up an older tune called Mairi nighean Dheorsa and use it to praise their fiddles, or did Grant pick up an older generic song air and attach it to the Mairi nighean Dheorsa name and theme?

Here’s my version of it. I decided to pick up on the themes of Fraser’s paraphrase of Grant’s song, so the first and fourth of my verses are fairly straight from Fraser’s fiddle score; for verses two and three I have improvised a pipe-style and a harp-style interpretation of the melody.

It’s also interesting to think that Alexander Grant, of Shewglie in Glen Urquhart, was a contemporary of Raghnall Mac Ailein Óig, of Morar; both are said to have played pipes, fiddle and clarsach.


Almost! One of my very slow long term projects is to learn to recycle broken silver harp strings. I have long been drawing wire, and today I took a first step at the other end of the process – melting a bundle of broken wires down into an ingot.

I would count this as an “interesting experiment” so far. I’ll need to do a few more melts before I have an ingot good enough to forge down into a rod ready to draw into wire.

Eskimo violin

For my concert last month in the Wighton Centre, Dundee, I tried to find tunes from as many different countries as I could. I was particularly keen to get an Inuit tune, because of the bowed zither traditions from Baffin Island and Northern Labrador.

I read up as much as I could about the various different traditions, and I have updated my Jouhikko web pages to include information on these different traditions. I also made a map to try and show how the different regional traditions of “bowed-harp” playing relate to each other:

The different numbered groups are my attempt to divide the different traditions. Group 1 is the bowed zithers of Canada and Iceland. Group 2 is the narrow-handhole bowed lyres from Northern Scandinavia. Group 3 is the wide-handhole bowed lyres from Southern Scandinavia, and group 4 is the fingerboard bowed lyres from Britain (though there are Continental examples of this type as well)

In the middle I have put Shetland, because no-one really knows what the form of the Shetland gue was. I like to think of it as being part of group 2, but some scholars have argued quite strongly that it should be in group 1.

I managed to get hold of the article by E. Y. Arima and M. Einarsson, Whence and Where the Eskimo Fiddle? published in the journal “Folk”, vol 18 1976. This has some very useful information about the Inuit bowed zithers including photos of a number of museum examples and alsoa  photo of a soapstone carving of one being played. However it is not really clear to me exactly how these instruments were played and fingered.

The article also refers to an archive recording from the 1950s, after the tradition had died out and come to an end, when an Inuit person from Northern Labrador made a couple of instruments and played them. I am currently in negotiations to try and get hold of a copy of this recording to listen to it.

Early Irish Music: An overview of the linguistic and documentary evidence

Professor Fergus Kelly will present the 2013 Statutory Public Lecture of the School of Celtic Studies on Friday 15th November at 8pm, Thomas Davis Theatre, Arts Building, Trinity College Dublin.

What do the early Irish texts tell us about the history of music in this country? The main emphasis in this lecture will be on the period between the coming of Christianity in the 5th century and the Anglo-Norman invasion in the late 12th century. Topics to be discussed include the identification of the stringed instruments crot and timpán, the use of wind-instruments in military contexts, the development of bag-pipes, the functions of percussion instruments, and the various styles of singing mentioned in the texts. There will also be an account of the evidence for dancing in early Christian Ireland.

The lecture will conclude with a summary of the role of music in early Irish society, and a discussion of the Church’s attitude towards different types of music, as well as an account of the frequent association between music and the supernatural in early Irish literature.

Admission is free and open to the public; there is no need to register.

Part of Tionól 2013. Thanks to Maura Uí Croínín for passing this on.