Here we’re on more certain ground than with the timpan, which is variously suggested to have been a hand-drum, a bowed lyre, a strummed lyre, a hammered dulcimer, a banjo and (by me) a long-necked lute. Everyone agrees that the 12th century Welsh harp was a triangular instrument of a type recognisably the ancestor of the modern harp. Its most common form was the telyn rawn, ‘horse-hair harp.’ The word telyn may actually be Irish in origin, from Gaelic teilinn, ‘the buzzing of bees.’ The story goes that the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan (circa 1055-1137), brought Irish harpers over to North Wales who disparagingly referred to Welsh harps as teilinn, ‘buzzing.’ Irish harps were commonly strung with brass not horse-hair. This in itself could account for the difference in sound noted by Gruffudd’s Irish harpers, but I wonder if Welsh makers might have fitted bray pins to their instruments. Bray pins are little flag-shaped pegs inserted into the soundboard next to strings in such a way that they can be moved to almost touch the strings, producing a distinct buzzing sound. As you’ll hear from this video, the sound of the bray harp is quite unlike the dulcet tones of modern harps:
Discussing telyn rawn with Ian Pittaway on his excellent early music blog led me to wonder if, rather than bray pins fitted to the soundboard, medieval Welsh harp-makers might have inserted or attached something to the instrument’s neck that produced a similar buzzing effect.
On the bray sound, Ian cites the very early example of the ‘bull-headed lyres’ of Ur, Sumerian instruments dating from around 2500 BCE, of which complete examples have been found. Their bray-like effect is produced by the strings vibrating against the upper part of the bridge, as in this video where a reconstructed instrument is played:
For those sufficiently interested, here’s a longer video in which historical musicologist, Richard Dumbrill, talks about the discovery, reconstruction, tuning and spiritual and cosmological significance of the lyres of Ur:
Also mentioned by Ian is an instrument that looks and sounds as though it’s ancestors were modelled on the lyres of Ur; the Ethiopian begena or bèguèna, whose extraordinary sound can be heard in this video:
This next video shows a begena being made as well as played:
The lack of a bridge is one of the key things that differentiates a harp from a lyre. On harps, the strings go directly into the soundbox without passing over a bridge. There is no evidence that the telyn rawn was anything other than a harp, in which case we can rule out a bridge. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t something else on it that produced a sound similar to the lyres of Ur or the begena. Once I’ve completed my telyn rawn, I’ll try a few options to see what works best. One possibility, since the soundboard was traditionally made from horse hide, is that strips of rawhide could have been attached to the neck, perhaps to the tuning pegs, so as to vibrate against the strings.
It’ll take a while to get that far though. This is where I’ve got to to date:
Following medieval harp-makers, I’m using a single block of wood. In this case, it’s from a 600-year-old oak who fell a while ago in woodland owned by my friend, Elaine. Elaine’s partner, Garth, has been a cabinet-maker for about 70 years, has a generous nature and a well-stocked workshop. It’s largely down to his expertise that we managed to render a very rough-hewn lump of oak into what is now starting to look quite like a harp. If we were following ancient techniques, we’d have burnt out the hollow for the soundbox then finished it with hand tools. Lacking the time and unwilling to risk our sole piece of oak to fire, we used a circular saw supplemented by hand sawing and electric drills. We took a slice off the back and another off the base to be glued back on later. Not quite a single block technique then, but close-ish.
Yesterday, I finished drilling out the soundholes. On medieval harps, these were invariably down the sides of the instrument, not on the back as in modern harps. Noting that the sides of the soundbox are warping and cracking in places, I clamped everything together apart from the base to try and prevent any further warping that might damage the chances of gluing everything back together again.
There’s still a lot to do. The upper insides of the soundbox need reducing in thickness, the shoulders where the soundbox joins the neck need shaping, a forepillar needs making and jointing into place, as does a pin strip. I need to decide what kind of tuning pegs to use and drill and shape holes through the neck to hold them. The front of the soundbox will then be covered with a rawhide soundboard made from a Red Deer hide. I’ll then make the strings by twisting horse hairs together. Only after fitting them will I finally hear what it sounds like and be able start experimenting to produce the desired buzzing sound.
Meanwhile, here’s a video of Rhodri Davies playing a reconstructed telyn rawn without brays or other buzz-producing fittings.
Sounds great, and beautifully played, but lacks the buzzing quality of the Sumerian or Ethiopian instruments, or of later medieval bray harps. That this was a feature of Welsh harps in which bards took particular pride is suggested by Andrew Borde (c. 1490-1549), who wrote in The First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge,
“If I have my harp I care for no more. It is my treasure, I keep it in store; For my harp is made of a good mare’s skin; The strings be of horsehair, it maketh a good din. My song, and my voice, and my harp doth agree, Much like the buzzing of a humble bee.”
Music has been one of the great loves of my life since early childhood. Another passion is history and archaeology, especially as applied to the early British Isles. Sometimes the two combine, as when I discovered a type of lyre called achrotta had been played across much of Europe for about a thousand years, from around the 9th century BCE through to the early Middle Ages. A few years ago, I finally got my hands on a reconstruction of one, made by Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts, and could hear what it sounded like and begin to work out how it might have been played. It is one thing to read about these instruments, quite another to actually handle one, play it and hear the sounds it produces.
In medieval texts, I came across another ‘lost’ instrument, the tiompán. One of the earliest writers to reference it is Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’), who, in his Topographia Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’), chapter XI, circa 1087, says that, “Scotland and Wales, the latter by propagation, the former by interchange and a pleasant affinity, strive to emulate Ireland in its musical modulation and to imitate its discipline. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments; namely the cithara, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three; the cithara, tympanum and chorus. Wales, in truth, the cithara, tibia and chorus. They use strings of brass, not gut. Many believe that Scotland today not only surpasses its teacher, Ireland, but, in musical expertise, far exceeds and outstrips it. So those seeking the source of the art now look to it.”
A Welsh Triad, recorded in the early 14th century manuscript known as Peniarth 20, also refers to the instrument:
Teir prifgerd tant
ysyd, nyt amgen: kerd grwth, kerd delyn, a cherdtimpan.
‘There are three
chief crafts of the string, namely: the craft of the crwth, the craft of
the harp, and the craft of the timpán.’
“A silver tiompán in his hand, of red gold the strings of that tiompán; Sweeter than every music under heaven Was the sound of the strings of that tiompán.”
