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In the summer of 2010, archaeologists working on the Isle of Skye at a site called High Pasture Cave discovered most of the charred bridge of a lyre in amongst charcoal that had been scraped to one side in a large, stone-lined fire pit situated in the forecourt just outside the narrow entranceway through which the Cave is accessed. The bridge piece has been dated to around 500 BCE, early in the British Iron Age. Reconstructions of the instrument of which the bridge was a part have generally been modelled on a complete one found in a 6th century CE warrior’s grave at a site called Trossingen in Germany in 2002. It’s quite possible that this was indeed the type of lyre the High Pasture bridge came from.

There is, however, an alternative, which is the type of lyre commonly known as the Lyre de Paule after a small stone statue of a late Iron Age bard unearthed in Brittany. This is a very different instrument, more akin to a Greek lyre. Similar lyres are shown on numerous Celtic coins, while the earliest known representations are scribed onto ceramic pots from the Hallstadt region of Germany and date from around 800 BCE.

This type of lyre, the earliest surviving name for which is chrotta, has fascinated me for decades, ever since I first saw an image of the Lyre de Paule. I now have one (left), and it's a beauty, thanks to the superb craft skills of Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. However, I also have another, made for me in Oak some years ago by Jim, an electric guitar maker. It came without fittings, the idea being that I would provide strings, tuning pegs, etc. myself. Naturally, what with Druid courses to write, and concern as to whether my craft skills were up to the task, I never got around to it. The Oak lyre therefore stayed propped up in my dining room until my Dark Age Crafts lyre arrived, at which point I decided to have a go at completing the Oak one myself, using the one Koth made for me as a reference guide.

The first piece I’ve made for it is a bridge based on the one from the High Pasture Cave. First, I drew out the profile of the piece on a spare piece of well-seasoned Yew that was about the right thickness. The original being apparently for a three or five stringed instrument, I expanded it a little to accommodate seven strings, the number on the Lyre de Paule. Having sawn the bridge roughly to shape with a tenon saw, I cut out the ‘stepped’ shape at the two ends, sawing down from the top, then slicing in from the side with a whittling knife.

I then drilled two holes through the ends. I’m not sure what purpose these serve. It’s possible that it allowed the bridge to be tied in place on the original instrument, although bridges are rarely fixed in place on modern acoustic instruments, so this seems unlikely. They may be either to make the piece lighter, or simply for decoration, or both.

The next step was to cut the notches in which the strings will sit. For this, I used a small fret saw, clamping the piece to the front of my desk with a G-clamp. In order for the strings to all sit at the same height from the soundboard, it’s vital to get the V-shapes all cut to the same depth. This is fiddly, but will make a real difference to the playability of the instrument.

Next came the most fiddly, delicate and time-consuming part of the process, shaping the whole piece using a whittling knife. I started by hollowing out the base of the bridge, leaving just the oval ‘feet’ at either end. I then used the fret saw to cut along the line of all of the notches at the top at an angle, making them into flat-topped pyramid shapes. Using the whittling knife, I then pared down the ends to a rounded shape and hollowed out one side of the bridge. I then used a counter-sink drill on either side of the already-drilled holes.

Once satisfied that I’d got the overall shape as near as I could to the original, the last stage was to sand it down with two different grades of glasspaper, one rough, one smooth.

I have to say, I think the finished piece looks great and I’m really pleased with it. Just as well, as it took me the best part of five hours!

Now I just have to wait for some violin pegs and a hole reamer to arrive, make a tail-piece, find some strings, and put the whole thing together.

My Dark Age Crafts lyre having nine Nylgut strings, the Oak one is going to have seven wire strings. It’s going to be a semi-acoustic too, once the pick-ups I have on order arrive. Why semi-acoustic? Well, I have a hankering to see what a wire-strung Iron Age lyre sounds like when run through an effects unit and amplified. If I was an Iron Age bard, I’d have wanted that...

More pictures and sound files will follow. Meanwhile, here’s a tale of the Irish god of Druidry, the Dagda, and how he summoned his Oaken harp (bearing in mind that the words for ‘harp’ and ‘lyre’ in Celtic languages were interchangeable for several centuries):

Now Lugh and the Dagda and Ogma pursued the Fomorians, for they had carried off the Dagda’s harper, whose name was Uaithne (pronounced Oona). Then they reached the banqueting-house in which were Bres son of Elatha and Elatha son of Delbaeth. There hung the harp on the wall. That is the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies so that they sounded not until by his call he summoned them forth when he said this below:

Come, Oak of two plains,
Come, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter,
Mouths of harps and bags and pipes!

