Carvings unlock secret of earliest written Scottish music

Enigmatic musical 'code' found at Stirling Castle

The Hebrides, Scotland
Published: August 27, 2009 at 4:32 pm

A chance discovery by a woodcarver has revealed Scotland’s oldest written instrumental music. John Donaldson was working on the ongoing multi-million pound restoration of Stirling Castle when he found a mysterious series of markings on the ‘Stirling Heads’, forty 16th-century ceiling carvings depicting Scottish monarchs and heroes of classical mythology.


Historic Scotland called in early music expert Barnaby Brown of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, who suggested that the sequence of 0s and 1s provided the framework for medieval harpists to improvise melody and harmony. Although scattered examples of written vocal music exist from before this time, Donaldson’s find represents the first notation of its type from north of the border. Modern harpist Bill Taylor took up the challenge of interpreting the 450-year-old notation in a performance on Tuesday.


Stirling Castle has long been a symbol of Scottish power and independence and had become the favourite residence of the House of Stuart by the time of Mary Queen of Scots’ coronation there in 1543. The tantalising prospect that the young queen could have heard this music from the minstrels’ gallery was celebrated by Scottish culture minister Michael Russell yesterday. ‘To have discovered the sort of music that was played in the palace is quite remarkable,’ he commented, ‘and adds a whole new dimension to this project.’

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