Hamish Napier’s album inspired by the forests

The Woods is the third album from acclaimed musician and composer Hamish Napier, exploring and celebrating the ancient forests of his native Strathspey in the Scottish Highlands.

Rooted in the pine woodland of his home, Hamish’s third record follows on from his critically acclaimed albums The River (2016) and The Railway (2018). This third release takes him beyond the midpoint of his ten-year journey to create his Strathspey Pentalogy – five albums of new compositions inspired by Hamish’s homeland, each representing the classical elements water, fire, earth, wind and aether.

The Woods was commissioned by Cairngorms Connect, a partnership of neighbouring land managers committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.

The Woods is a beautiful folk tune cycle. Through the album’s 21 tracks, which incorporate 28 new tunes and pieces, Hamish explores the inter-connected flaura and fauna, folklore, legends and characters of Scotland’s native wild forests.

In a true exploration of woodland and its connection to the past and present, there is a track on the album for every letter of the Scottish Gaelic tree alphabet (related to the Ogham alphabet), which was traditionally taught with reference to native trees and shrubs.

A variety of moods and tempos reflect the character of each native tree. There is a heady mix of jigs, reels, marches and slow airs. The cheerful mood of the leaves of the ash tree are captured in an upbeat polka called Venus of the Woods, while the dark, twisted elm tree, used to make coffins, is transformed into a lament, The Tree of the Underworld.

The forest lives and breathes through the music – recordings of saws and axes chopping wood, birdsong, forest wind, ice clinking in Loch Garten and the call of woodland stags are all woven into the tracks by maverick engineer and co-producer Andrea Gobbi.

Through The Woods, Hamish relives the days of his youth spent amongst the trees and his strong connection with the woodlands. He brings to life the stories and discoveries he’s made since moving from the city back to his native Grantown-on-Spey three years ago.

Hamish said: ‘I grew up by the Anagach Woods in Grantown and spent many years of my childhood playing there. What I viewed as simply, “the woods”, is now a gathering of different characters and personalities.

‘My work is about celebrating my homeland, finding hidden gems and stories in the surrounding landscape. The Woods is an album of identity. I have loved every moment exploring my native languages, music, folklore and the natural environment.

‘I’m very grateful to Cairngorm Connect for the opportunity to celebrate this very special place that I am lucky enough to call home. Being deep in forest gives you a powerful sense of perspective.

‘We are all creatures of the forest – for thousands of years trees have given us shelter, protection, fuel, medicines, sustenance and materials to build homes, wheels and boats. I hope this album not only speaks to a lot of people but also rekindles in some way man’s great bond with the woods.’

When taking the decision in 2017 to move home to his native Grantown-on-Spey, Hamish’s second album The Railway was underway. With a commission coming from Grantown East: Highland Heritage & Cultural Centre to write music about an old whisky train line, The Railway turned into an ode to moving home and coming to realise there was work and a life to be made for himself in his native north.

His move home inspired Hamish further, he began to take the time to research his surroundings, speak to his neighbours and identify the stories that are available in every nook and cranny of his homeland.

Working with local photographer David Russell (Highland Wildscapes) and Will Boyd-Wallis (Head of Land Management and Conservation at the Cairngorms National Park Authority) Hamish’s interests have been further peaked with the beautiful images taken by David and the immersive positioning of Will’s Tulloch Wood home – from which Hamish made the recordings of the axes chopping wood, the call of the woodland stags and the ice clinking in Loch Garton that can all be heard on the album.

When he began his research, Hamish is quick to admit that he wouldn’t have been able to tell the wood from the trees when it came to different types. “I could maybe have recognised a pine and a birch but going out with a tree app I quickly began to identify the differences in the species I was seeing. Now I look at a birch and question whether it is a downy birch, a silver birch or a hybrid. I definitely wouldn’t have been making these connections before now.”

Even the soil is fascinating, Hamish said: ‘There’s mycelium connecting the trees together under the ground, fungus that connects the roots of the trees. There’s continuing research into trees being able to communicate with one another and if you look deeply enough you can see even more connections – both ecological and human.

‘Kompani Linge, the Norwegian soldiers who would become the heroes of Telemark, trained in Glenmore. Myths and legends surround the forest – fairies are thought to have made their bagpipes out of elder wood. It’s also what these trees stood for to people, in the past people would plant a Rowan tree in front of their house to scare away witches, an elder tree would be planted to fend off flies and a holly tree would be positioned to catch lightning. Nowadays all people have is a couple of wheelie bins – not so aesthetically pleasing!’

Throughout the album, the variety of moods and tempos reflect the character of each native tree. There is a heady mix of jigs, reels, marches and slow airs. The cheerful mood of the leaves of the ash tree are captured in an upbeat polka called ‘Venus of the Woods’, while the dark, twisted elm tree, used to make coffins, is transformed into a lament, ‘The Tree of the Underworld’.

Hamish is joined on The Woods by a host of celebrated folk musicians including Ross Ainslie, Jarlath Henderson, Innes Watson, Calum MacCrimmon, James Lindsay, Steve Byrnes and Scottish Chamber Orchestra celloist Su-a Lee. The album was coproduced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Andrea Gobbi at GloWorm Recordings, Glasgow.

The Woods is the third instalment of Hamish Napier’s pentalogy of music inspired by the landscape and the people of Strathspey. It is released on the Spring Equinox, 20 March 2020, and will be available in CD and Digital formats.

For more information please go to www.hamishnapier.com