KAREN MARSHALSAY – The Road to Kennacraig (Cramasie Records CRCD001)

The Road To KennacraigKaren Marshalsay’s CD of harp music The Road To Kennacraig – due for release on 15th July 2019 – shows her to be a fine harpist specialising in traditional music and compositions of her own in that same tradition, with a particular interest in transferring pipe music to the harp. On this CD she plays three harps: a wire-strung clàrsach from Ardival Harps, a gut-strung lever harp from Jack Yule, and a Baroque bray harp, also from Ardival.  (On track 5 she also plays a boxwood D whistle from Jon Swayne.) On most of the tracks here, she plays the gut-strung harp: I’ve noted exceptions below.

Here’s the track list:

  1. ‘The Road To Kennacraig’ was composed by Karen and is played on the clàrsach, which has a clearer, cooler tone than the gut-strung harp. From a sparse opening, the melody develops into a series of variations incorporating the type of ornamentation characteristic of pipe music.
  2. ‘St Fillan’s’ / ‘The Rhymer’s Reel’: the first tune is a slow air taken from the 1895 Gesto Collection Of Highland Music, published by Keith Norman MacDonald, and to my ear has a somewhat Irish feel, not inappropriately given Fillan’s Irish connections. The second tune is a reel composed by Karen and part of a longer piece called ‘Thomas The Rhymer’, an instrumental interpretation of the adventures in Elfland of Sir Thomas de Ercildoun, as told in various romances and Child ballad number 37 ‘Thomas Rymer’. I was rather gratified to find a recording of the longer piece with fuller instrumentation on SoundCloud.
  3. ‘The Journeying Jig’ is another of Karen’s compositions, featuring variations similar to the extended variations of the pibroch or ceòl mòr form mostly associated with piping, though Karen’s is a name often heard in respect of the fairly recent revival using the clàrsach. While we are sometimes conditioned to expect a jig to be an energetic dance tune in an exotic time signature, this is a gentle piece in Em that explores the migration of pipe voicings to the harp. Very interesting.
  4. ‘Jane Pickeringe’s Lilt’ / ‘Emma’: the first is an (originally unnamed) tune taken from a book owned by Jane Pickeringe in 1616, seguing very effectively into a traditional Finnish waltz.
  5. ‘Ülle’s Reel’ is a slow reel written by piper John Saunders, and features whistle as well as harp: the warmth of the boxwood whistle and gut-strung harp make for a particularly attractive combination.
  6. ‘Ellen’s Dreams’ / ‘Pipe Major Donald MacLean Of Lewis’: the first is a tune by Robin Morton, perhaps best known as a member of the Boys of the Lough, who has added this album to his long list of credits as a producer. Unsurprising, it feels very Irish. The second is a contrasting march written by Pipe Major Donald MacLeod in honour of one of his contemporaries.
  7. The wire-strung clàrsach features again on the melodically simple but effective ‘Carrill’s Lament’, taken from James Oswald’s 18th Century collection Caledonian Pocket Companion.
  8. ‘Bert Mackenzie’s 70th Birthday Waltz’ / ‘Isabel Gow’s Welcome To Edinburgh’ features two modern pieces: the waltz was written by Louise Mackenzie, modulating with a sudden but rather effective change of key and mode into a march by Karen.
  9. ‘The Battle Of The Bridge Of Perth’ is traditional pibroch learned from Allan MacDonald, played on the clàrsach. Karen does a remarkable job of approximating the sound of the pipes here.
  10. ‘Helen’s Farewell’ is another composition by Karen: unsurprisingly, the arrangement has a much more modern feel, though the melody sits squarely in a traditional form.
  11. ‘Dr Karen McAuley Of The Books’ is another of Karen’s compositions, though I can perfectly well imagine it turning up at a tunes session. Probably played three times faster by a speedfreak accordionist. However, it’s very nice indeed at the gentler pace featured here.
  12. ‘The Rhymer’s March’ / ‘MacKinnon’s Brook’: the first tune is another segment from Karen’s ‘Thomas The Rhymer’, followed by a traditional strathspey. Both the wire-strung clàrsach and the gut-strung lever harp are featured here, along with the bray harp. (A wooden bray pin can be set to touch the base of each string, giving the bray harp a characteristic buzz – resembling the resonance of the sympathetic strings of instruments such as sitar and sarod – and also increasing projection.)

Perhaps it’s because of the Marmite sound of the Scottish pipes, but I think we sometimes underestimate the art of pibroch. Certainly my ears have been opened by this CD to a whole new appreciation of the genre, as well as to the instrumental artistry and compositional prowess of Karen herself.  I hope to hear a great deal more of her in the future: in the meantime, I suspect I’ll be listening to this CD quite a lot. Indeed, I’m already thinking that some of those pieces might transfer well to the guitar…

David Harley

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‘The Rhymer’s March/Cath Raon Ruaridh’ – live:

Karen Marshalsay announces debut album of Scottish harp

Karen Marshalsay
Photograph by Sue Flood

One of Scotland’s leading harpers, Karen Marshalsay releases a new album of traditional harp music and original compositions, The Road to Kennacraig, on Monday 15th July.

Karen is a master of all three Scottish harps – the warm sounding modern gut-strung lever harp, the clear ringing wire-strung clarsach of the Highlands and Gaelic culture,  and the Baroque bray harp with its buzzing sitar-like effect – and she features each of them, as well as whistle on one track, across the album.

With a particular interest in playing pipe music on the harp, Karen has worked with Allan MacDonald, of the famous Glenuig piping brothers, featuring in his acclaimed pibroch concerts, including the Edinburgh International Festival’s Herald Angel Award-winning From Battle Lines to Bar Lines series in 2004. She also featured in the National Piping Centre’s Ceòl na Piòba concert in 2013 and has worked with African, Paraguayan and Indian musicians on multi-cultural projects including Yatra, which premiered at the Edinburgh Mela in 2008. More recently she guested with the Russian String Orchestra, playing her own compositions, during the Edinburgh Festival in 2018.

Karen’s passion for pipe music is highlighted in the pibroch, ‘The Battle of the Bridge of Perth (Ceann Drochaid Pheairt)’ with its phrasing closely resembling piping techniques, and in the classic 6/8 pipe march ‘PM Donald MacLean Of Lewis’. Her compositional talent materialises on tunes written for people and places, including ‘Helen’s Farewell’, ‘Isabel Gow’s Welcome To Edinburgh’ and ‘The Road to Kennacraig’ itself. With tunes spanning over 400 years, this first solo album shows Karen is a highly accomplished player of traditional music and a fine composer of tunes in a living tradition.

The album was produced at Temple Studios by Robin Morton, a founder member of internationally regarded folk band Boys of the Lough and one of traditional music’s top producers whose credits also include Dick Gaughan’s classic Handful of Earth, Alison Kinnaird’s seminal The Harp Key and albums of Gaelic singing by Flora MacNeil and Christine Primrose.

As well as appearing in solo concerts, Karen is currently a member of Irish folk music legend, flute and whistle master and singer, Cathal McConnell’s trio. She has also produced new works for Celtic Connections’ New Voices series, Hands up for Trad’s Distil showcase concerts, and Drake Music Scotland, and she was Composer in Residence with Harps North West in 2016.

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‘Helen’s Farewell’: