CD A0146: The Harp Key

The Harp Key by Alison Kinnaird

CD Cover: The Harp Key by Alison Kinnaird

'The Scottish harp can never have had a better showcase than this' MELODY MAKER
'Superbly played and well produced...a gem' THE GUARDIAN

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Track Listing & Audio Samples

1 Rory Dalls Port Trad
2 Princess Augusta Trad
3 Caoineadh Rioghail (The Royal Lament) Trad
4 Glenlivet Castle Drummond Trad
5 Balquhidder Trad
6 Fliuch An Oidhche Heman Dubh Trad
7 Port Atholl Trad
8 Killiecrankie Trad
9 Cumha Crann Nan Teud (The Lament for the Harp Key) Trad
10 The Kid On The Mountain Trad
11 Fuath Nam Fidhleirean (Contempt for Fiddlers) Trad
12 Chapel Keithack Wm. Marshall
13 Grantown-on-Spey Trad
14 Port Patrick Trad
15 The Rymer Kinnaird
16 The Duchess of Buccleuchs Favourite
The Earl of Hadinton Miss Charlotte Brodies Jig

CD Notes & Credits

Sleeve Notes

Since recording this album 17 years ago, a great deal of new information has come to light about the harp, its origin and music. The evidence shows that the triangular pillar harp appears first on Pictish Stones on the East Coast of Scotland from the 8th century onward. These are relatively large, lightly-built instruments, probably strung with horse-hair, and subsequently, under Anglian influence, with gut-strings. The harp's movement westwards can be traced on the stones, until it came in contact with the Gaels. No evidence of triangular harps is found in Ireland at this point, though they played quadrangular harps and lyres. The Gaels retained the Irish preference for wire-strings, and adapted the triangular harp to carry the greater tension required, resulting in a compact, sturdy harp, with a one-piece sound-box - the 'clarsach '.

It is clear that historically the name 'clarsach' referred to the wire-string harp of the Gael, played in the West Coast and Highland areas, while the gut-strung harp was predominantly played in the East Coast and Lowland areas. Both small harps were played for many hundreds of years - the gut-strung harp was overtaken by the development of the European pedal-harp, and the wire-strung clarsach disappeared with the demise of bardic culture and its patrons after the Jacobite risings.
Both types of harp are now enjoying a successful revival, and a wide variety of music is being played. for a fuller discussion of the history and more information about the tunes, themselves, you can read our book 'Tree of Strings' by Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird, published Kinmor Music.

Alison Kinnaird, August 1995


The harp is first found in Scotland in Pictish areas around the eighth century. By the twelfth century it had become so common that Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welsh Scholar, wrote of Scottish harping, "In the Opinion of many, however, Scotland has not only attained to the excellence of Ireland, but has even, in musical science and ability, far surpassed it, insomuch that it is to that country that they now resort as to the genuine source of the art". Harps were played throughout Scotland. In the lowlands, at the Royal Court, James the First and it is said Mary, Queen of Scots, performed upon the harp - and of course there were many professional harpers. These travelling harpers are found as characters· in many of the ballads such as "Binnorie", "Glenkindie" and "The Harper of Llochmaben".

In the Highlands the wire-strung clarsach was also an instrument of the aristocracy, and a harper was frequently employed as a member of the Chief's establishment. He performed at public occasions of celebration or mourning, and was apparently expected to lull the household to sleep (as the piper roused them in the morning). The last professional harper in Scotland appears in the records of Macleod of Dunvegan in 1755. With the changing social pattem, the breakdown of the clan system, and the disappearance, or anglicization, of the Highland chiefs, the harping tradition was broken. One hundred and fifty years earlier a similar process of the anglicization of the Royal Court had had similar effects in the lowlands, whereas in Ireland, the last harper to play in the old style, Denis Hempson, played at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, about forty years after the Dunvegan harper.

The Irish and Scottish harps have remained fairly similar though the Scottish harp has retained the "Highland Hump" - the point at the top of the harmonic curve which gives extra length and tone to the treble strings. In the seventeenth century brass blades were introduced at the top of each string on gut-strung harps, which when turned, raise each note a semitone.

There are two surviving examples of old Scottish clarsachs in the National Museum of Antiquities; the Lamont Harp, which is traditionally said to have come from fifteenth century Argyll, and the Queen Mary Harp, presented by Mary, Queen of Scots to the family of Lude, in Perthshire.

With the revival of interest in Celtic traditions at the end of the Iast century, harps were again made and played in Scotland. The modern harp has about the same number of strings as that of the seventeenth century, i.e. between 29-31, and is almost always strung with gut. There is much enthusiasm for the instrument and one can say that it is now as widely played as at any time in its history.


