Heal & Harrow is an investigation of the persecution of “witches” in Scotland or perhaps a commemoration of their lives. The music is written by Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl and most of the words come from Màiri Kidd who was commissioned to imagine and write the women’s stories. Other words come from poetry and an old Gaelic charm. It should be said that these women were innocent victims of vindictive denunciations and over-zealous authorities. That’s just how it was.
I’m conscious that I’m in danger of writing more about the stories than the music. The stories are all fascinating, particularly that of Margaret Aitken as told in ‘Behind The Eyes’. Margaret faced burning but set herself up as a witch-finder to escape that fate. She was exposed as a fraud and … guess what? Burned.
Both Rachel and Lauren are multi-instrumentalists, Rachel best known for the harp and Lauren for the fiddle. Together they play all the notes and sing or speak all the words with the exception of some pocket piano and found sound by producer Andy Bell. You can hear him to particularly good effect on ‘Judge Not’, another story of a witch-finder who came to a bad end, and again on ‘Cutty Sark’ unless I’m very much mistaken.
The album opens with pulsing harmonium topped with fiddle before Rachel’s harp comes in followed by Rachel’s voice with the story of ‘Lilias’, a “witch” buried between the tides at Torryburn Bay. Yes, there is a story there. The harp begins ‘Isobel’, the story of one of the most famous, or infamous, witch trials in Scottish history. It’s almost an instrumental except for a few lines of surprisingly gentle spoken narrative. ‘An Teine’ is one of the few “witch” stories from the west Highlands, a situation that suggests the Gaels were rather more enlightened than their southern countrymen. The story is told half in English and half in Gaelic.
‘Da Dim’ is a fictional tale of a witch on Foula in the Northern Isles and the song highlights the hypocrisy behind the trials. It’s a lovely duet between fiddle and harp and the point at which I want to stop writing and just listen. There is a hypnotic quality about the music that pulls you in. ‘Corp-Crèadha (Figure Of Clay)’ begins with strange sounds from Bell, or perhaps Newton’s synths, and takes a diversion into the unpleasant business of slavery. ‘Màiri’ is perhaps the most beautiful song in the set, beginning in Gaelic sung a cappella by Rachel with a haunting fiddle break. It’s another strange story. Finally, ‘Eachlair’ describes a mythical figure in Gaelic tradition who definitely was magical and not a nice spirit unlike Nanny, an invention of Robert Burns, who was more sinned against than sinning.
The booklet gives details of the stories behind the songs and more can be found on the website. Leaving that aside, Heal & Harrow is a lovely album with a sweetness that contradicts most of the subject material and there is a rapport between the two musicians that is rarely heard.
Project website: www.healandharrow.com