The 'Queen Mary' harp is one of Scotland's national treasures, displayed in a glass case in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. For many years it was carefully preserved at Lude in Perthshire by the Robertson family. The story goes that it was a gift to their ancestor, Beatrix Gardyn, from the hand of Mary Queen of Scots herself. The harp was old even then; it was originally made in Argyll, in the fifteenth century. Click here to find out about the original at the NMS
In May 2006 I asked Davy Patton, a wood sculptor from Roscommon in Ireland, if he would like to try his hand at reproducing it. We visited the museum together to double-check our notes and drawings. We examined the original's construction and also looked carefully at the decoration, especially the traces of medieval paintwork.
The harp is carved from only four pieces of timber, slotted together without the use of nails, screws or glue, and held together only by the tension of the strings. For the top part, or neck, Davy used sycamore or plane, as it is hard, strong and pale to take the decoration of burned lines and circles.
The front pillar is heavily carved and decorated. A piece of apple wood was used, whose grain follows the curve, making it very strong. Davy said it has "no straight lines or square edges" - every surface is subtly curved, or angled. And every surface is covered with decoration! Davy incised the design lightly into the surface of the wood, and then filled in the fine cut lines with black ink. On the rounded sections the design is deeply carved. Then the backgrounds to all the designs are painted. We used 'casein' paint which is a medieval recipe using milk as its base.
The hollow soundbox of the harp was the last piece to be made, hollowed out from a single block of willow. The idea was to use green, unseasoned timber, so that it will dry and season under the tension of the strings. Davy found a suitable willow tree in Dublin in January, and carved it out, and finished it with burned lines and circles.
The other parts of the harp are a thin wooden board to close the back of the soundbox - made from very rare rowan wood from the Iron Mountains in Leitrim - and the metal fittings. There is a brass strap nailed on each side of the neck which helps keep the tuning pins in place. The tuning pins are also of brass, each one hammered to shape and decorated with grooves. On the soundbox there are 29 tiny brass horseshoes, to protect the wood from the pull of the metal strings. These are of two different designs to copy exactly the original. There are also two iron fittings for an extra string in the bass, added by a later owner; these too were faithfully reproduced on the replica.
After treatment with linseed oil and beeswax the harp was ready, and I went to Belfast to pick it up on 1st April 2007. I had already stocked up on wire - specially hand-made medieval bronze for the treble, sterling silver for the mid range and 18 carat gold for the bass. Once the strings were installed the harp had to be brought up to tension. Because there is 1/3 of a ton of stress on the whole thing, I did this over the course of a week, going up one note every day. The inaugural recital was on 12th April in the house of Falkland, and I only just finished tuning it up that morning!
Now that it is all settled down a bit the front of the soundbox is bulging out like on the original, and its voice has started to develop so it is sounding exceptionally sweet and mellow. The wood is darkening a bit so it looks slightly less garish than when it was new, but it is a truly stunning art object. The decoration has certain ecclesiastical associations - as well as a vine curling up the front which sprouts tiny crosses, the mythical beasts have been interpreted as Christian allegory. There is a lion, a griffin, a unicorn, and a couple of serpents or dragons. I wonder if the original was commissioned by a Bishop or a monastery?
In the Press
The new harp drew attention in the media, featuring in magazines, newspapers and on the radio.
The Courier, 10th April 2007
AMIS Newsletter, Volume 36, No. 2, Summer 2007 (PDF)
BBC Radio Scotland, 28 September 2007 (includes sound clip)
Visit Davy's new website at www.davypatton.com
Simon Chadwick, St Andrews, Fife. Return to Index page.
Last updated March 2009