CONTINUING his series on Scotland’s early music, John Purser takes us out of our own time of waste, war, wantonness and want and into an era when you spent what you had on the things that really matter most to our music-hungry souls.

How much of our GDP should we spend on music?

We know about its educational and therapeutic values, never mind its “soul-enchanting sounds”, as William Drummond of Hawthornden had it. But whatever we’ve spent and however worthily, it’s as nothing compared with what they invested in music in the Bronze Age in these islands.

How do I know? Because we have the actual instruments they made. Hundreds of them. Pure cast bronze.

How did they make bronze? No iron, remember; no coke furnaces. Picking copper ore out of the rock face with other rocks and antler picks, I guess.

Then you have to crush and refine the ore, and when you have that reasonably purified you add a touch of tin – costly, hard to find, but fortunately Cornwall was the tin capital of the west and close at hand.

Now heat the alloy up to 1000C. Not easy. How many required to work how many bellows to get that sort of temperature out of a charcoal fire? You’ve already spent a small fortune but you still haven’t made anything.

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So what to make with this most expensive and precious product of your top-end technology? Weaponry? Swords and spears and axes. They did then as we do now, although a lot of bronze also went into cauldrons for feeding folk. The necessities of survival.

Anything else? Yes! Music.

The biggest amount of bronze went into making musical instruments. Bronze Age horns and rattles. Bronze Age economics. You spend your money on the things that matter most to you.

I’ve played some of the original horns in the Ulster Museum and I have replicas given me by that guru of Bronze Age horns, Simon O’Dwyer. They’re magnificent to look at and wonderful to play.

Why did they make them? They had cow horns to blow, why go to all that trouble and expense with bronze? Because the bronze horns sound brighter and clearer and their size and shape can be determined by the maker, not by the animal’s genetics.

The biggest horns are as long as a man is tall, but all the horns are as elegantly curved as the most beautiful cow horns you’ve ever seen.

The National: Bronze Age horns, such as those held in Belfast, are magnificent to look at and wonderful to playBronze Age horns, such as those held in Belfast, are magnificent to look at and wonderful to play (Image: Ulster Museum)

How did they make them?

Well we know how but we still can’t quite replicate their skills. They used sand moulds with clay inserts. Technologically, to get the molten bronze to fill all the airspace between the outer and inner moulds without leaving any air bubbles is immensely challenging with curved shapes of this size. They had their failures and we can see their repairs.

Nonetheless they made them in their hundreds, in two forms, side-blown and end-blown, dating to before 750BC. Sometimes they made a side-blown and an end-blown using the same mould for parts. Male and female?

And the music? Forget conventional melody. Think rhythm and richness of tone colour. The superficial appearances are quite different but think didgeridoo – the oldest surviving instrumental culture in the world.

“Didgeridoo” is the western word. The first peoples of Australia have many names for the instrument, of which “yidaki” is the best known.

The wide mouthpiece and conical bore of the bronze horns are close enough to those of the yidaki so that first people from Arnhem Land took to a replica of an end-blown Bronze Age horn without a moment’s adjustment needed. For both, the blowing technique involves circular breathing by drawing in air through the nostrils while still blowing through the lips so the sound is uninterrupted.

A practised musician can continue blowing for more than an hour without any break in the sound. The wide mouthpiece helps, even demands circular breathing, otherwise breath is exhausted too rapidly.

Side-blown horns can be circular breathed, but the Australian first people didn’t relate to them readily. The nearest parallels are in West Africa where they have small orchestras of musicians with side-blown ivory horns, playing in groups with different pitches supplied by different players according to a pre-determined pattern.

Initial attempts to play the side-blown bronze horns were so misguided that they led to the death of Sir Robert Ball in the mid-19th century. He burst a blood-vessel in his brain, trying to play the instrument like a trumpet.

Something similar occurred to an Irish mendicant in Wales with an end-blown horn.

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The story, told by Gerald of Wales in the 12th century, suggests some Bronze Age horns were still in circulation, were still venerated and had been by the early Christians – “Wearing on his neck as a relic a horn made of bronze” which, he said, had belonged to Saint Brendan. He said no-one dared to sound it because of reverence for the saint.

“When, as was the custom in Ireland, he held it out to the people standing about to be kissed, a priest named Bernard snatched it from his hand. He put it to his mouth and started to blow and make it sound. He was struck within the hour in the presence of many with a double sickness.”

