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Alison Kinnaird


Biography (courtesy of the Artists site, 2005)

Alison Kinnaird is a harper, not a harpist. "Harper is the term that's usually applied to the small harp," Kinnaird insists, "it's just not accurate to use harpist." She should know; she literally wrote the book on the subject. Her collaboration with researcher Keith Sanger, Tree of Strings (1992), is the definitive history of the Scottish harp.

Two other terms she's not overly fond of are "folk" and "Celtic." Kinnaird much prefers "traditional" and "music from the Celtic countries," if one must use labels at all. She's not being pedantic or picky, simply precise. "The harp is not really a folk instrument," she notes. "For most of its history it was a professional's instrument played in the households of chieftains or courts of the kings. It's very much a chamber instrument. And 1 can assure you, it's not convenient to carry around." As for the term "Celtic," Kinnaird's concerns are many. "The term is used so broadly it means nothing. I certainly want nothing to do with the New Agey, 'Dungeons and Dragons' connotations of the term. But I play Scottish music and the Scots aren't all Celts. The problem in Scotland is that we have two of everything: Gaelic and Scottish culture, Highlands and Lowlands, clarsach and harp."

Kinnaird delivers these lessons with good-natured gentleness and humour. As we chat over coffee in a too-noisy Northampton, Massachusetts' cafe before she speeds off to perform an early music concert with the Amherst Historical Harp Society, Kinnaird patiently recounts the many doors she's opened in her career.

If the harp is ubiquitous in Scottish music today, it has Alison Kinnaird, to thank. She was drawn to the harp at an early age and, at 14, began studies with renowned Edinburgh teacher Jean Campbell. Still, the idea of playing the harp professionally seemed remote.

"The harp was a professional's instrument and, historically, women didn't have professions. During the Victorian period the harp acquired a sissified image and became seen as a woman's instrument. Victorians encouraged their daughters to take up the pedal harp. By the 20th century the harp had moved to the drawing room, which was where it was when I took it up."

Fortunate convergences sprung Kinnaird from the parlour. She drew inspiration from the recordings of Mary O'Hara, even though O'Hara only used the harp to accompany singing. More influential still was the early work of Alan Stivell. But Kinnaird might not have concentrated on the harp at all had she not been rejected by the Edinburgh College of Art. Instead, she matriculated in Celtic studies at Edinburgh University, pursued glass engraving outside formal educational channels, and grew interested in Scottish culture.

Kinnaird notes that encounters with The Boys of the Lough made the biggest impact on her harp playing.Her future husband, Robin Morton, was a band mainstay and she was drawn to way that he, Cathal McConnell, Dave Richardson, and Aly Bain "were definitely not playing drawing-room music."

When Kinnaird decided to explore traditional terrain on her harp, she was told it was impossible "as not much traditional harp music had ever been written down and only two tunes were known to survive." Kinnaird rejected that advice noting, "No instrument stays the same. They evolve and change. You can play any instrument in a traditional manner. I learned from Robin and Cathal that you have to get at the heart of a tune." Kinnaird boldly set out to trace the music of 17th and 18th century Scots harpers, only to run into another closed door.

Kinnaird recalls, "Robin was doing production work for Topic Records and took them my tape, but they said they didn't like harp music. This was the first record of Robin's that had been turned down. They then gave it to folklorist and singer, Bert Lloyd who was their artistic advisor, but he said he wouldn't take it if he were a producer either. He claimed the harp was not really a solo instrument and no one would be interested."

Luckily neither Kinnaird nor Morton was deterred. It turned out that lots of people were interested. Morton set up Temple Records in 1978 and issued The Harp Key, an album that is still selling well and which Temple reissued on compact disc in 1996. Flush with success, Kinnaird pushed the envelope further. She notes, "Wendy Stewart and I were among the first to use the harp to play with other instruments in traditional music ensemble bands. The harp is a versatile instrument that blends very well with fiddle, guitar, and other stringed instruments. It's only the pipes that give it trouble, but that's true for most instruments!" and improved sound technology took care of that. Kinnaird's collaborations with Battlefield Band on the Music in Trust project (1986) and with Mac-talla are among those in which her harps hold their own in larger ensembles.

