The Lamont harp

Damage and repairs

There are cracks in the treble of the neck which have been repaired with decorated brass plates nailed on.

Along the right hand side of the soundbox is a crack, perhaps an inch below the edge of the front and about a foot long. It was repaired by fixing three metal straps over the corner, each fixed by four nails - two into the side of the box and two into the soundboard.

Lamont harp

Lamont harp

One of the most notable things about the Lamont harp is the distortion of its shape. At present it is displayed in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, in a case that only has glass on one side. While this inhibits inspection of the left side and back of the instrument it does give the illusion that it is a handsome symmetrical instrument.

In fact, as is all too plain when the instrument is out of its case, the pillar is seriously curved to the left especially at the top; the neck is correspondingly twisted along its entire length. John Gunn naively imagined that this was to allow the voice of the bard to project without being blocked by the instrument but we can dismiss that and assume that like all the other instruments, it was built straight and symmetrical.

It is notable that the T-section reinforcement is shorter than on other early Gaelic harps, and the bending does seem to have happened at the ends where the pillar is wide but thin. Also I noted that, as well as dowels fitting the repaired foot of the pillar into the box, there is a dowel fixing the pillar into the neck, behind the metalwork. Perhaps the dowels fixed the joints too firmly, preventing them from shifting as the wood settled under tension and forcing the wood to distort in a different direction - sideways? However it is equally possible that the twisting started from the cracks in the neck, and spread to the pillar.

To accomodate the serious leftward bend of the pillar and leftward twist of the neck, the neck was raised above its secondary mortice in the box and supported pointing to the left by a wedge of wood inserted into the secondary mortice.

There are points about the original state of this instrument that we can speculate about without sufficient evidence. The pillar is constructed in two parts. Dave Kortier has suggested to me that the original maker may have done this, faced with the lack of a suitable single piece. But there are other possibilities, such as woodworm or violent damage, necessitating a repair.

At some point then, the bottom of the pillar was removed (or was never present). A neat scarf joint was cut, tapering, with a V-profile end at the top and straight at the bottom. A block of similar but not identical timber was cut neatly to fit; where the scarf cuts into the stylised fish lips the added block continues the lips as neatly as the original. However the base of the block is not as long as the secondary mortice in the soundbox - an error of judgement?

The two pieces of wood were securely fastened together with iron rivets, two driven in from each side and closed over hand cut brass washers. Dowels were driven through holes drilled in the projecting block and through the tenon of the added piece (though of course the holes in the projecting block could have been already extant at this stage). Then the harp was brought back up to tension.

Unfortunately, though not necesarily immediately, the stress on the pillar from the strings was too much for a neat scarf joint and rivets; the joint twisted a few degrees, and the bottom (thinnest) part of the main section of the pillar started splintering around the outside rivet. Perhaps because of this twist putting pressure onto the step where the scarf was cut into the main part of the forepillar, at some point the main part of the forepillar broke clean into two pieces at that point.

To remedy this failure, a much cruder repair was effected. Two curving iron plates were put across the break, fastened by a single iron rivet at each end - one rivet through the main part of the forepillar, and one through the middle of the scarf joint. The iron straps will have been enough to hold the pillar rigid and clamp the broken ends together but when the harp was once again brought up to tension the rivets acted as hinges and the joint bowed outwards, crushing the wood at the inside of the old break and opening up the outside. However this repair did hold; this is the state we see the instrument in today. Even though the break is currently gaping at the outside, there are clear marks on the sides of the wood where the iron straps pressed in, which show that at some point it was significantly more distorted - so for some while the instrument must have been played in this state before being retired.

The other interesting piece of distortion is the projecting block itself. It has long been noticed that the front surface of the projecting block is not in line with the front of the soundbox but is depressed by a small angle. Some of the later harps have this as the front of the box was carved into a raised belly and the surface of the block continued this profile line, and some have suggested that the Lamont was made in a similar way. however an inspection of the back of the harp shows that the bottom edge of the (modern) back board is not straight, but angles up from each corner, so the centre is 1cm or so futher up than it should be. It seems that at some stage the harp was under tension for some time either with the back missing, or with an ill-fitting too-short back, so that the projecting block has been forced down by the tension of the strings, with no back board to support it. Also there is a part of the projecting block towards the rear that ahs been cut away and replaced with new wood. Maybe there was worm or other damage that contributed to the distortion.

The upper end of the modern back board is inserted at an oblique angle, implying that the box has been damaged there and the damaged part cut away.

The entire harp is very worm eaten. This probably happened in the 19th century when the harps were apparently stored in a summerhouse in Dalguise, but it is possible that the worming is older and some of the damage and distortion might be due to the wood being weakened by wormholes.


Simon Chadwick