Spotlight on Fiddles at St Cecilia’s Hall

Guest post from Olivia Thorne, a museums placement student at St Cecilia’s Hall

As a classically-trained cellist, the image that springs to mind for me when I hear the word ‘fiddle’ is a violin used by folk musicians to play jigs and reels. However, as I discovered during my internship at St Cecilia’s Hall, the fiddle family encompasses so much more. Organologists (that’s musical instrument specialists) use the term ‘fiddle’ to refer to any string instrument played with a bow. The more formal classification ‘bowed lute’ also applies to this class of instrument. Fiddles can be played held under the chin like a violin, held upright and rested on the knee, or played standing, propped on a spike. A wide variety of materials are used to make fiddles, from coconut shell to snakeskin to maple, ebony and ivory, and instrument designs vary from the simple to extremely complicated. Fiddles are a worldwide phenomenon, with most cultures possessing their own variation on the instrument, and fiddle-playing traditions connect groups of people from different corners of the globe. Over the course of this blog post, I will highlight some of the wacky and wonderful fiddles in the collection at St Cecilia’s Hall, and share some of the surprises that emerged during my research with these instruments. The examples discussed also reveal some insights into the process of identifying musical instruments, and the ongoing collection research which goes on behind the scenes in any museum.

One-string fiddle

A circus runaway – the mysterious case of the one-string fiddle

When I first unwrapped this instrument from storage, I was confronted with an enigma. What was this instrument? It seemed to be a chimaera of the string instrument world, borrowing elements from lots of different instruments to make one very unusual fiddle. The top half is shaped like a violin, with a wide, rounded lower half which more closely resembles a 19th-century guitar. The soundholes are in a shape commonly seen on the viola d’amore – a member of the viol family popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The very long neck and single string presented even more of a mystery. Single-string bowed instruments are rare worldwide, and even more so in the Western classical tradition to which the violin and viol family belong. However, string instruments have been the subject of experimentation for centuries, and the form of even the violin continues to evolve. Could this be an example of experimental innovation? Little information was collected about this instrument when it entered the museum’s collection in 1982. Luckily, the National Music Museum in South Dakota holds a perfect match within their collection. Documentation from the NMM revealed this to be a ‘violon du cirque’ – a circus violin – made in France c. 1900. This explains the motivation behind the maker’s experimental design – creating an instrument with a high novelty, entertainment and humour factor. The details of the circus routines in which this highly unusual fiddle might have played a part can only be imagined!

Looks can be deceiving


Baton-shaped kit

At first glance, this narrow-bodied instrument resembles a kit – a miniature fiddle popular as a portable instrument for private dancing tutors during the 17th and 18th centuries. Kits come in two basic categories – those shaped like miniature violins and those with long narrow bodies described as ‘baton-shaped’ by some authors and ‘gondola-shaped’ by others. However, this example is too large to be a kit, and doesn’t quite conform to the usual shape of the baton-style version. In fact, this is a złóbcoki, and has a completely different cultural context to the kit. While you would find a kit at home in the refined drawing rooms of London polite society in the 18th century, the złóbcoki is the folk fiddle of the Górale people of the Tatra Mountains in Poland. The złóbcoki was traditionally played at celebrations, weddings and marches, alongside a drum or basy (a Polish bass fiddle broadly comparable to the cello), and sometimes local bagpipes. This example demonstrates that within the twisting family tree of musical instruments, two instruments with very similar forms may have very different cultural contexts. However, the baton-shaped kit is thought to have evolved as a modification of the older rebec, a bowed instrument played widely in Europe during the Medieval and Renaissance eras. It is possible that future research may reveal that both the złóbcoki and the kit have their origins in the rebec – however without further data we can only speculate.


