Soundtrack of the Dee: a conversation with Hamish Napier

Music might not seem the most obvious route to tackling climate change and nature loss.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 15th December 2021, 12:00 am
Hamish Napier sees joining forces as the route to nature conservation, and has written a tune inspired by the Wells of Dee
Hamish Napier sees joining forces as the route to nature conservation, and has written a tune inspired by the Wells of Dee

But there may be more overlap than we think. And its potential to make us feel things might just make it one of the most powerful tools of all when it comes to communicating the need to restore the planet. When I learned that Scottish folk musician, Hamish Napier, had been writing music about the source of the river Dee, I seized the opportunity to hear about the process, and look at the Dee Catchment Partnership’s work through a musical lens.

“I was commissioned by the Dee and Don Ceilidh Collective to compose music to accompany people’s photos, videos and words inspired by their local landscapes during lockdown,” he explains. “It was a brilliant exercise, with a fantastic bunch of musicians, because we were effectively roaming the landscape while staying at home.”

Using field recordings, keyboard, flute, electronic backing riffs and percussion, his resulting composition, Wells of Dee, tells a lyrical story of the river’s 88-mile journey from its source high in the Cairngorms, to the sea at Aberdeen.

The relationships between landscapes and people are a constant source of inspiration for him, and it’s where I find the common ground between his work and that of the Dee Catchment Partnership – a recognition of the often-competing interests of multiple stakeholders. His next album is inspired by a variety of topics, including the polarisation of public opinion on rewilding versus sporting estates. But how will he represent such controversial issues musically?

“I try to evoke a certain emotion, and with the more challenging ideas I suppose it can be tempting to aim for a feeling of success, or triumph – a sense of overcoming something, as opposed to the sound of sheer frustration, which is often the reality. But the end goal is to convey honesty one way or another, so while I’d probably try to give the harder topics a positive slant, I’m keen to capture sounds of the sporting estates too, like the whip of a grouse-beating flag.

“I’m not ashamed to have been a grouse-beater as a teenager - I loved it. I got paid, got a can of beer at lunchtime and the craic was brilliant. I wouldn't do it now, because I realise how destructive the management of a driven grouse moor is - the heather burning, the effect on other wildlife, the lack of trees. But I still believe communities should be out on the hill doing things like planting trees, building paths and collecting pinecones, if that's what needs to be done instead; spending time outside as a community, having a dram, playing music – the hills are for everyone, not just for the wildlife or specially-bred living targets!”

A natural collaborator, he is a strong advocate for working in partnership: “You can get quite bogged down in things on your own, but with someone else there to offer an idea it’s much harder to get stuck. Of course, there can be too many ideas, but you always learn so much from working with others.”

For Hamish, promoting conservation and restoration begins with joining forces - just as the Dee Catchment Partnership works as a collaborative force for the benefit of wildlife and climate resilience on Deeside. He sees his role as a musician as being one player in a team made up of historians, cartographers, artists, ecologists, videographers, photographers, poets and writers, who between them can research, record and understand the challenges facing nature, then capture and represent them in a compelling way. We’re all working towards a common aim after all – a regenerated, sustainable landscape.

An integrated approach towards this shared goal could reach more people and reinvigorate a message that can get tired when told the same way: “Some people like to read, others prefer a visual message, or feel inspired by uplifting poetry or music. It’s amazing how music enhances a video’s message – without the soundtrack the point being made tends to be much weaker. Everyone interacts and communicates differently, so it makes sense to use as many art forms as possible to get a message across.”

He is clear too on the role music can play in promoting the need to look after nature: “Many of my ideas come from time spent in wild places. I make field recordings of birds, burns, forest wind and other sounds. I come up with melodies and expand them into arranged pieces in the studio. I like to think that feeling of respect and appreciation for the natural world can be heard as clearly as the flute throughout my music. As a composer you can also get across your enthusiasm for nature by reflecting its different moods through different tonalities and rhythms. But the challenge will always be in how to engage folk without preaching to the converted or coming across as annoyingly left-wing and patronising!”

And it’s not all stunning landscapes and good moods, as he’s quick to point out; music should tell the harsh truths too: “Much of Assynt is a desert. Those glens should be full of capercaillie and squirrels, massive riparian woodlands, and scrublands with willow and elder, full of insects.”

Meanwhile, beyond its humble beginnings high in the Cairngorms, the River Dee remains an undiscovered source of inspiration for his musical ear: “The Wells of Dee fascinated me as the river’s birthplace – but I’ve heard about this bottleneck at the Linn of Dee, a wee gorge where the water gets squeezed between the rocks, I’d love to go there. There’d be some great sounds where the river meets the North Sea too – imagine all the birds making these amazing noises. I can imagine a whole soundtrack of the Dee.”