References to the tiompán occur in manuscripts from the 8th century through to the 15th, despite which there is considerable disagreement as to what it was. Several manuscript sources refer to it having a wooden body, possibly of Willow, and three strings, made of bronze, brass, gold or silver. This clearly rules out the suggestion of Irish harpist, Derek Bell, that it was a hammered dulcimer, since they have many more strings. Others assume it to have been similar to the Finnish Jouhikko, a two or three-stringed bowed lyre once common in Northern Scandinavia. A similar instrument, the Gue, was formerly played in the Shetland Isles, presumably having been introduced by Viking settlers. While the tiompán may have been a bowed lyre of this type, there are reasons to believe otherwise. For one thing, an instrument with no frets and only three strings obviously has a fairly limited range, although the melody string is shortened to produce different notes by ‘fretting’ it with the backs of the fingers. Manuscript references suggest the tiompán capable of considerable tonal range and subtlety of expression. The Irish cruitt, a word that covers both the early, 9-stringed lyre and the later, 25-or-more-stringed harp, and the tiompán were the only instruments deemed capable of playing the 'Three Noble Strains,' or modes, that were the crowning attainment of the musician’s art; goltraighe or weeping mode; geantraighe or laughing mode; and suantraighe or sleeping mode. The 'traighe' element derives from trai, meaning ‘a foot, or measure.’ In modern musical terminology, a 'measure' means everything that appears on a musical stave between two bar lines, including indications of the key, rhythm, tempo and notes to be played. Perhaps trai had a similar meaning. Whether we regard these strains/modes as keys, tunings, melodic structures or playing styles, however, achieving them on a small bowed instrument with only three unfretted strings seems like a tall order.
Then there is the name, tiompán. The letter ‘p’ being unknown in Old Irish suggests that it is a Latin loan word. Its nearest Latin equivalent is tympanum, though this applied in the Graeco-Roman world to a small, circular, hand-held frame drum, like a tambourine. This is the name given by Gerald of Wales, who wrote in Latin, although he plainly states that he is referring to a stringed instrument, not a drum. The similarity of names does, however, suggest that the tiompán may have had a round body, or soundbox, topped by a soundboard made of animal hide, presumably with a neck projecting from the body. This would put the tiompán in the category of long-necked lutes, a class of instrument still found in many Eurasian cultures, from Eastern Europe to Japan. Many have three strings. Examples include the Tuvan doshpuluur, the Central Asian rawap, the Chinese sanxian, the Japanese sanshin, the Siberian topshuur and the tungana of Nepal. Long-necked lutes similar to these have existed since at least 3100 BCE, when pictorial representations of them appear in Sumeria. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to conceive of the idea reaching Britain and Ireland by the time the tiompán is first recorded around four thousand years later.
The sound and playing style of the tiompán are described in a probably 12th century Irish manuscript that refers to the Battle of Magh Rath (637 CE). On the eve of the battle, music is played to bring sleep to the Ulster prince, Congal Claen: “And after that Congal slept to the quiet sound of the musical bagpipes and the prophetic ominous truly-sad shadows of the strings and tiompans being touched by the fronts, sides, tips and nails of the performers who played so well on them.”
This description of the sound of the tiompán beautifully evokes the emotional power of the instrument. A playing style that uses the “fronts, sides, tips and nails” of the fingers closely parallels the technique used in North Africa on the lute-like instrument variously known as the guembri, lotar or sintir, where the strings, of which there are normally three, are plucked or strummed with the right hand, the fingers of which are also used to beat out a rhythm on the animal skin soundboard. The body, or soundbox, of the guembri is usually roughly rectangular, being carved from a single block of wood. A similar instrument found in West Africa, the akonting, has a circular soundbox, also covered with skin, although some modern versions use timber. Both guembri and akonting have strings of animal gut. Other long-necked lutes, such as the Persian setar or Turkish saz, are wire-strung as was the tiompán according to manuscript sources. My suggestion, then, is that the tiompán was one of this extremely widespread and long-lived family of long-necked lutes, having a circular wooden body, or soundbox, covered with animal skin, and three bronze or brass strings, unless the player or a patron could afford silver or gold.
The addition of frets makes the location of notes far easier for the player and, since frets have been added to lutes since at least the Sumerian era, it seems not unreasonable to suggest they may have been present on the tiompán. On most traditional long-necked lutes, frets are created by winding animal gut around the neck. They have the twin advantages of being movable and fairly easy to replace. For the tiompán, the positioning of frets must be conjectural, though we may take our lead from the lutes that survive in other cultures.
In many cultures, long-necked lutes are played to accompany singing, with the instrument tuned to whatever the vocal range of the singer happens to be. Rendered into Western musical terms, two common tunings for three-stringed lutes are C-G-C and D-A-D, the latter reminiscent of the D-A-D-G-A-D tuning favoured by folk guitarists, originally devised by Davey Graham to facilitate playing along with traditional Moroccan musicians. In most cases, one of the two repeated notes is pitched an octave apart from the other. Held in the playing position, the two upper strings, including the uppermost ‘bass’ string, commonly act as drones, while the melody is played primarily on the bottom ‘treble’ string. Giraldus says that the favoured key in Irish music was B flat (Bb), or A sharp (A#), although we have no way of knowing to what extent what he thought of as Bb resembles its modern concert pitch equivalent. Taking Gerald at his word, however, we might perhaps tune our reconstructed tiompán down a tone from the commonly used C-G-C to give us Bb-F-Bb. We may assume that the tiompán was tuned in ‘just intonation,’ as used in ancient Greek music and many indigenous musical traditions today. Modern ‘equal temperament’ tuning was only developed in the 16th century, by which time the tiompán had fallen out of use, or at least was no longer mentioned in manuscripts.
took about 30 years to find someone to make me a chrotta and
I probably don’t have enough years
left in me to wait that long for a tiompán,
decided to try making one myself. Obtaining
the soundbox was
in charity shops for a
wooden bowl of
the right size and
his partner, Elaine Gregory, owns 80 acres of woodland. Her
provided a beautiful Ash tree, some of whose timber I’ve
used to make frame drum hoops.
Garth took one of the remaining pieces, by now well seasoned, and
made a blank to my specifications for the neck. I have spare guitar
around, and some pieces of Red Deer rawhide left over from
cheap violin tuning pegs were
pieces assembled, work could begin.
