Making silver harp strings

I have been making silver harp strings for five years. I buy in stock silver wire and draw it down to the size required, which makes it hard as well as thin.

Today I managed to take wire-making to a whole new level. I took 5 years worth of filings and silver dust, and melted them down into a little ingot which I forged into a rod, and drew down into wire. Starting with a pile of dust I finished with a piece of 0.48mm silver wire, about 32cm long.

Unfortunately there was a flaw in the wire exactly half way along, and of course it snapped there almost as soon as I started threading it into the harp.

Using a thin metal toggle I had just enough to put one half onto the highest string of my Queen Mary harp replica. It came right up to pitch and sounds great.  Here it is, wound round one of the new iron split tuning pins:

I stopped annealing it at about 2mm diameter so I rekon on this being about 75% reduction – or “extra hard”. It was pretty brittle trying to wind the toggle, which I presume is from the minute flaws and inclusions from my casting, compared to the very pure metal that is produced by the big industrial producers we usually source wire from.

Now I need to repeat the process with more scrap, trying to produce a longer and thicker finished wire…

Ceol Rìgh Innse Gall – Music for the Lords of the Isles

Ceol Rìgh Innse Gall
An evening of medieval music for the Clan Donald Lords of the Isles
Gillebrìde MacMillan – Gaelic song & poetry
Simon Chadwick – medieval Gaelic harp
Clan Donald Centre, Armadale, Isle of Skye
Wednesday, 25 June 2014.
Bannockburn 700 – Homecoming 2014 – High Council of Clan Donald Tour 2014
Museum of the Isles, next to the replica of the medieval Iona graveslab of Angus Og
“Salute to Angus Og MacDonald and his monument”
Stables restaurant
8.30 – 9.30pm
Stables restaurant
“There IS Joy with Clan Donald”.
Admission £20 covers both concerts and buffet. All welcome.

Standard Variations in Pibroch

We have democracy in Dundee! As a break from the hardcore work on gestures we have been doing recently, I had prepared handouts for a new tune that I was planning to give my harp class this afternoon.

However at the beginning of the class, some of them who had been here last week were chatting to those who had missed it, about the pibroch figures we had been looking at. So in the interests of fairness I put it to a democratic vote, new tune or more slogging though the complex ornaments? No-one voted for the tune, and with one or two abstentions everyone else from the youngest to the oldest wanted the standard variations! I was very impressed at their ambition and dedication to this difficult music!

So we returned to the standard variations class handout, and worked through crunluath, crunluath a-mach and crunluath fosgailte; we scrutinised the pipe notation and sang the cannteraichd, before discussing strategies for translating this onto the harp. I was pleased to see everyone managing by the end to play though an octave scale for each one.

Next week I think we’ll leave the pibroch for a bit and try the new song air.

Glistening black horsehair strings

In the world of early harps there is quite a bit of interest in “the medieval harp” as can be seen in early medieval miniature paintings in psalter manuscripts.

These images are part of a wide tradition of showing David seated with a stringed instrument. An interesting paper by Helen Roe (“The David Cycle”, JRSAI 79, 1949) points out the long visual heritage of this image as a symbol, from orpheus playing the lyre whilst seated on a leopard – the lyre gradually changes into a harp while the leopard morphs into the chair. This kind of long-standing symbol tradition should instantly caution us that we are not looking at photo-realistic depictions of the everyday world, much less technical blueprints showing the physical structure of real-world objects!

More specifically, the versions showing David’s instrument as a triangular frame harp with a straight neck are fairly specific to the British Isles in the 10th and 11th century, from the “Pictish” stone carvings in the East of Scotland to the late Anglo-Saxon manuscript paintings. After the 12th century the necks of the harps drawn in these images start to bend downwards to give us the normal “romanesque harp” shape of high medieval art, similar in broad outline to the surviving medieval Gaelic harps.

Supposing that the straight-necked triangular frame harp of the Pictish stones and the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts does actually represent a type of real-world musical instrument, back in 2000-2001 I made a little harp with 12 strings, based on the painting of King David with his musicians in the 11th century Winchcombe Psalter.

There are many serious organological problems with this kind of approach, not least that it is necessary to basically design a new musical instrument based on modern design and construction principles, using the old depiction merely as a guide to outline and proportion. The harp in the Winchcombe Psalter seems fairly large compared to David, though the proportions of the scene generally are not too life-like, and yet it has only 12 strings. In 2000 I saw three possible solutions – make it big with 12 strings, make it big with perhaps 21 strings, make it small with 12 strings. In the end I chose the last of those options. I’m not sure that was the best idea but on the other hand I’m not sure there is a satisfactory solution to dealing with this type of work. When you make any decision like that you close off possibilities and drive the interpretation in one specific direction which may be accidentally correct but is more likely to be innocently wrong.