An imposter amongst the fiddles – identifying a Tibetan lute


To tell the global story of music, musical instrument museums often collect examples from around the world. This means that organologists sometimes need to identify instruments from cultures other than their own, which can be confusing work. This striking red string instrument is carved from a single piece of wood, with a round resonator covered in hide which amplifies the sound of the strings. It was previously identified in museum records from the 1990s as a pi-wang, a type of bowed string instrument from Tibet. However, after a little research it became clear that this instrument did not have the cylindrical sound box of a pi-wang, and also had more than the standard two strings. Utilising the power of the internet, which makes finding reference images a breeze, I determined that it was definitely the wrong shape to be a pi-wang. After some further reading, another possible candidate emerged – the Himalayan plucked instrument called sgra-snyan (the name means ‘pleasant sound’). Traditionally, one of the roles of the sgra-snyan was to accompany nang-ma songs, associated with the music of the Dalai Lama’s court in the Tibetan city of Lhasa. Today, ensembles featuring the sgra-snyan along with the pi-wang and traditional flutes are played by the Tibetan community in exile in Bhutan and India, where the nang-ma repertory has been revived. Having revealed its true identity, this particular instrument can no longer be considered a fiddle. However, this example goes to show how the abundance of reference images and information on the internet has changed the task of musical instrument research between the 1990s and today. Understanding a museum collection is an ongoing process – there is always more to learn!

The varieties of fiddle held in the collection at St Cecilia’s Hall are far too numerous to research in a four-week internship, or cover in a single blog post. To explore more of the fascinating world of fiddles, visit the Laigh Hall or the Wolfson Gallery at the newly redeveloped museum.

Olivia Thorne

Further Reading

Cooley, T 1997, Ethnography, Tourism and Music-culture in the Tatra Mountains: Negotiated Representations of Polish Gorale Ethnicity, Doctoral Thesis submitted to Brown University, Rhode Island, accessed via ProQuest.

Durkin, R 2017, ‘The Dancing-Master’s Toolkit: a summary of the pochette of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and its role in society’, The Galpin Society Journal, no. LXX, pp. 65-79.

Halfpenny, E and Grame, TC 2017, ‘Stringed instrument’, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, viewed 13th July 2017, accessible at <>.

Helffer, M 2000, ‘Tibetan Culture in South Asia’, in A. Arnold (ed.), The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 9, Garland, New York and London.

Henrion-Dourcy, I and Dhondup, T 2017, ‘Instruments – Tibetan Music’, in Grove Music Online, viewed 11th July 2017, accessible via Oxford Music Online.

Remnant, M 1984, ‘Kit’, in Grove Music online, viewed 13th July 2017, accessible via Oxford Music Online.

Stęszewski, J 2017, ‘Instruments – Poland’, in Grove Music Online, viewed 10th July 2017, accessible via Oxford Music Online.


Tripe discovery! Indian Exhibition Research Internship

This is a guest blog, written by one of our History of Art interns, Rose Hussey.

As part of my Master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, I have undertaken an internship at the Centre for Research Collections. Throughout this term we have been preparing for the India Exhibition for summer 2017. My part in this involves cataloguing and researching nineteenth century photographic albums, filling in the gaps in the CRC’s database. During this process I have made an interesting discovery, in relation to one particular album.

Linnaeus Tripe (1822-1902) toured South India in the late 1850s as a government employee and photographed art and architecture that he considered to be under risk of falling into ruins. The University of Edinburgh has a good collection of these albums, with views of landscape and architecture from across India. Some of the best of these images are found in his album The Elliot Marbles, published 1858, which capture the contemporary Madras Museum’s collection of the ‘Amaravati Marbles’ (now mostly in the British Museum) from Amarāvatī Mahācaitya (or ‘great sanctuary’) in the Guntur district of India.

In fact, the University is in the rather the unique position of holding two copies of this album. These copies, one from the original University collection, the other incorporated in the collection after the 2011 merge with Edinburgh College of Art, were presumed to be identical. On a cataloguing mission, I have been going looking at these albums, and many others by Tripe, finding out as much as possible about each. Starting with the CRC’s original copy, I went through The Elliot Marbles, trying to identify the sculpture(s) in each photograph, comparing them to the actual objects now in the British museum, and putting together the narratives for every image. Particularly useful was the British Library, who have put a list of the images in their copy of the album online. Our copy seemed to match theirs precisely, so it was slightly surprising to discover that this was not the case when compared to the ECA copy!