I wanted to give the neck a pleasing shape, which meant learning how to handle a draw-knife and a spokeshave, both of which I own but had rarely used. Several hours of careful labour and a lot of sawdust and shavings in the carpet later, a tapered shape I was happy with was achieved. I then sawed a shallow cut across where the headstock meets the neck and inserted a piece of horn with three small v-shaped notches cut in it as a ‘nut’ for the strings to pass over. Three holes were then drilled through the headstock and reamed using a hand tool designed for shaping holes for violin pegs.
to the wooden
me cause for concern as
I’ve never been much
good at wood-working joints. Going
my delight, I
two passable slotted joints, one on either side of the bowl, into
which the neck was inserted,
I had cut down the neck where it passes across the interior of the bowl so that it wouldn’t impede the vibration of the rawhide I was going to use as a soundboard. However, not trusting the strength and stability of the hide, I had left a small pillar to support the bridge when it was put in place. Having glued neck and bowl together, I went through a pile of pieces of Red Deer hide and found one from the neck end so thick it had dried rock hard. Obviously it wasn’t going to need the pillar, being more than capable of supporting the bridge on its own. Rather belatedly, I decided to look online to see what I could find about the construction of acoustic instruments, particularly bridge and soundboard. I learned that the job of the bridge is to transfer as much of the vibration of the plucked or bowed string through to the soundboard as possible. Had I left the pillar, it would have reduced the vibration in the hide soundboard, reducing the volume and affecting the tone. So I cut the pillar out with a small hand-saw and sanded it flat.
next job was to apply varnish to the woodwork to protect it from
and injury. I used a modern, shop-bought clear varnish, but there is
evidence that our ancestors made and used natural
varnishes a few thousand years ago. Varnish not only protects the
wood, it also brings out the colour nicely, rendering
variations in the grain more visible. Between coats, the wood was
sanded using fine grains of sandpaper (240, 600 and 800). Again, this
is a substitute for natural abrasives our ancestors would
Having completed the varnishing, the next step was to fit the soundboard. The chosen piece of hide was put to soak in a tub of lukewarm water, adding some rawhide cord (also left over from drum-making) after an hour or so. It took a long time for such a thick, hard piece of hide to soften. Eventually, simply because time was getting on and I was getting impatient, I decided to give it a try. Using the experience of making drums, I punched small holes around the edge of the hide, adding two concentric circles of holes in the middle to act as soundholes. The rawhide cord was then threaded through the holes around the edge, criss-crossing the back of the bowl from one side to the other until I ran out of holes. This was then left to dry. As cord and soundboard dry, they shrink and, therefore, tighten. They needed to tighten a lot as the hide was still so stiff when I lashed it on that its surface resembled a contour map of a range of hills. Checking it next morning, it had flattened somewhat, giving me hope that it might flatten more during the course of the day. Fortunately, it did. Even when fully dry, the surface is still a bit rough, but it’s flat enough, tight and very hard, and produced a pleasing sound when struck as a drum.
Next I made a couple of bridges. The first attempt was based on the Iron Age High Pasture Cave bridge piece. However, on fitting it, it was apparent that such a design is useless on this instrument, giving an action that is far too high. I therefore took another small piece of seasoned Yew and made a much lower bridge. The violin pegs were then fitted, after having holes pierced through them with an awl through which to thread the strings. None of the spare guitar strings I had in the house exactly matched the gauges I had calculated would produce the best results, but they were fairly close. Now to put the thing together and see if it played.
The strings were looped over the three pegs at the far end of the neck, which protruded from holes pierced through the hide soundboard. They were then passed over the bridge and the nut and threaded through the holes in the tuning pegs. The pegs turned out to be a very tight fit and took some turning, occasionally resorting to a pair of pliers! New strings never stay in tune for long, and these were no exception. It took about three days for them to more-or-less settle. Given the difficulty of turning the pegs, I settled for being nearly in tune rather than spot on. Given the gauge of the strings available to me, I opted for a compromise C-F-C tuning as the most easily achievable.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found my conjecturally reconstructed tiompán has quite a pleasant tone and a decent amount of sustain, i.e. about 10 seconds. Having plucked, strummed, tapped and slapped it a little, I couldn’t resist making a recording to share. This was done prior to adding frets or removing the rawhide lashings that held on the soundboard. Even so, I was quite pleased with the result. After all, I’d never made a stringed instrument before and was just amazed that it made any kind of sound at all, let alone a relatively pleasant one! Tuning C-F-C.
To allow for the removal of the cords, the edges of the soundboard were pinned to the soundbox bowl with drawing pins. Fortunately, the wood of the bowl (species so far unidentified) is soft enough to be able to push the pins into, finishing off with a couple of light hammer taps. I did, however, have to use an awl to make holes through the rawhide which was, in most places, too hard to push a pin through. For the same reason, it took some hours to remove the excess hide and release the cords, gradually slicing through the hide with a Stanley knife.
I had bought some 1 mm thick nylon line to make frets with, but decided instead to try repurposing the removed rawhide cord. Rawhide has the advantage that, having been soaked before use, it dries and shrinks into place, tightening itself. I had no idea if it would work as frets, but decided to chance it. After soaking for some hours, the cord was both flexible and stretchable. Using a ‘just intonation’ calculator found online, I measured out the fret positions, marking them in pencil across the neck under the strings. I then began to tie on the frets, starting from the soundbox end and working back towards the nut. Each fret was tied about five fret positions down from where it was going to end up, then slid up into place. Since the neck gets thicker as you move towards the soundbox, this has the effect of tightening the fret. Sometimes I had to trim the width of the cord down with a pair of sharp scissors. The total string length from bridge to nut is 27.5 inches (70 cm), and from the front edge of the soundbox to the nut is 21.5 inches (55 cm). This meant tying 24 frets. A lot of work, especially since I had no idea if the rawhide cord would actually do the job. The overnight wait for it to dry was quite anxious…
Next morning, I picked the thing up and, yes, the frets worked! Well, all except a couple in the middle that were a little lower than the next one up. Inserting a small file under the strings, I was able to file down the too high fret so that the ones below it could sound properly. Other than that, all my recycled rawhide frets performed as they should. Yay!
By this time, the strings were beginning to settle, becoming better at holding their tuning. This encouraged me to try a couple more recordings. The experiment switched from making to playing. From watching videos online of similar long-necked lutes being played in other cultures, I had some ideas to try out and plenty of inspiration to draw on. I’d become especially enraptured by the music of the late Iranian setar virtuoso, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, a musical genius virtually unknown in the West but who ranks alongside Ravi Shankar in the expressiveness, purity and spirituality of his playing. While my humble efforts will never get anywhere near such giants, they offer a vision of the mountain-top to strive towards. The word setar, incidentally, means ‘three strings,’ although modern setars have four, usually arranged in three courses.
For my first recording with frets in place, I used a long plectrum called a risha, reshee, or mizrab, used to play Middle Eastern lutes such as the oud. I chose this because of references in Irish manuscripts to the tiompán being played with a ‘wand.’ Some have interpreted this as meaning a bow, but this type of long pick, originally made from cow horn, is equally worthy of being called a ‘wand.’ Tuning: C-F-C.
For the second recording with frets, in keeping with the playing style described in the 12th century manuscript quoted above, the strings were plucked or strummed with the nails and fingers of the right hand, while the soundboard was played like a bongo or conga drum, initially with both hands, then with the sides of fingers and thumb, rocking the right hand to and fro. It became immediately apparent, as the recording shows, that playing the soundboard like this causes the strings to sound as a rhythmic drone. The strings vibrate to the drum-beat a lot more than I thought they would. Tuning: C-F-C.
