The creation and experience of art in a landscape – be it music, poetry, sculpture, dance, literature, or another form – can help people connect to a place in new ways. It can stir our emotions, rekindle memories, and help us understand the past and present in a way that that binds us to the land and its nature. Crucially, it can help open our minds and imaginations to start thinking about the kind of places we want our landscapes to be. Last year, the ELP-funded Cairngorms Connect project commissioned Hamish Napier, a traditional music composer and performer local to the project area, to develop an album – The Woods – inspired by the forests and different tree species in the Cairngorms area.
Earlier this month, Joanna Holland from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s Arts, Science and Conservation Programme, spoke to Hamish about his work.
How and when did you start making music?
I have always been drawn to music and I’ve been singing for as long as I remember. My mother is a singer, harpist, and composer. She taught music in our house, so music has always been around me. I remember playing the piano with the keyboard a foot above my head! I then played classical piano and flute at my primary school. I found it very technical and felt little connection to it. The big change for me was my first summer music camp Fèis Spè (the festival of the river Spey) as a teenager. I got to play folk music. And hang out with my pals in an amazing setting! It had a huge impact on me. Whereas classical music felt mostly like technical exercises, folk immediately just felt like my natural environment.
I also realised that the skills I was learning at camp would enable me to play with other people – this, along with listening to people like Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain, was exciting. I went down to Glasgow to study astronomy and physics, but right after my degree toured all over Europe and the States with my band Back of the Moon. Playing in places like Boston’s famous Club Passim, in the footsteps of Joni Mitchell, was pretty memorable. But Playing on a makeshift stage in the vast mountains of British Columbia was completely amazing, as was playing to a crowd of thousands at Philadelphia Folk Festival with a huge purple thunder cloud overhead!
I then studied music in Glasgow, with a year in Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz piano and composition. I’m lucky enough to have played all around the world, including in some very cool places in Europe. Our band was most accepted in Holland and Germany – there is a huge affinity for Celtic music over there, where many folk bands find they are asked for multiple encores!
How do you think your life/work/music might be different if you had not had your relationship with landscape?
I was very fortunate to be brought up in the Scottish Highlands. I think, even if I had become a physics or maths teacher after my Astronomy and Physics degree, my relationship with nature would be just as strong – because of my parents. And where we went on holiday as a family. Our family holidays were not on the beach resorts of Spain but always in remote and beautiful places in Scotland – Mull, Ullapool, Orkney, Shetland… Holidays were always about what was around us, museums, art galleries, castles, Munros, nature and looking closer.
I was always amazed at what my parents knew of the natural world. They are very knowledgeable about the Scottish hills, wild flowers, birds, trees, land management and more. Holidays were more often wet than not, but they were still exhilarating – whether we were at the top of a mountain or in the woods – wet but cosy. Just magic times!
I would still be interested in trying to express this connectedness – to share my love of landscape, heritage, and people, whether through teaching, music, or something else. When you share with people, you get so much back. Collaborating with others is such a brilliant thing and feeling connected with both people and landscape is an amazing feeling. My compositions are becoming more and more of an expression of my gratitude for Scotland’s landscape, people, and heritage – the things that my parents showed me.
I have just started writing solo album number four, a pentalogy composed in praise of my native Strathspey. The Hill (due for release in 2022) is about the Cairngorms and surrounding mountains. The River (2016), The Railway (2018) and The Woods (2020), were albums written for the River Spey, the Speyside whisky railway line and the beautiful forests and woodlands of the Cairngorms Connect area of Strathspey.
The final album, The Sky, will explore the harder-to-see aspects of my world here; the night sky, the weather, the birds in flight and the creatures tied in to the cycles of the moon. These five albums reflect the five classical elements seen in dozens of cultures and religions worldwide: water, fire, earth, wind, and aether.
Do you think there is anything in pieces of music that defines them as being definitively of a particular landscape? Or are there features of individual landscapes that are essentially musical?
Yeah, totally! And when you listen to modern Scottish folk musicians and composers who beautifully encapsulate the Scottish landscape, my musical heroes – people like Martyn Bennett, Duncan Chisholm, Phil Cunningham, Donald Shaw, Adam Sutherland – you can hear that they are all building on a rich tradition of musical heritage.
A tradition which dates back hundreds of years – composers who were also inspired by close links with people, landscape, and heritage. People like James Scott Skinner and Neil Gow, and the dynasties of pipers such as the Cummings of Freuchie [pipers from the Clan Grant in Grantown-on-Spey, where Hamish lives] and the famous MacCrimmon’s of Skye [who were pipers to the Clan MacLeod on the Isle of Skye].
I think all of us are trying to find ‘the truth’ – to be authentic, to write as honestly as we can, inspired by real people and places we have researched. For me, that includes many things – it might be about the local wildlife, or the stories of the hardy ‘Lumberjills’ from Glasgow.
One of the compositions on The Woods, The March of the Lumberjills takes inspiration from the real-life stories of the Lumberjills and incorporates sounds from tools they used, like the two-handed crosscut forestry saws. It’s about fitting a soundtrack to the landscape, whether the inspiration is a roaring stag or the hoot of an owl or a chat with a local builder – the son of a lumberjill with a story to tell about the landscape we all reside in.