Now that harp had two names, Daurdabla ‘Oak of two plains’ and Coircetharchuir ‘Four-angled music.’

Then the harp went forth from the wall, and killed nine men, and came to the Dagda. And he played for them the three things whereby harpers are distinguished, to wit, the sleeping-strain and the smiling-strain and the wailing-strain. He played the wailing-strain to them, so that their tearful women wept. He played the smiling-strain to them, so their women and children laughed. He played the sleeping-strain to them, and the company fell asleep. Through that sleep the three of them escaped unhurt from the Fomorians though these desired to slay them.

Blessings,

Greywolf /|\

Hallstadt Iron Age bard with chrotta, circa 800 BCE.

About a quarter of a century ago, I became fascinated by a musical instrument called a chrotta, a type of lyre played in Iron Age Europe from at least 800 BCE up until around 400 CE and the forerunner of many modern instruments, most notably the harp. At that time, no one was making replicas of them or even seemed interested in them. Despite the prominent role played by bards in early European societies, a role maintained to some extent in the countries of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ to this day, most books on the European Iron Age ignore the music of the period completely.

As a musician, I wanted to get my hands on a chrotta, to see what they sounded like and to figure out how they might have been played. One way and another, from building roundhouses to making frame drums and bone flutes, I’ve spent a good deal of the last 20 years doing things that increase my sense of community with our ancestors. Unfortunately, my craft skills are not up to making lyres from scratch.

Now, thanks to the far greater skills of fellow chrotta enthusiast, Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, who I had the good fortune, or gods’ guidance depending on your belief system, to meet at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival this year, my 25-year quest is finally fulfilled. Here, then, is my Iron Age lyre. I've added a soft leather back strap by which to support the instrument when playing it standing up, as was the common Iron Age practice so far as we can tell. I’ve also made a plectrum from a piece of horn. At my request, Koth made a bridge for the lyre based on this Iron Age one found on the Isle of Skye.

I still have a couple of other things to do, like painting Wolf heads on the tops of the uprights and possibly adding a horn wrest plate like one found at Dinorben in North Wales. I also need to make a padded bag to carry it in. Incidentally, I will also be making an Iron Age bardic costume when I have time and enough floor space to mark out and cut the material...

As for how it sounds, it's hard to describe in words, but I'd say that, appropriately, the chrotta has a more 'primitive' sound than my harp when playing the same notes with similar length strings. It sounds like the hand-made, one-off folk instrument it is, rather than a production line ‘concert’ instrument. Another way to put it is that the chrotta sounds 'real.' The harp is nylon strung and the chrotta strung with Nylgut, an artificial material designed to have a sound close to the quality of real gut strings but with a better ability to maintain tuning, and without animals dying. While I get my own recordings together, check out this video of Koth playing my lyre's big sister (mine has nine strings, allowing almost two octaves using pentatonic tuning, Koth's has twelve)...

Koth's not the only one making reconstructions of these ancient lyres now. There's even a place in France that's holding regular lessons in how to play them. Chrotta-mania appears to be catching, even if it does take 25 years to spread!

I’m really looking forward to getting to know this beautiful instrument over the coming weeks and trying some recording. There are a number of early medieval stories, poems and prayers that I’d like to set to music with it. There’s even a genuine Gaulish healing spell I might have a crack at. Sounds amazing in the original, although, when translated, it's all about expelling phlegm!

Stay tuned for further adventures as I transform myself into an Iron Age bard.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to join the chrotta revolution, Koth is still taking commissions. Here's a link to his Contacts Page...

