Edinburgh International Harp Festival set to pluck the heart-strings

Catriona McKay, Chris Stout and Samba Diabate and Vincent Zanetti of duo Kala Jula
Catriona McKay, Chris Stout and Samba Diabate and Vincent Zanetti of duo Kala Jula
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Celebrations of big anniversaries for the Clarsach Society and harp festival promise to entertain

Formed by a handful of enthusiasts following the National Mòd in Dingwall in 1931, the Clarsach Society hardly seemed destined to fuel a revival that would grab an instrument hitherto confined to douce drawing rooms and ensure its place not only throughout traditional Scottish music-making, but more than holding its own on the contemporary music scene.

You’d be hard put to find a better example of Scottish harping’s adaptability and potential eclecticism than Catriona McKay, who as a soloist and with her longstanding musical collaborator, Shetland fiddle virtuoso Chris Stout, has taken the instrument about as far from any Celtic mist-wreathed associations as you could misguidedly imagine.

McKay, along with other notable Scots harpists Alison Kinnaird, Wendy Stewart, Corrina Hewat, the duo Sileas and the harp orchestra Na Clarsairean, will feature in a Harps@85 anniversary concert on 4 April, as part of the Edinburgh International Harp Festival at Merchiston Castle School. As well as celebrating the Clarsach Society’s 85th birthday, the festival marks its 35th year. McKay and Stout will appear at the event in collaboration with West African duo Kala Dula, featuring Malian kora player Vincent Zanetti and Mandingo guitarist Samba Diabaté.

McKay’s musical career has taken her from Scandinavia to Brazil, either solo or with Stout, to play with such diverse collaborators as Swedish nyckelharpa player Olov Johansson, the high-powered Shetland folk band Fiddler’s Bid, the Kronos Quartet and the Scottish Ensemble. She credits the Clarsach Society as a significant element in her early development, along with her former teacher, Isobel Mieras, a highly influential figure in Scottish harping, current president of the Society and a long-standing director of Na Clarsairean, the Scottish Harp Orchestra in which McKay and many other now well-known players honed their craft.

McKay, Dundee-raised but now based in Glasgow, was given her earliest lessons by Fiona Davidson, then started meeting up with young Irish players in Keadue, Roscommon, home of the O’Carolan Harp Festival, while on family holidays. At a concert outside Dundee, she heard Isobel Mieras for the first time. Mieras introduced her to the Clarsach Society in Edinburgh and started giving her lessons. “Edinburgh was a long way from Dundee for my family to commit to me going there, even for a few lessons,” McKay recalls, “but we discovered this whole world of harp things going on there.”

The Society and the Scottish harp scene it introduced her to was hugely important. “It was a group of like-minded people you could be part of, but there was also really high-quality teaching. Every teacher is special, but Isobel really turned round my brain in a sense. When I went to her house there was this calm and this kind of magic that you had to focus, and that’s something that’s stayed with me.”

She has played and taught at the harp festival many times. Beyond their forthcoming appearance there with Kala Dula, she and Stout are planning their next album, which she hopes will be out in the summer.

Other names in the festival programme include a strong Welsh strand including leading triple harpist Robin Huw Bowen with the show Extrava-Cambria, featuring Gwenan Gibbard, Elinor Bennett, Meinir Heulyn and Bill Taylor. Young Scots harpist Elinor Evans joins two harp ensembles, one from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Harp Ensemble and the other from the Dublin Institute of Technology, while the harp and song trio Shine – Corrina Hewat, Mary Macmaster and Alyth McCormack – reform after a ten-year break to join Màiri Macleod and Fraya Thomsen in Clàrsach, Clò is Cànan, a musical journey connecting harp, tweed and language.

In contrast, American jazz harpist Park Stickney returns with flautist Violaine Contreras, sharing a bill with Irish harpist Anne-Marie O’Farrell in duet with the “mouth harp” of harmonica player Brendan Power.

The Edinburgh International Harp Festival runs from 1-6 April. For full details see www.harpfest.co.uk