Harps Then and Now
I'll just write a quick piece on medieval harps, I said to myself. Simple stringed instruments, not much to say. Ha! As with everything in life, the more you look into it, the more interesting the subject gets. The world of the medieval harp explodes exponentially, the deeper you dig. Are we talking medieval harps of the British Isles, or medieval harps of the European continent? Are we talking about the small medieval harps only a couple of feet tall with ten or eleven strings, or are we talking about the taller, slenderer, more elegant Gothic harp of later medieval years?
These pictures of something very like a medieval harp, or a Scottish clarsach, were taken in 2008 at the visitors' center of Urquhart Castle. As we do today, you can see the decorations on the harp. Of all instruments, I have found harps to often be as much a work of art as a musical instrument.
In addition to the standard tuning pins, some medieval harps were equipped with 'bray pins.' These were pins, usually L-shaped, that not only attached the string to the soundboard of the instrument, but could be adjusted either to touch the strings lightly to create a loud buzzing, or moved away to allow what we today would consider a more normal sound.
Today's harpist typically has several instruments in varying sizes, while the troubadour and traveling minstrels of Niall's time would have had only one, relatively small and easy to carry, as they traveled either on foot or by horse, from town to town, earning a living with songs, news, and stories, often accompanied by their harp playing.