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

Medieval Scottish sword

I have a new sword, which I acquired secondhand. It was made in Czechoslovakia by Nielo – there seems to be a number of very good bladesmith craftsmen in Eastern Europe. It is nicely made and seems a quality piece of work. Though it is over 10 years since I last did any historical fencing this seems a very good sword.

I have been looking for a long time for a sword of this type. The drooping quillons with broad ends are the really distinctive thing here and these differentiate this “Scottish style”, and they are what develop to give the classic “claymore” or “twa-handit sword” of the 15th to 17th century.

The West Highland grave slabs, such as the ones at Keills, show similar swords but with viking style lobed pommels. Was there a real difference between the designs of the West and the East in the 14th and 15th century? Or were the late medieval West coast stone carvers deliberately showing an archaic design? I don’t think there are any extant examples of the lobed-pommel type whereas there are a number of this wheel-pommel type surviving. Here is an excellent example in Kelvingrove museum, Glasgow.

I could have done with this in 2011, when I ran my Battle of Harlaw music workshops. We spent part of one of the sessions looking at the effigy of Gilbert de Greenlaw, and discussing his arms and armour. He is carrying exactly this kind of sword – again in an East coast context. We also looked at some of the West highland effigies.

The sword does not have a scabbard, so making one is my next project. I need to look at more of the effigies and stone slabs to get a better idea of how they work.


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.

Medieval Maces in the Museum

Here’s a photo taken by one of the Museum staff, of my concert the other week.

The turnout was bigger than I had expected, at least 50 people in what is a fairly small gallery space. As usual I was slightly nervous of presenting the big, complex, intricate ceòl mór style pieces to a general audience, but afterwards people came up to me and said that the piece they loved best was Caniad San Silin – about 13 minutes of repetitive geometric variations.

For me it was such a thrill to present the music in this glorious setting. I chose pieces that were closely connected in to late Medieval contexts, all of them secular instrumental tunes. The structure and style of the music really fitted well with the decoration and craftsmanship of the medieval maces.

You can see some of the maces behind me. From left to right, Glasgow, Heidelberg x 2, Tübingen, Erfurt, and Bishop Fox’s crozier from Corpus, Oxford.

Dammit they are just so shiney!


This drawing is from Alexander Brook’s 1892 article in PSAS, on the maces of the Scottish Universities. It is a drawing of two of the six heraldic shields on St Andrews Arts faculty mace.

The one on the right, no. IV, shows the arms of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar (c.1375-1435). I don’t know what his connection is with the University of St Andrews, though he witnessed a royal confirmation of the University’s charter in 1432. The University started in 1411; the shield was presumably made and affixed to the mace on its completion in about 1416.

The Earl of Mar led the Royalist army at the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. It is fascinating to me to trace these connections. I will point out this coincidence in my concert on Sunday, when I will play the ceòl mór variation set of Cath Gairbheach (the Battle of Harlaw). Unfortunately the side of the Arts Faculty mace that has Mar’s shield is facing away from the centre of the exhibition room, but you can see it OK if you go round the other side of the case.

Trinity College harp decoration

A sneak preview for readers of my blog!

I have made a drawing of the forepillar decoration on the Trinity College harp. This has never been done before; when R.B. Armstrong studied the harp for his 1904 book, he did not draw the pillar decoration, saying it was probably later work. And no-one has done a good published study of the harp since then.

I have been admiring the pillar decoration on my vists to Dublin for a few years now, and I managed to get enough closeup photos to be able to work out almost all of the decoration. I have drawn it all out schematically, following the general principle of Armstrong’s superb diagram of the decoration of the Queen Mary harp forepillar.

I very much enjoyed doing this work; the decoration is really complex and busy and it was a real challenge to trace the twists and turns of each vine stalk and interlace strap.

I’m publishing the drawing officially on 1st October, both as a free PDF download that you can get from the Trinity pillar decoration webpage and also as a 2-colour A3 sized digital print on good art paper that you can order from the Emporium prints page.

Be sure to read the rest of the Trinity pages as I have added some other interesting information and illustrations.

Power & Ceremony: the medieval university maces

Today I was at the Museum of the University of St Andrews, to look at the exhibition of medieval university maces.

The three 15th century gold and silver maces that belong to the University of St Andrews have long been favourites of mine, and I have performed in front of them at the museum. So I was delighted when the museum organised an exhibition of other medieval maces from universities across Europe, and I was honoured when they invited me to do a concert as part of the exhibition.

The exhibition is in the biggest room in the museum, and has three large standing glass cases, each containing three maces. There are the three St Andrews ones of course; there is the one from Glasgow; two from Heidelberg; one from Erfurt, one from Tübingen and one from Basel. There is also the outrageous medieval gold crozier of Bishop Fox, who founded Corpus in Oxford.

All of these are stunning art objects from 15th century master craftsmen, and it also fascinates me that many of them remain in regular use – the display panels include photographs of the various maces being carried in procession in front of dignitaries. The maces are all very delicately decorated with architectural, figurative, foliate and geometrical motifs. I was most interested to see comparisons with the 15th century carvings on the pillar of the Queen Mary harp – I think it will be quite an experience to take my replica in there and see it next to all these medieval artworks.

My concert is on Sunday 13th October at 2pm. I’ll be playing a programme of medieval ceremonial music, mostly Scottish, and will try to connect the music in with the objects on display.

The exhibition runs until the 8th December – if you have a chance to visit I would strongly recommend it!

this is me beside the three 15th century St Andrews maces, for my first concert in MUSA, in 2009

At the Cathedral yesterday

Here’s a photo taken by an attendee at yesterday’s cathedral concert. People were, as usual, most intrigued by the bowed lyre. We had a full house, and the sun was shining. People came to the event from as far away as the west coast, and there was even a visitor from Bergen who appreciated the Norwegian connections in the programme!