Scotlands Culture\|Scotlands Songs

The clàrsach

Image of Women playing clarsach

The clàrsach is one of the oldest instruments of Scotland. It is also known as the small harp and can be more easily carried from place to place than its classical concert harp cousin. The main difference between the clàrsach and the concert harps used in orchestras is size. The clàrsach, like most western harps, is a diatonic instrument, and has only a simple system of changing pitch and key by means of a semitone lever on each individual string. The clàrsach can be strung with animal gut or metal strings. Long fingernails are necessary for playing the metal-strung instrument, while the gut-strung version is played with the fingertips, and in both cases only the thumb and first three fingers of each hand are used to play. Sileas is the name of a duo who play both metal and gut-strung harps.

The harp has a quiet sound (unlike the Highland bagpipe!) and in the past was often used for lulling people to sleep. Very little of the original music of the harp survives in Scotland, so harp players nowadays tend to play airs and song melodies, and tunes like reels, strathspeys and marches which are common to other instruments. It is believed by some players that some of the oldest bagpipe pibrochs were originally harp pieces. The harp also goes very well with the voice and is often used to accompany singing.

Alison Kinnaird and Christine Primrose play 'An Gille Dubh Ciardubh Ciardubh'. Alison plays the harp to accompany the Lewis Gaelic singer, Christine.

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An Gille Dubh Ciardubh Ciardubh (Alison Kinnaird and Christine Primrose)

'An Gille Dubh Ciardubh' performed by Alison Kinnaird and Christine Primrose

From Gun Sireadh, Gun larraidh, Temple Records, COMD2086, Track 2

In the days when the harp was the most important Scottish instrument, several famous players and composers of harp music were blind. Harpist Heather Yule suggests that this was because the tunes were aurally transmitted (passed on by listening rather than by seeing them written down). Blind people had the perfect skills for this, because by ear and touch was the way they learned everything. Also, a blind person would have few professions to choose from and music was one of the few. As well as Heather Yule, other well known Scottish harpers include Savourna Stevenson, Ailie Robertson and Corrina Hewatt.

Ailie Robertson takes a pipe tune and turns it into a very modern harp tune by changing time signatures and using different playing techniques.

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Donald, Willie and his Dog (Ailie Robertson)

'Donald, Willie and his Dog' performed by Ailie Robertson

From First Things First, Lorimer, LORRCD1, Track 4

To hear Heather Yule playing clàrsach harp music, listen to 'Rory Dall's Port', 'Ae Fond Kiss', 'Scots Wha Hae', 'The Sticky Jig', and ‘Mrs MacLeod of Raasay'.

Image credit: Clàrsach players published as Creative Commons on Flickr by Fiddledidee.

Related resources

Rory Dall's Port

This tune was composed for the harp and was the original melody for 'Ae Fond Kiss' by Robert Burns.

Ae Fond Kiss

Robert Burns's finest love poem, sung by Tryst, along with background information and recordings of other related music.

Scots Wha Hae

Robert Burns's stirring song about freedom, and more about the original tune, called 'Hey Tuttie Taitie', and another Burns song, 'Landlady Count the Lawin', set to the same melody.

The Sticky Jig

A simple harp tune about a little girl's stick insect.

Mrs MacLeod of Raasay

A famous reel tune, played and sung in different styles and on different instruments.