Most of the known Scottish harp tunes are attributed to Rory Dall. Blind Roderick Morison, or Rory Dall, lived c 1660 - 1713, and was the harper to the Macleods of Dunvegan. However there was also an Irish harper named Rory Dall O'Cathain who travelled in Scotland during the first half of the seventeenth century, and it is impossible to ascribe most of the tunes positively to one or the other. It is possible that those pieces collected in Perthshire, such as Port Atholl or Port Patrick, were by the Irish Rory Dall, but it does seem likely that the tunes were composed in Scotland, partly because of their titles, and also because most of them are in a "Scottish style".

The characteristic form of Scottish harp music seems to have been a theme with variations - a form of music which was also developed by the Highland pipers as pibroch. It is noticeable that of the many O'Carolan tunes, the only two that have variations are on Scottish themes, "When she cam ben she Bobbit" and "Cock up your Beaver". This is rather surprising in view of the amount of travelling that the harpers did between Scotland and Ireland, and the extensive exchange of tunes and ideas. Many tunes turn up in both countries under different titles, such as Killiecrankie and Planxty Davis, and some terms used in pibroch were taken down by Bunting from the harpers in Belfast in 1792. Unfortunately none of the harpers, in Scotland or in Ireland, ever wrote their music down, so those pieces which exist were collected and written down by fiddlers, pipers and flute players. There is thus no authentic guide as to what harmonies were used, since even Bunting, transcribing direct from the last of the harpers in the old style, tended to "improve" upon their rendering of the tunes. However from the literary evidence, and from the nature of the instrument it does seem certain that the harp was not used purely as a melody instrument. The sparing use of harmony in the rest of the musical tradition increases the problem of reconstructing the pieces into a playable form. This I have done partly from the written evidence and partly from observation of the traditional music as played on other instruments. It therefore would not be claimed that this record is an exact example of how the clarsach was played in the eighteenth century. But hopefully it will demonstrate that the Scottish harp, as a solo instrument, still has a strength and a character of its own.

Alison Kinnaird 1978

This title has been given to two or three different tunes in various sources. This theme, with eleven variations, is given in the "Caledonian Pocket Companion" (James Oswald, 1745-56). Burns is said to have used this theme as the original tune for 'Ae Fond Kiss' though it is not commonly sung to it today. The tune is quite different from that appearing under the same title of "Rory Dall's Port" in the Straloch M.S., as printed in Johnson's "Musical Museum".

Dave Richardson on mandolin and Cathal McConnell on whistle, join in this arrangement of a Niel Cow tune. The Gow Family, especially Niel's son Nathaniel, became fashionable as musicians in Regency society. I leamed this tune from the late Jean Campbell.

This tune is said to have been composed about 1649, on the execution of Charles the First, by John Garbh MacLean, Laird of Coll. He was reputedly a fine harper, and the family continued to take an interest in the clarsach, being one of the last to employ a harper as part of the household. This version came from the Angus Fraser M.S. in Edinburgh University library, which gives the melody line. Here I play the ground and second variation.

Two dance tunes here, a reel and a jig, still great favourites among traditional musicians. They appear in many collections.

A slow air from the early nineteenth century Captain Simon Fraser Collection. Simon Fraser and his son Angus (mentioned above) took a particular interest in harp tunes; indeed the second, unpublished volume of their collection was to be subtitled "Airs of the Highlands of Scotland communicated as sung by the people and formerly played upon the harp". This tune was learned from Simon Fraser's father, Capt. John Fraser, and it subsequently had words set to it by Robert Tannahill, under the title "The Braes of Balquhidder", which is supposed to be the origin of the well known song "Will ye go, lassie go".

It is not of course traditional to play waulking songs on the clarsach. But it is sometimes interesting to give these tunes, with their fascinating rhythms, an instrumental treatment, especially with the possibilities offered by the use of three harps together. The other two harps are played by Wendy Stewart and Patsy Seddon, two fine soloists in their own right.

This is another Rory Dall air from the Caledonian Pocket Companion. It shows the rather wandering melody that seems characteristic of many of the harp tunes. The word "Port" which now has the meaning simply of a "tune". often a dance tune. apparently formerly referred specifically to a composition for the harp. (See also Rory Dall's Port and Port Patrick).

