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Hamish reels in the years with stories of Strathspey

By Margaret Chrystall

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Hamish Napier performs in Strathspey Stories, a celebration of the area. Picture: Anna Deacon
Hamish Napier performs in Strathspey Stories, a celebration of the area. Picture: Anna Deacon

GRANTOWN musician and composer Hamish Napier has found another way of celebrating the Strathspey area – with a new film of stories and tunes made for the ScottishInternational Storytelling Festival.

Now you can see the film – Strathspey Stories – made by Hamish and storyteller Dave Francis at the virtual festival on Monday (October 19) – alongside another, Jack And The Dancing Trees, which was the first film they made together.

Hamish said: “The Scottish International Storytelling Festival wanted to focus in on stories from a few places across the country, so as part of the festival a few people from different areas are telling stories about where they are from.

“Strathspey and Badenoch are quite well-known for having brilliant stories and tunes and Dave Francis and I decided we would do a film about Strathspey.

“There are lots of books that we dived into to choose some of the local tales we could include.”

Forest workers shifting wood down the Spey. Picture: Walter Dempster
Forest workers shifting wood down the Spey. Picture: Walter Dempster

In the 40-minute film, Hamish plays tunes associated with Strathspey locations, while Dave tells the stories which begin with a scene-setting look at the area and openswith the River Spey.

The film goes on to show the locations of the tunes and legends. Included are stories of feisty women who follow their hearts and fight for the man they love to farmers outwitting cattle raiders, adventurers hunting hoards of treasure, encounters with kind brownies and terrifying water horses and stories of legendary battles. And during the film, stunning and significant local landmarks are featured and, as well as a couple of scenes where musicians play round an open campfire, Hamish is filmed in the landscape playing classic tunes such as The Reel Of Tulloch and world-famous strathspey Tullochgorum.

Hamish said: “What is really nice is that while we were able to go out on location, in a way we kind of had to because of the lockdown.

“We could have performed an online concert – instead of the original idea of doing a concert in the Scottish Storytelling Centre itself on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, playing some tunes and telling some stories.

“But Dave and I had already worked together on a film of the story about the woods and the river called Jack And The Dancing Trees.

“That had been planned to be a bonus trackfor my latest album The Woods.

“So we thought ‘Well why don’t we include that and then add the Strathspey stories - go out on location and film them too?’.

And for all the stories we did – at Auchernack, Tullochgorum, Runettan and all the different places we went, we planned it and filmed all these things in one epic day out and we did the campfire stuff in the evening. It was a really special day.”

And for Hamish, who grew up in the area, being able to link places he had known as a youngster back hundreds of years to the stories and tunes he discovered, was a personal link with the history and landscape of the place he calls home.

“ I’ve grown up with a lot of these place – I got my milk at Auchernack Farm when I was wee and it turns out it has links with a famous branch of the Grant family.“My next-door neighbour, his family now live at Tullochgorum which is the famous farmhouse linked with the famous strathspey which is played all over the world – we have a story about a couple of spirits that lived in the house.

“Also a family walk we have done for years is to a place called Runettan, with mum and dad would always picking places for the family with me and my three brothers to go for walks.

“But little did I know until I was looking through the Angus Cumming Collection of tunes from 1780 that there is a tune in there called Runettan’s Daughter, about Barbara Runettan and the story about her shoe.

“So these places have gottunes associated with them, they’ve got stories and if you go back, there are really old maps and those farmhouses appear on there.

“You are talking about hundreds of years of legends and stories. A lot of these places predate the towns we all find so important now and were important stop-off points.

“It helps you see through the ages and see the landscape. It’s been really fun exploring that.”

But already Dave and Hamish’s project has led to another.

They have just been commissioned to work on a new set of stories by the Badenoch Great Place Project.

“For the storytelling festival, we just focused on Strathspey – between Aviemore down to Craigellachie and down Dufftown way,” explained Hamish.

