Strathspey-based folk musician Hamish Napier is midway through an ambitious ten-year cycle of albums which celebrate the traditional elements of nature. The River (water), The Railway (fire) and this year’s The Woods (earth) have already been released, while The Hill (air) is currently in production and The Sky (space) will follow.
“It’s a way of looking at my local area and celebrating it,” says Napier, in a modest explanation of what will amount to a significant portion of his life’s work. Three years ago he returned to Grantown-on-Spey, where he grew up, after a period spent living in Glasgow, and the subjects he’s chosen to write about couldn’t chime more loudly with an era concerned about climate change, environmental pollution and land reform.
The Woods began with his lifelong ambition to learn to identify trees, particularly the 23 native Scottish varieties, and was helped along by the gift of a mug bearing the 18 letters of the Scots Gaelic alphabet and a tree to coincide with each. “It’s amazing how something as simple as learning the names of trees can bring us closer to the Scottish landscape, and I think that’s a really important thing to be doing right now,” he says.
“It’s the difference between thinking ‘there’s a wood’ and ‘there’s a wood filled with beautiful, 300-year-old oak trees.’ Then you find out that holly is often seen around them, and that this goes all the way back to inform Celtic mythology. People love this folklore – look at Marvel Comics, they’re full of it. Being able to recognise and name a tree is a wee glimmer into who we are and where we came from, it gives us a stronger connection with the land.”
Napier writes marches, Strathspeys, jigs and reels, which are old forms of music, although his compositions are new. Yet for his Scotsman Session he’s chosen The Baron of Brackley, the first Scottish ballad he ever learned; in this case from his clarsach-playing mother, who taught Hamish and his singer-songwriter brother Findlay. Although it tells the story of the murder of the title character, Napier is attracted to the local references in it.
“It mentions Strathspey, and talks about history and heritage and culture,” he says. “The role of music in this ballad is to preserve the story, in a time when there were no museum or newspaper archives. I love that.”
Hamish Napier’s third album The Woods is available now. It was commissioned by Cairngorms Connect, a partnership of neighbouring land managers with a shared vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes within the Cairngorms National Park. www.hamishnapier.com, www.cairngormsconnect.org.uk
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