Cathal McConnell on flute and whistle and Robin Morton on concertina play with me on a march probably titled after the famous battle in 1669 on the braes of Killiecrankie in Perthshire. We learnt this tune from Gilbert Gillies, a Nova Scotian fiddler, who said that in his area they pride themselves on the tradition that their fiddle style is derived from that of the harpers. There are two or three versions of this tune, and it is probably the original of the Irish "Planxty Davis". This tune was probably taken to Ireland in 1669 by the Irish harper O'Connellan. who had lived in Scotland for twenty years.

This is played nowadays by pipers as a pibroch called "Cumha Craobh nan Teud - lament for the Harp Tree" but it seems likely that the word "craobh" (tree) was at some point substituted for the word "crann", which has the double meaning of "tree" and "harp-key". The tune is again attributed to Rory Dall Morison. and since the first part of the ground played on the pipes fits a poem of his known as "Feill nan Crann" (The Harp-Key Fair). he probably made both tune and poem. This harp version comes from the Angus Fraser M.S., and was arranged by Francis Collinson. I play the ground, the first and second variations, and the amplified ground. To introduce and complete the set ]immy Anderson of the Glasgow group "The Clutha". here plays a fragment of the pibroch on an old hybrid set of small pipes which are basically Northumbrian pipes, but with an open chanter. like the Highland pipes.

The three harps join together again, this time on an Irish slip-jig. The Scottish and Irish traditions have been exchanging tunes for hundreds of years, so we are just continuing the process. Cathal McConnell tells me that this is a very old tune, and certainly it flows over the strings of the harp so readily that it would be nice to think that at one time it was a harp tune.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the fiddle was taking over in popularity from the harp. This did not go down well with the old harpers. On hearing a fiddler playing harp tunes. Rory Dall Morison is said to have remarked "Masa ceol fidileireachd, tha gu leor siod dheth" (If fiddling is music, that is enough of it). It is not surprising. therefore, that this short tune is attributed to him.

To show that there are no hard feelings nowadays, Aly Bain plays this eighteenth century fiddle tune with me. It was composed by William Marshall, from Fochabers in Morayshire, who was butler to the Duke of Gordon.

A six-part strathspey called after one of the main towns in the Spey valley, the area in which this uniquely Scottish kind of reel was developed. This tune comes from James Stewart-Robertson's "Athole Collection of Scottish Dance Music".

Another Rory Dall air, again from Oswald's "Caledonian Pocket Companion", this time with a variation in 6/8 time. The title does not refer to a place. "Port", as mentioned before, simply means "tune".

I composed this tune about Thomas the Rymer, Thomas of Ercildoune, the famous poet and seer of the Borders. He lived in the 15th century, and is said to have received his gift of prophecy from the Faery Queen, eaming him the title of 'True Tammas'.

These are three tunes from the 18th or early 19th century. The first was composed by Niel Gow, the second is said to be "a very old tune", and the third I found in the music room at Dumfries House, where Lord Bute kindly allowed me to look through the collections. It was originally a reel, but on the harp I like it better as a jig.


Produced by Robin Morton
Recorded and mixed at Castle Sound Studios, Edinburgh
Engineer Calum Malcom
Cover Photo: Robin Morton
Sleeve notes and Design: Alison Kinnaird
Graphic: Graham Ogilvie

Album Information

Instruments: Harp
Genre: Scottish Traditional
Format: CD
Our Ref: A0146
Label: Temple Records
Year: 1979
Origin: Manufactured in Austria

Artist Information & Contact Details

Photograph of Alison KinnairdAlison Kinnaird is recognised as one of the foremost exponents of traditional Scottish harp music. Alison's first instrument was cello and she was a founder member of the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra. She has a degree in Celtic Studies and Archaeology and studied the harp under Jean Campbell in Edinburgh from the age of 14. She has won the Clarsach Trophy at the National Mod and the Harp Competition in Pan Celtic Festival in Killarney.

Alison plays both gut and wire-strung harps and has recorded several critically acclaimed albums. She has been researching the repertoire of the harp in Scotland for more than twenty-five years, written several books of harp music, and co-authored the first published history of the harp in Scotland "The Tree of Strings". This album "The Harp Key - Crann nan Teud" was the first ever recording of Scottish harp music, still essential listening for people interested in the Scottish harp.


Contact Details Please use form on Alison's web site click here
Artist Web Site

Also from Alison Kinnaird

Available from Creighton's Collection:
Sheet Music & Books
Tree of Strings The Small Harp Tutor The Harp Key North-East Collection The Lothian Collection  
Tree of Strings The Small Harp The Harp Key The North-East Collection The Lothian Collection  
Compact Discs
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The Harp Key The Silver String The Scottish Harp The Harper's Land The Quiet Tradition Harps. Pipes & Fiddles