“But there’s a whole load of other stories associated with Badenoch – from Aviemore right the way to Dalwhinnie and that whole section. It has got quite a different culture, the shinty, for example.

“But we have just been commissioned to investigate, write, tell and record 20 folklore stories – which will also incorporate pieces of my music written for the local area – and that will be going out on Badenoch Storylands, an app they are building for Badenoch. So I’m delighted to be involved in that next.”

The series of stories, in collaboration with Transport Scotland, Cairngorms National Park, Badenoch Great Place Project and the ‘Whereverly’ smartphone app developer, will form part of the multi-faceted info app designed so locals and visitors will be able to instantly access information on Badenoch’s most interesting places, people, history, legends and natural heritage.

But Hamish and Dave need your help.

“We are looking for people to come forward with any brilliant folklore stories about the area they think we would be interested in. It would be great if they can get in touch directly with me at the email below.”

Hamish is looking forward to working again with Dave. He came across him as a youngster when he first heard Dave playing in The Cast line-up with musician Mairi Campbell. Dave and Hamish first worked together on a project called Distil as part of the Aberdeen International Youth Music Festival, which they went on to present at Celtic Connections.

“We had an absolute ball working on Strathspey Stories, though neither of us was a camera expert,” Hamish laughed, though the film is professional and technically accomplished.

But Hamish revealed he filmed the piece, having honed his skills during lockdown. He has turned his front room into a functioning studio – and that is where the interior storytelling shots of Dave were filmed.

It’s just one of the high points of Hamish's lockdown – possibly edged into the shade by the news Hamish and his partner, Scottish Chamber Orchestra cellist Su-a Lee have got engaged!

And though Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak’s comments last week – which initially appeared to be suggesting that those in the arts should consider retraining to do a different job, but were later recanted – angered and frustrated Hamish, like many musicians, skilling up and learning new ways to get his music out there, is just a constant process.

“A lot of people ask me how I make a living as a musician and it’s very challenging,” Hamish admitted, though he is always busy with many projects and aspects of his musical talent, from composing to performing and teaching.

As well as teaching – Zoom has meant he has been able to continue during lockdown – Hamish collaborates with many other musicians on his own and their projects. These regularly include Duncan Chisholm (Hamish played among the musicians on Duncan’s #covidceilidh project which reached and cheered millions during lockdown);Nae Plans; Adam Sutherland; Jarlath Henderson ; Gary Innes; Ross Ainslie; and the Cask Strength Ceilidh Band.

With three of the five planned albums in Hamish’s Strathspey Pantalogy now released – the latest The Woods out at the beginning of 2020 – he is working on the fourth, The Hill.

But having seen Hamish present the live concert premiereof The Woods in a packed Mitchell Theatre at Celtic Connections in January, you can’t help reminiscing and realising how different the world of live music is now – virtually silenced.

Hamish said: “You think back to when we were performing it in front of an audience and you realise how special that was – and how crucial that is.

“Rishi Sunak just said we are all going to need to go and retrain. But obviously he goes home and he watches Netflix or he takes his partner to the West End shows – oh, maybe he won’t be able to do that in a wee while because there won’t be any West End shows because they haven’t got any funding.

“But I don’t know what sort of world he thinks we are supposed to live in without the arts? Maybe he could just sit at home with his wife and look at his spreadsheets!

“I’m actually baffled that people think the arts are expendable.

“We had that time together at Celtic Connections where audiences came along and I’m just so grateful to the people who wanted to come out and be part of that atmosphere and the excitement of a gig.

“And honestly, I can’t tell you how much I miss that pre-gig buzz.”

For more information on the storytelling festival and the film Strathspey Stories – and to buy tickets: https://sisf.online.red61.co.uk/event/913:3724/?fbclid=IwAR2t8R6loCQApTBW7nh985wmth0QojXV4qPqadYuSb32f6i0-SiFIwa3xls

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