Home Is Where The Harp Is

The evidence for harper’s lands [1]

Home is where harps and dogs can be found. A photograph of harp and hearth.

Harp made by Michael Billinge for K Sanger in 1979
Photo ©2015 by www.WireStrungharp.com.

It is generally assumed that, like the other professional classes in Gaelic Scotland, the harpers were also rewarded with a tack of land. Indeed in an economy which continually had problems raising actual coinage, payment with a holding of land was much the easier option all round. If indeed that was the case then it should be possible to find some evidence, but the picture which emerges, even allowing for the gaps in archive source material suggests a much more varied situation; both for the harpers and also for the pipers for whom a larger amount of contemporary documentation survives.

When dealing with the subject of the clarsach or wire strung harp associated with Gaelic Scotland there has been a tendency to treat the wire strung harps common to both Scotland and Ireland as two sides of the same coin, particularly when there are gaps in the historical records in one country which can be filled by using examples from the other. While that approach does still provide some useful background information, over reliance on it has produced a superficial picture of uniformity which a closer comparison shows to be difficult to sustain.

For example, and to start at the beginning, or at least as far back as the surviving contemporary evidence allows us to go, it is clear that the clarsach was one of the instruments used to accompany the declamation of Gaelic verse. Therefore in Scotland the poets and by implication the associated harpers were patronised at the highest level by the crown; as in the example shown by the seal of the Abbey of Scone depicting the inauguration of Alexander III. In turn this led to these harpers holding land directly from the crown, in that particular case the harpers lands were close to Scone at Bail’ an bhaird (Balvaird) straddling the Fife/Perthshire shire border. [2]

The continuing presence of the clarsach at the Royal Court continued until the abrupt changes initiated by the events at Flodden but until that point the records show that some three generations of a family of players of the clarsach called MacBhreatnaich had been holding land from the crown at Knockan near Wigtown in Galloway, an area which at that period was still partially Gaelic speaking. It was this bi–cultural nature of the Scottish Court which probably led to the Gaelic name for the wire strung instrument of Clarsach becoming one of the many Gaelic words which were also absorbed into Scots; a fact which in Scotland helped to produce a clearer division between the wire and gut strung harps and their players in the contemporary records.

In Ireland however the position of the harper had developed along different lines. Contrary to popular opinion the gut strung harp was also present there among the Norman minstrels, but both they and their Irish wire strung counterparts lacked the ultimate pinnacle of serving a central royal court. An additional division was created through the continuing struggles for supremacy between adherents of the English Crown and the mostly native Gaelic Lordships who were the major patrons of the poets and wire strung harpers. This in turn meant that the harpers along with the other professional classes were subjected to a number of edicts restricting their movements within the pale, especially at times of heightened military activity.

Suggestions which have been made that the harpers were deliberately selected for extermination do not stand up to close scrutiny, although given the nature of the conflict they would have suffered with the rest of the population, but together with wrongly interpreting the Fiants as pardons rather than part of the Surrender and re–grant policy instigated by the English Crown, has added to the persecution of the harpers myth. In fact the practice of naming the grantees retainers as well as just the grantee in the re–grant documents has provided the evidence for the existence of a number of Irish Harpers and if not their actual holding at least the estate of their lord on which they would have lived. [3]

The difference in background between the two countries also seems to have extended to language, at least in terms of the name applied to the instrument. In Ireland the contemporary Gaelic scribes, presumably influenced by the poets conservatism, predominantly stuck with the older name for the harp of Crot rather than the newer term of Clairseach which had been rapidly adopted in both Scots Gaelic and written Scots. [4] However in the Irish administrative records [5] there was virtually no linguistic cross over and the instrument and the players were generally referred to simply as Harp or Harper.

The differences between the two Gaelic worlds was not just confined to their use of musical instruments and modern scholarship is increasingly demonstrating how far apart those worlds were. Even in the case of language a recent study has suggested that the development of a distinctly Scottish Gaelic was well underway by the beginning of the twelth century; [6] while the standardised Classical Gaelic language used by the poets was essentially an Irish invention with a relatively late and limited introduction to Scotland. [7] Even then it was probably mostly confined to the Clan Donald whose poets had closer connections to Ireland. [8]

After the Scottish Crown the next firm example of the harpers land holdings were the McIlshenoch family patronised by the Lords of the Isles, although somewhat ironically the evidence for the harpers holding of Brunerican, at the south end of Kintyre, comes from the Exchequer Rentals after the Lordship had been forfeited to the Crown. The last mention of a member of the family holding Brunerican and still practicing as a harper was in 1636 [9] but as that whole area had come closely under Campbell control another member of the family appears to have moved to hold Ardbeg and Barbay, in North Knapdale, but had died by 1553. [10]

