Members of the bowed lyre family and its relatives come from many scattered parts of Northern Europe. The instruments have different forms and different names in different places. Scholars argue like mad about which ones are more or less closely related to each other. Sometimes we have only a name, with no details of what the instrument looked like. Then the arguments turn into wild guesses.


My map shows my understanding of the four main groups of bowed-harp traditions:

Group 1, “bowed zithers” with no handhole.

Hudson Bay & Baffin Island, the Inuit have a bowed instrument called Tautirut (tautiruut, tautiik). It has between one and three sinew strings, and it has no hand-hole. The playing of the tautirut seems to have continued through into the second half of the 20th century1.

Iceland, there is a bowed instrument called Fiðla which has between two and six horsehair, brass or silver strings, with no hand-hole. It is played with the instrument resting horizontally, and one of the strings is fretted with the backs of the fingers into the air. The playing of the Fiðla died out in the 19th century2.

Group 2, the “narrow hole bowed lyres”

Norway, there was an instrument called Haar gie which was probably a bowed-lyre with horsehair strings. There is a stone carving of a 3 string bowed-lyre player from the year 1300 in Trondheim Cathedral. The instrument seems to have died out in Norway before the 19th century3.

Dalarna, there is a single narrow hand-hole bowed lyre with 3 strings that was discovered from central Sweden. It seems that this instrument was called sotharpa and that its playing died out before the 19th century4.

Karelia, the playing of narrow-handhole bowed-lyres with 2 or 3 horsehair strings continued into the 20th century on the border between Finland and Russia. The instrument is called jouhikko or jouhikantele5.

Group 3, the “wide hole bowed lyres”

Småland, there is a single wide hand-hole bowed lyre with 4 strings that was discovered in Southern Sweden. The playing of this instrument in Sweden seems to have died out by the 19th century. In the 20th century the name stråkharpa was used in Swedish for these instruments6.

Estonia, the playing of wide-handhole bowed-lyres with 4 gut or metal strings continued into the early 20th century. They were called talharpa or hiuu kannel. Their playing continued right through to the mid 20th century. I have seen hints that there is a continuous thread connecting tohe old tradition to the modern revival7.

Group 4, the “fingerboard bowed lyres”

Wales, there is a bowed instrument called the crwth. It was also played in England where it was called the crowd. There’s a stone sculpture of a similar instrument from a medieval cross in Ireland. The crwth has six gut (or originally horsehair) strings, tuned in octave pairs, four are fingered violin-style on a fingerboard. There are two spaces like hand-holes on each side of the fingerboard. Perhaps the crwth is not really a member of the bowed-lyre / bowed-harp family at all, or perhaps it is just a very highly developed form. The playing of the crwth died out in the 19th century8.

And in the middle...

Shetland, there used to be a bowed instrument called the Gue. There is a description from after the time it died out in the 19th century, that it had 2 horsehair strings, and was played upright in the lap. But no instruments exist and nothing more is known about it. We don't even know if it had a handhole or not. It could be related to any of these groups above9.

I am sure that the playing of bowed-lyres or bowed-harps was more widespread than this in the past, but there is so little evidence that we cannot know.

Next: bowed-harp repertory...


1. Tautirut:
E. Y. Arima and M. Einarsson, ‘Whence and Where the Eskimo Fiddle?’, Folk, vol 18 1976
Sarah Airo, ‘Now go and clean the seal skin’, on Inuit Games and Songs, UNESCO Collection / GREM LP G1036, 1986, track 21b, recorded 1974-6 in Kangirsuk, Ungava Bay.
‘A Look Back at the Eskimo Fiddle (Tautiq)’ Inuktitut, December 1983, p.65-68

2. Fiðla:
Mattías Thórdarsson, Íslenzk fidla 1919
Hildur Heimisdóttir, Langspil and Icelandic Fiðla: The History, construction and function of the two Icelandic folk-instruments, Thesis, Det Jyske Musikkonservatorium, Aarhus, 2012.
Bára Grímsdóttir & Chris Foster, Traditional Icelandic Langspil and Fiðla, online at

3. Haar Gie:
Otto Andersson, ‘The Bowed Harp of Trondheim Cathedral and Related Instruments in East and West’. The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 23, 1970.

4. Sotharpa:
Rauno Nieminen, Jouhikko - The Bowed Lyre. Kansanmusiikki-institutin julkaisuja KIJ 61 / Juminkeon julkaisuja 61, [2007]

5. Jouhikko:
Rauno Nieminen, Jouhikko - The Bowed Lyre. Kansanmusiikki-institutin julkaisuja KIJ 61 / Juminkeon julkaisuja 61, [2007]
Otto Andersson, The Bowed Harp, 1930.

6. Stråkharpa:
Otto Andersson, The Bowed Harp, 1930.

7. Talharpa:
Otto Andersson, The Bowed Harp, 1930.
Rauno Nieminen, Jouhikko - The Bowed Lyre. Kansanmusiikki-institutin julkaisuja KIJ 61 / Juminkeon julkaisuja 61, [2007]

8. Crwth:
Mary Remnant, English Bowed Instruments from Anglo Saxon to Tudor Times, Oxford 1987.
Robert Evans & Mary-Ann Roberts [Bragod], Welsh Music & Poetry from the 14th to the 18th century, Audio CD, 2001

9. Gue:
Peter Cooke, The fiddle tradition of the Shetland Isles. CUP, 1986
Arthur Edmondstone, A view of the ancient and present state of the Zetland islands 1809, p59-61

Simon Chadwick, St Andrews, Scotland. Return to index page.
11th November 2008, updated November 2013