Discover the world of medieval Scotland

Interview at Working Writers and Music in Medieval Scotland

The book tour continues today with an interview at Working Writers.  Stop by and share your thoughts on writers’ block, how to combat it, and what makes a good writer.  If you happen to be a writer, this site has some great resources.  For both readers and writers, there are dozens of interviews with writers in many fields and genres.

A Few Brief Thoughts on Music in Medieval Scotland

The amazing thing to me, about knowledge, is that the more you gain, the more you realize how little you actually have.  It is possible, for instance, to know a great deal about history; but still have only a passing knowledge of medieval history.  It is possible to know quite a bit about medieval history, and still have only brushed up against medieval Scottish history.  And even when one is fairly knowledgeable about medieval Scottish history, there is still an entire world of knowledge in even more specialized areas, such as medieval Scottish music.  That can be broken down further into secular or religious music, actual songs as compared to music theory, musicians and musical theorists of the time (yes, there is a medieval Scottish music theorist!) or in-depth knowledge of the instruments of the time.  Entire books could be written on any one of those topics (and most likely have been!)

To me, the beauty of historical fiction is that it opens worlds and lives that were otherwise beyond our grasp.  And in that respect, I especially like historical fiction that is well-researched.  In that vein, I’m looking, today, at the music Niall and Allene might have enjoyed and played, as I start Draft 5 of The Minstrel Boy.

Gerald of Wales says:

Scotland, because of her affinity and intercourse [with Ireland], tries to imitate Ireland in music and strives in emulation. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the harp namely, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three, the harp, the tympanum and the crowd. In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances her and excels her in musical skill. Therefore, [Irish] people now look to that country as the fountain of the art.”

Interestingly, of only three medieval harps surviving, one is from Ireland, and two are from Scotland.  Pictured below is one of them, standing today in a museum.  Alexander III, and no doubt plenty of other kings, kept a royal harpist, who would have played an instrument very like this one.  A close-up reveals the harp is decorated with carvings, much like harps today, and as a harpist myself, I also find something thrilling in knowing that I can play today an instrument very like what was played then.  A medieval-styled sackbut, by comparison, is much harder for today’s trombonist to find, and is going to require more adjustment from the player than today’s harpist picking up a medieval harp.

“The crowd” in Gerald’s quote refers to singers.  One tradition with which Niall and Allene would have been familiar, was that of seven women coming to meet the king, singing, at the border of Strathearn.  The Calendar of documents relating to Scotland preserved in Her Majesty’s Public Record Office (how’s that for a short name that rolls easily off the tongue?) reports Edward I’s entrance into Strathearn, and the seven women  “who accompanied the King on the road between Gask and Ogilvie, singing to him, as was the custom in the time of the late Alexander kings of Scots.

As these are only brief thoughts, I’m going to end here, with future posts on the musician as a professional class in medieval Scotland. 

 Tomorrow, another stop on the Blue Bells of Scotland  book tour, and the science of time travel, with engineer and author, Joan Szechtman.