The first hard evidence of a harper sitting rent free comes from the 1674 rental of the lands of Duart on Mull which records the pennyland of Phanmoir possest be the harper and pretends kyndnes thereto for his service and pays nothing. [11] According to William Matheson it was traditionally known as Fan-mor nan clarsairean and the harper there was from a line of hereditary harpers called MacNeill. [12] However there is no contemporary evidence for any harpers of that name and Fanmore itself seems to have originally consisted of two parts. [13] In a list of losses incurred by the Campbells and their tenants during 1685/86 a reference is made to the harpers son in Mull, Lochbuyes servant, [14] implying there was just the one harper in Mull and this would appear to have been a Donald mc Entannachie harper to Brolas [15] who by 1690 seems to have been living at Kildavie on the Torloisk estate. [16]

The last professional harper to reside on Mull was Murdoch MacDonald, or Murdoch McMurchie as he appears in 1716 when he was still living at Breacachadh on Coll. Sometime after then he moved to Quinish on Mull and possibly lived at Penmollach, subsequently the home of his daughter. The description of him as the last professional harper is a necessary qualification since there is some evidence that his son John could also play the harp having received some tuition from his father. [17]

While Mull does provide some evidence of harpers holding land in some form as we move further north to Skye evidence of named harpers based on that island is scarce, even assuming the suggestion that the three generations represented by the Fearchar son of Richard and his son Gille–Coluim in a name list in the Book of the Dean of Lismore, and said to be with Macleod were in fact harpers [18] and certainly the Richard involved would have been contemporary with the harper on a late medieval grave–slab at Glendale. [19] That the first of that line was called Richard, a name somewhat unusual in a Gaelic context at that period might indicate that this family were not originally natives of Skye.

There is a considerable period before another harper can be identified living on Skye when Roderick Morison, (An Clarsair Dall) moved to serve MacLeod, first living at Claggan near Dunvegan then later to a farm called Totamor in Glenelg. Of course the Blind Harper was not originally a Skye man either but came from the Isle of Lewis, [20] a place were the evidence for local harpers is even thinner than Skye, despite an abundance of Mackenzie archives. This presents a puzzle as contemporary Gaelic verse connected to both places contains many references to harp playing and it is tempting to attribute it to an absence of surviving records in which the harpers might appear. However this may only partly explain the problem since there are similar gaps in records elsewhere but players of the clarsach can still be found, including among the rest of the MacKenzie estates on mainland Scotland. [21]

For example, although the earliest surviving rentals for some mainland estates like that of Breadalbane may lack the more detailed information which would enable individual harpers holdings to be identified the musicians appearance among the rest of the estate papers leaves little doubt of their presence. In this particular example, an account book covering circa 1633 to 1643 thought to have been that of John Campbell, later to become Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy the 4th baronet, includes payments to a number of musicians including To Callin clarshach and [his] boy and It to Neill harpar, (twice) this last perhaps suggesting that both wire strung clarsach and gut strung harps were in use there. [22] Apart from ane little barde the other musicians were all pipers including one Wm doll pyper who is probably William Cumming the contemporary piper to the Laird of Grant who was described as doll or blind towards the end of his days.

The surviving Grant papers provide evidence of numerous harpers around that area including a rental, dated crop 1638 for Mulben, which included among the tenants one donnald mc Inuilli clarser. [23] However most of the evidence is provided by payments to either named harpers who seem to belong to the estate, including Thomas mc ean vic comas the clarsechar, and patrick the clarsechar, along with numerous un–named visiting harpers including that rare sighting, ane clarsechar women. [24]

It is arguable that even when the inconsistent survival of contemporary records is taken into account the evidence suggests that the greatest concentration of references to clarsach players occurs in the Central and Eastern Highlands and possibly reflects the fact that the clarsair in Scotland was able to freely traverse the whole country without the constrictions evident in Ireland. An example being the harper Duncan MacInDeor (died 1694), who lived at Fincharn on Loch Awe but clearly also spent much of his time in Edinburgh. It is possibly more than a coincidence that the poet Donnchadh O’Muirgheasain was also active at that time around Loch Awe where he compiled a Genealogy for the Earl of Breadalbane in 1693, then sometime after the harpers death moved to Skye where another harper, Rory Dall was still alive.

