JOHN Purser concludes his series on Scotland’s early music with a look at the unearthed instruments that played their part in the Caledonians defeating the Romans.

MUSIC has always been an important part of warfare. Songs especially, most of the words of which are unprintable. In the Middle Ages it was “L’Homme Armee” – beware the armed man. Armed with what? His habergeon? No. That’s clothing. His pike? Er, well, maybe, if you get the song’s alternative meaning.

My father taught me an obscure military song sung by the Cork Fencibles, I believe. It started: “All soldiers love the leg of a duck.”

The words were so silly and I was so young that the possibility of rhyming slang eluded me. And then there is the wonderful marching song “Hitler has only got one ball ... ” set to Colonel Bogey’s March, composed by Lieutenant Ricketts back in 1914. A winner!

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Sadly, we have no record of what we might have sung at the Romans, or they at us, though the linguistic intent (to put it nicely) is usually pretty obvious. But we do have a fascinating piece of archaeological evidence of how the Romans may have used distorted voices to impress the gullible. It’s an altar to Mithras as Sol Invictus – the Unconquerable Sun (below) – discovered in a temple to Mithras at Inveresk near Edinburgh and from c150AD.

The National: SOUNDS OF WAR

The god Sol’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are pierced. Light could have been shown through these and through the pierced rays of the sun surmounting the head. Did it include an acoustic role? It’s not large but you could conceal a child or small adult behind it or, more probably, a speaking tube could have been connected to it from a different location in the Mithraeum.

Did the unique iron fitting behind the nostrils have some acoustic device attached which could distort the voice of anyone speaking or singing through it? Such devices had their precedents in Roman Egypt.

What other musical relics did the Romans leave us? A carving of a Roman lyre from the Mithras altar, also from Inveresk. Not much use in warfare but soothing in the tent at night. We have a few actual tintinabula, or little bells, which they probably had as door chimes, and we know they used double pipes in one of their religious rites, a suovetaurilia depicted on the Bridgeness distance slab from the Antonine Wall, dated 142AD. The double pipe player’s cheeks are distended, indicating circular breathing.

The National: Double pipes being played on the Bridgeness distance slab from the Antonine WallDouble pipes being played on the Bridgeness distance slab from the Antonine Wall

The suovetaurilia was a Roman sacrifice, the sacrificial offering being in this case a bull, a pig and a sheep. All that was gentle enough (if you weren’t a bull, pig, or sheep) but when it comes to the din of battle you need volume. The Romans had their bucinas and salpynxes. The Turks had their kettle drums and cymbals and crescents – all of which the Crusaders borrowed for our own military bands. All were loud.

In the later 20th century, the US government succeeded in forcing the Panamanian General Noriega, its former ally, from his retreat in the apostolic nunciature by playing pop music night and day at full volume. Make of that what you will. Noriega aside, volume is important and we Caledonians had lots of it. Not just voices but the carnyx, unearthed in the 19th century near Deskford in Banffshire. We’ll come to that.


Dio Cassius writes of the Caledonians that: “Their weapons consist of a shield and a short spear with a bronze apple at the end of the shaft which is designed to make a loud noise when shaken and thus terrify the enemy. They also have daggers.”

The good old dirk. Short enough for close combat, long enough to make some serious penetrations, but not very musical. We also had wind instruments. The Caprington Horn for one. It is the oldest musical instrument in Scotland to survive in playable condition. Some date it as mediaeval; others, including myself, say it’s contemporary with the Roman occupation, if not before.

The National: The Caprington Horn is the oldest musical instrument in Scotland to survive in playable condition. Photograph: John PurserThe Caprington Horn is the oldest musical instrument in Scotland to survive in playable condition. Photograph: John Purser

Its closest equivalents are to be found in Germany, Holland and Poland and are all generally ascribed to the Roman period; a relief carving at Chiusi in Tuscany of just such an instrument in the hands of a Gaulish cavalryman adds further evidence in support. The musician is blowing it from the corner of his mouth.

A related find, interpreted as a Roman mouthpiece, was discovered in the parish of Urquhart.

THE Caprington Horn is made of cast bronze and has been repaired with a brass binding at some period. Whatever the date, the sound is magnificent, but not easy to produce as the mouthpiece, an integral part of the casting, is sharp rimmed and hard on the lips of modern players.

That said, the four or five notes obtainable from it are of a clarity and resonance that no-one could criticise and the instrument is particularly responsive to rapid tonguing – a feature which would make it suitable for signalling.

