Stirling Head 20

Stirling Head 20 (detail)

Stirling Head 20 (detail). Palace of King James V of Scotland, c. 1540

The more interrogation this circular sequence of numerals receives, the better. If it is music, then it could be compared to jazz musicians following a chord chart or lead sheet, rather than being told exactly which notes to play.

Given striking parallels between Welsh cerdd dant (‘string music’) and music from northern Britain built on double-tonic grounds, I suspect court professionals in 16th-century Scotland had clearly-articulated ideas about musical structure. If they expressed these in writing — for the benefit of students or for ensemble performance — then Is and Os would be appropriate: more appropriate than staff notation or tablature. Memorisation, improvisation and accompaniment in a largely unwritten musical tradition require understanding (conscious or unconscious) of a substructure. In jazz, as in the Renaissance, this often takes the form of a harmonic ground. Verse to verse, variation to variation, performance to performance, the surface details are ever-changing; it is the underlying harmonic patterns which, hallowed by usage, are more relevant to fix in writing.

For me, the prime difficulty in seeing this inscription as music is the third numeral. We are not dealing with a sequence of Is and Os, as in the twenty-four measures of cerdd dant, but of Is, Os and IIs. A further distinction may be drawn between serifed and unserifed Is, but this may have been introduced by the carver rather than whoever laid out the design. Although Renaissance music often moves between three fundamental chords, the body of Welsh manuscripts which suggest a musical interpretation of Stirling Head 20 are consistent in using only two ciphers to represent units of opposing harmonic quality. These typically represent stability (I, open strings) and restlessness (O, in tension with the tonic or drone). 

One of the 24 measures of cerdd dant (c.1562).  AB MS 17116B (Gwysaney 28), f.61v

One of the twenty-four measures of cerdd dant (c. 1562).
AB MS 17116B (Gwysaney 28), f. 61v

The case for the inscription being music is possibly strengthened by the fact that cerdd dant, pibroch and the dance music of northern Britain all share a preference for double-tonic grounds built from units of 4: although units of 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13 are present, 4 is the norm in the earliest source material. In this inscription, an internal sequence of 8 numerals (I  O  I  I     I  O  I  II) recurs four times, separated by sections of 16 and 4 numerals. The significance of this recurring ‘phrase’ may not be musical, but I doubt it is accidental, as the level of care invested in the layout and carving of this roundel is of the highest order.

Stirling Head 20 - possibly one of the 9 Female Worthies

Stirling Head 20. Oak ceiling boss, possibly representing one of the Nine Female Worthies

It would be wonderful if the media attention of the last three days brought a better explanation to light. This pattern gnawed at John Donaldson‘s brain for three years and a musical solution was balm, but perhaps Renaissance experts should examine it thoroughly for other possibilities.

A folder of resources relating to the interpretation of Stirling Head 20 is at

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5 Comments on “Stirling Head 20”

  1. Bill Taylor Says:

    I don’t think you can claim “the fact that cerdd dant, pibroch and the dance music of northern Britain all share a preference for double-tonic grounds built from units of 4”. Never say never! Look at mak y delgi (OIIIOII — note the group of 7 elements, not 8), etc. As to dance music, what are your sources? The second Branle d’Ecosse from Arbeau contains a decidedly asymmetric rhythm, which is perfectly understandable from the dance instructions. It is clearly not based on a 4-bar phrase.

    • Barnaby Brown Says:

      You are quite correct, my text was misleading. I have updated it, adding that “although units of 3, 5, 7, 11 and 13 are present, 4 is the norm in the earliest source material”. Generations of bagpipe music editors have been correcting ‘crooked’ or asymmetrical phrases, regarding them as confused and inadequate. In many cases (not all) this amounts to vandalism.

  2. Coliotovoto Says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, keep up making such interesting posts!

  3. Luis Says:

    Interesting article indeed!
    Is the score for this music available? I would love to play it!

    • Barnaby Brown Says:

      The only score is the sequence of numerals. How these bare bones are given musical flesh depends upon the performers’ long-term training, short-term preparation and spontaneous impulse. There is a great deal of creativity and speculation involved.

      The transcription which Bill Taylor and I used for our performances last August is in the folder at, together with three different recordings, which I hope convey the extent of speculation involved. Although these improvisations may demonstrate that the sequence of numerals could be the Renaissance equivalent of a chord chart, they do not prove that it had any musical meaning.

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