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This occupational name is from either the Old English word Heapere or the Old French word Harpeor, both with the meaning "harp player". In early times, the harper was often an heriditary official in the households of many great families, and Brehon law ranks the harp as "the one art of music which deserves nobility".

In England, Robert le (the) Harper lived in Hampshire in 1186 and Reginald le Harper lived in Worcestershire in 1275. Isabella Herpour, Willclinus and Rogerius Harper were on the 1379 Yorkshire Poll Tax Rolls. Sir Lister Holte and Mary Harper were married in St. George’s Church, London 1748.

In Scotland, five men with the title of "le Harper", William of Edinburgh, Uchired of Lanark, Robert of Ayr, and John and Roger of Berwick rendered homage to the English crown in 1296. In 1297 Uchired was granted a title to some land in Fyshergate to be held by him and his heirs. Walter Harper lived in Buittle in 1376. Pate Harper was paid some money in 1507 from the Exchequer.

In some instances the name could be an Anglicization of the Gaelic name MacChruiter which means "son of the harper".

Many of the Scottish Harpers were members of the Clan Buchanan.

Francis and William Harper came to Virginia from England in 1635 and 1638 respectively. Eleven others came between 1640 and 1655.

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