Karine Polwart leads “protest against the loss of everyday nature”

If ever a project developed legs – not to mention fur and feathers – it has been The Lost Words, the beguiling “spell book” combining acrostic poems by the nature writer Robert Macfarlane with glowing illustrations by artist and children’s writer Jackie Morris. Published in 2017, the book invoked the natural world with an incantatory naming of names which seemed to be fast disappearing from youngsters’ vocabularies and, indeed, their dictionaries.

Karine Polwart

The award-winning book was widely donated to schools and libraries, with one crowdfunding campaign placing a copy in every Scottish school.

Last year Hertfordshire’s Folk by the Oak festival commissioned Spell Songs as a companion work, assembling a distinguished eightsome of musicians – Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Rachel Newton, Kris Drever, Seckou Keita, Kerry Andrew, Beth Porter and Jim Molyneux – to craft new songs, inspired by the book, occasionally lifting words straight from the page but more often engaging in inspired borrowing and adapting, with the enthusiastic blessing of Macfarlane and Morris.

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Now The Lost Words: Spell Songs has been published by Folk by the Oak as a handsome hardback book and CD package, launched at the festival last weekend, with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall Proms next month and Scottish concerts planned for the spring.

The music is frequently as beguiling as the accompanying book, the latter replete with photographs and Morris’s illustrations.

Listen to the swaying lilt of the opening Heartwood, for instance, with Karine Polwart singing to bright flurries of Newton’s harp and Keita’s west-African kora, Kris Drever’s plaintive Little Astronaut evoking the rise and parachute-swoop of the lark, the languid nocturne of Kerry Andrew’s Ghost Owl, or a mellifluous duet in Gaelic and Mandinka from Fowlis and Keita.

“It’s been a rich resource to respond to,” says Polwart, who has well established environmentalist credentials of her own through work such as her acclaimed theatre piece, Wind Resistance, inspired by Fala Moss near her Pathhead home. “There’s lots of space in it to conjure music and freedom from Robert and Jackie to do what we like.

“There’s been a lot of creativity as to how the words get used,” she adds, “an element of fishing for lines that work as riffs and hooks, fishing for stanzas that work as choruses.”

This bestiary is, inevitably, confined to English nomenclature: there are no peewits or whaups or gille Brighdes (as the Gaels call oystercatchers). Polwart, however, reckons that there is scope for much more: “Jackie is Welsh and she feels very strongly that there is scope for a Welsh language response. There are lots of layers to the whole idea of Lost Words.”

She points to Snow Hare, which she developed with Fowlis and which has an old, balladic feel to it. “It’s been amazing working with Julie, because one of the things that structured Snow Hare was looking at maps, Julie remembering the last place she’d seen mountain hares in Perthshire and noticing that loads of the hill names, in Gaelic, tell you what lives there.”

Macfarlane has described The Lost Words as “an act of creative dissent, and beautiful protest, against the loss of everyday nature and its common names,” and there is inevitably an elegiac element to these songs but also a clarion call, epitomised by Lost Words Blessing, conceived by Polwart, mindful of the Gaelic blessings found in Carmina Gadelica.

She agrees that it’s something of a benison – or blessing – for the times in which we live: “With all the stuff about the environment and loss of habitat and endangered species, I’m kind of terrified for my children,” she says.

“The Blessing comes from that place – that fine line between despair and hope – which I think we’re on right now.

“A lot of these songs are profoundly sad, but in a way that folk music has always been great at – conjuring elegy in a manner that’s also enlivening. I think the album we’ve made takes exactly that line.” - Jim Gilchrist

For further details see www.folkbytheoak.com