The Queen Mary harp

We have a repertory of 8 tunes that are said to have been played on the Queen Mary harp in the 18th century.

The Queen Mary harp and the Lamont harp were both kept at Lude House, near Blair Atholl in Perthshire, in the early 18th century and probably for many generations before then as well. They were apparently both kept in playing condition up until the death of John Robertson of Lude in 1730.

There is an anecdote from James Macintosh1 who visited John Robertson at Lude one evening, and was shown the two harps. “The largest one is loudest, but the small one is sweetest. Which do you wish to hear played?” said John, and proceeded to play upon the smaller one (i.e. the Queen Mary harp) “till daylight”.

Gunn p.96-7 (click to enlarge)

In 1807, John Gunn2 published the family traditions about the harps, using information from Robertson family papers and letters now lost. Gunn describes how John Robertson’s music was passed on orally to a fiddle player (Robertson of Strowan), and after a subsequent generation of oral transmission, the repertory was collected, written down and published by the Perth music publisher John Bowie.

John Bowie’s book, A Collection of Strathspey Reels and Country Dances was printed in 1789, and it does indeed contain four pages of harp tunes. They are set with newly composed bass lines, but if you ignore the basses they look convincingly like John Robertson’s repertory as he played it on the Queen Mary harp.

Clàrsach na Bànrighe
CD: Clàrsach
na Bànrighe

When I was working on my 2008 CD, Clàrsach na Bànrighe, I decided to include this cycle of tunes as performed on the Queen Mary harp by John Robertson in the early 1700s. For the CD I performed them on my then newly commissioned replica of the Queen Mary harp. To perform the one song in the collection, I engaged a Gaelic singer, Mairead Murnion.

The CD booklet includes full details of each of the tunes as well as the song words and translation.

Airs by Fingal

Three tunes in the cycle are titled “Air by Fingal”, which connects them with the ancient sung Fenian lays or Ossianic ballads. It is possible that the first and third are instrumental frames for the second which has a more vocal form. Alasdair Codona has suggested the second may be a version of “Laoidh an Amadain Mor”.

Air by Fingal

McLoud’s Salute

It is possible there has been a mix-up at some point between MacLeod and Lude, both spelt Leoid in Gaelic. This tune seems to me to be a version of “Lude’s Supper”, which is the family salute of the Robertsons of Lude. There are versions of both McLeod’s Salute and Lude’s Supper in Daniel Dow’s book.

Mc Loud's Salute

Port Lennox

This port was probably composed for the Duke of Lennox. There is a more baroque style version in the Balcarres lute book

Port Lennox

Port Gordon

This tune may have been composed for the Gordons of Huntly in the early 17th century. There is an anecdote about Gordon of Huntly accompanying Rory Dall on a visit to Lude c.1650.

Port Gordon

Port Atholl

Probably composed for the Dukes of Atholl at Blair Atholl, who were the neighbours and feudal superiors of the Robertsons of Lude.

Port Atholl

The Battle of Sherrifmuir

This tune matches a song text, “Oran air Cath Sliabh an t-Siorraimh”, found by Keith Sanger in Robertson family papers. The Battle of Sheriffmuir was fought in 1715 between the Jacobites and government forces. The Robertsons of Struan and of Lude were on the losing Jacobite side. This is the only one of the tunes from John Robertson’s repertory that was contemporary with him; all of the others were about a century older in my estimation.

The Battle of Sherriff Moor

All tracks from Simon Chadwick, Clàrsach na Bànrighe, EGH1, 2008. Simon Chadwick: replica Queen Mary harp. Mairead Murnion: Gaelic song

gut string
Gut string fragment on the Queen Mary harp

John Robertson was not quite the last to ever play on the Queen Mary harp. In 1805 John Robertson’s great-grandson, General William Robertson, loaned the two harps to the Highland Society where they were exhibited in Edinburgh; the harps were drawn, and the pictures and a description were published by by John Gunn. The Queen Mary harp was strung with gut pedal harp strings and played upon by the fashionable pedal harpist Elois. Although the strings were subsequently removed to save stressing the instrument, the wooden pegs inserted to retain the gut strings, and a short fragment of one string, are still on the harp.

Because the harp is now riddled with woodworm, it is too fragile to string and play today.


1. Donald Macintosh, Mackintosh’s Collection of Gaelic Proverbs, W. Stewart, Edinburgh, 1819, pp.199-200 ^

2. John Gunn, An Historical Enquiry respecting the Performance on the Harp in the Highlands of Scotland, Archibald Constable, Edinburgh, and John Murray, London, 1807 ^

Simon Chadwick