Susan here, busy with summer things and other things, so on this lazy, hot August day (or the chill of August – a nod to our Aussie Wench and readers) it's nice to consider something relaxing. One of my favorite things to relax to is Celtic harp music. I’ve written more than one “harp book,” loving the music and the chance to research and write about this fascinating instrument and its historical importance in medieval Scottish culture.
Just this week, my book Queen Hereafter: A Novel of Margaret of Scotland –- one of my harp books — is enjoying a lovely resurgence in e-book, soaring to #1 in Scottish historical fiction on Amazon, and topping the charts on Amazon's Kindle and fiction lists too (Very fun! Many thanks to all the readers who bought the e-book at its special $1.99 price … available for just a short time!). It's great to have a chance to revisit it and share some of it today in this Wench Classic blog, revised and updated.
One of the main characters is a female harper, and it was a joy to incorporate my love of Irish and Scottish harp music in that character. Queen Hereafter is the story of Margaret of Scotland, Malcolm Canmore’s queen, in 11th century Scotland, and also the story of a fictional bard, Eva of Moray, a young kinswoman of Lady Macbeth (the book is a sequel to my novel about Lady Macbeth).
Brought to the Scottish court to serve as King Malcolm’s bard and as his hostage to ensure the good behavior of Lady Macbeth (who was not inclined to behave), Eva plays harp for the court, and befriends Malcolm’s new foreign queen, Margaret Aetheling, a Saxon-born princess raised in Hungary. Both young women are outcasts of a sort — one a wild Celtic bard and unwilling royal captive, the other a beautiful, gently raised foreigner in a strange and savage land.
I am called Eva the Bard, daughter of a short-lived king. I have been a devoted student of Dermot, once chief bard in Macbeth’s court. He trained me in the ways of a seanchaidh: a thousand songs, a thousand tales, a thousand heroes keenly remembered through ancient ways of diligence, and more. Though I do not know my fate, I know my calling—to tell the old tales and coax melodies from the harp strings to soothe or excite the spirit.
Some now accuse me of scheming, but my aim has ever been my craft, and honor. So say I.
Not only did I research the history of Celtic harp in medieval Scotland—I also took lessons in Celtic harp. Since I'd written about a medieval harper before (The Angel Knight – soon to be released in a new ebook edition!), I had done some prior research. I had also met and hosted in my home one of the world’s most talented Celtic harpers, Anne Heymann, who shared some of her wonderful knowledge with me. Later I took lessons in playing Celtic harp, which helped me greatly to experience what my c haracter Eva would feel as she played.
Celtic harp differs from traditional concert harp in several ways, including size, shape, number of strings and the way the harpist (harper in the Celtic lingo!) plays. The Celtic harp is smaller (with more than one size used), with a curved forepillar rather than straight, as well as a curved T-top or harmonic curve. Often the Celtic harps have beautifully decorated soundboards. The size of the harp determines the number of strings and the way it’s played, and the strings can be brass, metal or lighter material; many modern versions use nylon strings. In early centuries, strings were sometimes made from twisted, pulled and dried animal gut or, if metal, brass or even gold and silver. The two center strings, in medieval days called “the lovers,” were often of gold or silver wire even in a brass-stringed harp. The lovers were tuned to the same note, resonating together and adding richness to the tone. A truly traditional Irish or Celtic harp is rested against the harper’s left shoulder, rather than the right shoulder as is common for most harpists.
An early Celtic harper was called a seanachaidh (in Scots Gaelic) or a bard (although not every bard was a harper, and not every harper was a storyteller). They were often attached to a royal court or a noble household. Many were itinerant musicians traveling from one househ
old or castle to another. Their status was lofty and privileged, even in a king’s household, where they were given a seat at the king’s table and even a seat on the king’s council. In the earliest Celtic societies, often bards and harpers led warriors into battle. Bards were the keepers of tradition, history and genealogy, their memories filled with the names, the lineages, the epic stories and entertaining tales and songs of generations and centuries of their people. They had secret methods of storing hundreds, even thousands of songs and tales in their heads. One trick was to rest in a dark room for hours with a heavy stone on the abdomen as they reviewed all the songs and melodies in their heads. The weight and presence of the stone would keep them focused. (Queen Mary's Harp, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.)
