Posted in For Project 5 Examples

Example 3 Research, Part 1: Early History of Scottish Music

While trying to find musical traditions that used pentatonic scale, naturally, Scotland came up. Like in my other blog posts, I start with the obscure, early history. There aren’t many sources available, but luckily, I came across some transcripts and videos of John Purser’s “Scotland’s Music: A Radio History” and his other works.


Fig. 1. Stone circle in Easter Acquhorthies

The ancient sounds in Scotland may have started with the prehistoric megalithic stone structures, which “…are now emerging clearly, rather than speculatively, as places for music-making as well as ritual,” (Purser, 1998: 325) when speaking, chanting or making other vocal sounds may have been considered as a form of communication with the dead, as suggested by Lynch. (quoted by Mills, 2016: 65) Among these is the stone circle in Easter Acquhorthies (Fig. 1), that dates from around 3000BC. Watson and Keating (1999: 327) found interesting acoustic properties, where the recumbent setting acted comparable to the stage in a theatre, projecting sound across the monument. Though, it is not possible to demonstrate that this type of prehistoric monuments was constructed specifically for acoustic effects.

There is a special type of megalithic stone, called rock gongs, which may be the earliest musical instruments. Such is the one in Arn Hill (Fig. 2), known locally as the iron rock for its sound. Because of its ringing qualities, it was mounted on smaller rocks so as to leave its surface to resonate freely.

ringing stane.jpg

Fig. 2. The recumbent stone in Arn Hill

There are other ones, for example, The Ringing Stone on the remote section of Tiree, covered with prehistoric cup-marks. Here is a video:

When struck with hand-held stones, it has at least two clearly audible pitches, which can also be heard on several other stones including Clach Oscar on the Island of Skye. From the same period, we also find Scotland’s oldest musical artefact, a bone flute or bone whistle (Fig. 3) made from the leg-bone of a sheep, with three finger holes, c. 2,500 BC.  It was found at the Neolithic settlement Skara Brae in Orkney. Unfortunately, I can’t find any pictures of it online.

bone whistle.jpg

Fig. 3. A bone flute

From the Bronze age, there are horns and crotals that date around 800BC and earlier. Although most of these instruments survive in Ireland, there was a fragment found in Scotland, unearthed in Wigtownshire (Fig. 4b), today at the National Museum of Scotland. Like Purser (1998: 25-27) points out, the commerce between Ireland and Scotland has been close for millennia, and in this period, the bronze smiths working in a style similar to that of Ireland were in Scotland’s Northern Isles. For that reason, the horns and crotals could have been known, and even made in Scotland around the west coast, where such skills would have travelled. There were two types of the Bronze age horns, side-blown and end-blown, in a shape of the cattle horns. (Fig. 4a) Deposited together with the horns are the crotals – the cast bronze jingles, which might have accompanied the former in music-making. (Fig. 4c)


Fig. 4a. Irish Bronze Age horns: end-blown (above) and side blown (bellow), from Co. Antrim


Fig. 4b. Fragment of the horn found in Wigtownshire in Scotland


Fig. 4c. Irish Bronze Age crotals from Dowris, Co. Offaly

Whether the Celtic culture over-lapped with that of the makers of the horns and crotals is a debate, but by the first encounter with Rome in the first century AD, to whom the area of modern Scotland was known as Caledonia, a form of Celtic language was spoken all over the territory, even in the extreme north and west. Dating from this Iron Age period is a lyre bridge (Fig. 5), circa 450-550 BC, the oldest of the kind in the Western Europe, found in the High Pasture Cave on the Isle of Skye. This 2,500 year-old bridge, of which two-thirds survived, has notches for the strings that are all in the same plane, suggesting that it was plucked or strung, and not bowed.


Fig. 5. Lyre bridge from the Isle of Skye

A second century BC stone carving from northern Brittany depicting a seven-stringed lyre may give and indication of what this instrument was like. Other finds from the period include antler wrest plank of a round lyre from Dun an Fheurain in Argyllshire 100AD, a possible tuning peg Cnip in Lewis (first century BC or AC), and a possible peg and wrest planks from Akill in Orkney. (Purser, 2017: 211-212)

