An Attempt To Re–Introduce The Highland Harp

by Keith Sanger

These transcriptions from the archives of the Highland Society of London were first published in 1982 and still remain a good example of what might have been if the course of events had turned out as the instigators had intended.[1] The plan by the Highland Society of London in 1784 to have a young Highlander trained to play the harp before returning to Scotland to re–introduce, what was referred to as the Ancient Celtic Harp, to its former heartland, was well intended and firmly backed by the management committee of the society.

In retrospect that it failed was down to two main reasons. The principle one was that the Highland Society had been misled by the Welsh harper Mr Gwyne who seems to have made his offer to teach a harper for the society with the real intention of finding a position for one of his existing pupils. However, despite that setback the society continued to proceed in good faith with the project but it was clearly an idea before its time. It must be remembered that this attempt was made some twenty–four years before a training school for harpers was first set up in Ireland and it was also eight years before the Belfast Harp Festival which had established in the public mind that there were still some harpers left there.[2]

These transcriptions start with a Committee meeting of the Highland Society of London held on the 16 January 1784, were it was noted that at the last meeting of the Society consideration had been given to a letter from a Mr Clark concerning an offer from a Mr Gwyne to instruct a Highlander on the Harp and that the committee was to put into effect the following resolutions;–

That by recommendation of Ensign MacRae of the 42nd Regiment and his letter, Christopher McRae in Kintail in Ross–shire be sent for and requested under the particular conditions for that purpose determined upon, to repair to London as a fit and the most proper person to be presented by Mr Gwyne and that the Secretary do write to his parents accordingly.

The conditions as follows, viz. That the person recommended to Mr Gwyne be a Highlander and speak the [Gaelic] language. That he shall Indent to the Secretary of the Society in London for 5 years. That at the Expiration of his indenture he shall be obliged to teach another accordingly to the Directions of the Secretary. That when the Term of Indenture is expired he shall, and also any other Indental Professor of the Harp, be obliged to return to and reside in Scotland Two years at least.

That from the period of McRaes arrival in London he shall according to his own good behaviour be entirely at the expense of the Society unless contrary to their most Sanguine Expectations he be disapproved of by the Society.[3]

Ghilchrist MacRae duly arrived in London and the committee at a meeting held on the 31 May 1784, recommended to the Secretary to prepare Indentures binding MacRae to the Society for the purpose of instructing him to play upon the Ancient Celtic Harp, agreeable to the conditions mentioned on the 16 January. The Secretary was also requested to write to Mr Gwyne that MacRae was in London and would be sent to his home as soon as it was convenient for him to receive the youth.

At a meeting held on the 30 December, the Secretary informed the committee that he had been advised by Mr Gwyne that he proposed sending a young Welshman thoroughly instructed on the Harp instead of receiving the young man McRae to be perfected in that instrument. The committee resolved to write to Mr Gwyne thanking him for his good intentions, but having provided a young man from Scotland, they resolved to have him instructed in the best manner possible without giving any further trouble to Mr Gwyne. The Secretary and other committee members resolved to inform themselves on the expense of accomplishing their intention of getting MacRae properly instructed.

On the 17 January 1785 it was reported by the Secretary that he had enquired into the expense of teaching Christopher MacRae to play the harp and that Two Guineas for entrance and Two Guineas for 12 lessons was the smallest charge ever made by any good master. It was resolved that Christopher MacRae be taught the Harp and maintained for the year 1785 at the expense of the Club in pursuance of the resolutions entered into upon calling him from Scotland. But by 5 March the Secretary was requested to write to MacRae’s parents to inform them that, as the scheme of teaching him the harp had failed, the Society would either send him home free of expense or recommend him to some station in the West Indies at his parent’s option.

The Secretary moved that, as the scheme of teaching MacRae had failed, the Harper mentioned by Mr Gwyne as already taught should be sent for from Wales, so that the Club might hear him play; and to consider whether he should not be sent to Scotland. The motion was negatived by all the other members present on account of the state of the Society’s finances. There seems then to have been a breakdown in communications, although why is not clear, for at a meeting held on 1 November the Secretary reported that, during the adjournment of the Society, Christopher MacRae had been sent to Wales to learn the Ancient Instrument the Harp under the tuition of the Harper of Sir Watkin Williams Wynn pursuant to the former orders of the Club and Committee.

Unfortunately, the expense incurred on account of the young harper MacRae was proving a drain on the club funds and on the 16 January 1786 the following was printed;–

Having taken into consideration the state of the Finances of the club and finding that as retrenchment of expense is necessary, and considering that the undertaking of the Club to breed a young man to the music of the Harp in order to restore the Ancient use of that Instrument in the Highlands was founded on a proposal from Mr Gwyne of Glenbrain in Wales,[4] to have the young man educated and entertained Gratis in his own family. That after Christopher McRae from Kintail was brought from the Highlands for that purpose and properly prepared to go to Wales, Mr Gwyne declined carrying the plan into execution and sent notice that a young Welshman had cast up who was already a master of the Instrument and who might be sent to the Highlands for the intended purpose.
That Christopher MacRae having been thus thrown on the hands of the club and the expense of his maintenance in London had been considerable until he has been received to be couched and taught by Sir Watkin Williams Wynns Harper under whose tuition he is at present learning the harp at Wynstag in Wales.[5] That after an experiment of some months at Wynstag, the young musician’s education, maintenance still continue more expensive than it is proper for the club should incur on this occasion, where the accomplishment of the object proposed is attended with great uncertainty, but the attempt accompanied with a certain and considerable expenditure.
That the club being thus disappointed in the original purpose of having this young man taught and maintained at little if any expense, and that never the less it is incumbent on them to put him into some line of living pursuant to their engagement to his parents and the young man’s own merit. Therefore resolved that Christopher McRae be immediately recalled from Wales. That he be sent out to Jamaica at the expense of the club with the earliest opportunity and that the members of this committee will recommend him to the protection of their friends in that Island under whose patronage there is no doubt of his success fully proportioned to his own deserving. And that his parents be made acquainted with this resolution.

