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.