'Madam Scotia, Madame Scrap' by Helene Witcher (Islands Book Trust)
Helene Witcher's portrait of her aunt, Heloise Russel-Fergusson (1896 – 1970), is not only the story of a musical pioneer but is also the memoir of a woman remarkable for her independent spirit and her ability to connect across geographical and cultural boundaries. It will be of huge interest to musical and cultural mappers, to those interested in the manners of an age, and to those who want the story tout court
of a woman who was able to navigate her own unique way through complex and challenging waters.
Born in Glasgow, Heloise spent much of her young life in Appin. In the early years of the first world war she went to study piano at London's Royal Academy of Music in London. In the early 1920s, while teaching music in the US, she saw and bought a clarsach, and from then on the Celtic harp was not just her instrument but the door into a whole world of musical discovery.
She gathered Hebridean songs from collectors such as Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser, but also directly from island singers, and she performed them across the globe. On her travels she noted the worldwide variety of folk harps and, together with historical examples, she catalogued them in her massive document, the Russell-Fergusson Collection of Harps, held in Glasgow's Mitchell Library.
Arriving a bit too late for the main Celtic revival wave and too early to fit into the post-second world war folk revival, she pursued her own unique musical path. 'Jabble', a piece for voice and clarsach recorded in the 1960s, is a startling illustration of that journey. Complex and subtle, it has the sea, Hebridean work songs, Africa (compare with the contemporary 'Les Filles de Illighadad'), minimalism, fresh air – everything.
And that holism, that connectedness, is what drives this fluent and lively memoir. One of these connections is to the present day and the author's reflections on her family and her own identity and yearnings in relation to those of her aunt. This entails almost cinematographic switches of scene as Witcher ponders what the drivers were for Heloise, how her sociability and what we would now call her 'networking' seemed to be in tension with a life that had its element of isolation, whether some early disappointment in love or friendship was a deep thread in her weave.
This involves some speculation, but here the author stands close to the reader, making clear that this is only ever provisional. In fact, the to and fro between writer and subject makes for smart and effective narration. In the case of the subject's relation to the non-human natural world, Witcher is surely on firm ground, given the way that strand is woven into the music and, for instance, the sheer joy, as conveyed in her letters, Heloise had in being in the wilds of New Zealand.
There is a key insight here. This is more than a love for the non-human natural world. It is a connection close to identity and a recognition that at some level we share a beat even with the inanimate. And Madame Scrap? Well, that's in the book...
Return to ambit homepage