But what caught the attention of Romans, was a very peculiar Iron Age instrument, the Celtic carnyx (Fig. 6), which is a type of a vertical long trumpet, surmounted by the stylized head of a wild boar or some other animal. The instrument was widespread through much of Europe from about 200BC to 200AD. It was widely depicted on statues and coinage, and also described in texts, in the accounts of the Celtic attack on Delphi in 279BC, as well as Julius Caesar’s campaign in Gaul and Claudius’ invasion of Britain. However, it was not a purely Celtic instrument, as it was used also by Dacians (in modern Romania). Carnyx was usually utilized in warfare, as described by Siculus, when its sound “suits the tumult of war”, but it also had a peaceful, ceremonial use. The final moments of Scotland’s Deskford carnyx illustrate this, since being placed as a ritual deposit, it “… ended its life as a sacrifice, a votive offering to some unknown god.” (National Museum of Scotland)


Fig. 6. Reconstructed Deskford carnyx

The Deskford Carnyx dates from between 80BC and 250AC. Found in 1816, it was the best surviving example until 2004. Here is a great video that showcases the reconstructed Deskford Carnyx and its sound:

After the four centuries during which Romans ruled Britain and repeatedly clashed with the northern Caledonians, they withdrew, and the history of Scotland, sank into the darkness of the early Middle Ages. (Hill, 10) As Clemens (2009:5) writes:

“By the sixth century AD, the area of modern Scotland is thought to have been inhabited by people now known as the Picts in the east and north-east of the country, the Dál Riata in the region of modern Argyll, Britons in Strathclyde and Anglo-Saxons in the Lothians.”

And so, at the time, there was a division among the cultures, but especially in terms of east and west. On the west, there was the Christianization by Irish monks, traditionally associated with the figures of St Ninian, St Kentigern and St Columba, while the east is characterized by their absence in regions such as those covered by modern Aberdeenshire and Banffshire. (Clemens, 2009:6)

There is very little evidence of the music from the time, mostly shown on the stone carving between eighth and ninth centuries, which depict the instruments of the time, with or without players. Many of these are Christian, among which are the interesting representations of harpists associated with the biblical iconography of David, demonstrating the high status of the harp and harpists in the early society. (Fig. 7a) Shown as well is another instrument associated with Celtic church and harp, the triple pipe (Fig. 7b), although no actual instruments have been found.

david .jpg

Fig. 7. 9th Century Dupplin Pictish Cross, Old Testament David playing harp


Fig. 7b.Triple pipes on the early 10th century Clonmacnois cross in
Co. Offaly, Ireland

The images indicate that these pipes parallel the Sardinian launeddas (Fig. 8), which are still played and go back to the Bronze age. Though, Launeddas, unlike tripe pipes, aren’t associated with any stringed instruments. launnedas.jpg

Fig. 8. Sardinian launeddas

Here is a video with great historical pictures and launeddas playing in the background:

Many non-Christian depictions are the ones from hunting, and there are also carved stones that demonstrate pre-Christian culture, but in the process of adopting the elements of Christianity. Generally, from the carvings, but also literary sources, we can see that the horn and trumpet playing didn’t end with the Bronze and Iron age, although now we have wooden wind instruments as well.

It is unclear whether or not the rock gongs, such as the one on isle of Iona, were used by the early Christians. Although this particular one wasn’t far from the abbey, so it would be remarkable if the monastic occupiers weren’t at least aware of it. On the other hand, we known that St Gildas, who came from Strathclude region of Scotland, used a rock gong at his hermitage near Castenec in Brittany, to call the faithful to mass.


Fig. 9. Medieval handbells recreated at the National Museum of Scotland

Moving on, the early handbells, nineteen of which survive from Scotland, were also associated with the Celtic Church, which were with the other important objects, such as psalters and gospels, believed to be magical and under the special care of hereditary guardians – the dewars and appear in the early Gaelic poetry as well. There were two types of bells, both quadrangular, one type of sheet iron and other of cast bronze. (Fig. 9) The iron handbells might date from as early as 7th-8th centuries, associated with Iona mission from Ireland, in other words, attributed to the influence of Columba’s church, probably produced a melancholy clanging, not dissimilar to that of large cow or sheep bells. But the bronze handbells of later date, two of which made around 900 AD, are musically much different, and can each play three different notes. Two faces produce the same note, while the others are different from them and each other, covering a range of minor third. The pitched bells might have accompanied in some way the distinct form of liturgical Celtic chant that developed in Scotland, or were at least a part of the rite.

Focusing now on the chant, unfortunately, there are no musical manuscripts until later times. Since by that time the Celtic chant tradition was superseded by Gregorian chant, the earliest manuscripts, like the Inchcolm Antiphoner and the Sprouston Breviary, consist mainly of Gregorian chant with the English Sarum Use as the basis. Although, Purser asserts that the services and chants included in these sources, those dedicated to St Kentigern and St Columba, may have roots in the old Celtic tradition. You can also take a look at some posts I wrote about Western plainchant in general here.


