Scotland’s Stirling Castle has yielded an unlikely musical discovery. Possibly the oldest surviving example of written Scottish instrumental music has been identified on the border of one of the Stirling Heads – carved wooden roundels used to decorate the ceiling of the royal palace.
It is thought the series of 16th century notations in the form of Os, Is and IIs might have been played on harps, viols, fiddles and lutes. Far from precise scores, the markings would provide a guiding sequence of chords as the basis for improvisation.
“This discovery is potentially of great significance to our understanding of medieval and Renaissance instrumental music – the normally ‘unwritten’ practice of the elite court professional,” said Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance lecturer Barnaby Brown. “Very little notation survives from these dynasties of players because complex instrumental music was transmitted orally.”
Despite this, examples of similar notation have been found in Wales, and Scotland itself has provided earlier examples of written music composed for choir.
Plans are currently underway to perform the music for the first time in centuries. “These numerals provide an exciting opportunity to explore what instrumental music may have sounded like at Scotland’s royal palace around 1540,” said Brown.