The Book of the Dean of Lismore, which
contains the earliest Scottish Gaelic poetry still extant, speaks
of a harp which had three strings-one of gold, one of silver,
and one of iron. Each string would conjure up music in turn,
of sadness, joy or sleep. Old or new, in Alison Kinnaird's hands
the harp tunes still express these timless emotions.
It has been more than 25 years since Alison
Kinnaird made her album 'The Harp Key', a ground-breaking record
which was the first to present the Scottish harp as a solo instrument
with its own repertoire. That album remains a classic, though since
then there have been many recordings by other harpers. An explosion in
interest in the small harp means that in recent years the instrument
has become familiar in Scottish music. The harp is frequently heard
in groups and bands, playing all kinds of Scottish music, and is
once again an active part of the tradition. Many players have learned
either directly or indirectly from Alison Kinnaird, since she has
been one of most active teachers of the harp in Scotland, publishing
a number of books of music, including a tutor for the small harp.
She also co-wrote, with Keith Sanger, the first history of the
harp in Scotland, a project which led to her taking up the wire
strung clarsach. One of her main interests, however, has always
been in discovering the lost gems of music that were composed for
the harp and clarsach. Grounded in knowledge of the past, she finds
an approach in these with which to .take the instruments forward.
She is playing traditional music which is also truly contemporary,rather
than following the fashions of so-called 'Celtic' music. The music
asserts the dignity of the harps of Highland and Lowland Scotland
in tunes reflecting moments of significance - laments, celebrations,
conflict and peace. Alison also plays her own compositions, continuing
in the line of the harper-composers of the past.
Small harps of all kinds are nowadays often
referred to as 'clarsachs'. Most people are not aware that, as
with the dual cultures of Lowland Scot and Highland Gael, we have
the added richness of two different harps in Scotland, both equally
The two harps have very different characters,
and are played with different techniques. The more familiar gut-strung
harp was primarily played in East Coast and Lowland areas,
and is played with the pads of the fingers. The wire-strung clarsach
of the Gael was played in the West Coast and the Highlands.The
brass and gold strings are plucked with fingernails,and damping
techniques are used to create clarity in the melody, and in the
ringing harmonies. In addition, Alison also introduces the distinctive
sound of the bray harp, which was used in Scotland in Medieval
and Renaissance times.
The harps used on this album are a gut-strung
harp made by Henry Briggs in Glasgow in the 1930s; a reproduction
of the Lamont Harp strung with brass and gold wire, made by Robert
Evans of Cardiff; and two harps made by Ardival Harps of Strathpeffer,
one small wire-strung Kilcoy and a large gut-strung bray harp,
both played in the 'Horseman's Port'.
I composed this slow air for my friend, Laura Marshall, while teaching
at a summer school held at her wonderful home on the West Coast
of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Laura and her husband Justin
Busbridge built the house on Laura's family croft-land, whichLaura,
inherited from her grandfather.His family name was Macdonald,
but as usual in Lewis, the family also had a nickname - there
are a lot of MacLeods in Lewis! Laura's grealt-grandfather was
nicknamed lain'Beesa', probably after the way he pronounced some
of his words with a strong Lochs (east Lewis) accent. Laura is
said to be the image of her grandmother When she was young, who
was known as 'Mairi Bhisa' (pronounced Veessa), so I decided to
carry on the family tradition and name this tune after her. I
composed an air that she and Justin might enjoy playing together,
since their instruments are harp and cello. I play cello
on this track, along with my own husband, Robin Morton, who adds
his concertina, as well as Mike Katz, piper with Battlefield
Band, on whistle.
Alison-gut-strung harp & cello;
Mike Katz - whistles; Robin Morton-concertina.
Tweedside/Mary Scott, the Flower
Playing the harps of both Highlands and Lowlands woke my interest
in searching for the distinctive repertoires of each harp. The
harp of the Lowlands was strung with gut. It really lost its role
when the court of James VI moved down to London in 1603. The last
known specific reference to a 'Lawland harper' is in 1591. The
gut-strung harp gradually changed its emphasis over the following
centuries from traditional Scots to the European classical music
repertoire, until the 20th century, when interest was revived in
playing the small harp. Here are two Lowland tunes. The first slow
air I play simply because it is a great tune and sounds wonderful
on the harp. The second, I think, was originally composed for the
harp. The clues are in the construction of the melody and the range
and fall of the notes under the fingers. It is also sometimes
played in the North of England as well as in the Scottish Borders,
under the title 'Sir John Fenwick's. Mary Scott was the daughter
of Philip Scott of Dryhope. She married Wat Scott of Harden
in the mid 16th century. Her beauty is celebrated in the title
of this tune.