All in all, having started out with fairly low expectations due to my shaky crafting skills in some areas, I’m quite pleased with the results and looking forward to improving my playing technique and maybe even trying singing with the tiompán, as the manuscript sources indicate was done. I’m not sure that I’ve brought an authentic tiompán back to life for the first time in more than half a millennium, but, given that no one seems quite sure what an authentic tiompán was, I’ll settle for what I’ve got until further evidence comes to light. At this point, that would probably be one being found in a peat bog. Now wouldn't that be something?
Making and playing my tiompán during the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly been beneficial to my mental health and general well-being. In Chapter XII of his Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis, has this to say on the beneficial effects of music:
sweet harmony of music not only affords us pleasures, but renders us
important services. It greatly cheers the drooping spirit, clears the
face from clouds, smooths the wrinkled brow, checks
moroseness, promotes hilarity; of all the most pleasant things in the
world, nothing more delights and enlivens the human heart. …
Moreover, music soothes disease and pain; the sounds which strike the
ear operating within, and either healing our maladies, or enabling us
to bear them with greater patience. It is a comfort to all, and an
effectual remedy to many; for there are no sufferings which it will
not mitigate, and there are some which it cures.”
The current Covid-19 outbreak is impacting our lives in many ways. How it will play out in the long term remains to be seen. In the meantime, we need to do all we can to keep ourselves and our families safe. Until a vaccine becomes available, the best ways to do this are by maintaining physical distance between us and washing regularly and thoroughly, especially our hands.
course, as spiritual beings, there are other things we can do. Those
of us whose Paganism allows for the reality of entities existing in
the realms of spirit whose
influence extends into the physical,
including the old gods of our lands, may choose
to pray to those gods
for their blessings and
ancestors certainly did just that.
The following prayer is found in the Book of Ballymote, compiled in County Sligo, Ireland, circa 1390, although the prayer itself is considerably older, dating perhaps from the 8th century. Skeptics may argue that an 8th century prayer can have no possible relationship to Druidry. There are, however, numerous references in the manuscript literature of Britain and Ireland indicating that Druids continued to play an active role in society at least until the 12th century. It is certainly hard to see the prayer itself as anything other than pagan. I have not included a translation of two lines of Latin appended to the end of the original manuscript text since they were clearly tacked on in a half-hearted attempt to Christianise an otherwise splendidly pagan prayer. I defy anyone to locate a Biblical reference to ‘the Seven Daughters of the Sea’ who feature in the first two lines, while the 'Silver Champion' referred to in line 10 seems likely to be Nuada Airgetlam, 'Nuada of the Silver Arm,' sword-wielding equivalent to the Romano-British Nodens, who oversaw a large healing sanctuary at Lydney on the banks of the River Severn.
that illness is characterised in the prayer as a ‘two-headed
adder,’ a ‘hard-grey serpent,’ and a ‘headless black beetle.’
It was extremely common for our ancestors to view disease as a dark
creature, most often a venomous
combatting illness in spirit, attributing a form to it is extremely
useful, providing a clear focus on what it is we are seeking to
counteract and protect against.
This particular prayer seems peculiarly appropriate at the present time, given that the severity of the effects of the Covid-19 virus seems to increase the older one gets.
"The cry of a worthy man upon the road, may it bless me on my journey into the Plain of Age:"
“I invoke the Seven Daughters of the Sea who weave the threads of children for long life: May three deaths be taken from me! May three life-spans be granted to me! May seven waves of good fortune be dealt to me! Phantoms shall not harm me on my journey a flashing breastplate keep me from injury! My fame shall not be bound by death! Let death not come to me till I am old! I invoke my Silver Champion who has not died, who will not die: May time be granted to me of the quality of pure bronze! May my form be ennobled! May my right be maintained! May my strength be increased! May my grave not be readied! May death not come to me on my journey! May my journey be successfully fulfilled! May the two-headed adder not seize upon me, nor the hard-grey serpent, nor the headless black beetle! May no thief ever harm me, nor band of women, nor band of armed men. May increase of time come to me from the King of All Being! I invoke Senach [‘the Ancient One’] of the seven ages, whom Fairy women have reared on breasts of plenty: May my seven lights not be extinguished! I am an indestructible stronghold, I am an unshakeable rock, I am a precious stone, I am a fortunate one of seven riches. May I live a hundred times a hundred years, each hundred after another! Thus I summon my good fortune to me.”
The prayer was recorded in our Shropshire roundhouse in August 2019, hence the crackling of the central hearth fire and the screaming sounds of Buzzards (Buteo buteo) wheeling around in the sky outside. The lyre accompaniment was added a few days ago here in my study at home using a little lapel mic as a pick-up. The lyre used is the one in the photos, beautifully made for me by Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. It’s of a type played in Europe from at least 800 BCE until around 600 CE, possibly later. The earliest recorded name for it is chrotta.
Rye Grammar School was not a good place in which to be a hippy in that halcyon summer of 1967. While Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, was in the USA, encouraging the world to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” A. L. F. Buttery, the Old Etonian headmaster of my very English school, was telling me that “there is no room in an institution like a school for individuals.” While love-ins and be-ins flourished in San Francisco and ‘swinging London’ was enjoying the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream, the little town of Rye in Sussex remained a sleepy Tory backwater, rife with bigotry, prejudice and hypocrisy, and full of boys around my age who would, within a year, be proudly calling themselves skinheads. I was barred from the newsagents in Rye because I had long hair. The same social stigmata meant that I was frequently stopped by the police in Rye if I went out wearing anything other than school uniform. That certainly included the psychedelic shirt I made by taking a discarded white shirt of my father's and painting huge, brilliantly coloured flowers on it with felt-tip pens. I took to going barefoot and sitting on floors rather than chairs too. None of which endeared me to my parents, teachers or peers.
By 1967, I had been a pacifist for ten years. This came from watching playground fights between individuals or gangs of boys during my first year at primary school. I saw that the only results were that one or more children got hurt and fresh enmity and resentment were caused. Even at the age of four, it didn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to see wars as playground fights writ large, the difference being only the scale and severity of the casualties. Since I could see no positive outcomes to fighting, only negatives, I determined that I would never take part in acts of violence, a position I have maintained ever since.
I made sure I passed my 11 Plus exam so that I would go to the local Grammar School rather than the Secondary Modern because I assumed that children attending the Grammar School would be sufficiently intelligent to share my view of violence. I could scarcely have been more wrong. Whereas the Secondary Modern School had a liberal-minded headmaster, Mr. Rothwell, who employed like-minded staff and genuinely took an interest in encouraging pupils academically, Mr. Buttery’s overwhelming interest was cricket. If you were good at cricket, you were in for an easy ride. Not only was I not good at cricket, I found it, as I still do, perhaps the most tedious team game ever devised by humankind. ALF and I were never destined to get on. Worse than that, the Grammar School encouraged, or at least tolerated, two forms of institutionalised bullying.
