CD A0147: The Silver String

The Silver String by Alison Kinnaird

CD Cover: The Silver String by Alison KinnairdReleased in 2004, this is the long awaited album from Alison Kinnaird. It features Alison on gut and wire strung harps and cello and contains 13 tracks.

Alison is joined on the album by Ann Heyman, Charlie Heymann, Alasdair White, Mike Katz, Christine Primrose and Robin Morton. Included with the CD is a free DVD featuring 3 short films relating to Alison`s music and the other side of her artistic endeavour as a glass artist.

"...this is a must have CD" FOLK HARP JOURNAL

"...a fascinating, tasteful and utterly delightful album" FROOTS

Buy this album now    CD: £11.50 + p&p   

Track Listing & Audio Samples

1 Laura Bhisa
2 Tweedside - Mart Scott, the Flower of Yarrow Trad
3 Cumh Iorla Wigton Trad
4 The Horseman's Port Trad
5 Lude's Lament Trad
6 The Batell Of Harloe - The March of Donald -
Lord of the Isles to the Battle of Harlaw
7 Cumha Eachainn Ruaidh Nan Cath Trad
8 Taladh Dhomhnaill Ghuirm Trad
9 Dubh An Tomaidh Trad
10 Port Gordon Trad
11 Ayrshire Lasses - Dance of the Dead Trad
12 Air By Fingal III Trad
13 Psalmsong Trad

CD Notes & Credits

Sleeve Notes

The Book of the Dean of Lismore, which contains the earliest Scottish Gaelic poetry still extant, speaks of a harp which had three strings-one of gold, one of silver, and one of iron. Each string would conjure up music in turn, of sadness, joy or sleep. Old or new, in Alison Kinnaird's hands the harp tunes still express these timless emotions.

It has been more than 25 years since Alison Kinnaird made her album 'The Harp Key', a ground-breaking record which was the first to present the Scottish harp as a solo instrument with its own repertoire. That album remains a classic, though since then there have been many recordings by other harpers. An explosion  in interest in the small harp means that in recent years the instrument has become familiar in Scottish music. The harp is frequently heard in groups and bands, playing all kinds of Scottish music, and is once again an active part of the tradition. Many players have learned either directly or indirectly from Alison Kinnaird, since she has been one of most active teachers of the harp in Scotland, publishing a number of books of music, including a tutor for the small harp. She also co-wrote, with Keith Sanger, the first history of the harp in Scotland, a project which led to her taking up the wire strung clarsach. One of her main interests, however, has always been in discovering the lost gems of music that were composed for the harp and clarsach. Grounded in knowledge of the past, she finds an approach in these with which to .take the instruments forward. She is playing traditional music which is also truly contemporary,rather than following the fashions of so-called 'Celtic' music. The music asserts the dignity of the harps of Highland and Lowland Scotland in tunes reflecting moments of significance - laments, celebrations, conflict and peace. Alison also plays her own compositions, continuing in the line of the harper-composers of the past.

Small harps of all kinds are nowadays often referred to as 'clarsachs'. Most people are not aware that, as with the dual cultures of Lowland Scot and Highland Gael, we have the added richness of two different harps in Scotland, both equally ancient.

The two harps have very different characters, and are played with different techniques. The more familiar gut-strung harp was primarily played in  East Coast and Lowland areas, and is played with the pads of the fingers. The wire-strung clarsach of the Gael was played in the West Coast and the Highlands.The brass and gold strings are plucked with fingernails,and damping techniques are used to create clarity in the melody, and in the ringing harmonies. In addition, Alison also introduces the distinctive sound of the bray harp, which was used in Scotland in Medieval and Renaissance times.

The harps used on this album are a gut-strung harp made by Henry Briggs in Glasgow in the 1930s; a reproduction of the Lamont Harp strung with brass and gold wire, made by Robert Evans of Cardiff; and two harps made by Ardival Harps of Strathpeffer, one small wire-strung Kilcoy and a large gut-strung bray harp, both played in the 'Horseman's Port'.

