Stories Surrounding a Popular Harpist

By David Kessler

Out of town friends wanted to hear stories from one of my trips to Scotland.  I made up a list of story titles from the trip and sent it around to let them choose the ones they wanted to hear most.  The results were interesting.  Several asked to hear about surfing off Lewis and about "discussing the possibility of an American-Scottish military alliance against England", some about meeting a "Mom & Pop ambulance team" ...Meanwhile, practically everyone asked for "Sighed over a harpist". Okay.

In this Installment: Stories surrounding a popular harpist.

A number of years ago I was listening to the radio and heard a song that made me pay attention to what the singer said about it afterwards.  It was about recent laws and quotas that are keeping old fishing families on land, and it had a refrain that was very broad and open in a way you would expect from a happier song.  I made a mental note to find the song someday, and eventually did.  I have a couple songs like that one, sitting in my memory and waiting to be tracked down; sometimes it's the tracking down that provides the stories.

Late one night in Scotland I was listening to the radio in my room at the Achintee Farm guest house, relaxing after another long day of fun and hiking.  I tuned through the various stations until I heard an interesting and well-played tune.  It was an in-studio interview of Donnal Lunny, about his new album, Coolfin.  I decided to head into Fort William the next day and see if I could find it.

On the second floor of a place called Granite House (Yes, it is made of granite), I found a music store and they had Coolfin in stock.  I asked the girl behind the counter for a recommendation on other good traditional Scottish music and she handed me a small slip of paper promoting a concert that night at the local distillery.  The ad had just been dropped off by a member of the band - a group called Cliar.

I had been thinking about visiting the Ben Nevis Distillery since I found its web site while planning the trip, but wondered if it would be worth suffering the official tour - complete with a video about a mythological giant named "Hector McDram".  The distillery probably invented this ridiculous figure to weed out the visitors who won't endure a bad story for the sake of learning more about whisky.  As it turned out, I got a far better tour, without having to hear about his royal tallness.

Later that day, I walked up the stairs and into a room which was more of a dimly lit barn attic than a concert hall.  To the great delight of the girl at the table, I paid for my ticket with the 7 one-pound coins that were weighing me down (my entire stock of change was exactly the cost of a ticket), and then decided to head back outside and walk around the grounds while I waited for show time.  I rounded a corner and saw 2 men filling the large tank on the back of their truck with a thick liquid being pumped through an industrial sized hose from inside the building – siphoning off the spent wort that the distillery didn't need but which cows love.  I said "hello, don't mind me, I'm just looking around."  ...We spoke for a minute and when I mentioned what a pity it was that the official tours ended so early in the day, he said to follow him.

He led me up the metal stairs on the outside of the building next to where the concert was.  Inside, He showed me a couple stages of the whisky making process, with detailed commentary on the yeasts used (100kg of brewer's yeast, 100kg of distiller's yeast per batch) and samples along the way.  He opened up the top of a mash tun and gave me a drink.  The liquid at that stage of fermentation has the sugars and carbohydrates from the malted barley; he described it as an "energy drink" and it was actually very tasty.  Next, he showed me their 8 washback tanks, where the liquid from the mash tun is fermented.  The liquid is moved from tank #1 along toward tank #8 as fermentation progresses, raising both the alcohol content and the temperature.  In tank 1 they have to provide heat to help the fermentation along, but by tanks 6 and 7, the heat of fermentation alone is enough to keep it at a rolling boil - washback tank #7 was approximately 9% alcohol.  He had a thermos with a string tied to it that he lowered down into the tank;  It tasted like a thick, warm, beery version of the "energy drink" I had sampled a few minutes earlier.  We drank about a pint of it while he talked more about the yeasts, about the distillery, and about whisky in general.  Then he dumped the few inches remaining in the thermos back into the vat.  I was a little startled at this, but then I remembered that it would boil in tank #8 and then be distilled;  you could throw an entire highland cow into that tank and still not poison the final product.

I thanked him for the tour (especially for not pushing the kitsch mythology, that he held in the same regard as do I), and headed back to the concert hall, only to be handed a complimentary dram of the distillery's finished product by their agent at the concert.  This capped my impromptu tour very nicely, but I decided not to mention it.

The concert was great!  All 6 members of the band are really talented, and they worked well together, obviously enjoying the playing.  Particularly talented were Bruce MacGregor on the fiddle and Ingrid Henderson on piano and clarsach (harp).  Ingrid was both the one who had left the concert notices at Granite House and who had taken my money at the door.  She was beautiful in a very unglamorous way, and is the best harpist I have ever seen (aside from movies of Harpo Marx).  During the concert I tended to watch her if there wasn't a particularly good solo elsewhere.

I bought the group's one CD, had it autographed, and spoke to each of them after the show.  Several of them mentioned how much they would like to tour Boston, if only they would be invited and not have to pay their own way over.  When I asked if I could get the words and music for one of the songs from the concert that I particularly liked, they seemed surprised that I could read music.  Ingrid said she would send them to me, which was good, but none of them said anything like, "Why don't you come and play with us until sunrise", which was unfortunate.

I suppose they all drove to their homes and went to sleep then.  The trip back to Achintee Farm was almost 3 miles and my knees and feet were still very sore from the hiking I had been doing that week, but I had so much energy from the concert that I decided to walk.  To help the distance go by I decided to try singing only songs involving trains (I don't know where this idea came from, but there you have it).  I made it almost all the way back without running out, although near the end I had to include songs like Little Maggie, and Two Brothers, which only mention trains briefly.  The last mile was on a winding, tree-covered road by a steep hill, but there was so much light in the sky that I didn't realize it was 11:30 at night until I looked at my watch.

Three days after the concert I was all packed up to head north for Stornoway.  My last stop before heading to the bus station was back to Granite House.  The girl who had told me about the concert smiled when she recognized me coming up the stairs, and then grinned like she knew something.  "Did you enjoy the concert?" she asked.  When I vigorously answered "Oh yes", she motioned over to the music rack where Ingrid was standing.  She was happy to see me and thought it funny that I should come in while she was there to thank them for helping advertise the show (there were a few of us in the 50 member audience who had come because of the notices in Granite House).  So there I was, face to face with Ingrid, she happy to see me, and me with only 20 minutes to catch my bus.  I kicked myself later when I realized that I should have invited her to come north with me.  I don’t know if she would have, but it would have been worth the attempt.  As it turned out, going to Stornoway alone allowed me to have all sorts of adventures there, and not having run into her in the prior 3 days had allowed me to meet a variety of other interesting characters – mixed blessings all around, and far nicer than mixed curses, but I still had to sigh as I left Fort William.

That night, after 2 bus trips, a ferry ride to Stornoway, and a quiet evening in that town playing pool and swapping stories with a couple of vacationing bomb-squad members, I sat and unpacked in my B&B.  I turned on the TV and there was Ingrid performing on the show Failte with two of her brothers.  A crazy coincidence, no doubt put there to remind me that I was on this trip to have adventures.  Many of them would be small ones, easily captured in straightforward installments, but at that moment I wished a few more of them would be long and oddly-connected trains.

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