Medieval

I started out as an archaeologist, and I spent a lot of time and effort working on reconstructing the medieval Irish and Scottish harps.

However I can no longer recommend these, except to specialist medieval re-creationists. I don’t think the Trinity College harp or the Queen Mary harps are useful models for understanding traditional Irish harp music. I don’t think they are typical of the old wire-strung harps. I don’t think they help us to re-connect to the living tradition which came to an end in the early 20th century.

In fact, I think that the reason why the old tradition of wire-strung Irish harp playing came to an end from perhaps 1850 through to 1910, is precisely because it was squeezed to death in a pincer movement. One side of the pincer was the idea that “international art music” was the way to go; the other side of the pincer was an obsession with the medieval harps.

I think there are genuine and useful reasons for being interested in the medieval harps; if you are wanting to play reconstructed or re-imagined medieval music in a historical re-enactment, recreation or scholarly way. If you are interested in the oldest instruments, there is a lot of information about the medieval Gaelic harps of Ireland and Scotland, and a few well-preserved examples to use as models for making a replica or reconstruction. These are not really suitable for playing the traditional harp music; they are ideal for a specialist historical investigation into medieval performance practice and speculative reconstruction of medieval repertory, plainchant, and accompanying of syllabic poetry recitation.

The Trinity College harp

To make a copy of the Trinity College harp, the best data and drawings available so far are in Paul Dooley’s article, ‘Reconstructing the medieval Irish harp’, Galpin Society Journal LXVII, 2014. You can get a copy from the Galpin Society. As a supplement to the article, Paul has prepared a supplementary report on the different sets of measurements of the Trinity College harp, which can be downloaded from the Galpin Society website. Paul has also made some CAD models of the harp strings which can be downloaded from Paul Dooley’s website.

Paul’s article includes suggestions for stringing and tuning, or you can download my 2016 Trinity stringchart.

For info on the decoration and details, see R.B. Armstrong’s book. I have also made decoration charts for the Trinity neck decoration and the Trinity pillar decoration.

The Lamont harp

To make a copy of the Lamont harp, you can use the very detailed and comprehensive templates in Karen Loomis’s thesis. Karen has done CT scans of the harp (like a calibrated 3D X-Ray) and in her thesis she has used the scans to make very accurate templates of the components of the harps, specifically for harp-builders.

Lamont harp soundbox plan and cross-sections: vol.2 p.304-316
Contour map of soundboard thickness: vol.2 p. 298
Lamont harp neck cheekbands and tuning pin placement: Vol.2 p.215-217
neck outline and cross-sections: vol.2 p.240-243
Lamont harp forepillar vol.2 p.173-177

Karen’s thesis has a lot of other incredibly useful information, measurements, and close-up photographs of the construction of this harp. Get it, read it thoroughly and do what it shows, and you will have a very good harp!

Karen’s thesis includes a number of suggested stringing and tuning regimes, or you can download my 2018 Lamont stringchart.

The Queen Mary harp

To make a copy of the Queen Mary harp, you can use the very detailed and comprehensive templates in Karen Loomis’s thesis. Karen has done CT scans of the harp (like a calibrated 3D X-Ray) and in her thesis she has used the scans to make very accurate templates of the components of the harps, specifically for harp-builders.

Queen Mary harp soundbox plan and cross-sections: vol.3 p.416, p.452-462
Contour map of soundboard thickness: vol.3 p. 446
Queen Mary harp neck cheekbands and tuning pin placement: Vol.3 p.384-385
neck outline and cross-sections: vol.3 p.397-400
Queen Mary harp forepillar vol.3 p.354-358

Karen’s thesis has a lot of other incredibly useful information, measurements, and close-up photographs of the construction of this harp. Get it, read it thoroughly and do what it shows, and you will have a very good harp!

Karen’s thesis includes a number of suggested stringing and tuning regimes, or you can download my 2017 Queen Mary stringchart.

For the decorative schemes you can use R.B. Armstrong’s book. I usually have a secondhand copy available for sale. It has also been scanned and published online at the Internet Archive.

Strings for medieval Scottish and Irish harp reconstructions

I can make sterling silver bass strings for medieval harps. The cost is £25 per meter. I can supply gold strings as well; the price depends on the individual string but they are very expensive.

For medieval harps I recommend brass toggles. These cost £1 each on their own, or £2.50 each wound onto the ends of your strings. Medieval harps tend not to have back access holes, so you need to string through the front soundholes. I can supply you with a thick and a thin fishing wire, £5 for the thin wire, £2 for the thick one. You can download a free instruction diagram showing how to fish wires into a medieval harp.


Stringcharts for medieval Scottish and Irish harp reconstructions

The medieval Gaelic harps are much smaller than the big floor-standing wire-strung Irish harps used in the living tradition into the beginning of the 20th century, and so because they are smaller and older, they don’t follow the same logic. To be honest we don’t really know how they were originally strung and set up. I have worked out speculative historical-reconstructionist stringcharts for medieval and Renaissance Gaelic harps. The following string charts are available as free PDF downloads:
Trinity College harp & Queen Mary harp stringchart (2016, revised 2019). Two harps on one chart, showing my suggested “medieval” setup with the harp tuned to c.
Lamont harp stringchart May 2018. Current state and reconstructed original state, showing my suggested “Renaissance” setup with the harp tuned to b♭.
see my article ‘Medieval Gaelic harp setup’, in Early Music Performer, issue 40, Spring 2017 for my thinking on this.