The harp I play on now is Mairi, a replica of the Queen Mary harp. She has 29 strings, and a range from G (or g2 if you are using MIDI range names) to f3 (that’s f6 for the MIDI people) with a doubled violin g (or g3) called na comhligue.
My harp has most of the dimensions of the original instrument (with slight differences) and string lengths. I wanted to have an instrument, that would allow me to practice historical techniques. The tradition of Early Gaelic harp playing is a reconstruction, and the sources are scarce, so, like the people from the Historical Harp Society of Ireland I decided I would benefit from a replica harp. I admit – the instrument itself taught me a lot. I had to change some of my habits, that I had after playing my Limerick Lap Harp (which is now retired ;)). The narrow string spacing helped a lot with historical techniques, but also caused a lot of additional sound (the buzz of the back of the nail) so my movements had to me more precise. The sustain of Mairi’s strings is a lot longer, so I had to employ more damping techniques. I also switched to historical na comhluige tuning, and I had to adjust.
Why the Queen Mary?
I really wanted one of the earlier instruments, still small enough to comfortably travel with. The two smallest surviving instruments are the Trinity College harp in Dublin – the one that is the model for the harp in Ireland’s coat of arms – and the Queen Mary harp, which is now in Edinburgh National Museum
If I chose based on my emotions and sentiment only I would go for the Trinity College harp – but the instrument is incomplete. The bottom of the soundbox was eaten away by woodworm and vanished, so we can only guess the precise measurements of the harp, and even the number of strings (the number of holes in the soundbox doesn’t have to match the number of string pegs). I knew I would employ an instrument maker in Poland, so it was fair to assume it would be the first Early Gaelic harp made in this country. I chose the instrument which was mostly intact. I don’t regret taking this decision.
The Queen Mary harp has quite the history. According to stories it was given by Mary, queen of Scots (hence the name) to a Beatrix Gardyn during a big hunt. The instrument was passed from generation to generation in the Robertson of Lude family, until it was exhibited in the National Museum in Edinburgh, along with the other instrument from the house – the Lamont harp. In 1904 it was put up for sale and bought by the museum, which owns it now.
The Queen Mary harp is the smallest of the existing historical harps. It was probably made around the 15th century in Argyll or the Isles. The carving on the forepillar are very similar to these found on grave slabs made by the Iona school. The harp had 29 strings, but somewhere during its history a 30th string peg was added, along with a wire hoop at the bottom of the forepillar, which allowed for an additional string..
Mairi was made by Leszek Pelc.
I met him through FREHA – a historical recreation internet forum, and I supplied him with the dimensions of the Queen Mary harp as stated in Robert Bruce Armstrong’s ‘Harps of Ireland and Scottish Highlands’. We worked with the invaluable advice of Simon Chadwick, who helped us with choosing the wood and many other details. Now Simon has free plans at his website earlygaelicharp.info, which are enough to make a harp ery similar to mine.
Mairi is made out of sycamore wood (Acer pseudoplatanus). The original harp has a willow soundbox, the rest of the woods are still examined). Leszek started out by gluing two planks of wood together, to make a chunk big enough for the soundbox, but he then proceeded like the harpmakers of old. He carved out the soundbox, made holes to accommodate the joints of the neck and the forepillar. After he made all three parts came the exciting moment: the first fit.
I must say, that I was thrilled when I got the picture from Leszek. This was the first time I saw the shape of my harp. The next stage would be setting string pins and making string holes and fitting them with little string shoes, and then applying the finish. My harp has a tung oil finish (the original would likely be finished with linseed oil or beeswax), with pigments added to stain the harp to mahogany colour. I didn’t want a white instrument..
I needed a tuning key – and the harp was ready. It just needed strings – and it had to wait for me to get them.
I bought the strings in Germany, where one of the shops supplied historical harpsichord wire by Malcolm Rose.
I started with the budget option, a ‘student’ string chart designed by Simon Chadwick. A string chart is a table that shows strings in order, with their respective sounds, wire thicknesses and materials. My student string chart required five different diameters of yellow brass wire and three diameters of silver wire (which I just ordered at a jewellery supply shop, 925, spring hard, round wire).
You can see the last photo that I got just a day before I took a train to go over 800km to see Leszek. On the 21 of June 2006, the Summer Solstice, we put strings on my beautiful new harp.
This is the story of how I got my first replica. As time went by I changed my stringing setup (with Simon’s help), adding some gold strings to the mix.
A keen observer will notice, that the picture on the left features a very flat soundboard. The strings are still not tuned, so the tension is minimal. When the harp was under full tension – a belly started appearing. Take look at the first photo in the article and compare!
It’s nine years later and Mairi has a beautiful belly, like her historical, Scottish ‘granny’.
My harp is a very beautiful instrument with a deep sound. It’s a great harp for travelling (although she requires her own sear in a plane), and fits the early repertoire quite well. Mairi is still a good choice for later tunes, as these harps were used for centuries.
I must admit that I had a growing urge to get a later harp. Actually knew which one I wanted since 2007, but it was in 2014, when I showed the object of my desire to my partner, I decided to take it to the next level. I want an exact copy of the Kildare harp. But this is a story for another subpage..
I must say, for the record, that the best exact copy I have ever seen is Simon Chadwick’s Queen Mary, made by Davy Patton. I will let you see for yourselves:
Simon’s harp has 29+1 strings (you can’t see the additional string in the photo. The additional peg is undr Simon’s little finger, and the wire hoop is the grey thingie dividing the angle between the soundbox and the base of the forepillar). The colours of the harp have been recreated, basing on the remaining paints on the original instrument. The forepillar has an animal shape on the front, the two-headed ‘eel’ or ‘salmon of wisdom’. Eye witnesses say, that she gets some Guinness foam from her harper. For both heads.
The information on the Queen Mary harp was written using earlygaelicharp.info and the information provided to me during Scoil na gClairseach – the Irish summer school of Early Gaelic harp.