The Clarsach Society was formed in 1931 at the close of the National Mod in Dingwall by a group of enthusiasts who were determined that the oldest of Scotland’s musical instruments should flourish.
The harp had all but disappeared in the late 18th century and had been revived thanks to Lord Archibald Campbell, the first president of An Comunn Gaidhealach, who had instigated a competition for self-accompaniment of Gaelic song on the clarsach at the first Gaelic Mod in 1892.
Lord Campbell had also commissioned instrument makers in Edinburgh and Glasgow to make harps based on the Queen Mary harp, which can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland. With the first stated aim of the Society – “to promote and encourage the playing of the clarsach” – in mind, further models were commissioned and made available to people who had expressed an interest in playing.
Thus began one of the Society’s most important roles and today the Society has one hundred and twenty-eight harps that it hires out to beginners. Edinburgh was the first branch, formed in 1932, quickly followed by Glasgow the same year and London, in 1933. Today there are twelve branches throughout the UK as well as an international branch devoted to the wire harp. Each has a different character but all have the same motivation: to promote the instrument and help players.
To begin with this was achieved by organising summer courses – Portree and Oban were early successes in the 1930s – and during the 1950s and 1960s through the teaching of characters such as the formidable Jean Campbell of Edinburgh, the mentor to one of the Society’s great champions, Isobel Mieras, and Kathleen Barry Milner who combined her role as a driving instructor in Plockton with giving harp lessons and leading summer schools.
In 1982, one of the most significant developments in the clarsach’s flourishing came when Surrey-based harp makers Pilgrim set up a mini harp festival in Edinburgh. A great success, this led to a bigger event the following year and the involvement of the local branch in running Edinburgh International Harp Festival, an annual gathering of players, tutors, learners and enthusiasts that has grown into one of the harp world’s major events.
The festival’s growth has coincided with an explosion of interest in playing the harp and a huge increase in the instrument’s profile in Scottish music especially. To maintain this upswing the Society has established scholarships for its members to benefit from tuition and instrument hire. It has also developed courses for players to become teachers and a scheme for tutors to travel to areas without teacher provision.
New work featuring the harp has been commissioned from composers including Edward McGuire and Corrina Hewat and a Young Composer Award for pieces in which the harp plays a central role has been established, the winning piece each year being performed at Edinburgh International Harp Festival.
From a committee of enthusiasts the Society has grown into a business with office premises and two part-time staff and steadfastly continues its calling of allowing people to play, makers to make, teachers to teach and standards to rise.
Visit The Clarsach Society website http://www.clarsachsociety.co.uk for more information.