Laura Bhisa
I composed this slow air for my friend, Laura Marshall, while teaching at a summer school held at her wonderful home on the West Coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Laura and her husband Justin Busbridge built the house on Laura's family croft-land, whichLaura, inherited from her grandfather.His family name was Macdonald, but as usual in Lewis, the family also had a nickname - there are a lot of MacLeods in Lewis! Laura's grealt-grandfather was nicknamed lain'Beesa', probably after the way he pronounced some of his words with a strong Lochs (east Lewis) accent. Laura is said to be the image of her grandmother When she was young, who was known as 'Mairi Bhisa' (pronounced Veessa), so I decided  to carry on the family tradition and name this tune after her. I composed an air that she and Justin might enjoy playing  together, since their instruments are harp and cello.  I play cello on this track, along with my own husband, Robin Morton, who adds his concertina, as well as Mike Katz, piper with Battlefield Band, on whistle.

Alison-gut-strung harp & cello; Mike Katz - whistles; Robin Morton-concertina.

Tweedside/Mary Scott, the Flower of Yarrow
Playing the harps of both Highlands and Lowlands woke my interest in searching for the distinctive repertoires of each harp. The harp of the Lowlands was strung with gut. It really lost its role when the court of James VI moved down to London in 1603. The last known specific reference to a 'Lawland harper' is in 1591. The gut-strung harp gradually changed its emphasis over the following centuries from traditional Scots to the European classical music repertoire, until the 20th century, when interest was revived in playing the small harp. Here are two Lowland tunes. The first slow air I play simply because it is a great tune and sounds wonderful on the harp. The second, I think, was originally composed for the harp. The clues are in the construction of the melody and the range and  fall of the notes under the fingers. It is also sometimes played in the North of England as well as in the Scottish Borders, under the title 'Sir John Fenwick's. Mary Scott was the daughter of  Philip Scott of Dryhope. She married Wat Scott of Harden in the mid 16th century. Her beauty is celebrated in the title of this tune.

Alison -gut-strung harp

Cumh Ioarla Wigton (Lament for the Earl of Wigtown)
This beautiful lament was probably composed in 1619, on the death of John Fleming, first Earl of Wigtown. It has the form of a classic Port, or harp tune of that period, and has full variations included in the version given in Daniel Dow's collections. The Dows variations were designed for fiddle but their presence indicated that this tune has the formal construction for which variations were seen as an appropriate convention. I have reclaimed them for the clarsach. The Flemings also had family links with the Rosses of Ballnagowan, the Atholls and Montgomeries ,all great patrons of harping and harpers.

Alison-wire-strung clarsach.

The Horseman's Port
This tune gives a clue that in the Lowlands, the gut-strung harp may have had a close relationship to the cauld-wind pipes, as in the Highlands, the clarsach had with the great war-pipes. The word 'Port' in the title links it with the harp. Three different variants appear, along with other harp tunes, in the Balcarres MS (1692-4). I enjoyed making harp style variations on the melody, the structure of which lends itself to this form. The border pipes also play this tune with appropriate variations, under the title 'The Black & the Grey', while the fiddle and Highland pipes play it as 'Newmarket Races', 'John Paterson's Mare' or 'John Paterson's Mare Goes Foremost' - always a link with horses. I play the tune on the three harps which have been used in Scotland. The melody is led by the amazing sound of the bray harp, which was commonly played in Medieval and Renaissance times. Each gut string has a little peg at its foot, which touches the string, creating a distinctive buzzing sound. It can be played with either nail or finger technique, and I think it is particularly suited to ensemble playing, where it creates a great bass sound, cutting through the sweetness of the gut and wire strung harps. It must have been the electric guitar of its day. Don't write in saying that your CD sounds strange - it's the unique tone of the bray harp!

Alison - bray harp, gut-strung harp, wire-strung clarsach; Robin Morton - bodhran
Lude's Lament
This tune is found in James Oswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion, published between 1745-59. This is a wonderful collection which contains a number of harp tunes. This melody may be an extended version of 'Lochaber No More'. Here it is associated with the Robertsons of Lude, one of the most important families of Perthshire, who were great patrons of harpers, from at least the middle of the16th century, right up till the mid 18th century. A number of the Lairds of the Robertson families played the harp themselves, and it was at Lude that two ancient harps, the Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont Harp, survived. Many of the professional harpers, both Scottish and Irish,would have travelled to Lude to perform for their patrons and to compose melodies marking significant moments in their lives.

