This page gathers references to bags, cases, boxes or covers for historical harps.


The most extensive and celebrated description of a harp bag from the old Gaelic world is from the early medieval myth of Táin Bo Froích:

Is amlaid do badar sroe dno. Crottbuilcc do croicnib do barcon umpu, cona n-imdenam do parṫaing, imdenam dior acas d’airged fairside anuas, bian n-erb din impu ar-medon; soialla dubglasa ima medonside; acas bruit lín giliter fuan n-geiri imna teta.

There were harp-bags of the skins of otters about them, ornamented with coral, with an ornamentation of gold and of silver over that, lined inside with snow-white roebuck skins; and these again overlaid with black-gray strips, and linen cloths, as white as the swan’s coat, wrapped around the strings

12th century Irish manuscript tale of Fraoch1

There is some parallel evidence from England and from the Continent. Martin van Schaik has written an interesting paper about harp bags in medieval art2, which reproduces and discusses illustrations showing a bag surrounding the base of the harp (perhaps as a ‘fig leaf’ to cover the harp’s base3). There is also a nice medieval drawing in the early 14th century Tickhill Psalter4, showing David arriving in front of Saul carrying his harp in a bag on his back.

A fifteenth century Gaelic poem from central Scotland mentions wolf-skin as a cover for harps:

Giodh iomdha craiceann chon allta
againn um chláirsigh ’s um chruit,

Though we have many a wild dog skin as a cover for clarsach and cruit,

Giolla Críost Táilliúr5

16th century

The household accounts of an Anglo-Irish nobleman record the purchase of leather, fabric and thread for making harp cases:

Also paid by the said accountant for leather, cotton and thread bought by William Higges to make cases for your Lordship’s 2 harpes...

Household Accounts of Sir William Fittzwilliam, 18th September 15916

In May of that year, ten shillings was paid “to Plunkett your Lordship’s harper’.

17th century

There is a line in a poem of Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c.1615-c.1705), an elegy for the Laird of Applecross, which may refer to the harp being kept in a locked box, though it may be a reference to the instrument iself (the box with strings, and the tuning key).

Chuir mi an ciste (n)an teud,
Dhiùlt an gobha dhom gleus,

I put the harp in its box, the smith refused me a key,

Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (c.1615-c.1705) 7

18th century


1. Eugene O’Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol. 3, pps. 219-222 ^

2. Martin van Schaik, ‘The harp bag in the middle ages’, in Aspects of the Historical Harp: Proceedings of the International Historical Harp Symposium Utrecht 1992, STIMU, Utrecht, 1994, p.3 ^

3. Ann and Charlie Heymann, pers. comm. & cited in van Schaik, 1994. ^

4. New York, Public Library, Spencer Collection Ms. 026. Online facsimile at NYPL.org. ^

5. W.J. Watson, Bardachd Albannach: Scottish verse from the Book of the Dean of Lismore, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society 1937, 1978, p.178-9 ^

6. A.J. Fletcher, Drama & the Performing Arts in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland, Brewer 2001, p.422 ^

7. J.C. Watson, Gaelic Songs of Mary MacLeod, Scottish Gaelic Texts Society 1965 ^

Simon Chadwick