As Kinnaird acknowledges, though, Scotland has two cultural traditions: Gaelic and Scots. Her main instrument is the gut- (or nylon-) strung harp of Lowland Scotland, but more Highland than Lowland harp tunes survive, and those were written for the wire-strung clarsach. Willie Matheson, her Celtic studies master at university, gave Kinnaird early encouragement to explore Scotland's Gaelic culture and a chance encounter with harper Ann Heymann, who literally showed up on Kinnaird's doorstep when there happened to be a clarsach in the studio, inspired her to perfect an instrument she was about to abandon in frustration. Kinnaird explains, "The harp and clarsach are very different instruments. The clarsach is played with the finger nails and you have to learn damping technique to stop the strings. If you just let the strings ring, eventually it becomes uncomfortable to the ear. Clarity is important on the clarsach. You play fewer notes but each one is important." Gut-strung harps use the classical harp hand position and the strings are plucked with the pads of the fingers. "You do have to keep separate repertoires for gut + wire harps, because of the different techniques, and as yet, few players can handle both instruments". Kinnaird's Highland journeys have led to satisfying and successful collaborations with Gaelic chanteuse Christine Primrose. "I've learned so much from Christine," Kinnaird enthuses. "She's the real thing in traditional music and she keeps an accompanist on her toes. She'll change lines slightly from verse to verse each time she sings a song and that influences the accompaniment".

Kinnaird, who has learned to speak and sing in Gaelic, has also worked with Gaelic singers the ilk of Arthur Cormack, Flora MacNeil, and Eilidh Mackenzie. All of this has also fueled Kinnaird's passion for musical scholarship. She has authored three books of tunes and instruction, as well as the history she co wrote with Keith Sanger.

Among the gems unearthed in the latter work is evidence that neither Scotland's Queen Mary harp nor Ireland's legendary Brian Boru harps were used by their namesakes. Despite what tourists are told, Mary Queen of Scots never played the harp and it's unlikely she even touched the one that bears her name. Both it and the Brian Boru harp were probably made in Scotland in the same 15th century workshop. Kinnaird also wonders why there were so many blind harpers given that the harp is one of the few instruments in which one is supposed to look at the strings and the "margin of error" is a fraction of an inch. She's even proved that the triangular-frame harp developed in the east of Scotland and made its way west to Ireland, not vice versa as conventional scholarship holds. As one might expect, Kinnaird is much in demand as a teacher and professes to love it. As husband Robin Morton notes with a sigh, "every third weekend she trudges off to Dingwall to teach and every two months she's off to Lewis." Kinnaird also conducts workshops throughout Scotland and is much sought-after to lead them abroad. When she is at home, she's courted for studio work. Lately she shows up on albums as a cellist. (The cello was her first instrument and as a young girl her parents were asked to send her to London to study it. Kinnaird applauds their wisdom in declining.)

All of this would be enough to occupy most mortals, but there's still another dimension to Kinnaird's professional life. When her art school application was denied, she studied glass engraving from Harold Gordon and was eventually invited to take special classes from Helen Monro at the very institution that rejected her. Her glasswork now stands in several museums and some of it fetches several thousand pounds on the retail market. In 1997, Kinnaird was awarded the Member of the Order the British Empire for her artistic and musical endeavours, an honour akin to a Congressional medal.

Kinnaird's multifaceted life certainly explains why there's been no solo harp album since 1980's The Harpers' Gallery, but that's about to change. She and Morton laugh over the irony of having a studio in their house but never getting around to actually recording any of Kinnaird's own works. Three tracks were finished a year or so ago before Morton fell seriously ill. He's recovered now and both are anxious to put the wraps on a new album. Kinnaird jokes she may call it "More of the Same." More seriously she notes, "I'm confident about the way the tunes have developed and a few more have been discovered. I'll play both wire and gut harp." If all goes according to plan, the album should be ready in 2001. Until then, there's plenty in the back catalogue to entice and entertain us. Enjoy it. Just remember to call her a "harper."

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