Gerald goes on to relate that the man lost the power of speech and much of his memory. Sounds like he’d had a stroke brought on by blowing too hard.

Buried with the horns in Ireland were bronze rattles – in size, shape and decoration very similar to a bull’s scrotum. They are called crotals and produce a variety of sounds from a delicate tinkle to a strident resonance and offer many complex rhythmic possibilities. They may well have been played with the horns in a similar manner to the pairing of yidaki and clapstick.

The cow or bull horn shape of the side-blown instruments and the bull’s scrotum shape of the rattles, suggest that they also had a cult function. The bull cult was common throughout Europe in the Bronze Age and survives in places to this day.

The Bronze Age wasn’t just all about bronze. They were using all sorts of materials – bone, stone, antler and, of course, wood. Wood rarely survives in the archaeological record so the identification in 2011 of part of a bridge for a plucked stringed instrument made of oak, was an amazing find.

The National: art of a bridge for a plucked stringed instrument made of oakart of a bridge for a plucked stringed instrument made of oak (Image: Graeme Lawson)

The discovery was made at Uamh an Ard-Achaidh – High Pasture Cave – on the Island of Skye and has been dated to around 500BC. Just how significant this was is clear from what my good friend, music archaeologist Dr Graeme Lawson has to say: “From my first glimpse down the microscope in October 2015 it was clear to me that I was looking at a true musical instrument bridge.

“No other category of small find provided as perfect a match for its very particular shape, its small size and the quality of the work. But this raised some awkward questions. It was separated from any other stringed-instrument find by enormous voids of archaeological time and geographical space.

“It was 1000 years older than the buried lyres recovered from sixth-century AD cemeteries in England, Germany and France and it must be at least 400 years older than the earliest known fragment: an isolated specimen from the Roman Iron Age of North Germany.

“So why, with music archaeologists now scouring the whole of prehistoric and Classical Europe, should such a thing choose to make its earliest appearance on our uttermost Atlantic fringe?

“Could we even begin to imagine the kind of instrument that it might have served at such an early date, so far removed from our other evidence?”

Graeme goes on to assert the significance of the find for classicists, noting that the instrument may have been in use at the time of Sappho and Pythagoras, Socrates and Pindar.

The High Pasture Cave discovery has focused attention on an area and culture commonly regarded as “remote”. But although the find is without precedent, it’s not without parallels. A fine example embellishes a La Tene statue of around 170 BC from Saint-Symphorien-en-Paule, Brittany. The figure is Celtic, wearing a torc, the instrument a lyre, with a well-defined sound box, arms and yoke.

The bridge fragment discovery establishes the early presence of a lyre-type instrument whose function was primarily for entertainment, presaging a long-established tradition of praise song, poetry and music.

The Uamh an Àrd-Achaidh site is profoundly associated with fertility and the pre-Christian goddess Brigid, so the instrument might also have been used in ritual – for example to accompany prayer.

The High Pasture Cave bridge is paralleled by an artefact found at the site of the Oakbank Crannog on Loch Tay.

The word is borrowed into English from Gaelic Crannog. Nicholas Dixon, the archaeologist who created the Crannog Centre, wrote: “Crannogs ... can be viewed as a type of site restricted in distribution to Scotland and Ireland and therefore important in clarifying the cultural development of the people in these countries.

“The construction of crannogs is no longer seen as a borrowing from outside but as a concept initiated and developed by the indigenous population.”

Among organic debris on the Oakbank crannog mound were two small waterlogged wooden artefacts dated to approximately 500 BC. They have not been themselves radiocarbon dated but the calibrated radiocarbon dates for the find contexts range “from about 800BC to about 300BC”. The objects are a delicate notched wooden object resembling part of the bridge of a lyre and a short tube resembling a whistle.

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“Both objects hint at a musical dimension to Iron Age activity in and around the crannog: the whistle invoking signalling, hunting and herding while the bridge-like piece calls to mind a no less important side of cultural life: song and poetic tradition “The planned form and delicate execution of the notched object are entirely consistent with the subtlety exhibited by later lyre finds, as well as by contemporary instruments from Classical Greece.”

So there you have it. Bronze Age economics. Defend and feed the body first. Absolutely! But then you have to feed the soul, and the soul is hungry.