The Pictish instrument?

The Harp, an instrument as culturally significant to Ireland as four-leaf clovers and leprechauns, and yet, is it truly of an Irish pedigree, or, as current evidence would suggest, actually Scottish in origin? The harp, or clarsach, as they are known here, have apparently had a long and very ancient history within Scotland; a history possibly beginning all the way back to the Iron age, as a recent archaeological find in Skye would suggest, wherein a harp dating back to around 2300 BC was found; making it Europe’s oldest surviving string instrument. And, at one point in history, the harp was actually regarded as the national instrument of Scotland, rather than the Bagpipes, and that harpists, as Bagpipers would go on to become, were the chosen musicians of kings and chieftains for some time, and as such, were treated with much the same respect by the general population, as they were amongst the court. And the evidence of this is plentiful, with numerous ancient Stone carvings in the East of Scotland (The Kingdom of Fortriu perhaps?) supporting the theory that the harp was present in Pictish Scotland long before the 8th century, and so making it possibly the ancestor of the European harp, though, it must be said, probably not that of the middle eastern variety, of which almost certainly developed independently.

Moreover, only thirteen depictions exist in Europe of any triangular harp, pre-11th century; with twelve of these originating from Scotland. The possibly Pictish instrument, had then apparently spread south to the Anglo-Saxons, and ultimately west to the Gaels of Dal Riada, and eventually all the way over to Ireland, where, it should be noted, only two representations of quadrangular instruments occur, and with both of these examples dating to around two hundred years after the Pictish carvings were made. Some Pictish Triangular harp carvings date from 790–799 AD, with the Dupplin Cross Harper, for example, being the most recognizable example, and which dates to around 800 AD.

Dupplin Cross Pictish Harper
Dupplin Cross Pictish Harpist

Incidentally, The earliest known Irish word for the harp is in fact “Cruit”, similar to Cruthnie, the supposed Irish name for the Picts, which may again suggests a possibly perceived Pictish identity to the instrument. Furthermore, the Scottish surname of MacWhirter, (Scots Gaelic: Mac a’ Chruiteir, alluding to a possible connection with Cruit, or, Cruthnie) means “son of the harpist”, and is common all across Scotland, but particularly in the lowland areas of Galloway and Carrick. Further still, only three medieval era Gaelic harps survive to this day, with two of those originating from Scotland; the Queen Mary, and, the Lamont Harp, with the other one, the Brian Boru harp, coming from Ireland, but whose artistic style and craftsmanship actually suggests that it to also originated in Scotland, and perhaps from the same region as the other two ancient instruments. Yet there are some who would challenge this theory by trying to claim that the Picts essentially copied foreign images and then simply incorporated them into their own artwork.


The harper on the Monifeith Pictish stone, Scotland, 700–900 AD
Nigg Stone Pictish Harpist

And yet, the Dupplin cross, and the Nigg stone’s Harpist carvings pre-date every single other representation of the harp from continental Europe, as well as those found in Ireland, England, and Wales; though that is not to say that stringed instruments of a similar design did not occur throughout history, and from within many different cultures, such as the lyre, synonymous with classical Greece, and other such instruments of similar composition which are found all across the ancient world, from the aforementioned Greece, to throughout the middle east. Yet none of those examples really had an influence on the European harp, if the Pictish example of its use and pedigree is to be believed. But, with all that said; at the end of the day, the Harp is as synonymous with Eire, as the Bagpipe is with Alba, and so I would never champion the ownership of the instrument within Scotland, for if I’m honest, the Irish can keep it as their own, for they play it far better than we.

Cinead MacAlpin.