Folk: album review – Rachel Newton & Lauren MacColl ‘Heal & Harrow’

Witches have been in the news of late, with Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, issuing a formal apology to those who were executed under Scotland’s sixteenth and seventeenth century witchcraft laws.

Sturgeon’s apology was in response to the ‘Witches of Scotland’ campaign which has sought to obtain an official pardon for those, mainly women, who were persecuted as witches. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft has pulled together a comprehensive database of known prosecutions taking place, between the first execution in 1479 and the final one in 1727, revealing that at least 2,500 people were killed.

It’s not only in the Scottish Parliament where the plight of those persecuted has resonated. Acclaimed Scottish traditional musicians and composers, Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl, have been equally moved by this dark period in Scotland’s history. Collaborating with author and academic, Mairi Kidd, Heal & Harrow is an album of original music, songs and readings drawn from Kidd’s specially-commissioned writing.

Kidd writes in the accompanying booklet: “Heal & Harrow is a dream project for a writer, but a challenging one, too. Choosing ten women from the thousands persecuted for witchcraft was a daunting task, never mind selecting also from the legion of sister who experienced less extreme versions of the same forces.”

The result is a haunting but compelling album that honours the memory of women who fell victim to that lethal combination of misogyny, superstition and paranoia which gave rise to the witch-hunts. Women like Lillias Addie, who is commemorated in the opening track. She was accused of witchcraft after being shopped by a neighbour but died before her trial. Escaping the horror of being burned to death she remains the only person in Scotland that was accused of witchcraft to have a known grave.

Newton’s  harp, stark and slightly other-worldly, and MacColl’s fiddle, brooding and melancholy, are the dominant sounds on the album, providing a beautifully evocative backdrop for Newton’s pure yet fragile-sounding vocal or the duo’s soft, gentle spoken-word interludes.

Sorcery and witchcraft have been a recurring theme in folk for centuries but amidst the melodramatic, cartoon-like portrayals it’s sometimes easy to forget the horrendous human tragedies that resulted from society’s obsession. Heal & Harrow redresses that balance and gives a voice to those so accused. A stunning album.

Released: 4th February 2022

https://www.healandharrow.com/

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