Their music, their skill and their harps, too, were accorded legendary and even magical qualities. In Irish poetry harps were called “harp-trees” – the various woods that made up sound boxes and pillars selected for their symbolic strengths as much as their resonant qualities – and, in a wonderful description by some ancient Celtic poet, “the magical knot-carved one.” The audience of the time knew the special beauty and magic of harp decorated in Celtic designs, capable of producing a mystical, powerful music.
Eva the Bard, unwillingly brought from her home in northern Scotland to the king’s court, sits down to play for Malcolm and Margaret for the first time:
Propping the base of her harp on the low stool set there for the purpose, Eva tipped the instrument to rest it in the hollow of her left shoulder. She lifted her hands to the strings. Earlier she had tuned the metal strings, and now she tested, hearing a slight dissonance which she corrected, twisting the pegs that held the strings by using a tiny ivory key that she took from a leather pouch at her belt.
King Malcolm continued in low discussion with a few of his men. The young Saxon queen waited, hands folded patiently. Eva paused, considering which song to play, then moved her fingers rapidly over the strings, brass and gold shimmering. She loved the moment when a melody began. A song might be ancient, its origins lost to memory, but a harper could spark the music to life again and join present and past. She plucked the strings: two together, one and two; three together, three and four. Her left hand repeated a rhythm in a lower register, while the fingers of her right hand flashed like quick fire along upper and lower strings, creating delicate traceries of sound.
She chose the song deliberately for its charm—had she given the court a song of loss or bitterness first, they would remember that when they thought of her. Better a lighter song in this place, where she so needed allies.
Later, Eva—who, like her kinswoman Lady Macbeth, cannot seem to check her temper and stay out of trouble—uses her harp and its music for a little vengeance:
Eva settled the harp against her shoulder anew, lifted her hands to the strings, hesitated. Just moments ago, King Malcolm had dealt her and hers a deliberate slight with his insult toward the memory of her father, who had died a too-young king. Most knew her only as one of Queen Margaret’s women, with a talent for music and a face worth gazing upon. Few, then, would understand the song she decided to play now But Malcolm would know what she meant. That was what mattered.
She plucked the path of strings. Had her harp been a weapon, it could not have fit the grip of her anger any better.
Eva gets into a heap of trouble for the song she plays, and suffers the consequences. In medieval times, harpers could be punished for transgressions by losing their harps, or having their fingernails cut so that they could not play the grander metal-stringed harps (gut-string harps, like nylon today, are played with fingertips and the twisting pressure of the sides of the fingers).
“Then she went and ordered her harp to be fetched.” Anglo-Saxon, 10th century
This old bardic reference says "she!" Women were also trained and employed as bards historically in Irish and Scottish households. Men were primarily the bards of their day–at least men appear most often in the scant records—but women could also be bards and harpers. They are mentioned as such in tales and songs and appear in rare documents from early on. In England and Europe, the large concert harp became a perfectly acceptable instrument for an accomplished lady—but Irish and Scottish women had mastered the Celtic harp long before.
Celtic bards and harpers, male and female, still thrive and entertain. We buy their CDs, we love their work and their music. The next time you hear Celtic harp music, think of that very ancient and proud tradition, and imagine yourself by a fireside in a medieval hall. Some of the wonderful songs we find on CDs and MP3s now are as old as the earliest harpers.
Are you a fan of Celtic harp or Celtic music, and have you heard much about the bardic tradition behind all those Celtic harp songs? Several novels have been written featuring bards — Morgan Llewellyn's Bard is one of my favorites! — have you read other titles?