Attached to the school was Leasom House Farm. Parents who wanted a Grammar School education for their children who had failed the 11 Plus could buy it by sending them as boarders to Leasom House. It also meant they were completely rid of their children during term time and could get on with their lives unencumbered. The bitter resentment this fuelled was exorcised by bullying day pupils, a sport indulged in by virtually every Leasom House boy. If there happened to be anything a little unusual about you, you were picked out for special attention and bullied on a daily basis. This applied to pupils who wore glasses, suffered from asthma, or, in my case, had long hair, a deep objection to wearing school uniform and was a pacifist. Discovering the latter was taken by the bullies as carte blanche to bully me as much as they liked, knowing I would never hit back. Fortunately, I was a lot more intelligent than the bullies and therefore able to talk my way out of most potential violence.
A lot of the bullying directed against me came not from fellow pupils, however, but from teachers. The Grammar School seemed to attract teachers with a pathological hatred of children, especially ones who were unusually bright and questioned authority. Think Lindsay Anderson's If... Slaps round the head were daily occurrences, being caned across the hand less frequent. There was a history teacher whose methods ranged from the casual slap across the back of the head, through twisting and pulling the hair by the ear to nipple-twisting, the latter being particularly excruciating. The PE teacher preferred to administer punishment with one of his large plimsolls rather than the flat of his hand. On cross country runs, he would ‘encourage’ asthmatic children over farm gates by whacking them across the buttocks with this item of footwear. I think it was in 1967 that this man pinned me to the wall in a corridor, put his face close to mind and asked, "Don't you mind people thinking you're a freak?" I replied, "No, sir. I am one." This confused him so much that he let me go without another word.
The environment in which I experienced the Summer of Love was thus one of daily brutality five days a week, alleviated at weekends by taking the train to Hastings and roaming its back streets or seafront alone. There too, I was often stopped by the police for being in possession of long hair without a license. Since my father was around at weekends, I got out of the house as much as possible. He objected strongly to my long hair, weird attitudes and interest in music and art. He regarded them, and me, as a waste of space, and told me so whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Despite, or possibly because of, the tribulations of home and school, I drew huge comfort from what was happening in the rest of the world, fed to me through newspapers, the radio, television and, perhaps most importantly, through the music of the time. I had been a Beatles fan since the release of ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962 and had watched them develop from loveable Liverpudlian mop-tops into thoughtful individuals who were one of the driving forces of popular culture worldwide. August 1966 saw the release of the ‘Revolver’ album, featuring the deeply psychedelic tracks, ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ ‘Love You To,’ and the awesome, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ an aural assault unlike anything put on vinyl before, with its dreamlike lyrics, backward tape loops and sitar all merging into a rolling, crashing wave of sound. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream – it is not dying...”
Along with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘19th Nervous Breakdown,’ the Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes of Things,’ the Beatles’ ‘Rain/Paperback Writer’ and others, here was a new music that demanded you not just listen to it but to immerse yourself within it and be swept along by it to other head spaces. To my ears and mind, it was utterly beautiful, magical and transcendant.
1967 kicked off with the Beach Boys’ extraordinary ‘Good Vibrations’ riding high in the UK singles chart: “When I look into her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world...” The chart for late January that year also included Cat Stevens’ ‘Matthew and Son,’ the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Hey Joe,’ Cream’s ‘I Feel Free,’ and Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman.’ Yep, there was definitely something in the air, and it was being beamed into my ear via a little transistor radio tuned to pirate Radio Caroline.
Caroline played stuff you never heard elsewhere, with the noble exception of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show on Radio London. It was on Caroline that I heard three singles that, for me, still encapsulate the English Summer of Love. One was Nirvana’s ‘Tiny Goddess,’ released in July. That was followed in September by Les Fleur de Lys’ ‘I Can See A Light.’ The third was again by Nirvana, and called ‘Pentecost Hotel.’ All three have a dreamlike quality that lifted me into a beautiful place back then, and continue to do so now.
These bands, and others of the period, were clearly beginning to realise that music has the ability not only to move the emotions, effecting hearts and minds, but to actually shift the consciousness of the listener. How conscious this was on the part of the musicians, I don’t know, but it certainly produced some of the most extraordinary music of my lifetime.
The apotheosis of the music of that golden era was, of course, the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ released on June 1st, 1967. I first heard it, weirdly enough, at my school, which happened to have an open day that coincided with the album’s release. I was too poor to afford full-priced albums, but a WWII bomb shelter in the school grounds had been converted into a sort of psychedelic dungeon for the day, complete with primitive light show, a 6th former had brought in a copy of Sgt. Pepper, and the first chords of the album were sounding just as I wandered in to see what was happening. I stayed to listen to the whole of both sides, culminating in one of the most famous piano chords on record, reverberating like a nuclear explosion at the close of a psychedelic trip set to music. I was dumbfounded. I could barely speak.
John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show was another oasis of bliss. Broadcast from 12 midnight until 2 o’clock in the morning, I used to listen to it under the covers with the little transistor radio clamped to my ear. It was not just the album tracks, or whole albums that Peel played, by Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and the rest, it was the poetry readings from Roger McGough, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories Peel read between tracks, the references to the Dibblers who sat on toadstool seats and just the whole atmosphere of magical wonder conjured during those two hour sessions. This, of course, came to an end on August 14th, 1967, when Harold Wilson's Labour government shamefully introduced the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act that made the pirate radio stations illegal and led to the BBC setting up it's insipid, tightly regulated, Radio 1 as an extremely poor substitute.
Perhaps my reaction to what was happening in music and popular culture at the time was partly driven by the circumstances I was living with. We lived in poverty, in a shack with a leaky roof and cracks in the walls where, for the first years of my life, we didn’t even have running water, relying instead on a rain tank in the garden. Bullied on a daily basis by teachers and fellow pupils, my father adding his unconcealed dislike of me to the mix at weekends, it was hardly surprising I should look for any avenue of escape that was offered and, given my proclivities, music, art and literature were obvious ones to latch onto.
It was more than that though. My innate pacifism gave me an automatic sympathy with the message of ‘peace and love’ that was in the air, and with the growing global protests against the American war in Vietnam. It was more than that too. Since early childhood, I had been fascinated by the concept of other worlds beyond the physical. This was spurred by disturbing visions I had in the state between waking and sleeping, by vivid, often terrifying, dreams, and by a strong sense that there were discarnate entities all around us that were capable of interfering in our lives. Whenever I tried to speak of these things to anyone, they dismissed them as over-vivid imagination and, more often than not, warned me that to take an interest in them was unhealthy and probably a sign of madness.