Although these volumes only differ slightly, any disparity gives an insight into photographic practices in the nineteenth century, while also raising questions. While a single copy gives a great platform for understanding the album as an art object and an insight into documentations practices and priorities during the British Raj, two copies gives an incredibly unusual potential for comparison between editions.

Below are a few examples of how exactly these copies differed, and an indication of why this might be interesting to us.

One of the most common differences between these albums are different blacked out backgrounds. So far we cannot discover why these changes occurred. These photographs are all albumen prints, a technique that was popular in the mid-nineteenth century because of its glossy finish and susceptibility to nuanced light. Blacked-out backgrounds were a common way to make the object itself stand out on the page – particularly important for Tripe in his documentation of these marble fragments. This would have been done by painting over the negative.


Linnaeus Tripe, Miscellaneous sculptural pieces in The Elliot Marbles, 1858 (CRC copy)


Linnaeus Tripe, Miscellaneous sculptural pieces in The Elliot Marbles, 1858 (ECA copy)

These differences shows how much contemporary photographers edited their negatives, which is interesting because at the time photography enjoyed the reputation of being relentlessly truthful- it was predominantly used as a factual or un-biased recording resource.
Other differences included an extra image and a removed image in each album, including/excluding detailed views. With the added image, it could be from an original negative that just wasn’t’ included in the CRC copy, or it could be a zoomed in print of a pre-existing negative.


Linnaeus Tripe, Railing crossbar (inner face), Railing crossbar (inner face detail) and Miscellaneous sculptural pieces, in Elliot Marbles, 1858 (ECA copy)


Linneaus Tripe, Railing crossbar (inner face) and Miscellaneous sculptural pieces, in Elliot Marbles, 1858 (CRC copy)

Then there are also formatting differences, which reinforce that each page was done by hand, the photograph stuck in with adhesive and then individual folios placed together and bound.


Linneaus Tripe, Inner face of railing pillar (upper portion) and Inner face of railing pillar (lower portion), in The Elliot Marbles, 1858 (ECA copy)

Linneaus Tripe, Inner face of railing pillar (upper portion) and Inner face of railing pillar (lower portion), in The Elliot Marbles, 1858 (CRC copy)

Furthermore, the measurements of each photograph were different in both albums, reinforcing the fact the each photograph would have been individually printed from the negative and then hand cut. Such differences, while individually small, reveal the individuality of these albums. An opportunity such as this, side-by-side comparison, is very rare and has yielded some interesting outcomes.

CRC Summer School: Day 3

IMG_0110After a morning spent with project conservator Emily Hick who introduced us to conservation theory, we had the chance to try out some of the techniques in practice. From surface cleaning to tear repair, we were able to take the first steps in learning how to conserve paper and understand the practical and ethical considerations involved in conservation.


Fin West and John Glass then led a session on the fascinating world of rare books. As IMG_0134cataloguers themselves, they picked out items in collection they had worked with personally. As well as seeing items dating back to the 16th century, we were surprised to learn that the department also features examples of graphic novels and comics. To give us a flavour of their roles at the university, we were each given a varied selection of donated books to assess by checking for duplicate records within the library catalogue.

The final session brought a complete change in tone with a visit to the Anatomy Museum, where we were greeted by two giant elephant skeletons. Ruth Pollitt then introduced us to the university’s extensive collection of specimens. We came face to face with the skeleton of William Burke, of the notorious murderers Burke and Hare. Once part of the teaching resources for Edinburgh’s medical school, the collections are still invaluable for visiting researchers and historians.

As part of the summer school, we were each assigned projects to complete over the week. Our role has been to investigate the significance of social media within the heritage sector. Other projects include designing events to promote the recently acquired Paolozzi mosaics; planning an exhibition using items from the collection around the theme ‘Green’; and learning about the different methods used in collections documentation. Each group will present their findings at the end of the week.


CRC Summer School: Day 2


Yesterday brought a slight shift in focus, from a general introduction to an in-depth look at specific departments and museum collections. Our morning was spent discussing both current and future projects and organisation of the library, followed by a more detailed session on Metadata and cataloguing.

