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Exciting Discovery in the “Gateway to the Highlands”

Posted on Tuesday, 01 September 2009 10:35AM by BBC News
Historically, Stirling, with its near river-mouth crossing of the Forth, has been known as the "Gateway to the Highlands" being positioned close to the boundary of the lowlands and highlands.

Now, an exciting discovery has put it back on the map again:-


Markings found on a 16th Century carving from Stirling Castle may well be the oldest surviving piece of written Scottish instrumental music.

Written in what is essentially binary code, (a sequence of 0’s, I’s and II’s) the markings were carved in the sixteenth century on one of the Stirling Heads - wooden medallions that once decorated the castle's royal palace.

The music could have been played on either harps, viols, fiddles or lutes.

An experienced harpist has been trying to play the tune.

The carved marks would not have represented an exact musical score, but would have been a guide to the players who would then have improvised around it.

Barnaby Brown, (from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) specialises in early Scottish music; he said, "Very little notation survives from these dynasties of players because complex instrumental music was transmitted orally."

Mr Brown added that the tune could have been specially composed for King James V.

"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."

The markings were discovered by craftsman John Donaldson, while creating replicas of the large medallions.

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."