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THE CLARSACH AND THE CLAN

By Sheila H. Menzies
(Taken from The Clan Menzies Magazine, December 1993)


Recently, the gift of a clarsach (Gaelic for Harp) led me to read a fascinating account of the history of harping in Scotland - "The Tree of Strings - Crann nan Teud" by Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird. My interest greatly increased as I discovered the links between the harp and Perthshire from very early times and later with Clan Menzies. Whilst other parts of Scotland and other clans had their links, it is the link to Perthshire and to our clan which the following summary describes.

Firstly, however, it might be helpful to describe the instrument. From early times two types of harp appeared in Scotland. The first was a larger, lightly built floor-standing instrument with horsehair strings. Later, with the immigration of the Scots from Ireland, small sturdy harps appeared with metal strings. The modern instrument is strung with gut or, less commonly, metal strings. Examples of old harps, the Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont Harp, can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland. On average the harps measured 36 in. high and 20 in. wide.

The earliest written reference to the harp in Scotland appears in a Welsh poem written about 600 AD. It mentions a minstrel/harper in association with a battle fought in the vicinity of present day Edinburgh. Pictish carvings from the 10th century found at Dupplin and at Lethendy, both in Perthshire, depict the harp 200-300 years before similar examples appear elsewhere in Europe.

 
Photo of plaster cast of Clarsach on ceiling at Castle Menzies    



Later written reference is found in a poem by an Irish poet in praise of a new harp. This work dates from 1382-87 and introduces the word "clarsach". The poem is to be found in an early collection of Scots Gaelic poetry and song, The Book of the Dean of Lismore, produced in Fortingall, Perthshire, in the 16th century. Scholars suggest the existence of an active group of poets and ballad makers in Perthshire and a centre of harping in Atholl at this time. A representation of a clarsach can be seen in the decorative plaster ceilings (ca, 1620) of two rooms at Castle Menzies.


Professional harpers, generally male, were frequently employed by Highland families - ennobling the family character. Amateur playing of the harp tended to be a female pastime. In the late 17th century professional harpers were associated with the Robertsons of Struan, Lude and Faskally. Alexander Menzies of Logierait, one of the last wealthy professional harpers, appeared to have sufficient wealth to lend money to needy local lairds.

Also in Perthshire at this time, the Campbells of Bredalbane patronised musicians and poets. It is recorded, in 1662, Lady Weem, wife of the Chief of Clan Menzies, was a frequent visitor to their residence and it was most likely the Clan harper would have accompanied her. The Clan harper was Menzies in Logierait. The next recorded historical link between the Clan and clarsach appears in the 19th century, where Lady Grace Menzies, wife of Sir Neil Menzies of Menzies appears in a portrait holding a clarsach.


For the interested reader wishing to explore the wider history of the Scottish harp, "The Tree of Strings" gives a detailed picture of Scottish harping, music and social life through the ages. At the present time there appears to be a resurgence of interest in the clarsach. Children in some areas have access to tuition in school and summer schools offer a week of intensive tuition to children and adults. Perhaps Castle Menzies may bring the past to life again by hosting a harping event sometime in the not too distant future.


Reference
Sanger,K.& Kinnaird,A., 1992, "Tree of Strings - Crann nan Teud; a history of
The harp in Scotland", Kinmor Music.

 
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