The Harp of Pictland?
To say that the past is largely an unknown territory is a cliche and also terribly true. Beyond several generations the broad, recoverable richness of the past - beyond the mere record of facts - is irrecoverable. In nothing is this more true than music. Several Pictish stones in Angus show evidence of the harp as a musical instrument: stones from Brechin, Aldbar, Monifieth and Aberlemno. Of these, the depictions on the monuments at Aldbar and Monifieth are more clear. Yet the three harps on the different stones are all different shapes, which begs the question about whether there was a wide variation in the instrument as used in Pictland. The most contentious representation must be the Aberlemno stone. (For classification purposes the stone is sometimes called Aberlemno 3 or simply Aberlemno roadside.) At the bottom right of the monument there is, what seems to be, a figure with a c shaped object which might be a harp. Simon Chadwick on his website about early Gaelic harps thinks that this is a harp akin to modern Burmese or ancient Egyptian instruments and points out that the scene depicted above this may be the story of St David. If this is so and the figure has a middle-eastern harp, how did the creator of the scene in Angus know what it looked like?
The stone at Monifieth more clearly shows a harp, the figure again at the bottom of the stone. Monifieth being a noted early ecclesiastic site, the figures represented above may well be clerical functionaries, but we have no idea (if that is the case) how harp music may have been integrated into early church ritual.
Monifieth Pictish stone, with harpist at the bottom.
At Aldbar, the represented harp stands alone midway up the stone and the human figure may well show both clerics (the two at the top) and laymen (the figure with the animal and the mounted man). It may well still portray a biblical story or scene.
|Aldbar Pictish stone.|
A Whisper of Lost Melodies
Even at a relatively early date, music was a well travelled commodity and musicians and story-tellers could even travel between countries if they were exceptionally gifted. The Treasurer's Accounts of Scotland contain numerous entries detailing payments to many musicians, including - on Friday 23rd July 1490 - the payment of a large sum 'to the King [James IV] to gif the Fransche men that playt' for him' while he was staying in Dundee. Travelling east from Perth in 1497 James IV gave a payment of 14 shillings 'in Fowlis in Angus, to the harpar thare, at the Kingis command'. The royal lodging is likely to be the mansion or castle of the Gray family there (predecessor of the current 17th century Fowlis Castle). Whether the harpist was a resident family musician is of course unknown, as is the music he is likely to have played to the king of Scotland. Going back further, the early Celtic mormaers and succeeding earls in Angus would have had poets and musicians to entertain them, magnify their deeds and commemorate their ancestry, but all trace of these locally has long gone.
The Sang Schools
Both Brechin and Dundee had educational establishments in the early historic period linked to churches. Song Schoolds were founded in the Middle Ages in many countries to foster the training of priests and choristers who could fulfil musical functions within the mass. In 1522 Elizabeth Masoun or Scrymgeour granted an annual rent from a tenement in St Margaret’s Close, Dundee, to assist the chaplain of St Thomas. Part of the revenue from this altar was assigned in 1553 to support the master of the Sang Sckule in Dundee. Such activities were discouraged by the reformed religion, but Dundee's school survived for many decades, as payments in the burgh records show:
1602. Item to the Maister of the Song Scule – lxxx lib.1621, 1622. Item to Mr John Mow, Maister of the Music Schoole for his fie and house mail (rent) – ijc lib.1628. Item to Mr John Mow, Masiter of the Music Scule for his fie and house mail – ijc lxvj li xiijs. Iiijd.1634. The same as in 1628.
Dundee later had three burgh schools, including the English School which had been established by the Town Council in 1702, although it had possibly derived from the Sang School, founded long before the reformation. The bishop of Brechin from 1426 to 1454 was John Crannoch, apparently an ambitious man, who sought to elevate the prestige of Brechin Cathedral by instituting a college in 1433. His sang schule was enriched by the Earl of Atholl with a yearly endowment of £40 for four priests and six boys to sing masses for his kindred. The boys were clothed in purple and white, shorn of hair and admonished to strictly behave. Their welfare was entrusted to two resident chaplains, one of whom had to accompany them everywhere in public, presumably to enforce good behaviour. Again, the school survived the reformation and morphed into a public school in later centuries. The College Yards in Brechin's retains a memory of the school.