Band Heal and Harrow set to launch debut project album on persecution of Scottish women under witchcraft act
The new multi-disciplinary project – split into album, visuals, spoken word and podcast – from musicians Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl, aka Heal and Harrow, will explore historical beliefs in the supernatural and modern day parallels in society with the band set to debut at Celtic Connections at the start of 2022.
The project is an artistic response to the current campaign run by Witches of Scotland for a pardon for, and memorial to those accused in the trials across Scotland.
All the music on the album, bar one traditional Gaelic song, is newly composed however, all songs have a deep root in traditional folk music.
The songs are inspired by and in remembrance of real women who were persecuted under the Witchcraft Act of 1563 which was not repealed until 1735.
In Scotland, an estimated 3,837 people were accused of witchcraft and 84% of those accused were women.
Musicians Rachel, who is mainly on vocals and harp in the album, and Lauren, who is mainly on Fiddle and viola, are both contributing to spoken word throughout the album with film maker Alison Piper creating the visuals.
Both artists – childhood friends who met at the Fèis Rois, a Gaelic Music festival, when they were around 9 years old – have worked on projects before which focused on historical and mythological beliefs in Scotland.
When working on another project together, the duo visited the witch’s stone in Dornoch, also known as the Janet Horne Memorial Stone, where the last legal witch trial in Scotland took place in 1722.
Rachel said the visit to the stone ‘planted the seed’ for the project in the band’s head.
The band commissioned writer Mairi Kidd – author of Warriors and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches and former drama teacher to Rachel – to write 10 exclusive fictional stories about the women involved in the witch trials as well as mythological women.
The songs are based on these stories with author Mairi Kidd set to launch the stories as a book later in 2022 as a ‘coven’ of 13 stories.
Commenting on the reason for creating fictitious stories about the women, Mairi said: “There’s only one crime and it’s a made up one so the aim was to say who might the humans have been behind these charges.
“We don’t really know much about the women other than what their accusers said so we gave women such as Margaret [Aitken] a background in healing and that her mother had been a healer.
“There’s certainly a feminist eye in this and they are definite fictions exploring what might have been, who might these women have been to try and understand them more.”
Characters include women persecuted as witches such as Isobel Gowdie and Lilius Adie who died when being tortured for ‘being a witch.’
Mairi said: “Isobel Gowdie said some really amazing things.
"She said she could turn into all sorts of creatures and so could her friends and she said she’d killed one of the children of one of her accusers.
“That makes you think, ‘What had they done to her?’
“In many ways, these stories are trying to turn an eye on Scotland and the accusers.
“You can’t say what’s precisely going on here.
"You can say there’s a real ream of misogyny but you also have to entertain the idea that some of these women did believe they were doing these things.”
There are ‘bad’ female characters including witch pricker Christian Caldwell who dressed as a man and found other women guilty of witchcraft to escape her own persecution.
There is also the Eachlair Ùrlar, a magical being who was a common ‘baddie’ in Gaelic stories and another story focuses on Scotland’s role in the slave trade.
The band and Mairi were keen to not just portray ‘good women.’
Musician Rachel added: “It’s exhausting to see women in a one dimensional way and as victims all the time so it was really important for us to see that well-rounded representation."
The women are very interested in the strong parallels the stories have with modern-day misogyny.
Rachel said: "It really ties in with how women are currently treated.
"These women did absolutely nothing wrong and they were seen as the criminals and it’s really similar when you have all that current narrative about women’s actions leading to their own demise.
"We wrote with Mairi that it’s been suggested that the word witch can be replaced with the word woman so it was important for us to explore that.”
Mairi added: "The idea that women are somehow less than human is disturbingly prevalent in society today and I think that’s why we need to face up to the misogyny in our history.
"I’m inclined to see this as a human rights issue we’ve never tackled properly.”
A total of 10 actors –who will be well known women from across Scotland – will also read out the stories written by Mairi which will be made into a podcast in 2022.
Rachel said: “It was really important to involve as many women as possible.
"We haven’t yet confirmed with all the women so we are waiting on that before we reveal who is involved.
"The idea is that people will listen to the podcast and then listen to the music or vice versa.
"Initially we saw this as a one-off project but it definitely feels like there is so much to explore with it.”
Heal and Harrow is coming to Glasgow for Celtic Connections in January 2022 where the band will perform the album which will then be followed by a tour across the UK in February.
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