Musical Instruments and Archaeology in Argyll

or ‘Keils is alive with the sound of music’

By Roddy Regan

This article first appeared in The Kist- The Magazine of The Natural History and Antiquarian Society of Mid-Argyll Issue No. Ninety Six, Autumn 2018

Published by Kilmartin Museum.

Musical Instruments and Archaeology in Argyll

If I ever try to conjure up the sounds of music in medieval Scotland, I tend to think of the castle halls of the great magnates, with sounds of the pipes or the harp, perhaps with some fiddle music accompanying them.

It is only just recently due to an excavation we undertook at Dunollie Castle that I have actually got round to looking at the archaeological and historical evidence for music in Argyll. We shall return to Dunollie later but I wondered whether my medieval musical mindscape had any validity.

Of course, once started, the evidence started to flood in from various sources, but using several more authoritative sources, I have tried to summarise what is a far more expansive and intriguing story than I can perhaps relate here.

Stringed instruments, including lyres, lutes and harps have an ancient history and quite recently what is thought to be the wooden bridge for a  seven or eight-stringed instrument has been uncovered during excavations at Uamha an Ard Achadh (High Pasture Cave), on Skye. This could perhaps date as early as the fourth-century BC and if so is the oldest evidence of the use of such an instrument discovered in Western Europe.

In Argyll what may be part of a wrest plank for a stringed instrument was recovered from the excavation of a midden associated Dùn an Fheurain near Oban, which might date as early as c. 100AD although, given its unstratified nature, could date to a later period.

It seems very likely that stringed instruments, such as harps and lyres (or lutes) were no doubt played at an early date in Scotland prior to the medieval period although we don’t yet know when these types of instruments first made their appearance. It is also notoriously difficult to equate mentions of instruments in early manuscripts, which are often in Latin, with classification of types we now use. For example, early manuscripts often referred the cruitt, a generic term used to describe any plucked stringed instrument, which could be a harp or a lyre or indeed hybrid in between.

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musical instruments 10It is not until the 8th century AD that we have references or depictions of the instruments or mention of the musicians that played them. Two 8th century crosses on Iona, St Martin’s and St Oran’s, depict harpers or lyre players, the former also depicting a triple pipe player, the musicians an illusion to the lyre playing King David. What is likely a harp player is also depicted on the opening page of the Gospel of St John within the Book of Kells which was likely partially, if not wholly, produced on Iona in the late 8th or early 9th century.

The chief function of the harpist or lyre player was to accompany the most important compositions of the master poet. Two 8th century Irish law texts on social status, the Uraicecht Becc and the Críth Gablach, indicate that the harp player was given prominence amongst musicians, placing the harpist alongside, but of a lower status than the master poet and they were expected to accompany compositions and recitals of the poets.

The representations of the harps on the Iona examples, however, show instruments that appear to be oval in shape as opposed to the triangular shape we associate with traditional highland harp, or Clàrsach as it became known in the Gaelic west. It has been argued the word Clàrsach incorporates the Gaelic word for board or plank, clàr, this likely reference to the amount of wood used in fashioning the instrument, literally the ‘planked one’, with Clàrsair (plural-clàrsairean) being the harpist. That triangular harps were in use in Scotland by the 9th century is attested to by carvings from north east Scotland at Duplinn, Monifeith and Nigg.

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What is likely a Clàrsair playing a triangular harp is depicted on a 10th century cross at Ardchattan along with pipe and horn players, again these accompanying King David.

Early historical references and depictions of harps and harp players are connected to religious houses such as Iona, as it was they who produced the scholarly classes, including musicians, who attached themselves to the households of noblemen in Ireland and the west of Scotland, including Argyll. As we move into the later medieval period, their skills were eventually transferred to the professional classes that made up an important element in the retinues of great lords who retained their own poets, historians and musicians, including harpers.

In 12th century Giraldus Cambrenis (Gerald of Wales) wrote that the Scots used three instruments, the harp (cithara) the lyre (tympanum) and the pipes (chorus) he also adds while describing the harp that ‘they use strings of brass instead of leather’ and that ‘Scotland at the present day, in the opinion of many persons, is not only equal to Ireland, her teacher, in musical skill, but excels her; so that they now look to that country as the fountain head of this science’.