Even when there is firm evidence of early visiting Irish Harpers they tend to fall into that same geographical area. For example the first one we know of, the un–named harper to O’Donnell who visited the court of James IV with his master in 1513 is only noted in the Royal Accounts; but William MacEgan clarsair who first appears in 1581 at the Royal Court of James VI, but by 1602 was receiving payments from the Elphinstone family at Kildrummy Castle in Mar. [25] It is unclear if the harper had remained in Scotland for the whole of that period or was just an occasional visitor. However, he certainly appears to have had the right patronage connections to have heard the tunes known as Ports, which were current at that period and was probably a link in the transmission of those Scottish Ports to Ireland.[26]

Apart from the attractions of the Royal Court, at least before 1603 when James VI moved south to his second crown, musicians on circuit were likely to first head to the wealthiest patrons. In Scotland the relative wealth of the landowners tended to decline the further north and west you went. While another element that tends to get overlooked is that the position today where the north west highlands are regarded as the stronghold of Gaelic was not the case before Gaelic had retreated over the course of the last two hundred years or so. Through the late medieval to early modern times when the poets and harpers still thrived, it was Argyle through to the central highlands which was then the Gaelic heartland.

The far north west was at that time the periphery, an area not long emerging from Norse domination and which prior to the coming of the Vikings, had still been Pictish territory with no pre Norse Gaelic connection. Although the Gaelic speech came to predominate the native inhabitants continued to emphasise their Norse anticedents. [27] There was also a marked difference in the poetic verse compiled not just in that area but in most of Gaelic Scotland where the baird working in the vernacular form could develop new styles in an atmosphere of relative freedom unchoked by the unquestionable straitening restraints of the trained poetic orders and the position seems to have been more fluid than the Irish model, in which there was no apparent equivalent to the Scottish bard. [28]

While the studies quoted above are mainly concerned with the nature of the poets and their verse, this distance from the heartland of Scottish Gaeldom which had retained a closer Irish Gaelic connection, was one factor behind the evolution of what has come to be called piobaireachd. This looser Irish cultural environment, albeit in what had become a Gaelic speaking area extended beyond the poets. Piobaireachd, whose basic Urlar (or grounds), are firmly linked to the vernacular verse form known as Amhran, and its indigenous origin is traditionally associated with a family called MacCrummen from Harris, who served as pipers to the MacLeods, both being families of Norse origin. [29]

Home is where harps and dogs can be found. A photograph of harp and hearth.

Dr. W. Lamb’s map of the Culture Graft between Highland and Lowland Scotland.

Although musicians would certainly circulate to all parts, including the islands, they and in many cases their patrons tended mainly to base themselves further to the east. In the case of the players of the clarsach their presence can also be found outside the normal eastern Gaelic speaking areas and they were present in most parts of the North Eastern Lowlands. The fact that the heartland of the clarsach lay closer to the centre of mainland Scotland and not far from the nominal Highland Line; may also explain the reason for the earlier disappearance of the clarsach in Scotland compared to what happened in Ireland.

In a paper on the origins of the Strathspey, Dr W Lamb has mapped the continually moving zone of what he terms Culture Graft between Highland and Lowland Scotland by plotting some maps of the place names taken from the tunes in early fiddle collections (a reflection of the adoption into Gaeldom of the modern violin) [30]. It is noticeable that the zone delineated in his first map from 1700 to 1749 covers those very areas where the clarsair was previously numerous during the preceding century. Furthermore over plotting the early notices for fiddle or viol taken from contemporary records shows how they also encroached into what had been the geographical heartland of the clarsach players.

That perhaps this is not pure coincidence is best illustrated by comparing the situation in Athole where not just harpers but also their holdings can be identified, with that in Strathspey and the Grant country. By 1653 the Grant papers record a yearly pension to be paid Alexander Cumming, his piper and violer,, [31] and despite the previous evidence of numerous Clarsairs in that area there are no further records of harpers among the Grant papers during the second half of the 17th century. However on the estate of Lude, the family who eventually became known as the Robertsons of Lude patronised a family of harpers using the name MacEwen who gave their name to the holding of Croftmacewen and at the beginning of the seventeenth century at least two generations of harpers called Reid; first James and then Alastair were attached to the Atholl family themselves.

A photograph of two dogs, a harp, and hearth.

A welcome home to harp and hearth from Tara and Bannoch.
Photo ©2015 by www.WireStrungharp.com.