Greywolf /|\

SteerbytheStars'Steer by the Stars' is the latest offering from the wonderful Telling the Bees, fronted by my friend, Andy Letcher. The first thing to catch attention is the exquisite artwork by Rima Staines, as subtly executed, magical and strange as the music itself.
The opening moments of each TTB album demonstrate what a pleasing texture of sound their mix of instruments creates, a silken pillow on which the band weaves our dreams and an encouraging glimpse of what's in store. On this album, when Andy's vocals come in on 'A Puppeteer Came Into Town,' the dream is a darkly Gothic one in which a travelling puppeteer receives and a somewhat mixed reaction to his shows. "With Bango, Beelzebub, Old Mr. Punch, I will jiggle the arcana round with my touch lest the shadows they grow ever longer." A lovely tune, picked out chiefly on the Anglo concertina.
Telling the Bees bandTrack two is a lively bit of jiggery-pokery called 'Oxford May Song,' recounting the revels and capers that break out amongst the dreaming spires when May Day rolls around. Great interplay between Jane's fiddle and Josie's cello, plus a driving bass line from Colin that should have everyone up and dancing in seconds when played live.
The next track is 'Windflower,' which has a gentle driving energy appropriate to the title. It's a love song and a lovely, deeply felt one at that, beautifully carried once again by the interplay of strings and bass with a perfectly-placed Anglo concertina augmenting the beat. Jane's fiddle soars gloriously in the instrumental section.
'Astrolabe' is not a word one finds often in modern music, but here it's the title and main feature of this mysterious ode that begins with the intriguing line, "Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird..." The body of the beguiling tune is held together by the skeleton of Andy's gently strummed mandolin, embellished with Jim's Anglo concertina and subtle strings, plus beautiful backing vocals from Nomi. This song contains one of my favourite lines on the album: "Last night a whole generation turned to stone." I was there and he's right...
Next up is 'One More Mazurka,' for which I can best quote a couple of lines: "The beautiful freaks are still dancing like it's the end of the world." It's easy to love a band who can take an old dance form and make of it a song that is by turns touching, melancholy, oddly uplifting and gloriously strange.
Track 6 is, apparently, a traditional Swedish tune called 'The Oxberg March,' and features Andy's beautiful, haunting playing on the English bagpipes. It's the kind of march one imagines the inhabitants of Summerisle hearing as they weave their way towards their May Day sacrifice in the Wicker Man.
'St. Kevin and the Blackbird' is an uplifting tale of, well, a saint and a blackbird.
'Babylon' intelligently combines the mythical with the political, Middle Eastern religion with Middle Eastern wars, it's call for radical rethinking carried by a driving yet appropriately fragmented tune. "And still we bomb Babylon..."
Picking up the political theme, 'I Fear These Tory Radicals' might, you'd think, be a brand new lyric composed for 2015. You'd be wrong. The words were penned in the first half of the 19th century by John Clare. "And they will be themselves as silent of our suffering as an old maid of her age..." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The newly written tune that accompanies the lyrics is suitably downbeat, with a decidedly funereal feel although, as ever, beautifully played.
'The Scholar Gypsy' is an old tale from Oxford town, and one that resonates with Andy's soul, causing him to admit, "I want to follow in his footsteps." "Now what he wanted above all else was Nature's secret commonwealth." The jaunty tune will keep your feet a-wandering like the Scholar Gypsy himself, bouncing along as the band build once again on the firm foundation of Andy's strummed mandolin.
Finally, the title track of 'Steer by the Stars' opens with gentle guitar from Colin. Andy's vocals are floated into new and misty mystical heights with the addition of a wash of reverb. The bass line has the feel of ocean waves, the concertina provides instrumental hooks between lines as other instruments move hypnotically through the mix as the track moves towards silence following Andy's assurance that "wherever we land, the stars will guide us safely in." So may it be.
telling the beesThis is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's song-writing continues to be a strong element in the mix, combining unpretentious lyricism with a scholar's grasp of history, a poet's turn of phrase, a romantic's yearning and a knife-edged political awareness. This collection also benefits from superb production by the band themselves, resulting in some of the clearest, warmest sound quality I've heard on a CD for quite a while. Each instrument is perfectly balanced in the mix, as are the vocals, making a splendid set of songs even more of a joy to listen to.
An English ArcanumI was hooked on TTB from the first track on their début album, 'Untie the Wind.' The second, 'An English Arcanum,' established that the first had been no mere flash in the pan but that here is a band to be reckoned with. 'Steer by the Stars' confirms Telling the Bees as one of my favourite bands of all time*. Wonderful, magical, at times disturbing, often deeply strange ... just like life. Hail the Bees! Long may they reign!

Greywolf /|\

*In case you're wondering, my absolute favourite band is The Incredible String Band, while others include The Screaming Blue Messiahs, The Ramones, and Dr. Strangely Strange.