My first signs of possible salvation came from American comic books. I was lucky enough to discover Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel Comics about a month before the debut of ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961. The FF acted like a family should, rather than like mine actually did. Sure, they had fights, but they were quickly forgotten and, when the chips were down, they were always there for each other. Kirby debuted his take on Norse mythology in 1962 in the pages of ‘Journey Into Mystery’ where he introduced us to ‘The Mighty Thor.’ This gave me my first glimpse of paganism. Things heated up considerably when Kirby starting producing full-page portraits of Odin, the All-Father. Unlike the Christian God, who seemed both nebulous and mean-spirited, Kirby’s Odin was a god of stocky build and awesome power and presence, yet forgiving of his children and not the least prone to unleashing plagues on entire populations. By 1967, I had begun to pray to Thor every Thursday morning, and to ask him to send cooling breezes whenever it got too hot when we were excused classes to watch cricket matches or, in my case, to surreptitiously read a book while supposedly watching cricket matches. He always obliged, providing my first indication that pagan gods are real (whatever ‘real’ means).
July, 1963, saw the first appearance of Doctor Stephen Strange in ‘Strange Tales’ 110, created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, based on an earlier character, Dr. Droom, created by Jack Kirby. No one drew other worlds like Steve Ditko, and those he conjured up for Dr. Strange were my first indication that there might be other people in this world who shared my interest in exploring these realms that existed alongside our own. The good Doctor himself learned how to project his astral body by studying with an ancient sage in the Himalayas. Since I frequently used to fall out of my body whilst trying to get to sleep at night, I found this particularly interesting. Given the bizarre experiences I had as a child, the fact that Strange handled similar weird forces with the aid of magic was both inspiring and hugely encouraging, as was the fact that he could move in and out of alternate dimensions at will. By 1967, his stories were being handled by another excellent artist, Marie Severin, and the tales remained as cosmic as ever.
Through comic books first, and then through music, I realised I was not completely alone, and perhaps not even entirely insane. In 1967 in particular, the blanket coverage given in the media to the hippy movement gave me the feeling that, far from being alone, I was actually part of a world-wide revolution drawing the world away from war, authoritarianism and hatred, towards a peaceful anarchy in which people exchanged flowers rather than bullets and made love, not war.
On first hearing Sgt. Pepper, I was particularly impressed by the George Harrison track, ‘Within You, Without You,’ so much so that I bought a budget priced LP of Indian classical music and began to explore Hindu philosophy, so far as limited resources allowed. This track, perhaps more than any other, in combination with what I had gleaned from the Mighty Thor and Doctor Strange, pitched me headlong into the spiritual exploration that was to become the keystone of my entire existence, leading ultimately to founding the British Druid Order.
The very real sense of being part of a global community founded on peace and love enabled me to survive the abysmal days at Rye Grammar School and the painful tensions of home life, and gave me the confidence to walk out of both in the middle of the spring term of 1969. By then I had discovered The Incredible String Band and the mingled joys and sorrows of sex and drugs, but that’s another story. In the summer of ‘67, it was enough simply to know that I was not alone but that there were many, perhaps hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people in the world who saw life in much the same way as I did…
It was a time of unbounded optimism, when anything seemed possible, even that love might conquer the world, causing coercive governments to fall and peaceful cooperation between people take their place. It saddens me when, as now, large parts of the world seem strangely bent on sliding back into repressive authoritarianism, fuelled by paranoia, as we are increasingly under surveillance by our own governments, while those same governments seek to persuade us that all our problems are caused by external agencies, and where Western democracy, always something of a sham, has become both a laughing stock and a reason to weep.
And yet, despite Trump, Brexit, Daesh, Front Nationale, AfD and all the rest, the music, art and literature of the late 60s, and of 1967 in particular, still speaks to my heart across the decades bringing joy, a sense of wonder, and renewed optimism. Let us, therefore, continue to sing, speak, and make art, music and literature to convey the message of peace and love to the world because, as George Harrison sang, “with our love, we could save the world, if they only knew.”
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.
At midnight on Monday, August 14th, 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law in the UK. This draconian piece of legislation, brought in by Harold Wilson's Labour government, made it illegal under UK law for anyone to broadcast a radio or tv signal outside of UK territorial waters if such a signal was aimed at an audience in the UK. Anyone assisting in such a venture, whether by actually taking part in such a broadcast, or by providing food or other supplies, was liable to imprisonment.
Until that time, from 1964, British listeners had enjoyed a number of what were dubbed 'pirate' radio stations, mostly broadcasting from ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters. Prominent among them were Radio London, Radio England, and Radio Caroline, the latter run by an Irish national, Ronan O'Rahilly, whose grandfather, Michael O'Rahilly, had died in Dublin in 1916 during the Easter Rising, fighting for Irish independence.
In support of the legislation, the UK government told a series of blatant lies, falsely claiming, among other things, that the 'pirate' radio ships were a danger to shipping or that signals from them were interfering with aircraft and police, fire and ambulance services. The real reason for the Act was that the UK government were able to exercise control over the BBC and ITV, to the extent that, for most of its existence, MI5 maintained an office inside Broadcasting House. The 'pirates' were beyond state control and, therefore, deemed a potential threat to the state.
Ironically, Harold Wilson had gone out of his way to be photographed with prominent pop starts of the day, including The Beatles, just as his successor, Tony Blair, would do with the stars of 'Brit-pop' thirty years later. The BBC, at that time, broadcast very little pop music, so the burgeoning UK music industry was delighted with the additional airtime that artists got from the commercial 'pirate' stations. Support for the pirates was strong amongst the artists too, since it meant that millions more people were able to hear their work.
The 'pirate' stations also benefited from independent-minded and musically knowledgable DJs. One such was John Peel, whose Perfumed Garden Show, broadcast between midnight and 2am on Radio London, was required listening for anyone with a freak mind. He played poetry readings from Roger McGough and strange ditties from Tyrannosaurus Rex, interspersing them with tales of the Dibblers who lived at Peel Acres. Peel's final farewell from the Perfumed Garden is revisited here with a full track listing. Running Peel a close second was Johnnie Walker, whose shows on Radio Caroline would sometimes feature entire new LP releases being played in their entirety, without interruption. Again, for those of us who cared about music, this was bliss.
On the day that the Marine Offences Act came into force, most of the 'pirate' stations ceased broadcasting, and most of their personnel would go on to join the new BBC Radio 1 station, which essentially tried to clone Radio London, even to the extent of repurposing its jingles. What Radio 1 lacked, however, was any sense of independence. DJs' freedom of choice over what they played was replaced by an approved playlist. Eventually, John Peel managed to carve out a career for himself on Radio 1 that, in many respects, carried on what he had been doing in the Perfumed Garden Show, championing artists that his fellow DJs wouldn't, or weren't allowed to, play.
