Harpist Takes A Buzz To New Abbey Country House

A baroque harp with its own built-in amplification device will feature in a concert at Shambellie House on Friday 17th June.

The bray harp was designed to cut through the hubbub of dances and gatherings in castles and the houses of the landed gentry during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It’s one of three harps that leading Scottish harp player Karen Marshalsay will be bringing to the concert, along with the modern gut-strung clarsach and the wire-strung harp from the Gaelic tradition.

“Harp players were the ceilidh band leaders of the day back in renaissance times,” says Karen. “And the bray harp was the instrument they played. Each string has a “bray” – a small piece of wood – that makes a buzzing effect, not unlike the sitar. If you put that together with a crumhorn and a tabor, or hand drum, that would have been the band that people danced to.”

Karen, who has worked with some of traditional music’s foremost musicians, including singer-flautist Cathal McConnell of Boys of the Lough and renowned piper and Gaelic singer Allan MacDonald, released her first album, The Road to Kennacraig in 2019 but the concerts she had organised to promote it were postponed due to the Covid pandemic. “I still see theconcerts I’m playing at the moment as the promotional tour,”

she says.“The album was produced by Robin Morton, who oversaw classic folk albums including Dick Gaughan’s definitive recording Handful of Earth, and he was great to work with because he was such a stickler for melody and clarity. He really made me work and I think the album sounds better as a result.”

Unfortunately,Robin Morton has since died, meaning that The Road to Kennacraig was his final production, and his input, says Karen, has become all the more special.

Karen’s CV also includes collaborations with Indian, African and Paraguayan musicians but The Road to Kennacraig focuses on the Scottish aspect of her playing. All the music on the album is either traditional or written in the traditional style, with around half of the tunes being Karen’s own.

“The Stewart family lived in a house near the site of Shambellie House a round the time when the bray harp was a regular feature in functions in these large country houses, so in a way you might say I’m bringing the bray harp home,” she says. “I’ll be playing music from the album and I’ll also be talking a bit about the tunes and the harps because people seem fascinated by the instrument.It has associations with angels, of course, although the bray isn’t quite so angelic. It often comes as quite a surprise because it looks as you might expect a harp to look but sounds quite a bit different from the other two.”


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