As late as 1698 John McEoin harper, one of the MacEwen family was still around that area along with the appearance of another harper called Manus McShire, [32] a name with perhaps a Mull connection who may have been a visitor. [33] But this same account shows payments starting to be made to violers and the purchase of a base and treble viola and although there were some other clarsairs around the area change was underway. Perhaps the best example of what was to come is illustrated by one of the wealthiest of this generation of harpers, Alexander Menzies who held an acre of land at Moulinearn, not far from Logierait which seems to have been his principle area of operation although he also at times appeared in Breadalbane. [34]

When he died in 1705 his estate passed to his brothers and sister in Duntyme and Rotmell but his harping died with him and not long afterwards, first a John McFarlane followed in 1723 by a Patrick McFarlane violers were established in Logierait itself as musicians to his Grace the Duke of Atholl. [35] This seems to have been a repeating pattern with the clarsach being replaced by the increasing penetration of the modern violin, usually under the older colloquial description of fiddle. It is probably significant that Murdoch MacDonald, the last professional harper, was to be found in Coll and Mull, areas where the professional fiddler was a fairly late arrival.

[1] This was first published in West Highland Notes & Queries. Series 3, No 26. October 2014. This expanded version allows the development of some points only briefly touched on in the original.

[2] Bannerman J, The Kings Poet and the Inauguration of Alexander III, The Scottish Historical Review, Volume LXVIII, 2 No 186. (October 1989). 133 – 135; Bannerman J, The Residence of the King’s Poet. Scottish Gaelic Studies. Vol XVII (1996), 24–27.

[3] Cathcart C and Sanger K, Dictates Against Harpers; Hang the harpers wherever found and destroy their instruments. (October 2012). Dictates Against Harpers located here on www.WireStrungharp.com

[4] In 1434 a Eugenio Klerscharch appears among some Glassarie writs, (MacPhail J. R. N, Highland Papers (1916) 175–177), while just a few years later in 1438 a Duncan Clarscheouch can be found as a Crown tenant holding Wester Cloveth in Strathdon. (Exchequer Rolls. volume v. 56).

[5] Initially kept in Latin, then Norman French and English

[6] O’ Maolalaigh, Roibeard. The Scotticisation of Gaelic: a reassessment of the language and orthography of the Gaelic Notes in the Book of Deer. In K Forsyth, ed. Studies on the Book of Deer. (2008)

[7] O’Baoill, Colm. Highland Harpers and their patrons. In James Porter ed. Defining Strains, The Musical Life of Scots in the Seventeenth Century. (2007)

[8] Meek, Donald. The Scots–Gaelic Scribes of Late Medieval Perthshire, in J H Williams, ed. Stewart Style 1513–1542 Essays on the Court of James V. (1996), 266–267; For an exploration of the contrast between the Gaelic verse connected to the Lords of the Isles and the rest of Gaelic Scotland see, M. Pia Coira, By Poetic Authority— The Rhetoric of Panegyric in Gaelic Poetry of Scotland to c.1700. (2012).

[9] Sanger K, The McShannons of Kintyre; Harpers to Tacksmen. The Scottish Genealogist, vol 38. no. 3 (1991).

[10] National Archives of Scotland (NAS) GD437/7. Unfortunately the vellum has suffered some severe degradation and the harpers forename has been lost.

[11] MacPhail J R N, ed. Highland Papers. vol 1. (1914) 280.

[12] Matheson W. Scottish Gaelic Studies vol, xiv. part 1, (Winter 1983). 129; In a marriage contract between Archibald Cambell of Inverawe and Janet sister of Alexander MacLean of Torloisk entered into the Books of Council and Session on the 8th May 1710, (NAS RD4/106/1140–1147), one of the witnesses was a Neill McGilliveray in Fanmore, but whoever he was and important enough to be a witness, he seems to have removed by the time of the 1716 arms list. Some support for it being known as fanmore nan clarsairean can be found in another Torloisk deed from the same series for the following year 1711, (NAS RD4/109/540) which in a list of Torloisk’s holdings clearly has a very garbled attempt at Fanmor nan clarsairean with all the words badly miss–spelt and run together.

[13] In 1642 Fannemoir inferius was included as part of the lands of Torloisk,(N&Q Series 3 No.19 May 2012 p 15), but Fanymoir superior was a separate entity according to a contract of 1634, (NAS GD16/24/22). This division also still seems to be reflected in the 1716 list of arms handed in by the inhabitants of Mull which has Ffanmore & Ffanbeg although recording them together as one place. (NAS SC54/22/51).

[14] An Account of the Depredations committed on the Clan Campbell and their followers during the Years 1685 & 1686. (Edinburgh 1816). 70

[15] NAS GD50/188/266

[16] West Highland Notes & Queries. Number XXVIII, (March 1986), 25

[17] Sanger, K. MacLean Harpers, some loose ends. West Highland Notes & Queries. Series 3 No. 15. (October 2010), 16-18

[18] Bannerman J. The Clarsach and the Clarsair. Scottish Studies. Vol. 30. (1991). 7

[19] For picture see www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/other_images/glasphein_skye/

[20] Matheson W. The Blind Harper (An Clarsair Dall). (1970). xxxi–xli

[21] Brochard, Thomas. Harpers in Scotland’s outlying communities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (2013) available in the library pages here on www.wirestrungharp.com

[22] NAS GD112/21/202 pp 16, 40 and 66.

