Harp, Harpers & their Music in Bardic Poetry

Harps, harpers and their music were in close intimacy with the bardic and semi-bardic poetry practised in both Ireland and Scotland from about 1200 to 1700. A first and fundamental link between them is based in the fact that the harp was used and played by highly skilled musicians as a musical background for the declamation of the poems by the reciter (reacaire) and thus the instrument, both as an object and source of sounds, was familiar to the learned poets (fili). This fact allowed an interesting second link which is the frequent presence of harps, harpers and their music in the poems themselves, to the point that it became a topic , along with others like golden goblets, red wine or chess boards, when describing the magnificence and luxury of the noblemen’s houses and castles, something essential due to the nature and functions of the bardic poetry: the celebration and panegyric of the chieftains and the hopeful reward for the poems. Most frequently these quotations on the harp and their music, or the effects of the music on the listeners, are fragments that ocupy some verses or a quatrain in the poems, as in the next quatrain by Mac Giolla Fhionntóg from the ‘Book of the Dean of Lismore’ (c.1520),

Coimhsheinm idir cláirseachaibhI ndún an laoich ‘na lámhaibh;
A lucht tighe ó tháipleasaibh
Ag dol fá dhubhar gháraidh. 

Harps being played in harmony in the hero’s stronghold, in the hands of minstrels;
his household go from the backgammon boards
to walk in the shade of the garden. [1]

But also an important number of poems are devoted enterely to the description of a particular harp [2], to celebrate the skills, or the opposite, of a particular harper, or just to describe the feelings that the presence of a harp arouse in the poet.

All in all these fragments and poems devoted to the harp give us an idea of the high status and esteem of the harpers and their music in classical Gaelic society. Most important, in the absence of iconographical material like paintings or engravings, they offered us a fresh image of the place, surroundings and circunstances in which the music of the harp was played and heard, and offered us information and details we could not have found in any other place.

The present selection of seventeeth century Scottish Gaelic poetry gathers some few fragments and a complete poem.

J a v i e r    S á i n z    [ 2 0 0 7 ]


… Bu ro mhaith b’aithne dhomh t’aighear
N am dhuit gabhail gu d’sheomar:
Bhiodh foirinn air tailisg
Is da chlarsaich an comhstri,
Gus am freagradh am balla
Do mhac-talla nan organ,
Fion dearg Spaineach ‘ga losgadh
‘N cuid a dh’obair nan orcheard

Cumha Morair Hunndaidh
Iain Luim, c. 1625-c. 1707

…Very familiar was I with your festive ways
when you proceeded to your chamber:
chess-men were placed on chess-board
while two harps vied with each other
until the wall answered
to the echo of organs,
and red Spanish wine shone brightly
in the handiwork of goldsmiths [3] 

Lament for the Marquis of Huntly,
John MacDonald, c. 1625-c. 1707


… Tha mo dhùil-sa ann a Dia
Gur mùirneach do thriall
Gu dùn ud nan cliar
Far am bu dùthchas do m’ thriath
Bhiodh gu fiùghantach fial foirmeil
Gu dùn turaideach àrd,
B’e sud innis nam bàrd
Is nam filidh ri dàn
Far am bu mhinig an tàmh:
Cha b’ionad gun bhlàths dhoibh sud.
Gu àros nach crìon
Am bi gàirich nam pìob
Is nan clàrsach a rìs
Le deàrrsadh nam pìos
A’ cur sàraidh air fìon
Is ‘ga leigeadh an gnìomh òircheard…

An Crònan,
Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, c. 1615-c. 1707

… My hope is in God
for a gay journey for thee
to yonder fortress of the poet bands,
where my lord was wont to dwell;
generous, free-handed, stately was he:
To the tall battlemented tower
that was the resting place of bards
and makers of song,
where often they reposed;
for them it was a place that lacked not warmth:
To the dwelling that is not niggardly,
wherein is the roar of pipes,
and anon the sounds of harps,
with the gleam of silver cups,
making wine flow free,
and pouring it into the goldsmith’shandiwork…[4]

The Croon,
Mary MacLeod, c. 1615-c. 1707


… “An tràth chuirte ’na tàmh i
le furtachd ’na fardaich féin,
dhomh-sa b’fhurasd’ a ràdh
gum bu chuireideach gàir nan teud,
le h-iomairt dhà-làmh
cur am binnis di chàch an céill:
rìgh, bu shiubhlach ri m’ chluais
an lùthadh le luasgan mheur…

Oran do Mhac Leòid Dhùn Bheagain,
Ruaidhri Mac Mhuirich, 1656-1714

… When it (the bagpipe) was relieved
and laid to rest in its own quarters,
I could readily relate how beguiiling
was the sounds of harp-strings,
impressing all with their sweetness,
under the play of two hands.
Ah me! how fluent was the quick measure
played close to my ear by swiftly moving fingers…[5]

A Song to MacLeod of Dunvegan,
Rorie Dall Morison, 1656-1714


[Ceòl na Clàrsaich]

Do bheatha, chlàrsaich, a rìs,
An déis domh do thilgeadh uam;
Nam faodainn do chumail a steach,
Cha reachadh tu mach ri luaths.Bu bhinn leam iuchair do theud
Bhith ‘ga gleusadh goirid uam;
B’ ait leam do chom buidhe binn
Bhith ‘ga seinn làmh ri m’ chluais.
Nam bu bhean mi ‘g am biodh oighreachd
Bhiodh tu daonnan an mo chaidreabh;
Bu bhinn le m’ chluais bhith ‘gad chluinntinn
‘Nuar a dhùisginn anns a’ mhadainn.
B’ annsa na fiodhull is beus,
Orgain cha téid mi g’a luaidh,
‘S b’ e mo roghainn thar gach ceòl
Fuaim do theud throimh d’ bhòrdaibh cruaidh.

Sileas Nighean Mhic Raghnaill, c.1660-c.1729

[The Music of the Harp]

Hail to you, O harp, once more,
after I have cast you from me;
if I could keep you inside
you would not very speedily get out.Melodious to me was the key
of your strings being tuned close by me;
delightful to me was your sweet sallow body
being played near to my ear.
If I were a woman with an inheritance
you would be ever in my company;
my ear would delight to hear you
as I arose in the morning.
Dearer than fiddle and bass
-I will not mention the organ and
my choice above all music was the sound
of your strings through your hard boards.[6]

Sileas MacDonald of Keppoch, c.1660-c.1729



[1] Watson, W. J. (ed.), Scottish Verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1937. English translation from Thomson, Derick, An Introduction to Gaelic Poetry, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1989.
[2] As in Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s poem ‘To a Harp’ in Bergin, Osborn (ed.) Irish Bardic Poetry,The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1984.
[3] Mackenzie, Annie M. (ed.), Orain Iain Luim: Songs of John MacDonald Bard of Kappoch, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1964.
[4] Watson, J. C. (ed.), Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1965.
[5] Matheson, William. (ed.), The Blind Harper: An Clàrsair Dall, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1970.
[6] Ó Baoill, Colm (ed.), Bàrdachd Shìlis na Ceapaich: Poems and Songs by Sìleas MacDonald, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, Edinburgh, 1972
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