Plucked, fretted instruments in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland

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The information on this page was kindly provided by Rob MacKillop. An alternate and greatly expanded version of this page appears as "The Guitar, Cittern and Guittar in Scotland — an historical introduction up to 1800" in Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte 66: Gittare und Zister — Bauweise, Spieltechnik und Geschichte bis 1800. (2005). ISBN 3-89512-125-8. (Available directly from Kloster Michaelstein,

~Plucked, fretted instruments in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland~

'Soft releschingis in dulce deliverning'

Determining exactly what instruments were played anywhere during the medieval period is never an easy task. One writer's gittern is another writer's cittern. And poetic imagery may be just that - a product of the imagination. But the earliest mention of guitar-like instruments in Scotland come from two of Scotland's finest medieval poets, or makars, Thomas of Ercyldoune (1219-99) and Richard Holland (fl.1450).

Harpe and fethill both they fande,
Getterne and als so the sawtrye;
Lutte, and rybybe, both gangande,
And all manner of mynstralsye

Thomas of Ercyldoune (Thomas the Rhymer)

All thus our lady luvit with lyking and lyst,
Menstralis and musicianis mo than I mene may:
The psaltery, the sytholis, the soft sytharist,
The croud and the monychordis, the gittyrnis gay

Richard Holland, The Book of the Howlate

Taking each of these instruments in turn:

~The Gittern~

According to the ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, ''a gittern is either of two medieval stringed musical instruments, the guitarra latina and the guitarra morisca. The latter was also known as the guitarra saracenica. The guitarra latina, an ancestor of the modern guitar, usually had four strings and was plucked with a plectrum. Early drawings and the sole surviving example (c. 1300, Warwick Castle, Warwickshire, Eng.) suggest that the flat, waisted body and the neck and pegbox were carved from one solid block of wood. It was probably developed in Spain, spreading thence to France, England, and Germany, and was played as late as the mid-17th century. The guitarra morisca, a pear-shaped cousin of the lute, was popular in Spain from the 12th to the 18th century. However, not all scholars agree with this description, with some citing a surviving example by Hans Oth of Nuremberg, dated about 1450, which as more of a resemblance to a lute than a guitar''. Welcome to the world of medieval organology! There are far more opinions than there are players.

Although mentioned in the 13th century by Thomas the Rhymer, the gittern was still around in Scotland 300 years later:

And some on Lutis did play and sing,
Of instruments the onely king.
Viols and Virginals wer heir
With Githornis maist jucundious

Burel, The Queenis...Entry, 1590

'Gittyrnis gay' and 'Githornis maist jucundious', allowing for poetic alliteration, gives some sense of the role and style of music played on the gittern. It was most likely a treble instrument used for sprightly division-style runs around a singer or other melodic instrument.

~The Sythole~

Commonly spelt 'citole', the Scottish 'sythole', seems to have been equally popular in Scotland over a long period of time. Apart from Richard Holland's mention of it (quoted above), we have the following:

Monychord, organe, tympane and cymbill,
Sytholl, psalterie, and voices sweet as bell;
Soft releschingis in dulce deliverning,
Fractionis divide, at rest, or clois compel.

Gawain Douglas (d.1522), Palice of Honour

Regarded as a medieval instrument, it appears to have developed quite considerably over the centuries into a wire-strung instrument as pictured in the Scottish Thomas Wode part-books of the mid to late 16th century:

From left to right we have some kind of wind instrument (not my strong point!), a bray harp, a sythole, a lute, a viel, a cittern and ...a pizza! The latter apparently as much a feature of life-on-the-road for musicians of the 16th-century as of today.

Almost all the illustrations and engravings from both the medieval and Renaissance periods show the sythole being plucked with a plectrum of sorts, and whose function was mainly to provide accompaniment for the voice, although solo and ensemble instrumental playing would also have been enjoyed. It is commonly assumed, incorrectly I believe, that plectrum playing in the medieval and renaissance periods implies single-note lines with maybe adjacent open-strings being played as passing drones. Whilst this sort of performance technique is certainly possible, and in many cases probable (there are still examples of it to be found in modern folk, rock and pop playing), it is important to keep in mind that counterpoint, the simultaneous playing of two or more lines, is also possible with a plectrum technique (it is possible, for instance, to perform J.S.Bach's entire cello suites and violin sonatas and partitas, almost entirely as written, on an electric guitar with a plectrum).

~The Sythar~

Douglas also mentions the 'soft sytharist', which could be either the early, small gut-strung renaissance guitar, or, quite differently, the wire-strung cittern. The adjective 'soft' would imply gut strings, however, but if 'citole' could transform itself into the Scots 'sythole', then 'sythar' could feasibly be derived from 'citar' - guitar or cittern? And what is one to make of the following:

'Or to hear the sweet and delicate voice of cunning singers, intermedled with the melodious sound of Lutes, Cirters, Clairshoes, or other quiet instruments of that kind' - Alexander Hume (1556-1609)?

~The Cittern~

The cittern in 17th-century Scotland seems to have been the same as the French model which had some frets 'missing', some only going half way across the fretboard, some only a third of the way across. It was therefore designed for playing in only one key, or two or three modes, and was ideal for folk-style playing.

I recorded the earliest surviving Scottish cittern music - from the Millar/McAlman manuscript, c.1645 - on the CD Flowers of the Forest (Greentrax CDTRAX 155). The cittern was to make a dramatic comeback in the 18th-century as the 'guittar' (see later).

A glimpse of a Scottish consort from the painted ceilings of Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire, late 16th century:

~ left to right: treble viol, bass lute, bray harp, pizza chef, bass viol, bell flute, cittern and portative organ.

~The Renaissance Guitar~

Although Holland is employing the typical poetic device of alliteration in 'the sytholis, the soft sytharist', he could equally have said 'the striking sytharist'. The fact that he chose the word 'soft' implies, I think, gut strings and a fingerstyle technique (with or without nails is impossible to say). In ensemble playing the sytharist, or guitarist, might have been expected to perform improvised 'divisions' of sung melodic lines — a common renaissance practice — and in solo playing, or in solo accompaniment to a voice, could easily have performed two or even three-part counterpoint.

-Rob MacKillop, 2006


Last updated Wednesday, July 19, 2017.

How to cite this page: MacKillop, Rob. "Plucked, fretted instruments in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland." Renovata Cythara: The Renaissance Cittern Site. Ed. Andrew Hartig. 19 July 2017. 16 July 2024. <>.