Fig. 10. The Bard, ca. 1817 by John Martin

In medieval Secular music, we have bards (Fig. 10), the professional poet-musicians who would compose the verses for clans, usually their chiefs and leaders. Most of this poetry was meant to be sung, and actually, many of the Gaelic words for verse have implications of melody. They might have also accompanied themselves with lyre or harps. The roots of bardic song-making might date back to the coming of the Gaels of Ulster, a province in Ireland, to their Scottish colony of Dal Riada in the sixth century AD, although, the traditional view of Dal Riada being the Irish colony has been questioned by authors such as Campbell (2001). In any regard, contacts between the bardic practitioners in Ireland and Scotland were strong, with Scottish bards sometimes attending bardic schools in Ireland, and Irish bards visiting Scottish Gaelic chiefs and fellow-poets. Irish bards, and thus probably Scottish ones too, taught rules of meter and syntax for bardic composition.

Bards would usually compose the poems of praise for the leaders, however, if they aren’t supported or shown hospitality, that could incur the wrath in the form of satire. Poems recounting the genealogy and history of the clans were also popular, and they were also responsible for playing Brosnachadh Catha – incitements on the eve of the battle, or to celebrate victories. With the development of the early courts, from the mid-ninth century, when the tribal confederations formed medieval kingdoms, such as Kingdom of Dal Riata and Pictland, and the unification of the two kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Alba in defense against the Viking aggression, the bards became the court poets, attaching themselves to the court of lord or king. Unfortunately, most of the bardic tradition was transmitted orally, so there is very little that was written down. Even the corpus of surviving verses is small, mainly dating from late 15th to early 17th centuries, while the music vanished.

The bardic system lasted until the early 18th century in Scotland, and with them, I approached the territory of the traditional music, which I will focus on in the next blog post. After that, I will finish my research with the use of pentatonic scale and other properties of this genre. I will probably also write about the Scottish classical music sometime later in the course. Here, I wanted to give an overall musical development of Scotland in the early, obscure times. Generally, I knew very little about Scotland’s musical history, so reading and writing about this subject was something I enjoyed very much.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Stone circle in Easter Acquhorthies

Fig. 2. The recumbent stone in Arn Hill

Fig. 3. A bone flute

Fig. 4a. Irish Bronze Age horns: end-blown (above) and side blown (bellow), from Co. Antrim

Fig. 4b. Fragment of the horn found in Wigtownshire in Scotland

Fig. 4c. Irish Bronze Age crotals from Dowris, Co. Offaly

Fig. 5. Lyre bridge from the Isle of Skye

Fig. 6. Reconstructed Deskford carnyx

Fig. 7. 9th Century Dupplin Pictish Cross, Old Testament David playing harp

Fig. 8. Sardinian launeddas

Fig. 9. Medieval handbells recreated at the National Museum of Scotland

Fig. 10. The Bard (1817) by John Martin


Yale Center for British Art, Selected paintings, drawings & books, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1977, p. 44, N590.2 A82 (YCBA)


Campbell, Ewan (2001) ‘Were the Scots Irish?’ In: Antiquity 75 pp.285-92.

Clements, Joanna (2009) Music in Scotland before the mid-ninth century: an interdisciplinary approach. MMus(R) thesis University of Glasgow
At: http// on November 2016)

Purser, J. (1998) ‘The Sounds of Ancient Scotland’ In: E. Hickmann/I. Laufs/R. Eichmann (Hrsg.), Studien zur Musikarchäologie II. Orient-Archäeologie 7. Rahden: 2000, pp.325-3

Sendrey, A. (1969) Music in Ancient Israel. London: Vision.

Mills, S. (2016) Auditory Archaeology: Understanding Sound and Hearing in the Past. New York: Routledge.

Watson, A. and Keating, D. (1999) ‘Architecture and sound: an acoustic analysis of megalithic monuments in prehistoric Britain’ In Antiquity 73 (280) pp. 325-36.

Purser, J. (2017) ‘The Significance of Music in the Gàidhealtachd in the Pre- and Early-Historic Period’ In: Scottish Studies (37) pp. 207-221 At: (Accessed on )

Hill, Roland (2002) Scotland. London/New York: Tauris Parke Books.

Clements, Joanna (2009) Music in Scotland before the mid-ninth century: an interdisciplinary approach. MMus(R) thesis University of Glasgow
At: http// on February 2009)



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