Alison- gut-strung harp
The Batell of Harloe/The March of Donald, Lord of the Isles to the Battle of Harlaw
I have to thank John Purser for introducing me to the first tune. It is found in an English M.S. which dates from around 1624. John Purser suggested a minor adjustment of the bar lines, after which it is found to fit well with the words of the Harlaw 'Brosnachadh'- the incitement to battle which was composed by Lachlann Mor MacMhuirich before the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. He was the bardic poet whose family served the Lords of the Isles for generations. They were granted lands in South Kintyre, next to those held by the Mac Gille Sheanaichs, hereditary harpers to the Lords of the Isles, and no doubt poet and harper performed together. It isexciting to suggest that this may be the original melody for this ancient song. Harper and bard often attended battles, rousing the clansmen to battle fervour with poetry and music before they attacked. (It is clearly impractical to march while playing a clarsach! Harpers did not lead the clan into battle). The words of the ancient poem have survived. It begins: 'A Chlanna Cuinn, cuimhnichibh, Cruas an am na h-iorghaile: gu h-airneach, gu h-arranta, gu h ­athlamh, gu h-allanta .. .' ( ... Children of Conn, remember hardihood in time of battle. Be watchfull, be dextrous, winning renown...)The melody worked well on the clarsach, allowing use of phrasing and nail techniques which recall harp motifs in the equall ancient Ap Huw M.S. of Wales. Firmly entrenched as Lords of the Isles by the mid 15th century, the MacDonalds had come into direct conflict with the Scottish Crown when they laid claim to the Earldom of Ross. The Battle of Harlaw was claimed as a victory by both sides, but though inconclusive, it established the limits of power of the Lords of the Isles. This march is usually now played as a pipe tune, but has the typical structure of the old clan marches. Here I am joined on fiddle, by Alasdair White, a fine young player from the Isle of Lewis.

Alison-wire-strung clarsach; Alasdair White-fiddle, whistle.

Cumha Eachainn Ruaidh nan Cath (Lament for Red Hector of the Battles)
The death, at the Battle of Harlaw, of Hector MacLean of Duart, was a blow for the Highland clans, and was one reason why victory was claimed by the Scots forces. Though it is played now as a piobaireachd on the Highland pipes, it may have originated as a song, and been expanded later into instrumental versions with their variations. Clarsach and pipes both used this form of ceol m6r (great music). I suggest there is technical evidence that the characteristic form of the variations, may have originated with the clarsach. I have made my own clarsach variations, after a version of the theme which came from a  collection of tunes made by Duncan Currie in the early 20th century.

Alison - wire-strung clarsach

Taladh Dhomhnaill Ghuirm (Donald Gorm's Lullaby)
This lullaby is thought to have been composed for Donald Gorm MacDonald of Sleat who died in 1617. In it his foster mother describes how his great galley will sail the seas-'Whose boat do I see off the headland? lt is the boat of my child, Donald.It has a golden rudder and three masts of willow; .a well of wine  in the stern and a well of pure water in the prow. Wherever it come to rest in Scotland, there will be song and story, pipes and clarsach, merriment and dancing'. She ends with a blessing 'May the strength of the waves be with you, and the strength of the sun; the strength of the brown bull bringing cattle; the strength of Ossian and all the Feinne'. It isbeautifully sung by Christine Primrose, one of the great voices of Gaelic Scotland, with whom I have performed and travelled the world over many years of friendship. I have guested as accompanist on her recordings, so for Christine to guest as singer on this album seemed very appropriate. I think her lovely voice with its flawless traditional style has a particular affinity with the sound of the wire-strung clarsach, which itself is mentioned in the song, and I add harmony vocals to the chorus lines.

Christine Primrose- vocals; Alison - wire-strung clarsach, vocals

Dubh an Tomaidh (The Dark Night of Tomie)
Not a harp tune, but one which suits the harp beautifully. It comes from the Angus Fraser M.S. I am not sure where 'Tomie' is - it may be Tomich, on the Black Isle.

Alison - gut-strung harp
Port Gordon
The word 'Port' in Gaelic now means simply 'a tune'. In the 16th and 17th centu­ries, however, it referred specifically to harp tunes. Two completely different tunes have the title 'Port Gordon' attached to them, and in these cases it may simply mean a harp tune associated with the family of Gordon. Perhaps this melody was composed for George Gordon, sixth Earl and first Marquis of Huntly (1562-1636). He defeated the Duke of Argyll at the Battle of Balrinnes, when it was foretold that Argyll's harp would be played in the Gordon heartland of Strathbogie. And indeed it was-not as the victor, but as spoils of war in the hands of his enemies. This version of the melody comes from JamesOswald's Caledonian Pocket Companion, and is also found in variants in Daniel Dow's Collection in, Bunting as 'Purth Clairseach', and the MacLean-Clephane M.S., where it is subtitled 'Scottish Highland Original adapted to the Harp by Carolan'. Clearly, it was played on both sides of the Irish Sea, though the name 'Port' indicates a Scottish origin.