Fun fact #1: On a tour of the library we discovered that the self-return machine is based on a potato sorter!

The afternoon introduced us to the University’s Musical Instruments and Art Collections. Sarah Deters, the Learning and Engagement Curator of the Musical Instrument Museums, talked us through both the exciting redevelopment of St Cecilia’s Hall and the extensive collections she works with (including 1000 clarinets!). Today’s hands-on session tasked us with assessing and investigating the provenance of some of the instruments. Due to the redevelopments the instruments are in storage, so we were able to see and learn about the conditions they need to be kept in.

clarinet w.s.


Fun fact #2: Some 19th-century gentlemen commissioned novelty instruments
concealed in walking sticks!



Our final session, led by Art Collections Curator Neil Lebeter, gave us a whistle-stop tour of the collection and its development. An early Picasso, signed by the artist later in life, brought home the uniqueness and extent of the art held by the university. One of their ongoing major projects involves rescuing and reconstructing Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics, which had previously adorned Tottenham Court Road tube station.

CRC Summer School: Day 1

This week the Centre for Researchimagej Collections is running its very first Summer School to provide an overview of different aspects of the heritage sector; with a focus on collections, exhibitions and engagement. We are participating in the Summer school ourselves, and will be taking over the CRC’s social media – so make sure to check out our Facebook and Twitter takeover.

The programme offers its participants hands on experience from a variety of professionals. Staff ranging from an Academic Support Librarian who showed us how much interaction and support the library provides to its users, to Rachel Hosker – the Archive Manager, who presented a powerful case for the relevance of archival material as a ‘memory of society’ as well as highlighting the challenges of managing a collection. Possibly one of the most interesting sections of her presentation was the range of material in the collections: from manuscripts and letters, to drawings and records it was clear that archives contain a broad range of fascinating material which we were lucky enough to handle.

A fascinating afternoon session included an introduction to the Lothian Health Services Archive, which allowed us to engage with some of their many records and gain a greater understanding of the volume and range of records that they held. Using records such as these we were able to trace the lives of individuals, giving us a window into the everyday work of LHSA.

The day left us reflecting on the extent of the collaboration required between departments and individuals, and we look forward to furthering this understanding throughout the week.


There are always flowers

There are always flowers for those who want to see them. 

Henri Matisse 

This week is British Flowers Week! This is a week-long celebration of British flowers and the UK cut flowers industry, and it has been making us think about all the flowers we have in our collections here. We have decided to feature some of our favourites below!

One of our most special items is this eighteenth-century harpsichord – the most famous harpsichord in the world! More copies have been made of this harpsichord than any other in the world, and it was used as the model for the first harpsichord built in the revival period. Look at the beautiful flower detailing on it:

Find more information here.

To turn to our manuscript collections, the flowers in the margins of MS 195, our fifteenth-century copy of Virgil’s Georgics camouflage a variety of interesting creatures:


© The University of Edinburgh. Find more information here.

We also have many modern fiction books that feature flowers. Why not borrow Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (PQ4865.C6 Eco.) to read this summer?  Alternatively, we have The Black Tulip, by Alexandre Dumas (PQ2229 Dum.)! What is your favourite flower-related book?

Remember, the library has more than textbooks! Flowers are everywhere if you look for them!

Thus strangely are our souls constructed

We had a fantastic time participating in Festival of Museums at the weekend! From photography to pirates, there was something for everyone!

Collection: University of Edinburgh; Persons: Tayler, Jared; Event: Animation Workshop; 'Ani-Adventure'; Place: Reid Concert Hall; Category: University of Edinburgh; events; Description: 14/05/2016; Reid Concert Hall; Animation Workshop; 'Ani-Adventure'; Jared Tayler

Ani-Adventure: Animation Workshop led by ECA’s Jared Taylor

The finale of the weekend was a talk by Gavin Francis, an Edinburgh University alumnus, who took us on a tour of the human body. He was also signing copies of his excellent book, Adventures in Human Being, based on his experiences as a doctor. Informative and moving, this book has been incredibly well-received.