But when it comes to volume and refinement, the Caprington Horn doesn’t come close to the real battle-winner, the carnyx. The carnyx is one of the loudest instruments ever. Louder than any instrument in a symphony orchestra. Since the sound comes from out of its mouth 11ft above the ground, it carried well over the heads and the din of armies.

Its mouth is just that – the mouth of a wild boar, the Deskford head being beautifully modelled in bronze. The flowing lines of its design show proto-Pictish traits. It’s an artistic triumph with subtle repoussee work round the eyes and on the snout. Repoussee means that the sheet bronze was hammered with delicate taps from the interior of the form, taken down to half-a-millimetre. One tap too hard and you go through the metal and have to start again.

When dug up in 1816, the boar’s head still had its eyes – probably of semi-precious stone or enamel – and a moving jaw and tongue of wood mounted on springs, which make it seem almost alive. But the head was all we had.

So we reconstructed the whole thing but how? By studying other parts that had survived elsewhere in Europe, along with representations on Roman and provincial coins.

Above all, we studied the depiction of the carnyx on the famous 1st-century BC cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark which shows that the instrument was not only used in a military context, but also a ritual one. The find site at Deskford has been excavated by Dr Fraser Hunter of National Museums Scotland and shows clear evidence of ritual activity with the implication of a sacred enclosure and ritual deposition.

The National: The head of the Deskford carnyx, found in Banffshire and the reconstruction of the instrumentThe head of the Deskford carnyx, found in Banffshire and the reconstruction of the instrument

The carnyx meant a lot to the people who placed it there.

The reconstruction was done by John Creed, Hunter, John Kenny as performer and myself as co-ordinator, with financial help from a Glenfiddich Living Scotland Award.

When no fewer than six carnyces were discovered at Tintignac in France in 2005, it was the first time a complete one had been found. Not an image, but the real thing, so we were able to check out how well we had done. The heads were different but we had the original for that part.

What mattered was the tubes and mouthpieces and these showed that the decisions made in reconstructing the Deskford carnyx were as close as could be.

The shape of the mouthpiece is crucial and several were made but the one finally chosen is the one closest in form to the surviving mouthpiece from Tintignac. Phew!

One French archaeologist, who shall remain anonymous, suggested that the Deskford carnyx was not part of a musical instrument. But there are carvings of the carnyx at the Emperor Caracalla’s triumphal arch at Volubilis in Morocco.

To become emperor you had to have a triumph, and since the triumph was over the Caledonians and the bronze cloak from Caracalla’s statue features a Caledonian warrior wearing tartan trews, we may conclude that both the carnyx and tartan were iconic of the Caledonians c200 AD when the arch and statue were made and from when the Deskford carnyx dates.

The National: SOUNDS OF WAR

THERE you have it. The carnyx and tartan were our distinguishing features in warfare. Did Caracalla triumph? Not really. Our Gaelic, proto-Pictish and Pictish ancestors regarded the boar as a cult animal. Like the bull he is powerful and dangerous and in the Deskford carnyx form may well have helped the Romans decide to retreat south.

Be that as it may have been, the carnyx has now joined tartan as iconic, having been played before an audience of more than 60,000 Celtomaniacs in the Stade de France. Nobody slaughtered, but not a dry eye in the place.

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The Deskford carnyx is housed in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Several recordings of the reconstruction of the Deskford carnyx have been made, including new compositions. I was commissioned to compose Throat for carnyx, soprano and percussion. There were no real words for the soprano to sing, apart from the name of a Pictish King – Nechtan.

And last year I had the privilege of a commission for the first piece of music, Gundestrup Rituals, for three carnyces, premiered at the Cumnock Tryst.

The sounds the three made together were sounds they could have made 2000 years ago but the words for the poems I wrote to go with each movement were all printable and therefore totally inauthentic.

Available recordings include: lJohn Kenny – The Voice of the Carnyx on The Voice of the Carnyx, British Music Label BML 016

  • Kenny, several tracks on Dragon Voices Delphian DCD34183
  • Kenny Smoo Cave Carnyx on The Kilmartin Sessions,
  • Osborne Forest-River-Ocean on Forest-River-Ocean, British Music Label BML 024.
  • John Purser, Throat on Forest River Ocean, British Music Label BML 024.
  • Purser Throat (full version) on Bannockburn JWP030,