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A book about Argyll harpist Héloïse Russell-Fergusson, aka Madame Scotia, Madam Scrap, by her niece Hèléne Witcher will be launched at Waterstone’s in Oban on February 10 at 2pm.
The book reveals the life of Héloïse, a musician born in Glasgow and raised partly in Port Appin. In the early 1920s, she saw a Celtic harp in a Washington D.C shop window, and instantly bought it, saying: ‘It seemed no stranger’. It triggered a lifetime of learning and performance, as she devoted the rest of her life to learning about and sharing the traditional songs of the Hebrides with audiences from Finland to Bali, Cairo to New York.
Fascinated by the ways in which people use music universally to reflect their beliefs and respond to their surroundings, Héloïse brought back early understandings of world music that startled the conventional clarsach playing community of the 1960s.
Well known in pockets across the world, there is widespread curiosity about her story and a burgeoning awareness amongst musicologists and musicians of the almost prophetic quality of her later work. Her memory is cherished especially in Brittany where she was and remains, feted for introducing the harp and for her contribution to Celtic music.
Her fearless determination combined with a sense of mischief and sometimes eccentric creativity allows this memoir to be held in high regard in places where her work is cherished the most.
Her story sits proudly beside those of many extraordinary Scottish women whose lives are only now being recognised. Simon Chadwick, Early Gaelic Harp Specialist, said: ‘She was one of the most
original and creative of the Scottish harpists in the 20th century.’
Written by her niece, Madame Scotia, Madame Scrap aims to capture the essence of an intensely private yet very public woman and in doing so secures her position in Scotland’s musical history.
Witcher says: ‘Héloïse was indifferent to belongings, had no house of her own and used her car as a garden and as a recording studio. Winkling out her story I found my grandparents; her Clyde shipbuilding father, her pig farmer mother who left for Africa with Crichton her butler in the 1930s, and her youngest sister dancing in Aberdeenshire with a troupe led by one of the first recognised transgender individuals in Scotland.
‘Unravelling the strands of her life and meeting those who had known her and who respected her work, helped me address my own struggle over whether and where I fitted. Despite a disconcerting ambivalence about my vote during the independence referendum, she helped to confirm, eventually, my sense of belonging in 21st century Scotland.’
Witcher will be present at the book launch for signings and will give a short talk about her aunt.