Collection: University of Edinburgh; Persons: Francis, Gavin; Event: Adventures in Human Being Lecture; Place: Anatomy Lecture Theatre; Category: University of Edinburgh; events; Description: 15/05/2016; Anatomy Lecture Theatre; Adventures in Human Being Lecture; Gavin Francis

Adventures in Human Being with Gavin Francis in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre

Today, we have two signed copies of the book to give away! All you have to do is identify this quote, which Gavin Francis includes in Chapter One:

‘Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin’

To win, comment below, or contact us on Facebook or Twitter (#happylibrary) with the name of the book and the author! Need a hint? The library holds several copies of this 1818 book!

Remember, the library has more to offer than textbooks!

Collection: University of Edinburgh; Persons: N/A; Event: Mathematical jewellery workshop; 'Hidden Gems'; Place: Anatomy Seminar Room; Category: University of Edinburgh; events; Description: 13/05/2016; Anatomy Seminar Room; Mathematical jewellery workshop; 'Hidden Gems'

Hidden Gems: Mathematical jewellery workshop

Lions and snakes and penguins (oh my!)

As you may have seen in our earlier blog post, this weekend (May 13th-15th) is Festival of Museums! This year’s theme is adventure and we have lots of exciting events planned, from photography to pirates! For more information, see the website here.

To tie in with Festival of Museums, we have been having fun in the Foyer today, making some wild animals out of origami and colouring in pirate ships. If you missed out, you can find some origami patterns here, and the colouring pages here.


We have also been asking students to vote on their favourite adventure book! We have some great ones here in the Library:

Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, PR3403 Def.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, PR5486 Ste.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, PS1305 Twa.

Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott, PR5318 Sco

The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas, PQ2228 Dum.

The Odyssey, Homer, PA4025.A5 Hom.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville, PS2384.M6 Mel.

Gulliver’s Travels, Johnathan Swift, PR3724 Swi.

So far, The Odyssey is winning, with Treasure Island a close second. Disagree? Let us know what you think via Facebook or Twitter (#happylibrary)!

We will leave you this week with an engraving from one of the University’s holdings of another of these texts, but look out for us popping up again soon!


Steel engraving by R. Staines after a drawing by T. Allom of a scene from Sir Walter Scott’s  Ivanhoe. 1837. Corson P.3655. © The University of Edinburgh. See it here.

Frogs and foxes

Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see 

Paul Klee

Our relaxation table in the Main Library Foyer has been helping students relax while they are revising for exams. One of the most popular activities has been origami, which is a great way to take a little break and re-focus your mind. So far, we have been making bookmark hearts, as well as roses and skulls to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

However, we have been getting requests for more patterns to try! There are some great websites that provide free origami patterns, such as and You can search there for whatever you want to make!

Otherwise, why not try some of our favourites? You could soon be the proud owner of a frog, fox, or penguin! Pick up some origami paper from our table today, and don’t forget to tweet us your creations (#happylibrary)!


That which we call a rose

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

Today is the first day of the exam period, so it is a stressful time for students. We have been trying to help out with our relaxation table, located in the Main Library Foyer. It has some things to help students de-stress while they are studying, like tea and aromatherapy. However, we also want to encourage students to take regular breaks while studying. As little as six minutes of a quiet activity can help us to relax, so we have provided some activities that students can try, such as puzzles and colouring in.

Today, we have been doing something a little bit different. To celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, which has just passed on April 23rd, we have been encouraging students to make some Shakespeare-themed origami!

All you need is a square or rectangular piece of paper, so why not try a rose, a heart, or a skull? You could even make a paper model of the Globe!

If you are looking for an even more productive break, you could come up to the Centre for Research Collections on the sixth floor, where all students are welcome to look at our Special Collections material. We have a lot of early English drama, including many editions of Shakespeare plays published before 1660, such as this  lovely 1631 edition of The Taming of the Shrew:

taming of the shrew

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, 1631. JA3706. © The University of Edinburgh. See it here.

Remember, the library has more to offer than textbooks and study space!