Sources for Gaelic harp music

John Bowie, Collection of Strathspey Reels and Country Dances

This Scottish book, published in 1789 by a Perthshire musician contains three "Airs by Fingal", three ports, a salute and a battle tune. They are set with basses, and are described:

The following pieces of Ancient Music were furnished to the Editor by a Gentleman of note in the Highlands of Scotland, were composed originally for the Harp and which were handed down to him by his Ancestors who learned the same of the famous Rory Daul a celebrated Harper in the Reign of Queen Ann _ These tunes are called in our language Ports, and were composed either for Religious Worship, or on heroic Subjects.

Clàrsach na Bànrighe
Listen to John Robertson's repertory, performed on a replica of the Queen Mary harp, on the new CD: Simon Chadwick, Clàrsach na Bànrighe

Gunn, writing in 1807 (Historical Enquiry respecting the Performance on the Harp, p.96-7), explains how these tunes were passed down through two separate branches of the Robertson family, the Robertsons of Struan and the Robertsons of Lude.

The "Gentleman of Note", from whose playing Bowie noted the music, was Colonel Colgear Robertson (d.1818). He played the tunes on the fiddle and learned them from his father, Duncan Robertson of Struan, 14th Chief. Duncan himself played them on the fiddle, but had learned them (presumably in his youth) from John Robertson of Lude (d.c.1729), who played them on the Queen Mary harp which had been (and was subsequently) kept at Lude by the Robertsons for many generations.

A facsimile of part of p32, showing the third Air by Fingal is given in Sanger & Kinnaird, Tree of Strings, Kinmor 1992, p185.

Bowie also gives a setting of "Lady of the Desart" which is the famous air An Chúilfhionn (The Coolin), with its elaborate variations by Cornelius Lyons (c. 1680 - c. 1750), in a very similar setting to that noted by Edward Bunting from the playing of Denis O'Hampsey in 1792.

A CD-ROM containing a PDF file with a facsimile of the entire book, published by Taigh na Teud, is available here from the Emporium.

Simon Chadwick