Highlands & Islands

River Spey's history and wildlife inspire new tunes

Hamish Napier Image copyright Hamish Napier
Image caption Hamish Napier will perform in the New Voices slot at this year's festival

The Spey is renowned for its associations with whisky and salmon fishing. But the famous watercourse has also inspired new music which will be performed at this year's Celtic Connections in Glasgow.

Hamish Napier went on a fishing trip into his childhood memories of the Spey as part of his process writing The River, the name of his new solo album and also the composition he will perform at the festival next week.

The Glasgow-based Scottish traditional musician and composer grew up in Grantown-on-Spey, close to where the river flows through Strathspey in the Highlands.

"Growing up next to the Spey, I spent many hours of youth practicing to the roar of the river in the background, so it's always been there in my music," he says.

"One of my brothers fishes it, the other canoes it, my Uncle Sandy photographed it, my mother paints it, and there's my father's daily fascination with its erratically changing water level.

"It will always symbolise home and a strong connection to nature," adds Napier, whose ancestors include a Speyside whisky distiller.

Image copyright Hamish Napier
Image caption Napier has a long-standing fascination with the River Spey

Napier has sought to reflect the Spey's history and also the threats to its biodiversity in his new tunes, such as overfishing of rare freshwater pearl mussels.

Atlantic salmon, which journey up the Spey to spawn, and Mayflies are other wildlife reflected in The River's tracks.

The stories of local characters, including anglers and bailiffs of the past, and the Spey's fairytale white horses, also known as kelpies, are also celebrated in the album and composition.

"And then there's the Speyside whisky and gin," says Napier.

"My great great grandfather John Findlay was the head distiller at my local distillery Balmenach, the distillery that now produces Caorunn gin."

Image copyright Hamish Napier
Image caption The stories of local characters including Grantown gillie Beel Grant, pictured left with his wife and a large salmon, have also shaped The River
Image copyright Hamish Napier
Image caption Legendary kelpies inspired the artwork for the new album

Napier, who will perform at Celtic Connections' New Voices gig on 17 January, has been a feature of the Scottish traditional music scene for some time.

He has worked with Capercaillie's Karen Matheson and musicians Phil Cunningham, Martyn Bennett and Eddi Reader.

Napier also toured internationally as a founding member of folk quartet Back of the Moon and has played at Gaelic's Blas festival.

And he comes from a musical family. His mother Marie Louise Napier is a composer, plays harp and sang with the Scottish Opera, while his brother Findlay Napier is a singer-songwriter.

Ancient language

About the New Voices composition, Napier says: "For this piece I wanted to make use of all of my musical resources and so the piece features many flute, whistles, pianos and keyboards - the sounds that are at the core of all my music.

"There's a wee tip of the hat to my favourite folk band Flook, in the alto flute and bodhran combination, played by Admiral Fallow's flautist Sarah Hayes, and Treacherous Orchestra's bodhran player Martin O'Neill.

"Also performing is whistler Ross Alinslie, also of Treacherous Orchestra, jazz pianists Tom Gibbs and David Milligan, as well as two members of top Scottish folk band Breabach - bassist James Lindsay and flautist James Duncan Mackenzie."

He adds: "I'll also have Calum MacCrimmon and John Mulhearn from the Big Music Society coming up on stage to sing Canntaireachd - the ancient chanting language of the bagpipes."

Together at his Celtic Connections gig, they hope to evoke images of the Spey in full flow in the Strathclyde Suite of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

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