asymmetric lyre
Shrine of
St. Mogue


Although the picture of a Gaelic harp on the shrine of St Mogue1 (usually dated c. 1000AD) may seem to give us a clear start into the history of the medieval Gaelic harp, the situation is far less clear then it might seem. There are very few other illustrations from the medieval period in Ireland or Scotland - there are just handful of weathered outlines on carved stones3. So for most of the medieval period we know as little about the form and morphology of the early Gaelic harp as we do about the centuries before 1000AD.

At the end of the medieval period our view changes enormously as there are three complete surviving instruments, which are usually dated to the 15th century. Two are preserved in Edinburgh4 and one in Dublin5 although it seems that all three may have originated in Argyll on the West coast of Scotland6

Replica of the Queen Mary harp
Replica of the
Queen Mary

Although there is much argument about how these three instruments have been modified or changed over their long lives, and in one case whether it is even a complete working instrument, these tangible remains contain an enormous amount of information about the music and traditions. However much of this is only potential as they have not been subject to sustained academic scrutiny since 100 years ago7. But nonetheless accurate measured replicas allow serious experiments to be made with stringing, tuning and playing these instruments to investigate the technical parameters of medieval Gaelic harp music8.

Turning from surviving objects to historical sources, Gerald of Wales mentions Irish harp music in the late 12th century. His comments are obscure and often over-interpreted, but it is clear that to this classically-educated outsider the skill of the Irish harpers was impressive9.

Late medieval poetry from Ireland and Scotland contains many references to harpers and harp music, and the Scottish Royal accounts record payments made to them, but there is still a lack of concrete detail about instruments, music and techniques.

From a related tradition, the 17th century Welsh music manuscript of Robert ap Huw is generally agreed to contain in it repertory from 14th and 15th century Wales. These unique survivals might give us a hint as to the type of music that was played in Ireland and Scotland.

Next: the Gaelic harp in the 16th century