Where is home for you emotionally?
It’s definitely Strathspey! But also my 16 years in Glasgow – a really great place to be; a real melting pot of top jazz musicians, indy song-writers, classical musicians, electronica, rock bands and folk musicians from all over Scotland: pipe bands, Gaelic choirs, Scots singers, North-East fiddlers, Shetland guitarists and Highland harp players – the whole lot!
And at the heart of all that is the amazing Celtic Connections festival. It’s a really powerful showcase of music from Scotland and roots music. Glasgow was the perfect place to earn my stripes as a tune player in the pub sessions and performing on stage with various folk bands. It really felt like home for a long time. However, I love being home – in Strathspey.
I grew up right next to Anagach Woods and spent many hours of my childhood playing there. I’ve been back here for three years and I love it. And I’m learning all the time, identifying birds, and discovering the aspen, hawthorn, and goat willow, recognising the call of birds and tracks left by mammals.
Have you written music inspired by landscapes other than those in Scotland?
Yes! Although Strathspey is my inspiration, I have been fortunate enough to see some really striking landscapes around the world. British Columbia was jaw-dropping. Another amazing experience was when I took a yacht from Shetland to Norway via Orkney and the Fair Isle. It took 34 hours. We arrived in a lagoon in Norway at 8am and tied up to a tree. The land and seascapes were breath-taking.
Where else? The blue ridge mountains of Virginia were something else. I also had a recent walking trip to Madeira. All of these landscapes and experiences will feed into my music in some way. Writing music to evoke images and landscape is much like telling a good story. The music needs to be inspiring, contrasting, uplifting and well-paced. I often base my music on old forms and structures of Scottish dance tunes: reels, jigs, marches, and airs. These are familiar shapes and rhythms to most people – a great medium for expression and innovation. The key is to know when to stop and not to overwork it. I co-wrote with Duncan Chisholm, one of my heroes, on his album Sandwood, a very remote place on Scotland’s Western coast. I learnt a huge amount about striving for purity and honesty in tune-writing from Duncan during this collaboration.
I once wrote a tune while humming to myself on a ski lift on my own in the Swiss alps. The whole mountain had a thin layer of golden sand in the snow. Apparently, it had come from the Sahara desert – brought by the Sirocco, dry desert-air from Northern Africa. It was extraordinary. The piece is called Sahara and it explores an exotic Arabic scale.
There are loads of places I would still love to see: volcanic Iceland and Japan, the great redwoods in California. So many places…
What happens to you when your music is played back? How would you like your music to affect people? Or how does it affect other people?
I once saw folk singer Kathleen MacInnes sing in a pub. It was a very informal evening and she sang solo.
Her music transported me. I found myself standing up with tears in my eyes. Her music really took me to the next level, it had such depth – there was a transformation. That’s what I’m trying to do, to create authentic music with such integrity that it can take people, in their minds, somewhere else. Somewhere they have been before or might like to go to…
I was recently commissioned to write a piece of music for a disabled child. His parents had my first album, The River, and each time they played a certain track, The Whirlpool, their mostly silent son would burst into life, singing and clapping. He loved it! It was like a key that unlocked something in his mind – he entirely connected to the tempo and the groove. So, I wrote him his very own tune with a similar feel, and we got an even more joyous reaction from him – he was dancing this time! It was beautiful – needless to say me and the parents were all in tears.
And talking with folk who work in the Cairngorms Connect project, about their experiences is interesting. Like my friend Becks – as an ecologist she really knows her trees, she lives and breathes trees. For me, when she listens to a piece of my music and tells me that she ‘can hear a birch tree’ in the melody, that is very affirming – coming from a woman who works day in day out around birch trees.
Writers like musicians like Martyn Bennett and Duncan Chisholm – we’re all trying to capture the same thing – to express that connectedness and exhilaration of place and landscape. How do you quantify and communicate that feeling you get in the wilderness? It’s a great challenge in itself.
I feel a strong connection with mountain writers like Cameron McNeish; Robert MacFarlane and his Lost Words book; Nan Shepherd and her book The Living Mountain; and wildlife photographers, videographers and animators like the team at ‘SCOTLAND: The Big Picture’. I feel like we are all trying to express the very same feeling. It’s as if we are all trying to describe through different means the colour orange, say, to someone who has never experienced colour. It’s a very natural thing to want to do, to want to express this feeling of connection with nature, very human, primal. Creativity often comes from re-visiting the same inspiring place at different times and contexts. Seeing it on different days, in a new light or snow or rain. I guess what I am just trying to say is look even more closely at the landscape and heritage around you. Dig where you stand. Celebrate where you come from and your story.
With thanks to Hamish Napier for taking the time to speak with us, Joanna Holland for arranging and writing up this interview, and finally to David Russell from Highland Wildscapes for the fantastic main image.
To find out more about Cairngorms Connect, please visit their project page.
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