Alison -gut-strung harp
Cumh Ioarla Wigton (Lament for
the Earl of Wigtown)
This beautiful lament was probably composed in 1619, on the death
of John Fleming, first Earl of Wigtown. It has the form of a classic
Port, or harp tune of that period, and has full variations included
in the version given in Daniel Dow's collections. The Dows variations
were designed for fiddle but their presence indicated that this
tune has the formal construction for which variations were seen
as an appropriate convention. I have reclaimed them for the clarsach.
The Flemings also had family links with the Rosses of Ballnagowan,
the Atholls and Montgomeries ,all great patrons of harping and
The Horseman's Port
This tune gives a clue that in the Lowlands, the gut-strung harp
may have had a close relationship to the cauld-wind pipes, as
in the Highlands, the clarsach had with the great war-pipes.
The word 'Port' in the title links it with the harp. Three different
variants appear, along with other harp tunes, in the Balcarres
MS (1692-4). I enjoyed making harp style variations on the melody,
the structure of which lends itself to this form. The border
pipes also play this tune with appropriate variations, under
the title 'The Black & the Grey', while the fiddle and Highland
pipes play it as 'Newmarket Races', 'John Paterson's Mare' or
'John Paterson's Mare Goes Foremost' - always a link with horses.
I play the tune on the three harps which have been used in Scotland.
The melody is led by the amazing sound of the bray harp, which
was commonly played in Medieval and Renaissance times. Each gut
string has a little peg at its foot, which touches the string,
creating a distinctive buzzing sound. It can be played with either
nail or finger technique, and I think it is particularly suited
to ensemble playing, where it creates a great bass sound, cutting
through the sweetness of the gut and wire strung harps. It must
have been the electric guitar of its day. Don't write in saying
that your CD sounds strange - it's the unique tone of the bray
Alison - bray harp, gut-strung harp,
wire-strung clarsach; Robin Morton - bodhran
This tune is found in James Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion,
published between 1745-59. This is a wonderful collection which
contains a number of harp tunes. This melody may be an extended
version of 'Lochaber No More'. Here it is associated with the Robertsons
of Lude, one of the most important families of Perthshire, who
were great patrons of harpers, from at least the middle of the16th
century, right up till the mid 18th century. A number of the Lairds
of the Robertson families played the harp themselves, and it was
at Lude that two ancient harps, the Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont
Harp, survived. Many of the professional harpers, both Scottish
and Irish,would have travelled to Lude to perform for their patrons
and to compose melodies marking significant moments in their lives.
Alison- gut-strung harp
The Batell of Harloe/The March of Donald, Lord of the Isles
to the Battle of Harlaw
I have to thank John Purser for introducing me to the first tune.
It is found in an English M.S. which dates from around 1624. John
Purser suggested a minor adjustment of the bar lines, after which
it is found to fit well with the words of the Harlaw 'Brosnachadh'-
the incitement to battle which was composed by Lachlann Mor MacMhuirich
before the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. He was the bardic poet whose
family served the Lords of the Isles for generations. They were
granted lands in South Kintyre, next to those held by the Mac Gille
Sheanaichs, hereditary harpers to the Lords of the Isles, and no
doubt poet and harper performed together. It isexciting to suggest
that this may be the original melody for this ancient song. Harper
and bard often attended battles, rousing the clansmen to battle
fervour with poetry and music before they attacked. (It is clearly
impractical to march while playing a clarsach! Harpers did not
lead the clan into battle). The words of the ancient poem have
survived. It begins: 'A Chlanna Cuinn, cuimhnichibh, Cruas an am
na h-iorghaile: gu h-airneach, gu h-arranta, gu h athlamh,
gu h-allanta .. .' ( ... Children of Conn, remember hardihood in
time of battle. Be watchfull, be dextrous, winning renown...)The
melody worked well on the clarsach, allowing use of phrasing and
nail techniques which recall harp motifs in the equall ancient
Ap Huw M.S. of Wales. Firmly entrenched as Lords of the Isles by
the mid 15th century, the MacDonalds had come into direct conflict
with the Scottish Crown when they laid claim to the Earldom of
Ross. The Battle of Harlaw was claimed as a victory by both sides,
but though inconclusive, it established the limits of power of
the Lords of the Isles. This march is usually now played as a pipe
tune, but has the typical structure of the old clan marches. Here
I am joined on fiddle, by Alasdair White, a fine young player from
the Isle of Lewis.
Alison-wire-strung clarsach; Alasdair
Cumha Eachainn Ruaidh nan Cath (Lament
for Red Hector of the Battles)
The death, at the Battle of Harlaw, of Hector MacLean of Duart,
was a blow for the Highland clans, and was one reason why victory
was claimed by the Scots forces. Though it is played now as a piobaireachd
on the Highland pipes, it may have originated as a song, and been
expanded later into instrumental versions with their variations.