Alison - gut-strung harp

Ayrshire Lasses/Dance of the Dead
One of the last travelling harpers recorded in Scotland was in fact a Welshman- ­William ap Pritchard of Llandegai. He settled in South West Scotland, and he and his family were described in a letter from Joseph Train, an exciseman, to Sir WaIter Scott. William ap Pritchard played the harp and fiddle, his wife and daughter also played the harp, while his other children played the fiddle and danced. They entertained at the fairs and dances of Dumfries & Galloway, in the early years of the 19th century. William is said to have composed a number of tunes - among them, this fine strathspey, 'Ayrshire Lasses'. The family came to a sad end in 1816 when they failed to find lodgings in Gatehouse of Fleet during a storm, and eventually took shelter in a gravel pit on the road to Portpatrick. During the night, the pit fell in, and the entire family of seven were killed. They were buried in Twynhame Kirkyard, according to Train, who in 1830 still owned Pritchard's harp. The pit afterwards became known as the Harper's Hole, and local people told stories of unearthly figures dancing there each night. It seemed appropriate to follow the harper's strathspey with this jig,which I learned from Seamus Tansey, the great Irish flute-player. He said that in the old days at a wake, people did not want the corpse to miss out on the fun, so they would prop it up in the centre and dance round it! I have not been able to find any other traditional stories that mention this custom, but in any case it is a great tune for the harp. I play it here on gut strung and bray harps with my friends Ann & Charlie Heymann. Ann is undoubtedly the foremost player of the wirestrung clarsach and has done more than anyone to revive this great instrument. Charlie is also a fine musician and joins in with - what else - the bones!

Alison - gut-strung harp, cello, bray harp; Ann Heymann. wire-strung clarsach; Charlie Heymann - bones

Air by Fingal III.
This is one of the group of eight tunes in John Bowie's fiddle collections which are described as ' Ancient music ... composed originally for the Harp'. They are said to have been learned from 'the famous Rory Daul a  celebrated Harper  in the reign of Queen Ann', by the ancestors of a Gentleman (who was probably Captain Simon Fraser). 'Rory Daul' is credited as performer but not the composer of this 'Air by Fingal'. The fact that it is described as being by Fingal, or Finn MacCool, the legendary giant, suggested that these tunes were believed to be of some antiquity, even in the 18th century when Bowie's collection was published. This tune again shows the typical harp form of a series of variations; amongst which I have integrated two variations of my own.

Alison - wire-strung clarsach.

In 2002 I was given a Creative Scotland Award by the Scottish Arts Council. These are collectively.the largest arts prizes in Britain, and are given to established artists to enable them to carry out a major project. I chose to use mine to combine both the glass and the music with which I work. 'Psalmsong' is an installation using  glass, music, optical fibre light; dichroic colour, digital photograph and printed textiles. Taking the 'lissajous patterns'  which are created when the notes of the harp are played into a computer, I combined these with the human figure, which represents the emotion in the music, and used these to express a musical composition of my own. The music began by following the 'question and answer' form of the Gaelic precented psalms- hence the title. It developed more into a harp tune once the theme was established, with two variations on gut-strung and wire­-strung harps. I play the introduction on glass itself, so that one hears the sound of the medium, as well as seeing the visual expression of the sound.

Alison - gut-strung harp, wire-strung clarsach, cello, glass

DVD Special Features

•3 Films by Robin Morton featuring Alison Kinnaird's Harp Music and Glass installations (PCM Audio).

Ayrshire Lasses & Dance of the Dead
Ring of Crystal, Ring of Stone

•On camera introductions by Alison Kinnaird

•Gallery of her Glass Artworks

•Information regarding Awards. Public Collections, and Past Exhibitions

•Discography & Publications Illustrations and details of Alison's various CDs and Books.

A sample audio track is included from each CD.

Alison Kinnaird has always had two careers running parallel, as a well­known Scottish musician, but also as an artist in glass, whose work is collected internationally. In 1997, the Queen awarded her an M.B.E. for services to art and music. Usually, Alison keeps both activities separate, but in a number of projects both glass and the harp have featured together.