The earliest specific mention of the Clàrsach in both Scots and Scottish Gaelic contexts are in documents that date to the 15th century. A poem dating to between 1415-1440 found in the Book of the Dean of Lismore mentions a Clàrsach requested by Gill-Crist Bruilineach, one of the MacBheatnaich (becoming Macberty or Galbraith) harping family who had lands in Mull and Gigha and who may have been clàrsairean to the MacNeills of Gigha.

The MacBheatnaich family is one of several Argyll families who provided professional musicians that were attached to the lordly households of Argyll, including the MacGille-Sheanaich (MacShennog or Shannons) family of Kintyre who became hereditary harpers to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. Other Clàrsach playing families included the MacVicars (to the Earls of Argyll), the MacEwans and the MacKellars of Glen Shira.

Some of these musical families, such as the MacGille-Sheanaichs were also associated with families that produced hereditary poets, in their case the MacMhuirichs who were similarly attached to the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. Some poets of course may have also played their own music to accompany their recitals and their families may have produced harp players as demand for their services increased.

By the 16th century it is possible that the Gaelic west or the Gàidhealtachd was producing some of the best regarded harpers. Reflecting Giraldus Cambrenis’ earlier observation of the 12th century, John Major, writing in 1521, states that ‘For musical instruments and vocal music the Wild Scots use the harp whose strings are of brass and not animal gut’ and ‘who are in that art pre-eminent’.

musical instruments 11Later, in 1597 John Monipenie tells us of that the Highlanders ‘delight much in musike, but cheifly harps and clairschoes of their owne fashion’.

There is a grave-slab in Keils chapel, North Knapdal, that depicts a harp, or Clàrsach, in its decoration. Details of the harp, which is now badly eroded, were fortuitously recorded by Captain T.P White in the late 19th century.

The stone bears an inscription, although only part of this is legible and commemorates a father and his son, Alan (who likely commissioned the grave slab). At the upper left of the harp is a tool that has been interpreted as a tuning peg.

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This has led to the suggestion that Alan and perhaps his father were members of a family of harpists or perhaps harp makers and possibly members of the MacBheatnaich family attached to the MacNeill or MacMillan families who controlled land in North Knapdale.

The design of the Keils harp is strongly reminiscent of that on the Queen Mary Harp, now in the National Museum of Scotland. The Queen Mary Harp is also decorated with a pattern of leaves on the upper part of the soundboard and fore-pillar which is characteristic of decoration that also commonly appears on West Highland grave slabs.

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The Queen Mary harp is believed to be of West Highland provenance and dates to the fifteenth century. Two other examples of harps dating to the 15th century to early 16th century are the Lamont Harp (also in the National Museum of Scotland) and the Trinity College Harp and these may also be of similar West Highland production.

As yet we have no firm evidence of where these magnificent instruments were produced although it has been suggested the harps may have been created in Argyll at the important craft centre based around Keils and Kilmory Knap, in North Knapdale. This hypothesis is based on the concentration and number of craft related gravestones found in both chapels. Certainly, whoever carved the Keils harp was aware of what these instruments looked like and was familiar with their design.

The importance of harp music as part of lordly entertainment and aggrandisement is suggested by the recovery of a harp pin and a copper coil, which is almost certainly a harp string, from Castle Sween. Four bone harp pins have also been recovered from excavations at Finlaggan, while three bone tuning pegs, probably for a harp, were found at Achanduin Castle on Lismore.

As mentioned above in the Uraicecht Becc, the only entertainer with an honourable position was the cruitt or harp player which indicates that there was social hierarchy that gave prominence to string over wind instruments and as such the Clàrsair was afforded an elevated social standing to other musicians.