The cost of the exercise over two years was a constant drain on the Society’s account and the entries therein are worth quoting in full.

Debit and Credit Account Book No 34[6]


date description value
June By paid for a suit of Lowland clothes, shoes, stockings and hat for Christopher McRae £5 – `4
July By paid Christopher McRae’s expense for May, June, July £7 — 19— 2–½
August By paid Christopher McRae’s expense for Augt, Sept, Oct. £8 — 15
October By paid Christopher McRae’s expense for a pair of strong breeches £0 — 15
November By paid Christopher McRae’s last weeks living and two pairs of stockings £0 — 17 — 6
December By paid Christopher McRae’s expense for the months of November December, 1784 £6 — 7 — 9


date description value
January By paid Christopher McRae’s the young Harper board and lodging for this month £3 — 2 — 9–½
February By paid the young Harper’s bill this month £2 — 5 — 7
March By paid the young Harper’s bill for this month £2 — 15 — 10
April By paid the young Harper’s bill for this month £2 — 16 — 11
May By paid the young Harper’s bill for this month £3 — 12 — 2
June By paid the young Harper’s bill for this month £2 — 19 — 3–½
July By paid the young Harper’s bill for this month £2 — 16
August By paid at Edinburgh for the Harper’s plaid, hose and for carriage £2 — 6
20 September By paid the Harper’s bill for this month £2 — 11 — 4

A place being provided for Christopher McRae with Sir Watkin Williams Wynns Harper at Wynnstag in Wales, pursuant to the original purpose of the Club of his learning the instrument in that country, it became necessary to fit him out with fit articles for a decent appearance on that occasion. His Highland dress is charged above. He had three coats and some waistcoats and breeches and from the treasurer’s own things for which no charge is made.

The following articles were paid for;–

description value
One doz. Shirts at 8– each £4 — 16
Six stocks at 2– each besides black stocks £0 — 12
Stockings £1 – — 3 — 6 Shoes 7/8 £1 — 11 — 12
A great coat ready made £1
A bonnet with feather 7/6 and hat 9/– £0 — 16 — 6
By paid the Taylor Bill for altering the clothes given to Christopher by the Treasurer – for furnish a new strong waistcoat and breeches, making his Highland cloths £6 — 1 — 9
By paid this months board, lodging and wash for Christopher £2 — 18 — 5
By paid in part coach fare to Wales in the Shrewsbury Fly £11 — 1
By given to Christopher to pay the rest of the coach hyre, his expenditure on the road and to acc. of his expense in Wales £6— 6
23 January 1786
By paid to Sir W W Wynns house stewart for a draft on Wales sent to Christopher McRae to carry him home by order of the committee £14
9 February 1786
By given to Christopher McRae on his return to town to acc. £11 — 1
25 February 1786
By given to Christopher McRae to accd & subsist £3 — 3
1 March 1786
By given to Christopher McRae to furnish him in cloths for the W India climate by order of the committee £16 — 17
2 March
By given to Christopher McRae to pay his passage to Jamaica £12 — 12
12 March
By paid to Christopher McRae for further expenses £2
14 March
By paid to Christopher McRae for pocket money on landing £3 — 3
8 June
By paid McRae printer [7] for six weeks board and lodging for Christopher £4 — 4
By Gow the musicians Bill for Instructing McRae the young Harper the violin and for music books £16 — 3 — 6

Clearly the Highland Society felt an obligation to the young man and within the norms of that period endeavoured to set him up with suitable prospects for a career in Jamaica. This provides a possible identification of who he was as only one entry in the history of the Clan MacRae provides a link in that direction, a Christopher, son of John MacRae of Camushuinie who was said to have died in the West Indies.[8]

[1] Sanger K. An attempt to re–introduce the Highland Harp 1784–1786. First published in Notes & Queries of the Society of West Highland and Island Historical Research. No XVII. (March 1982)

[2] The leading figure behind the Belfast Harp Festival was Dr James McDonnell, who probably got the idea from having observed the Highland Society of London Piping Competitions while he was undertaking his medical training in Edinburgh.

[3] Minutes of the Highland Society of London. National Library of Scotland, Deposit number 268/21. Pages 10, 21, 27, 31, 39, 45, 49 and 50

[4] Sackville Gwynn Esq of Glenbrain is described in a note on page 50 of Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1794 edn). By Edward Jones, as one of the two most distinguished performers on the triple harp of the present day.

[5] A note on the same page as reference number 3 refers to a Mr John Parry of Rhiwabon who died about 19 years ago was Harper to the late Sir Watkin Williams Wynne and to his father and a further note on p 101 gives an Epitaph for the late Blind Parry the Harper who died October 1782. It would therefore have been to his successor, yet to be identified, that the young McRae was sent.

[6] National Library of Scotland. Deposit number 268/54, Highland Society of London Debit and Credit Account Books

[7] Colin MacRae, a decendent of the Rev Farquhar MacRae of Kintail, who had set up a printing business in London and who handled all the Highland Society of London’s printing needs.

[8] MacRae A, The History of the Clan MacRae (1899), p 168

Submitted by Keith Sanger, 27 February, 2016