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CultHeroes1981x600I've been writing songs since the mid-70s and fronted a number of bands in the late 70s and early 80s, including The Legendary Mutants (right, with me on vocals and rhythm guitar and MDB on lead guitar), Cult Heroes, Passing Strangers and The Levellers (no, not the Brighton-based folk-punk band, we were based in Hastings and used the name a few years before they did). In the 90s, I switched to writing for just myself and acoustic guitar and have performed solo ever since. My main instument is a semi-acoustic guitar, though I also play a variety of flutes and whistles, various percussion instruments, harp, shruti box and occasional oddities like sitar, bowed psaltery or dulcimer.
Sign of the Rose coverMy first CD, 'The Sign of the Rose,' was recorded in 1999 and released in 2000, after which life intervened and required me to bring up two sons on my own. Then I started work on the British Druid Order courses, built a roundhouse, learned to thatch, started making drums, etc., etc., so the second album has been delayed rather longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, 'The Sign of the Rose' is available as a CD or digital download from the BDO webshop.
I perform occasional gigs, and here are some videos from my set at the WildWays Mini-Folk Festival, June 6th, 2015.
First up is 'Song at Wodnesbeorg,' track 2 on 'The Sign of the Rose.' It recalls my first encounter with the Anglo-Saxon god, Woden, on a prehistoric long barrow in Wiltshire during a Hallowe'en pilgrimage from Avebury to Stonehenge. I've since taken a guitar to the very spot and sung the song, offering it to the spirits of place in return for the inspiration that led to its creation.

Next comes 'Lady of the Greenwood,' track 4 on 'The Sign of the Rose.' This was inspired by a workshop in which we were encouraged to become a variety of animals, including serpents, which worked particularly well for me. I'd recently started working with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and we took our serpentine inspiration away into the woods to weave some ritual. After a while we heard an eerie, unearthly music drifting through the trees. It drew nearer and turned out to be emanating from Andy Letcher (now lead singer and songwriter with 'darkly crafted folk' band, Telling the Bees), playing two penny-whistles bound together with tape. When we asked how he'd found us, he replied, "I just followed the snake." Yes, a snake had emerged from the roots of an oak tree and led him to us.

The third song from the WildWays set is the title track from 'The Sign of the Rose.' This relatively simple love song was inspired by a night spent at an inn halfway up a mountain somewhere in the West of England. I don't remember where, but I do remember they had Pulp's 'Common People' on the jukebox. This is one of the songs that sometimes gets me likened to Leonard Cohen.

Lastly there's the song I usually close my set with, 'Lord of the Wildwood.' It's always popular live as it gives folk plenty of opportunity to chant, howl and generally go nuts. This will be the title track of that difficult second album when I finally get around to recording it. I didn't realise until after I'd written it that the four animals featured in it can be read as guardian spirits of the four cardinal directions, Stag for West, Bull for North, Eagle for East and my beloved Wolves for South. Having reailsed it, I've occasionally used the song to call the quarters when opening a circle. I've also heard people use the spoken lyrics for the same purpose.

I am, by the way, available for gigs. The easiest and most reliable way to contact me is via a PM on my facebook page. I also have a Greywolf: Music page on facebook where I put video links and gig news. Thanks to Google mucking about, I've also got two youtube channels, one as Philip Shallcrass, the other as TheOldGreyWolfTest.
Blessings to all,
Greywolf /|\

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I've been meaning to record this Wolf Chant for years. It came to me after Ellen Evert Hopman brought a Seneca Wolf Chant to one of our Gorsedd circles in Avebury in 1994 or 95. I thought I'd memorised it, but next time I sang it to some other people who were at the Gorsedd, they told me I'd got it wrong. They taught it to me again. This time, I was sure I'd got it right. However, I was told I'd got it wrong again. This happened about four times and then I realised that what had happened was, I'd taken the inspiration of the Seneca chant, filtered it through my own spirit, and come up with an original, native British Wolf Chant. I've been singing it ever since.

One of the most memorable times I sang it was ten years ago in the Drum Circle of the Quileute people on the Olympic Peninsula on the Pacific Northwest coast. When I sang it in the Circle, I had no idea that the Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves. I also didn't know that one of the tribal elders had foreseen my coming five days earlier. The chant created quite a stir and my two sons and I were made members of the Drum Circle.

The chant is part of my regular spiritual practice. Working with spirit wolves, it helps to keep me in touch with them. It is a gift to be used by anyone who wants to connect with the spirit of the Wolf. I've also always felt that it is a spirit call for wild wolves to be reintroduced into Britain, something I very much hope to see during my lifetime.

The drum I'm playing is the first one I've ever made. The hoop or frame is of Ash, the skin is the hide of a red deer from Britain's oldest deer park, dating back to the 15th century. It was quite a journey making the drum, from felling the tree, through treating the hide to lacing it onto the frame.

The film consists of footage shot at the Avebury henge the other day by my son, Mike, cut with other footage and some stills I shot in and around Avebury myself a few years ago.

Blessings from the Wild Heart,

Greywolf /|\