Despite this the sounds of wind instruments such as flutes, horns and bagpipes were undoubtedly also heard in the halls of medieval Argyll and some of these like the harp and lyre were no doubt played at an early period in Scotland.

musical instruments 6There are the above mentioned images of a triple pipe players on the late 8th century St Martin’s Cross in Iona and on the 10th century cross slab at Ardchattan, the latter also depicting a trumpet or horn player. Also in Argyll we also have a carved depiction of a pipe or horn player, shown left, which has been inserted into the wall at Dundereve castle,

The introduction of the great pipes ‘phìob mhòr that we associate with highland music today may have been a later introduction into the formal surroundings of the chieftain’s household, as these were primarily seen as an instruments of war. The earliest record we have of Highlanders being led by a piper into battle, is from the siege of Haddington in 1548 and in this case these were men from Argyll. However, pipe playing likely  gained prestige in the later medieval period, with the piper ultimately becoming an important member of the chieftain’s household. As well as creating their own compositions, pipers likely adopted pre-existing tunes and techniques created by the clàrsairean. This may have led to rivalry between the Clàrsair and the piper in any particular household, although may have been limited by both adopting specialist musical niches, the clàrsairean accompanying the poet and the bagpiper adopting a martial role in noble households. Again, traditional musical families likely produced pipers, with some founding piping dynasties such the Rankins
who were pipers for the MacLeans of Duart, other Argyll piping families being the MacKintyres, the MacGregors and the Campbells. As with the harper the piper had an attendant or gille carrying and looking after his instrument this likely dating from the mid-16th century.

The playing of fiddle (fidheall) music may have been an even later introduction than the pipes within the rarified surroundings of the clan elites and it is unlikely that they ever achieved anything like a similar social standing to the poet, Clàrsair or piper. However, some rivalry existed as can be seen in the disparaging remark made by a piper towards a fiddle player’s efforts ‘mas ceol fidileireachd tha gu leor siud dheth ‘-‘if fiddling is music, that is enough of it’. Initially the fiddle may have been seen as an instrument of the commons, but like the pipers, fiddle players would have adopted previous traditions and modes of playing.

Other instruments were of course played, such as drums, flutes and bells, while the Campbells of Auchinbreck retained the hereditary trumpet players the MacIlvernocks (later Graemes) of Oib, North Knapdale, their instruments used to announce local courts and pronouncements. However, there is little historical mention of these instruments or
evidence for them in the archaeological record.

We can now return to Dunollie Castle, where recently found within a box that included other items, such as glass and bone, was a mouth harp or a Jews harp. The bottle glass and the bones within the box have a remarkable similarity to the assemblage we found while redigging a previously excavated trench in the castle courtyard in 2017-2018, pictured below with an appropriate piper.

I am convinced the material came from this earlier unrecorded excavation and if so was discarded sometime in the 17th or early 18th century.

Why these instruments, that were common across Europe in the medieval to late medieval period, came to be known as Jews harps is unclear although it appears to have no association with Jewish culture. These instruments have  also been referred to as jaws harps, juice harps, Gewgaws or guimbards. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, they were simply known as trumps, being a small instrument which is held against the teeth or lips, and plucked with the fingers. These are usually mentioned accompanying dancing.

If you are aware of the sound they make then it is not one that I would normally associate with traditional Scottish or Irish music, and I mostly associate it with the sound of American folk music. However, given that much of American folk music has its roots in Irish and Scottish culture, then its common use here, in the past, is perhaps no surprise.

As far as I am aware, including the Dunollie trump, five examples have been discovered during excavation work and this makes it the most common type of instrument within the archaeological record in Argyll.

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Trumps have been recovered from excavations mentioned above at Castle Sween, Achanduin Castle and Finlaggan, while one was also recovered from a 17-18th century building at Glenshellach near Oban. So while the humble trump may have been an instrument that entertained the common people, its sound must also have been heard in the halls of the great and the good and it is a sound that we perhaps need to reinstate back into Argyll’s important musical past.

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2 replies »

  1. Fascinating piece for me, as a musician, and also because of the familiarity of places like Dunollie and Glenshellach, which I visited constantly as I lived very close by.

  2. I can’t resist saying it…………, at least one kind of Trump, serves a purpose.
    Maybe that where his name comes from? He is, unfortunately, of Scots ancestry.

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