[23] NAS GD248/90/3/6

[24]NAS GD248/14/5; It is likely that the un–named Laird of Grants clairschear who was involved in a fight with a violer in Ayr in December 1638 would have been one of these two men. See the letter transcribed in Fraser W, The Chiefs of Grant. vol 2. (1888) 66; References to a female harper are so rare that given the date this lady is likely to be the same harper who appears in the Household Book of the Countess of Mar in 1642 as To ane woman clarshochar who usit ye house in my Lord his tyme xij.s. see Dauney W. Ancient Scottish Melodies. (1838). 361–362.

[25] Cross link to William MacEgan clarsair on the Harpers in Ireland timeline elsewhere on this website.

[26]The tunes known as Ports are generally considered to be of Scottish Gaelic origin, composed for the harp although they have actually survived in the early lute MS. There is at least one dissent from that view where Rob MacKillop in his For kissing for clapping for loving for proveing: Performance practice and modern interpretation of the lute repertoire, in James Porter, ed. Defining Strains— The Musical Life of Scots in the Seventeenth Century. (2007), pages 83 to 85 argues that they were in fact original Lute compositions and in at least one case would not be suitable for either wire or gut strung harp. While there is no argument that the tunes that survived in the manuscripts are noted down for the lute, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The ports were composed at a time when both the Scottish gut strung harp, the wire strung clarsach and the lute were all still part of the Royal Court Circles. As the only early Scottish music manuscripts that survive are written for lute or similar instrument, it is quite logical that they would have preserved the music in that form. It would also follow that the tunes that travelled to Ireland with visiting harpers like William MacEgan who was part of that same circle, would have been closer to the original harp versions.

[27] Jennings A and Kruse A, One Coast— three peoples; names and ethnicity in the Scottish west during the early Viking period, in A Woolf ed. Scandinavian Scotland — 20 Years On. (2009); Jennings A, Latter–day Vikings:Gaels in the Northern Isles in the 16th Century, in. Across the Solunderhaf: Connections between Scotland and the Nordic World. Selected Papers from the Inaugural St Magnus Conference 201. Journal of the North Atlantic. Special Volume 4: 35–42

[28] Paraphrased in a shortened form from W McLeod, Divided Gaels (2004), pages 66–69, which is in turn based to a large degree on the work of Dr John MacInnes.

[29] Raghnall MacilleDhuibh, The Last Norsemen in the Isles. West Highland Free Press (31 August 2007); Sanger K, The Origins of Highland Piping, Piping Times, Vol 41. No 11 (August 1989); Sanger K, The MacCrimmon Pipers. West Highland Notes & Queries. Series 2 Number 14. (July 1995). 17–20. The spelling of the name as MacCrummen used in this text is the authors decision based on the fact that it was the spelling of choice used by members of that family when signing their own names.

[30] Lamb W. Grafting Culture: On the Development and Diffusion of the Strathspey in Scottish Music, originally published in Scottish Studies volume 37, (2014). My thanks to Dr Lamb for an advance copy. To see the slide show from which the above map is taken, please visit On the Naming of the Strathspey: Toponymic Evidence from Early Fiddle Collections. as presented at Musica Scotia: Aberdeen by Will Lamb, 27 April 2014.

[31] Fraser, W. The Chiefs of Grant. vol 3. (1883). 462; The Grant family seem to have been at the forefront of the latest musical trends. In 1735 a French Horn was purchased for William Cumming along with his having some three years of lessons with a music master called Mr Mason, before finally he was given a fiddle. (GD248/101/1/38). This also explains how another member of the family, Angus Cumming was musically literate and able to write and publish a collection of Strathspeys or old Highland Reels which appeared very shortly before he died in 1780, (his wife Christine Cumming was being described as his widow by the 11 July 1780).

[32] NAS CH2/694/10/1

[33] Black G F. The Surnames of Scotland. (1962). 563; MacLean–Bristol N. Inhabitants of the Inner Isles, Morvern and Arnamurchan. (Scottish Records Society 1998) pp 26 and 31 for examples.

[34] A fuller account of this harper and his background is in preparation.

[35] Blair Atholl Archives Box 44/4A/9 and Box 42/2(2) 12 page 4. My thanks to Archivist Jane Anderson of the Atholl Estate for access to their papers.

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 3 August, 2015.

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