The Clàrsach

The clàrsach or Highland harp is Scotland’s oldest musical instrument. There is evidence of the small harp dating back to the 9th century. Carvings were found on stone crosses in several parts of Scotland (Nigg, Duplin and Aultbar stones).

The common use of harps in olden times is commemorated in the place names we find such as “The Harper Pass” The Harper’s Field” and “The Harper’s Window” in Duntulm castle on Skye. The name of our company is taken from a harper’s meeting place in the centre of Scotland called “Taigh na Teud”. Mary Queen of Scots played the harp and it is said that she called in as she had broken a string. The meaning is “Harpstring House” or house of the string.

The early harps were strung with wire, held on the left side and plucked with nails grown long. If strung in gut the harp was held on the right shoulder and plucked with the cushion of the finger. If a wire strung harper displeased his punishment was to have his finger nails cut!

Harpers accompanied troops into battle till superceded by the pipes in the 16th century. Until the middle of the 18th century the harpers had a good position in society as they were employed to entertain clan chiefs and noble families. They often were given a house and land. MacLeod of Dunvegan had in his retinue a a harper, a bard, a piper and a fool.

Playing the clarsach was a neccessary accomplishment among cultivated people and often the instrument was passed around for all to take a turn. Scotland’s most famous clarsach player and composer was Ruaraidh Dall (Blind Rory) who was clarsair to Iain Breac the 17th century chief of MacLeod at Dunvegan Castle ( died 1693). Ruaraidh Dall died around 1713. As the harp in Scotland felt out of use so early, many tunes were lost or taken up by pipes and fiddles and cannot now be attributed definitely to the harp or any composer.

By the mid 18th century the harp was no longer heard. This may be because the clan chiefs no longer had an interest when the court moved to London. The instruments were and still are very easily broken and few old harps have survived to this day. The two surviving examples The Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont Harp are in the National Museum of Scotland and well worth a visit to look at. Harp playing was revived in Scotland in 1891 when Lord Achibald Campbell asked the bagpipe maker Glen to make some based on the old harps. He also started clarsach competitions at the first national Mod in 1892.

Today there are more players than at any time since the middle ages and playing the clarsach is very popular in Scotland. Musicians can again make a full time living out of composing, teaching and playing music on the harp.

In our catalogue you will find old and new music for the clarsach. Well known players are represented in book and Cd and we have republished several old manuscripts and books said to contain the remnants of this fine clarsach music so that todays players can research and discover the music for themselves.

See Books by Corrina Hewat, Wendy Stewart, Christine Martin and Mary Strachan (Clarsach Tutor Books and Clarsach CDs by Wendy Stewart, Siobhan Breathnach, and others.