One station, however, remained on the air; Radio Caroline South, moored off the Frinton, Essex coast on the good ship, Mi Amigo. As midnight struck and the Act became law, two DJs and a skeleton crew remained on board. Those DJs were Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale. They celebrated their new status as literal outlaws by playing The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' and Pete Seeger's 'We Shall Overcome.' For the next few days, they kept up 24-hour broadcasting between the two of them until a tender arrived, bringing another DJ to help out. From now on, Walker and Dale could not set foot on British soil without fear of arrest. Any UK citizen who gave them a Mars bar or a bite of a sandwich risked the same. However, thanks to their efforts, the ideal of free radio survived.
Johnnie Walker wrote the following piece, broadcast repeatedly from Radio Caroline during that summer, in which he speaks of freedom and hope, ending with the words, "No man will ever forget Monday, August 14th, nineteen hundred and sixty seven." This man hasn't...
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...
Since around 2005, the British Druid Order and friends have been holding a blessing ceremony for the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, the largest historical re-enactment event in Europe, which takes place annually on the second weekend in July. This came about because the festival, which has been running since 1984, had always had a blessing from a Christian priest on the Sunday morning, but the organisers had become increasingly aware that a significant proportion of the re-enactors and stall-holders are not Christian, but Pagan. They therefore asked us if we would provide a ceremony on the Saturday morning before the public are admitted to the field. We’ve been doing so ever since. We began with about eight of us. This year there were more than thirty people in our circle, which isn’t bad considering most of the entertainers, stall-holders and re-enactors who would like to come are attending meetings or preparing for the day’s events at the time our ceremony is held.
In essence, we ask the spirits of the place, our ancestors and the old gods of our lands to bless and protect all those taking part in the weekend. Perhaps our greatest success so far came in 2007, the summer during which Britain was hit by unprecedented floods. Large, open-air events were being cancelled all over the country. Tewkesbury was one of the few that went ahead as planned. Yes, it was very muddy underfoot, but the rain held off for most of the weekend and the event was a success.
For the last five years or so, the BDO and our friends from the Wild Ways retreat centre in Shropshire, have rented adjacent stalls at Tewkesbury. We stay over for the whole weekend, arriving on Friday afternoon and leaving on Sunday evening. This means we get to enjoy the bands who play in the beer tent on those two evenings. We have also developed a tradition of drumming the sun down on Friday evening. We meet lots of old friends and make lots of new ones. It’s a joyous event and one we wouldn’t miss.
This year was a particularly good one for me. A little 8-stringed lyre (left) had arrived a couple of days before the festival weekend. For about twenty-five years, I’ve been obsessed with the Iron Age Gaulish lyres called chrotta and this little one was the nearest I’d ever come across to the best existing image of a chrotta, a stone statue dating from the 2nd century BCE, found in Brittany and called the Lyre de Paule (right).
Having arrived and set up our stalls in the marquee, I was standing behind the BDO stall playing my little lyre, when, to my amazement, a guy walked through the door of the marquee carrying a much larger lyre, clearly based on the same Lyre de Paule statue that had always intrigued me. When I’d recovered from the surprise, I went over and introduced myself. The guy with the chrotta turned out to be Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, and he makes them.
Starting out as a guitarist, he became intrigued by early European stringed instruments, then obsessed by Gaulish lyres to the extent that he had to make one for himself. Then other people starting asking if he could make them one, and so began a new career. He now tours festivals as a bard, telling stories and singing songs to the accompaniment of these beautiful instruments. As a musician, he has learned how to create them so that they not only look great, but sound wonderful. As a spirit worker, he crafts them to bring out the magical qualities of the materials so that to play them, or to hear them played, is to be transported to another world, to have the spirit truly uplifted.
We talked a lot over the course of the weekend, mostly about our shared obsession with these almost unknown instruments. We talked about possible playing styles, how we both concluded that the Gauls probably used something similar to ancient Greek musical modes for tuning, about the paucity of images of them other than tiny ones on coins, about the relative merits of metal, gut or Nylgut strings, about tuning pegs... We also discussed what the chances were that the two people in the UK most obsessed with Gaulish lyres should be allocated stall spaces right opposite each other at an event covering about 20 acres. This is the type of one-in-a-million chance that I refer to as a cosmic coincidence, that happens when the universe wants it to.
Koth loaned us a chrotta and Ariana, Amanda and I played it pretty much all day behind our stalls. Many people asked about it and we pointed them across the way to Koth’s stall. We were happy to do the advertising in exchange for the spiritual and emotional uplift we got from playing the chrotta. We were truly enraptured. Ariana and Amanda both said they had no musical ability, but that they were able to make entrancing sounds with both my little lyre and Koth’s larger ones. With lyres, it’s all in the tuning. All the strings are in the same key, so it’s pretty much impossible to play a wrong note!
In other news, Bernie the Bolt, who’s been supplying quality cloth to the masses at Tewkesbury pretty much since it started, was having a sale this year. For the tiny sum of £30, I am now the proud owner of 10 metres of 60 inch wide, beautifully soft wool and polyester mix tartan. Why so much? Because I’m going to make myself and my son, Joe, Iron Age bardic costumes. Do we know what Iron Age bards wore? Yes, we do, because there’s this beautiful little bronze figurine of one that dates from the 1st century BCE and was found near a sacred shrine at a place called Neuvy-en-Sullias in Western France. His long tunic and trousers are clearly marked with a lozenge or diamond pattern, which is what you get if you turn a tartan through 45 degrees. Why would you do that? Because cutting cloth at such an angle wastes more material, thereby proving the wealth of the lord who provided the bard with his uniform. Other images of bards from centuries earlier and the other side of Europe confirm the universality of this style of bardic dress.
I also think I may have finally found someone who can make bags with the BDO Awen symbol embroidered on them, and can print the Fionn’s Window design on cloth so that I can make Ogham divination sets of the type described in the medieval Irish Scholar’s Primer.
Coming full circle, I picked up a bag of horn offcuts that I can use to make plectrums for lyres. If I can get the manufacturer to make a couple of changes, I’m going to import some of the little lyres I mentioned earlier and offer them for sale at events and on the BDO webshop. Amanda has already said she wants two of them! They are sweet little things and amazingly portable, made from such a light wood that the whole instrument probably weighs less than a pound. They’re a nice starter instrument to learn your way around and try out different tunings. Then, once you’ve got the hang of the lyre, you can graduate to one of Koth’s amazing chrotta reconstructions, like the one he's playing in this video from the Dark Age Crafts website.
So, maybe see you at Tewkesbury next July? I'll be the guy in the twisted tartan Iron Age bardic costume playing the wolfshead lyre 🙂 'Til then...
