The old Gaelic arts of Ireland and Scotland are perhaps exemplified by the household of Iain Breac MacLeod, at Dunvegan Castle, Skye, in the late 17th century:

Bhi mi latha ’m Blàbheinn
mar ri Iain saidhbhir na Hearadh,
an comunn na clàrsaich,
far am biodh luchd dàn ’ga leantail.
Gun dèanainn fhìn is Ruaidhri
duanagan beaga de rannaibh,
’s gheibhmid deocha brìoghmhor
b’fhearr leam na miadachd de bhannach.

One day I was at Dunvegan
with generous John of Harris,
amongst fans of the Gaelic harp
where poets kept time with its music.
Rory and I would compose
little poems of a few verses
and would receive strong drinks
that I preferred to the size of the bannocks.

from John MacLean of Mull, Oran do Mhac Lùgais, late 17th century1

As well as the singer, songwriter and harper Rory Dall Morison, Dunvegan was also home to Patrick Og MacCrimmon the piper, James Glass the fiddle player, Norman MacAndy the jester, as well as Mary MacLeod the poet.2 It was in this kind of cultural setting of retained professional artists that the Gaelic harp music flourished.

The closest art to harping was Gaelic song. Nowadays we distinguish between song and poetry, but in the past, before mass-production of books, poems were disseminated and shared by singing them, and it was usual for a professional singer in Ireland and Scotland to be accompanied by a harpist. By the 18th century, after the Gaelic harp had died out in Scotland, and as the old traditions were declining and disappearing all over Ireland and Scotland, there were still harpers in Ireland who accompanied their own singing of Gaelic songs.

In Scotland, the bagpipes became the most important instrument in the castles and big houses, even as the Gaelic harp was dying out. The celebrated MacCrimmon family were hereditary pipers to the MacLeods, and the first was said to have been not a piper but a harper.3 The style of pipe music known now as pibroch or ceòl mór was likely based on older Gaelic harp styles.

In Ireland, bagpipes also became a replacement for the Gaelic harp as a gentlemans instrument, but this happened more in the 19th century, after the change in music to baroque forms, and it was the more developed union pipes (now known as uillean pipes) which were used.

Fiddles were introduced into Ireland and Scotland probably in the late 17th century, and quickly became popular for the native art music (ceòl mór), as well as for the fashionable new dance styles. It seems likely that the older styles of fiddle playing copied style and idiom from the by then declining Gaelic harp traditions.

The society in which all of this music was appreciated and listened to from medieval times down to the ending of the old traditions in the 18th and 19th centuries was a learned, aristocratic culture. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of the heads of great families such as the MacLeods in Skye, or the O’Neills in Ulster. At their family seats, these Gaelic noblemen competed with each other in displaying their taste and most importantly their generosity and hospitality.

As the old Gaelic aristocracy was supressed, exiled, or Anglicised, its patronage of these arts declined. Some of the arts passed down the social scale, ending up being kept alive by the common people to the present day (for example, Gaelic song, or fiddle playing). Some were kept alive by shifting sideways, for example Scottish Highland bagpiping which moved into the military, and which was then patronised even by Anglicised Scots, and by the English royalty. But the Gaelic harp tradition was too old, too conservative, and too difficult and expensive to cultivate, and so it died out completely during the 19th century.

In the latter part of the 20th century the Gaelic harp traditions are being looked at once again, but mostly by non-Gaels. I don’t have any Gaelic heritage or upbringing; I just think it is a most beautiful and sublime art. However I do think it is important that the Gaelic harp is recognised as a fundamentally Gaelic tradition, rather than being taken away and presented as a neutral, technical instrumental tradition with no cultural background.

Ar mheid meadhrach a mhúir chuirr
Mháig Eochagáin fhuair urruim
Biaidh cnoc lomnán ar gach leath
d’orghán a chrot ’a chláirsioch.

So great the sense of wellbeing
in MacGeoghan’s fair home,
The hills will be deserted all around
from the sound of his harps.

from Godfrey Finn O'Daly, A Chláirsioch Chnuic í Chosgair, 13854

Simon Chadwick