The Harp in Wales

Early Harps

The harp is the national instrument of Wales. To the Welsh people, the harp has been part of the musical and poetical tradition of the land from time immemorial. 

They used to say in bygone days that there are three things that are necessary for a man to have in his house – a virtuous wife, a cushion for his chair and a well tuned harp! 

“To a Welshman, a harp is a very precious and personal thing. There was a law in ancient Wales which said you could seize for debt all a man’s possessions – his house, his cattle, his land, even his wife …but not his harp!” 

(John Weston Thomas, 1921-1992 – Welsh Harpmaker)

In early medieval Wales three types of harp were recognised by the ancient Welsh laws, telyn y Brenin, telyn Pencerdd a telyn y Gŵr da – the harp of the king,  the harp of the chief bard and the harp of a gentleman – each  harp having a certain value. Great privileges were given to the official court harpers. 

The harp in those early days was of a light construction, slender with a narrow soundbox with one row of horsehair strings.

Harps with a single row of gut strings and a soundboard or soundbox of leather were also played in the later medieval period. 

During the early 17th century Robert ap Huw a Welsh harper and music copyist from Anglesey compiled a manuscript of late medieval Welsh harp music dating between c.1340 to c.1485. Some of the pieces may even be older.

Later from the Renaissance period, single row gut strung harps with braypins  (gwrachiod or gwrachod) giving a ‘buzzing’ sound were popular with Welsh harpers.

From this 16th century poem we learn of a harp made with a horse leather soundboard or soundbox, horsehair strings and braypins.

 I am a Welshman, and do dwell in Wales…

I do love caws pobi, good roasted cheese,

And swish swash metheglyn I take for my fees:

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 an humble bee…

Some of the later harps with a single row of gut strings had braypins, and were still played, especially for dancing, by some traditional harpers in the southern counties of Wales even in the early 19th century. 

Below is a description by the Reverend Thomas Price (1787-1848) of his harp teacher David Watkins of Llanfaes, Brecon, in the year 1815.

“As old David Watkins played a good deal for dancing, his harp was not furnished with pegs of the usual make, but the strings were fastened in the sounding board with ‘gwrachod’, or angular pegs of this form, the nose of each being close to the string which it fastened, giving it a jarring sound, which produced a good effect in a dancing tune. But when that was not wanted, the peg turned off the string, and  then it was no other than a common peg. These ‘gwrachod’ pegs he made of thorn twigs: the thorn being tough and strong…” 

This type of harp, by the middle of the 19th century, was more or less a relic of the past. The triple harp had well established itself in Wales and had become the most popular type of harp in Welsh folk culture.