Donovan Leitch is a forgotten superhero of ‘60s music, so deeply attuned to the era that when its core messages were abandoned by mass media and fashion in the 1970s, he was abandoned with them. In the late ‘60s, however, he was troubadour to the court of rock royalty, courted by Bob Dylan and friends with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also produced some wonderfully innovative music that was ahead of the curve of most musicians of the time. His late 1965 LP, ‘Fairytale,’ contains two tracks, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ and ‘Candyman,’ that overtly reference cannabis use. His classic single, ‘Sunshine Superman,’ released in December 1966 though recorded a full year earlier, was still at no. 3 in the UK singles chart in the first week of 1967. Both its sides reference LSD, the B-side being a remarkable, driving slice of prime early psychedelia called simply ‘The Trip.’
The opening lines of ‘Sunshine Superman’ are:
"Sunshine came softly through my window today Could've tripped out easy but I've changed my ways.”
This is a reminder that Donovan was not only one of the first UK musicians to embrace LSD as a means of spiritual exploration, he was also among the first to publicly abandon it in favour of transcendental meditation.
The last verse of the song references two DC comic book superheroes:
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me, I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, You you you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne, About all the rainbows that you can have for your own...”
Prior to the mid-’60s, superhero comics had been considered disposable fodder fit only for pre-adolescent boys with juvenile power fantasies. This began to change when comics legends, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced new kinds of superheroes at Marvel Comics. Kirby’s Fantastic Four feuded like a real family, Ditko’s Spider-Man was the kind of geek who might previously have scraped by as a teenage sidekick to a ‘proper’ superhero. Kirby’s Thor was a god of Asgard sent by his father, Odin, to walk the Earth, while Ditko’s Doctor Strange was an astrally projecting, spell-casting magician, a veritable ‘Master of the Mystic Arts.’ The comic book geek in me can’t help but note that Donovan refers to two DC heroes in the song, saying that they “ain’t got nothin’ on me.” This could be a recognition that, in the mid-’60s, the cool kids were all reading Marvel Comics with their more relateable characters and superior art. Incidentally, Kirby's Thor was my introduction to Paganism, while Ditko's Doctor Strange introduced me to many core concepts of ritual magic.
Suddenly comic books were being read and enjoyed by college students. Donovan was, I believe, the first musician to refer to this phenomenon, recognising that, for people in their teens and twenties, these colourfully costumed super-beings with their god-like powers were increasingly taking the place once occupied by the gods of more ancient mythologies. In the last verse of ‘Sunshine Superman,’ he also shows clear recognition of the fact that the popularity of superheroes was largely driven by a feeling that we could become them or, as is the case here, exceed them, by expanding our consciousness. This is the essence of what anthropologists now like to call ‘shamanism.’
Donovan, in common with other musicians of the era, perhaps more than most of them, recognised the power of music to alter perceptions and devoted his art to putting out ‘good vibrations’ into the world. This is why, 50 years on, his music still resonates, still calls on us to excel, to pursue those rainbows for the ones we love, to become the superheroes of our own life stories.
"It was fifty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught a band to play..."
Today, we're very close to Sgt. Pepper territory. At 7pm on January 4th, 1967, The Beatles returned to Abbey Road studios in London to do more work on a track begun during three sessions in December '66. Work on the track was finally completed on January 17th and it was released in the US and UK not long after. It was called Penny Lane.
The recording technique used on Penny Lane was different from anything the band had done before. Their usual way of working was to play the whole rhythm track through as a group, then, when they had a take they were happy with, they would start instrumental and vocal overdubs. In 1966, however, Paul MacCartney had fallen under the spell of Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys and, specifically, behind MacCartney's favourite album of '66, 'Pet Sounds,' sometimes voted the most perfect album of all time. Macca took the album to the studio with him and used to listen to it during breaks. He told producer, George Martin, and the engineers at Abbey Road that he wanted the sound of that album, which he called, "the American sound." He meant a recording on which all of the instruments appear crisply in the mix, without the sort of fuzziness-producing 'bleed' that happened when recording several instruments at the same time. This presented technical difficulties since the tape machines at Abbey Road gave a maximum of four tracks. The answer was to fill those four tracks, then 'bounce them down' onto a single track on another four-track tape, fill the remaining three tracks on tape two, 'bounce down' again onto a single track, and repeat until the track was finished.
Paul wrote the song on piano, with John helping out on the lyrics for the third verse. This was appropriate since John had referred to Abbey Road in a first draft of his song, 'In My Life,' in 1965. Like Lennon's 'Strawberry Fields Forever,' recorded at the end of 1966, 'Penny Lane' was also a nostalgic trip through a Liverpool childhood and youth, full of references to actual places in or near the titular street. Both 'Strawberry Fields...' and 'Penny Lane' were originally planned to be part of the themed LP, 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.'
Paul's piano was the first instrument to be recorded at Abbey Road in December, followed by Paul overdubbing another piano part, this time played through a guitar amplifier, then a third piano, played in a lower key and at half speed then sped up to give another different sound quality. High notes from a harmonium were then added, along with some percussion.
During the session on January 4th, John overdubbed yet another piano part, George added some guitar, and Paul recorded his lead vocal. The session concluded at 2.45 am.
Subsequent sessions added one more piano part, this time played by George Martin, Paul's bass, John's rhythm guitar, Ringo's drums and hand bells, and John's congas. George Martin wrote arrangements for flutes, trumpets, piccolo, flugelhorn, oboes, cor Anglais), and bowed double bass, to be played by classical session musicians, as was the signature sound of the track, a solo for piccolo trumpet, played by David Mason of the English Chamber Orchestra. George's arrangements were basically transcribed from parts that MacCartney sang to him.
By the time recording sessions were finished on January 17th, both EMI in the UK and Capitol in the US were putting pressure on The Beatles' managment to come up with a new single. They hadn't released one since 'Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby,' which had topped the charts in both countries in August the previous year. It was therefore decided to pull both 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' from the planned 'Sgt. Pepper' LP. The downside is that these two themed tracks would have fitted really well in the scheme of the album. The upside is that 'Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields...' is widely regarded as one of the finest singles ever produced, perhaps the finest.
The Beatles were only one of many bands at the time competing with each other to be more creative, more imaginative. All were sharing tapes and ideas, all inspiring each other. During the recording of 'Penny Lane,' Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr took time out to go and see The Jimi Hendrix Experience play at the Bag O'Nails club in London. Macca's friend, Donovan, was riding high in the charts with 'Sunshine Superman,' the Kinks with 'Dead End Street,' the Who with 'Happy Jack,' and Cream with 'I Feel Free.' These were heady days, when artistic boundaries were expanding at an unprecedented rate in popular music. This fierce exploration, pushing towards a future that seemed overflowing with possibilities, was mingled with a nostalgia for the personal past and childhood, and for the social and sartorial past, from the late Victorian era through to the 1920s. These trends come together perfectly in The Beatles' paean of praise to the Liverpool of their youth and are perfectly captured in the promotional film (what we would now call a video) they made at the time. Enjoy ...