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.
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.
The Screiching Animal
Here’s a story about how a fiddle might seem to someone who'd never heard it before!
A lad lived in a remote glen in the east of Scotland with his mother, and he had never been to school. He had never gone to a village, let alone a town.
his mother said, 'Son, it’s time you went out into the world. I hear there is
to be a dance tonight down at the foot of the glen. Off you go.'
'What is a dance?' asked the lad. 'Go and see' said his mother.
He went down the miles to the foot of the glen and into a big house with hardly any furniture. Men were standing on one side of the room and women the other. At one end, a man was sitting on a chair. Suddenly he opened a bag, took out a fiddle, tuned up the strings one by one, then pulled the bow on the strings and played a loud phrase to announce the first dance. The men ran across the floor to choose their partners for the dance. But the lad had been edging towards the door when the fiddler tuned up. When the men ran, he ran too, but he ran out of the door and all the way home.
finished early, son?' asked his mother.
'Oh, mother, it was terrible. I escaped, but I think a lot of people got killed! There was a man there took a wild animal out of a bag, and it had four ears! Every time he twisted an ear the animal yelled in pain. At last he took a stick and hit the animal across the belly, and it screiched in such fury that everybody ran to get out of the place. I was near the door and I got out all right, but I looked back and no-one came out after me. I fear that four-eared beast caught and ate the lot of them!'