There is something hypnotic about listening to a harpist play. And when Fiona-Katie Roberts taps the wooden frame of her harp with the rings on her fingers, and shakes the bells wrapped around her ankles, it brings a rhythmic, Celtic beat to the music.

Fiona-Katie learned to play the harp in just a few weeks, and went on to design and make her own distinctive style of instrument. Today she has 33 of them, each with its own name and striking handpainted designs.

She has performed with rock giants Led Zeppelin and Guns ’n’ Roses, and has had Bono sitting at her feet listening to her play. She performs at concerts and weddings around the country, and played in Benjamin Till’s rousing Symphony for Yorkshire, commissioned by the BBC and broadcast on Yorkshire Day in 2010.

Playing by ear, Fiona-Katie draws on various periods of music, including Elizabethan and ancient African and Native American sounds, and uses four sets of strings, setting her apart from other harpists. She plays with wooden beads on her fingers and bells on her feet, bringing a lively percussion to the harp.

“It makes people want to dance,” she says. “Elizabeth I would have danced to some of this music. Some of it goes back 2,000 years. When I’m playing in a place like Skipton Castle it’s wonderful.”

She learned to play the piano as a child, reaching Grade Seven. “I was mad for playing, but the nuns at boarding school decided I was spending too much time on the piano and locked it away. I picked the lock with a hairpin and carried on playing,” she recalls.

Fiona-Katie started playing the harp 25 years ago when asked to perform at a festival in the Dales. “I taught myself to play in six weeks,” she says. “I did lots of research and kept thinking ‘Where am I going to get a harp from?’. Then I had a dream about making a harp – angels told me how to make one.”

If anyone else said this I’d be inclined to roll my eyeballs, but there’s something so endearing about Fiona-Katie’s approach to life that it sounds perfectly natural. The assortment of beautiful harps in her Oxenhope farmhouse is quite a sight, and they sound lovely.

Fiona-Katie makes harps from birch plywood, joining pieces together with “papier mache made from cheap wood glue and bandages from the pound shop”.

“I haven’t a clue about woodwork. The frames are made from one piece of wood,” she says, showing me glue and bandages along the back of a sound box, with a plastic bottle wedged in as a sound post. “They’re all strung with fishing-line.

“The design is all mathematics,” she adds. “You have to go from short to long and thin to thick as evenly as possible. If you can build a bridge, you can build a harp!”

Her first harp was made from bits of recycled materials, including a stairwell tread, and was named Angel by her children. It was followed by a harp made from aluminium, called Big Al.

One harp bears striking designs from a woodcarver in Sorrento, Italy, while others are adorned with Fiona-Katie’s intricate designs, often inspired by ancient stories and music.

“I deliberately try to make the harps look old,” she says. “I like old things, they inspire me. I’m inspired by Steampunk too.”

In the corner stands a large fibreglass harp made by Fiona-Katie’s husband, David Widdop. Inspired by a drawing by Fiona-Katie of 15th century Swedish astronomer Copernicus, it has little stars running down the frame and changes colour, from purple to green, in different lights.

“I painted it black then sprayed it with a fine coat of flip paint. It’s stuck together with fibreglass resin,” says David.

Much of the music that Fiona-Katie plays comes from ideas and stories created by David. She performs works from his books, The Book of Caris (which is accompanied by a CD Fiona-Katie recorded) and The Book of Anon, inspired by ancient legends.

“Dave did some research and discovered music played on an Ethiopian harp with four strings – so the four-string system I use goes back 2,000 years! It hasn’t been officially recognised yet though,” says Fiona-Katie. “When he was in hospital he left me a piece of music called Oh Come To Me My Darling. It has the WI in tears when I play for them.

“He doesn’t play an instrument but we work on music together. One day we were in the car and he was tooting a tune at me through an empty apple juice carton. I said ‘That sounds pretty good, Dave’ so we put a piece of music together about a young girl falling in love for the first time. It’s called Ruth, On Becoming a Woman.”

Fiona-Katie’s unconventional approach to the harp has won her high-profile fans, including Jimmy Page, Mick Fleetwood and The Travelling Wilburys, consisting of the likes of Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. “Guitarists tend to be drawn to the sound,” she says. “I’ve jammed with Led Zeppelin and Guns ’n’ Roses. It was all very informal, they were playing tin whistles, and Jimmy Page invited me to play at a wedding.

“People don’t know what to make of me when I turn up in my bells and beads, but there’s something about the sound of a harp. I play at funerals too; traditionally, funeral music was played by bells wrapped in linen.

“Most people don’t really get to hear a harpist play live. It’s something special. I’ll be learning it for the rest of my life.”

Her harps are occasionally are hired out for her pupils to play. She fits in teaching and performances between running a smallholding – with sheep, hens, dogs, a donkey, goat and three parrots – and a pet food business.

The animals provide their own inspiration for her designs. “Sometimes a piece of wood will go missing from the hen-house – and it ends up on a harp,” David adds.

For more about Fiona-Katie Roberts, visit