The browser you are using is out of date and is no longer supported. To view and use this site correctly, please update your browser to the latest version.

We're changing

We have created a new public body, Historic Environment Scotland. While we work on shaping our future we can reassure you that all services and products will continue as normal. Please follow our progress and find out more about our new organisation.

Scotland's Earliest Harp Music May Be Hidden In A Stirling Head - Minister Welcomes Discovery of Long Lost Musical Notation

27 August 2009

What may be the oldest surviving ‘written’ Scottish instrumental music has been identified on a 16th-century carving from Stirling Castle’s royal palace.

The border of one of the Stirling Heads – which used to decorate palace ceilings – has a series of cryptic markings which could be a Renaissance musical composition.  If this is the case, as experts believe, the music could have been played on instruments such as harps, viols, fiddles and lutes.  However, evidence from Wales from later in the century, suggests that the composition may have part of the home-grown harp tradition.

Historic Scotland has teamed up with experts in early music for an experiment to try to recreate the music for what might be the first time in centuries.
The task is challenging as the markings would not be an exact musical score, but would have given guidance to players who then improvised in the same way as modern jazz and blues musicians.  

Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, Michael Russell, said: “Recent studies of the Stirling Heads have revealed much about the people they depict, but the idea that one of them contains Scotland’s earliest ‘written’ instrumental music came as a complete surprise.  It will be a fascinating experiment to see if a professional harpist can play a tune from the markings round the head.  

Research into the theory that this is a musical composition is at a very early stage, but the results could be very exciting.  Historic Scotland is currently undertaking a £12 million project to re-open the royal palace in 2011 – to look as it would at the height of its Renaissance magnificence.  To have discovered the sort of music that was played in the palace is quite remarkable, and adds a whole new dimension to this project.”

Richard Welander, Head of Collections at Historic Scotland, said:  “This is another exciting discovery that has taken place as part of the Stirling Palace Project 2011.  We are developing this rich, vibrant and exciting depth of research and building a vivid picture of Renaissance Scotland.  We look forward to bringing this to life in 2011 when the Palace itself re-opens.”  

Barnaby Brown, a lecturer at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) who specialises in early Scottish music, says the discovery could prove to be highly significant.  He said:  “This discovery is potentially of great significance to our understanding of medieval and Renaissance instrumental music – the normally ‘unwritten’ practice of the elite court professional.  Very little notation survives from these dynasties of players because complex instrumental music was transmitted orally.”

“There was also no incentive to give it away; like in India, apprentices were given a hard time and secrets would be kept in the family.  Musical sources in Wales from later in the sixteenth century suggest that the numerals on this Stirling Head could be a composition.  If so, might it have been specially composed for King James V. And it stands out for the beauty of it layout and execution.”

“The harp was an aristocratic instrument, often played by the nobility and associated with King David of the Old Testament. These numerals provide an exciting opportunity to explore what instrumental music may have sounded like at Scotland’s royal palace around 1540.”

“They add a harmonic dimension to other types of evidence, and a whole way of thinking about music that is foreign to conventional musical notation, but perfectly suited to ensemble music-making in an oral tradition.  It’s the first time such notation has been identified outside Wales.”

A replica set of the Stirling Heads will decorate the ceiling of the King’s Presence Hall, designed as the place where those seeking favours or justice would meet their monarch.  The originals will be on permanent display in a purpose-built gallery on the first floor.

The discovery was made by master craftsman John Donaldson who was commissioned by Historic Scotland to create the replica heads.  His close familiarity with of every aspect of the carvings led him to notice what seemed to be a deliberate sequence of 0s, Is and IIs round the edge of head number 20, which has the face of a woman as its central image.

He contacted Mr Brown who recognised the similarity to rare Welsh notations from a few decades later, and which were previously thought to be the earliest survivals of their kind in the British Isles.

Mr Donaldson said: “Recreating the heads gave me an intimate knowledge of all the carvings and the way the craftsmen decorated the edges.  This one really stuck out as being different from the rest, as if the pattern actually meant something and wasn’t just there to look attractive.  To find out that it might be early harp music was very exciting indeed, and having the chance to hear it being played really helps draw back the veil on what life at the royal court would have been like.”

Two of the original Stirling Heads are currently on display in the Chapel Royal, in Stirling Castle, and are viewed by visitors alongside the Stirling Tapestries created to date.  The latter is a set of tapestries being created to hang in the royal palace from 2011, and is based on the Hunt of the Unicorn series which hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The Stirling Tapestries and the Stirling Heads will be key decorative features to the royal apartments on re-opening in 2011.

Notes for editors:

  • PLEASE NOTE: There are earlier examples of written music in Scotland but these are all for choir rather than for an instrumental band.   

  • The recreation of the sound of the Stirling Heads will coincide with the launch of a CD of 17th-century Scottish harp music called Silva Caledonia, recorded by Javier Sainz and sponsored by the RSAMD and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Silva Caledonia is available for £10 plus P&P from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland online shop at

  • The sequence shown on the head is substantially grander in length than similar 'measures' recorded in a Welsh manuscript of about 1480.

  • The head may also be the earliest example to use the numerals I and O, first recorded in Wales in the 1570s, in sources which connect this harmonic notation to a council of master musicians held in Ireland in the twelfth century.

  • Renaissance harps were played with the fingernails all across Europe, but this technique remained popular in Scotland, Wales and Ireland long after its disappearance elsewhere.

  • Among the last of the ancient line of practitioners was the Irishman Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh, also known as Dennis Hempson, who in 1745 performed for Bonnie Prince Charlie during his doomed Jacobite uprising.

  • A small amount of earlier written music does exist in Scotland, but it tends to relate to music that was sung and is mostly from Continental rather than native traditions.

Rob McDougall, on    or mobile: 07856 222103

Or, you can download images directly from Historic Scotland, for free use, at:   
Please insert:
Username: STIRLING HEAD 20
Password:  SH27082009


  • Media are invited to hear the harpist try to recreate the music of the Stirling Heads at the castle’s Chapel Royal at 2pm on Wednesday, 26 August.

  • Media representatives are asked to arrive at 1.45pm and introduce themselves at the castle entrance so they can be escorted to the chapel.

  • A media pack will be available in the chapel.

  • The background to the discovery will be outlined by Barnaby Brown and there will then be a performance of the music.

  • Interview opportunities are available with Richard Welander, Head of Collections at Historic Scotland (Stirling Castle Palace Project 2011), Bill Taylor, Barnaby Brown, John Donaldson (who identified the notation) and at around 2.30pm.

  • The original head and the replica version will be on display.

  • Historic Scotland is delighted to be supporting the 2009 Year of Homecoming with a series of initiatives including family trails, spectacular events and the creation of a Homecoming Pass for heritage attractions in association with other heritage organisations.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871