The Clarsach - The Scottish Harp
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.