Anyway I fitted thick rope-twisted white horsehair strings on the harp – you can see and hear it in this state on its original web page. The strings never really sounded good, and I really stopped using the harp. For a while it was on loan to a re-enactor in England, (who managed to lose the bag with a beautiful tablet-woven strap on it), and I didn’t have it here when I was experimenting with horsehair string making for Project Telyn Rawn.

I got it back a few years ago and it sat neglected on the shelf. So today I pulled it down and used what I learned from making black horsehair strings for the jouhikko and the Trossingen lyre, to fit new black horsehair strings to this little harp.

I’m still not really convinced of this as a viable solution to the musical instruments used in early medieval Britain but at least it is working now, and sounds nicer than it ever has before.

Now to work up some suitable early medieval style improvisation with it!

In the Cave of the Picts

Yesterday I packaged up a menagerie of instruments and rode on the train all the way to Elgin, and then out to the coast and down a pretty extreme scramble down the cliff and along over the rocks to the Sculptor’s Cave, on the shore of the Moray Firth. I had been asked to play music in the caves for recording by the European Music Archaeology Project.

One of the caves contains Pictish designs carved on the walls, so I prepared some early medieval repertory and as well as the Queen Mary harp, I took with me the two lyres – the replica Trossingen lyre with horsehair strings, and the early Irish lyre with iron, latten and silver strings and with the Iron Age lyre bridge from Uamh an Ard Achaidh on the Isle of Skye. Also I took the bowed lyre or jouhikko, and the trump or jews harp, and the tambourines, and both my horns – the short early medieval style end-blown horn and the long Bronze-Age style side-blown horn.

The site was beautiful; there was almost no view over to the Black Isle because of the haar, but the sun was shining, the gulls were loud and the archaeological team from Bradford were friendly and working hard on their trenches.

Unfortunately there were serious technical problems with the recording equipment and there were also clashes between access times and train times, forcing me to leave early before high tide cut the caves off, and so in the end I only managed to do a few short takes with the lyres, harp and big horn in one of the caves. Bill Taylor was there as well, and he did some takes in one of the other caves after I had left. All in all, it was fun to play in this venue, and wonderful to spend all day exploring and investigating this powerful and fascinating place.

Harp concerts in St Andrews

Every summer from 2007 to 2013, I have performed a series of summer concerts for Historic Scotland at St Andrews Cathedral ruins. Unfortunately from 2014 the Cathedral are no longer able to host this popular series.

However, I really wanted to continue with this fine tradition and so we have booked All Saints Church hall on North Castle Street in the heart of old St Andrews. This is a nice arts-and-crafts venue, and I have used it before for a concert.

I also wanted to keep the concerts as free admission events as they have been since the very beginning.

This is where you come in. In the absence of reliable institutional funding, would you be able to help keep this series going as one of the highlights of the summer season in St Andrews?

I have set up an indiegogo crowdfunding page at

Any amount that you are able to contribute will be a great help towards the costs of running this series.

I am planning to run four concerts, on the first Wednesday of each month from June through to September, at 12.45pm.

You can see details of the proposed programmes on the website at

Please pass this on to any friends you know who would be interested in helping support the harp concert series. And I hope to see you at the concerts!

More interlace

Following on from the interlace on the caskets I posted yesterday, here is a whalebone gaming piece found in a cave on the isle of Rum. The Museum suggests it is 15th or early 16th century.

Again the style of the interlace carving is reminiscent of the pillar carving on the Trinity and Queen Mary harps – the interlace in low relief over and under against a recessed ground, tightly knotted, with parallel incised stripes emphasising the turn of the ribbons. Compare especially this panel on the Trinity harp forepillar:

The gaming pieces is a bit wobbly in its execution, but then so too is the interlace on the Trinity harp. However the thing about the gaming piece  that really got me is the weird asymmetry. I have rotated my photo to show it with the axis of symmetry vertical, however it does not have a horizontal symmetry. The pattern of the top half is quite elegant and interesting, but if mirrored in the bottom half it would not give a single endless line. Perhaps the artist saw this and made one fewer edge loops, so crossing over two of the ribbons. However this also has the effect of creating two closed circles in the lower half. We see similar closed circles on the Trinity pillar. Look at how the end circles on the trinity pillar do not close but loop back on each other. This is similar to how the two circles in the upper half of the gaming piece are not closed.
I have to say that no matter how I turn and manipulate the gaming piece in my mind, it is not as elegant a composition as the panel on the Trinity harp pillar!

whalebone caskets

In the National Museum today I looked at the two whalebone caskets. They are about 15th century in date, from the West Highlands – similar caskets appear on the stone slabs such as the one from Keills, and it has been suggested that the caskets were used to store documents such as charters and land-grants.

I was interested to look at the interlace panels; they seem similar to the interlace on the Trinity College harp forepillar. There is also some similarity with the small sections of interlace on the Queen Mary harp forepillar.

 above: the Eglinton casket; below: the Fife casket