Clarsach and pipes both used this form of ceol m6r (great music).
I suggest there is technical evidence that the characteristic form
of the variations, may have originated with the clarsach. I have
made my own clarsach variations, after a version of the theme which
came from a collection of tunes made by Duncan Currie in
the early 20th century.
Alison - wire-strung clarsach
Taladh Dhomhnaill Ghuirm (Donald
This lullaby is thought to have been composed for Donald Gorm MacDonald
of Sleat who died in 1617. In it his foster mother describes how
his great galley will sail the seas-'Whose boat do I see off the
headland? lt is the boat of my child, Donald.It has a golden rudder
and three masts of willow; .a well of wine in the stern and
a well of pure water in the prow. Wherever it come to rest in Scotland,
there will be song and story, pipes and clarsach, merriment and
dancing'. She ends with a blessing 'May the strength of the waves
be with you, and the strength of the sun; the strength of the brown
bull bringing cattle; the strength of Ossian and all the Feinne'.
It isbeautifully sung by Christine Primrose, one of the great voices
of Gaelic Scotland, with whom I have performed and travelled the
world over many years of friendship. I have guested as accompanist
on her recordings, so for Christine to guest as singer on this
album seemed very appropriate. I think her lovely voice with its
flawless traditional style has a particular affinity with the sound
of the wire-strung clarsach, which itself is mentioned in the song,
and I add harmony vocals to the chorus lines.
Christine Primrose- vocals; Alison
- wire-strung clarsach, vocals
Dubh an Tomaidh (The Dark Night
Not a harp tune, but one which suits the harp beautifully. It comes
from the Angus Fraser M.S. I am not sure where 'Tomie' is - it
may be Tomich, on the Black Isle.
Alison - gut-strung harp
The word 'Port' in Gaelic now means simply 'a tune'. In the 16th
and 17th centuries, however, it referred specifically to harp
tunes. Two completely different tunes have the title 'Port Gordon'
attached to them, and in these cases it may simply mean a harp
tune associated with the family of Gordon. Perhaps this melody
was composed for George Gordon, sixth Earl and first Marquis of
Huntly (1562-1636). He defeated the Duke of Argyll at the Battle
of Balrinnes, when it was foretold that Argyll's harp would be
played in the Gordon heartland of Strathbogie. And indeed it was-not
as the victor, but as spoils of war in the hands of his enemies.
This version of the melody comes from JamesOswald's Caledonian
Pocket Companion, and is also found in variants in Daniel Dow's
Collection in, Bunting as 'Purth Clairseach', and the MacLean-Clephane
M.S., where it is subtitled 'Scottish Highland Original adapted
to the Harp by Carolan'. Clearly, it was played on both sides of
the Irish Sea, though the name 'Port' indicates a Scottish origin.
Alison - gut-strung harp
Ayrshire Lasses/Dance of the Dead
One of the last travelling harpers recorded in Scotland was in
fact a Welshman- William ap Pritchard of Llandegai. He settled
in South West Scotland, and he and his family were described
in a letter from Joseph Train, an exciseman, to Sir WaIter Scott.
William ap Pritchard played the harp and fiddle, his wife and
daughter also played the harp, while his other children played
the fiddle and danced. They entertained at the fairs and dances
of Dumfries & Galloway, in the early years of the 19th century.
William is said to have composed a number of tunes - among them,
this fine strathspey, 'Ayrshire Lasses'. The family came to a
sad end in 1816 when they failed to find lodgings in Gatehouse
of Fleet during a storm, and eventually took shelter in a gravel
pit on the road to Portpatrick. During the night, the pit fell
in, and the entire family of seven were killed. They were buried
in Twynhame Kirkyard, according to Train, who in 1830 still owned
Pritchard's harp. The pit afterwards became known as the Harper's
Hole, and local people told stories of unearthly figures dancing
there each night. It seemed appropriate to follow the harper's
strathspey with this jig,which I learned from Seamus Tansey,
the great Irish flute-player. He said that in the old days at
a wake, people did not want the corpse to miss out on the fun,
so they would prop it up in the centre and dance round it! I
have not been able to find any other traditional stories that
mention this custom, but in any case it is a great tune for the
harp. I play it here on gut strung and bray harps with my friends
Ann & Charlie Heymann. Ann is undoubtedly the foremost player
of the wirestrung clarsach and has done more than anyone to revive
this great instrument. Charlie is also a fine musician and joins
in with - what else - the bones!
Alison - gut-strung harp, cello, bray
harp; Ann Heymann. wire-strung clarsach; Charlie Heymann - bones
Air by Fingal III.