Alison introduces 3 short films by Robin Morton, which show the relationship between the two arts.

'Psalmsong' was made possible by a Creative Scotland Award from the Scottish Arts Council in 2002. It took a year to complete, and involves glass, music, light, dichroic colour, digital photography and printed textiles. The notes of the harp melody were played into a computer, and the patterns produced by sampling across the soundwave, were used to express a composition of Alison's own. The human figures and the colours represent the emotions in the music. The shadow projected by the engraving was photographed and digitally printed to produce a 'shadow banner' 4.5 metres long, which hangs behind the glass. The DVD shows the installation in its entirety and in detail, and also gives an insight on the process of the wheel-engraving which Alison uses in her work, an ancient technique used since Roman times.

Ayrshire Lasses & Dance of the Dead A strathspey and a jig, the first played by Alison herself on gut strung harp and cello. The second tune was filmed during a visit to Temple Village, of Ann and Charlie Heymann from Minnesota. Ann plays the jig on wire­-strung clarsach, the instrument on which she is undoubtedly the world's leading virtuoso, and Charlie adds the percussive sound of the bones.

Ring of Crystal, Ring of Stone This artwork was created in 1988, based on the theme of standing stones. It was acquired by Leicester Museum & Art Gallery in 1988. Like a circle of stones, the music follows the characteristic form of harp music, beginning with a theme, progressing through a series of variations, and returning to the theme at the end. Each variation has a corresponding engraved crystal block. The concept is that no matter how the human figure is disguised, hidden, dismembered or changed it, like the human spirit, will emerge in the end. The beautiful visual images of the stones at Castlerigg, and Long Meg and her Daughters in Cumbria, and the majestic Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, were filmed by Robin Morton to complement the engraved crystal. The music 'Ring of Crystal, Ring of Stone' appeared on the compilation album 'The Scottish Harp' (Temple COMD2005).

This DVD brings the art and music together again for the first time since the piece became part of the permanent collection of Leicester Museum & Art Gallery.

Thanks to: Laura Marshall & Justin Busbridge, Crispin Phillips, Karen Marshalsay, John Ritchie, Ewan MacGregor, Denise Lindsay and especially to Robin whose creativity and energy have always been my inspiration.


Audio CD Credits
Produced by Robin Morton at Temple Records Studio, Midlothian
Engineers: Robin Morton & ewan MacGregor
Cover design & Photograpy : Simon Hollington
Other photos by Robin Morton
Layout: John Slavin @ Designfolk

DVD Credits
Films directed by Robin Morton DVD authored by Cagoule Productions & Ewan MacGregor
Gallery photos by Ken Smith, Simon Hollington and Robin Morton

Album Information

Instruments: Most tracks solo harp either gut-strung or wire strung
Some tracks accompanied see Sleeve Notes for details
includes whistles, concertina, cello bodhran, fiddle, voice, bones
Genre: Scottish Traditional
Format: CD
Our Ref: A0147
Label: Temple Records
Year: 2005
Origin: EU

Artist Information & Contact Details

Photograph of Alison KinnairdAlison Kinnaird has an international reputation as a visual artist and musician. One of the world's leading engravers, with work in public, royal and private collections throughout Europe, America and the Far East. The glass ranges from small intimate pieces, to architectural installations which incorporate light and colour. A recipient of many awards and winner of many competitions, her contribution was recognized in 1997, when she was presented with an M.B.E. for services to art and music. Alison is also one of the foremost exponents of Scottish harp music, playing both gut and wire-strung Scottish harps. She was the first player to make a recording of Scottish harp music, and co-wrote (with Keith Sanger) the history of harp in Scotland, as well as producing many other recordings and printed collections of music. She is much in demand, at home and abroad, as a performer, a lecturer, and teacher in both her fields.

Contact Details Please use form on Alison's web site click here
Artist Web Site

Also from Alison Kinnaird

Available from Creighton's Collection:
Sheet Music & Books
Tree of Strings The Small Harp Tutor The Harp Key North-East Collection The Lothian Collection  
Tree of Strings The Small Harp The Harp Key The North-East Collection The Lothian Collection  
Compact Discs
Click for further details Click for further details Click for further details Click for further details Click for further details Click for further details
The Harp Key The Silver String The Scottish Harp The Harper's Land The Quiet Tradition Harps. Pipes & Fiddles