This is one of the group of eight tunes in John Bowie's fiddle
collections which are described as ' Ancient music ... composed
originally for the Harp'. They are said to have been learned
from 'the famous Rory Daul a celebrated Harper in
the reign of Queen Ann', by the ancestors of a Gentleman (who
was probably Captain Simon Fraser). 'Rory Daul' is credited as
performer but not the composer of this 'Air by Fingal'. The fact
that it is described as being by Fingal, or Finn MacCool, the
legendary giant, suggested that these tunes were believed to
be of some antiquity, even in the 18th century when Bowie's collection
was published. This tune again shows the typical harp form of
a series of variations; amongst which I have integrated two variations
of my own.
Alison - wire-strung clarsach.
In 2002 I was given a Creative Scotland Award by the Scottish Arts
Council. These are collectively.the largest arts prizes in Britain,
and are given to established artists to enable them to carry
out a major project. I chose to use mine to combine both the
glass and the music with which I work. 'Psalmsong' is an installation
using glass, music, optical fibre light; dichroic colour,
digital photograph and printed textiles. Taking the 'lissajous
patterns' which are created when the notes of the harp
are played into a computer, I combined these with the human figure,
which represents the emotion in the music, and used these to
express a musical composition of my own. The music began by following
the 'question and answer' form of the Gaelic precented psalms-
hence the title. It developed more into a harp tune once the
theme was established, with two variations on gut-strung and
wire-strung harps. I play the introduction on glass itself,
so that one hears the sound of the medium, as well as seeing
the visual expression of the sound.
Alison - gut-strung harp, wire-strung
clarsach, cello, glass
DVD Special Features
•3 Films by Robin Morton featuring
Alison Kinnaird's Harp Music and Glass installations (PCM Audio).
Ayrshire Lasses & Dance of the Dead
Ring of Crystal, Ring of Stone
•On camera introductions by
•Gallery of her Glass Artworks
•Information regarding Awards.
Public Collections, and Past Exhibitions
•Discography & Publications
Illustrations and details of Alison's various CDs and Books.
A sample audio track is included
from each CD.
Alison Kinnaird has always had two careers running parallel, as
a wellknown Scottish musician, but also as an artist in
glass, whose work is collected internationally. In 1997, the
Queen awarded her an M.B.E. for services to art and music.
Usually, Alison keeps both activities separate, but in a number
of projects both glass and the harp have featured together.
Alison introduces 3 short films by
Robin Morton, which show the relationship between the two arts.
made possible by a Creative Scotland Award from the Scottish
Arts Council in 2002. It took a year to complete, and involves
glass, music, light, dichroic colour, digital photography and
printed textiles. The notes of the harp melody were played into
a computer, and the patterns produced by sampling across the
soundwave, were used to express a composition of Alison's own.
The human figures and the colours represent the emotions in the
music. The shadow projected by the engraving was photographed
and digitally printed to produce a 'shadow banner' 4.5 metres
long, which hangs behind the glass. The DVD shows the installation
in its entirety and in detail, and also gives an insight on the
process of the wheel-engraving which Alison uses in her work,
an ancient technique used since Roman times.
Ayrshire Lasses & Dance
of the Dead A strathspey and a jig, the first played
by Alison herself on gut strung harp and cello. The second
tune was filmed during a visit to Temple Village, of Ann and
Charlie Heymann from Minnesota. Ann plays the jig on wire-strung
clarsach, the instrument on which she is undoubtedly the world's
leading virtuoso, and Charlie adds the percussive sound of
Ring of Crystal, Ring of
Stone This artwork was created in 1988, based on
the theme of standing stones. It was acquired by Leicester
Museum & Art Gallery in 1988. Like a circle of stones,
the music follows the characteristic form of harp music, beginning
with a theme, progressing through a series of variations, and
returning to the theme at the end. Each variation has a corresponding
engraved crystal block. The concept is that no matter how the
human figure is disguised, hidden, dismembered or changed it,
like the human spirit, will emerge in the end. The beautiful
visual images of the stones at Castlerigg, and Long Meg and
her Daughters in Cumbria, and the majestic Callanish Stones
on the Isle of Lewis, were filmed by Robin Morton to complement
the engraved crystal. The music 'Ring of Crystal, Ring of Stone'
appeared on the compilation album 'The Scottish Harp' (Temple
This DVD brings the art and music
together again for the first time since the piece became part
of the permanent collection of Leicester Museum & Art Gallery.
Thanks to: Laura Marshall & Justin
Busbridge, Crispin Phillips, Karen Marshalsay, John Ritchie,
Ewan MacGregor, Denise Lindsay and especially to Robin whose
creativity and energy have always been my inspiration.