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Review: Heal and Harrow at the Tolbooth

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Heal and Harrow is the musical project from folk musicians Rachel Newton and Lauren MacColl. The music was inspired by the writings of Mairi Kidd, and their tour gigs are accompanied by visuals from Alison Piper. 

Newton and MacColl were touring in the Highlands on another musical venture when they stopped in at Dornoch. There stands the ‘Witch’s Stone’ that commemorates Janet Horne; the last person in Scotland to be legally executed for witchcraft in 1727. 

Visiting the site gave them the idea to look further into the history of the ‘witch panics’ in Scotland. It is estimated that almost 4000 people were executed for witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries, 84 percent of whom were women. 

The musicians wanted to honour the women who were persecuted so terribly. They commissioned Mairi Kidd, author of Warriors and Witches and Damned Rebel Bitches, to imagine the lives of some of them. The music from Heal and Harrow was created in response to her stories, and the ‘unfathomable reality of it all’. 

I went along to the Tolbooth in Stirling last Friday night, February 11, for this unique musical experience. I don’t know how long it has been since I went to a show of this kind. Behind my mask I was all awe and excitement. 

Rachel Newton on harp and Lauren MacColl on fiddle and viola opened for themselves with an acoustic set in the first half. It was a beautiful introduction to the evening and the artists. They each addressed the audience occasionally, telling us a little about themselves and the project. 

In the second set they went electric. If I were a musician myself, perhaps I would be able to explain exactly what it is I find so awesome about the electric harp. I could only whisper excitedly to my friend beside me; ‘That was amazing!’

Piper’s visuals, ‘experimental narratives of alchemy’, haunting vocals and lyrical spoken word wove through the music to produce a truly spellbinding performance. 

The project takes place amid a movement to find justice for the thousands of people that were persecuted, tortured and executed by the Witchcraft Act between 1563 and 1736. Witches of Scotland is a campaign led by Claire Mitchell QC to gain legal pardons for the souls lost to one of history’s great moral panics. 

Newton and MacColl did not know of the campaign when they began their exploration into the injustice of the witch trials. It is serendipitous that the artistry of one shed light on the gravity of the other. 

The Heal and Harrow tour concludes in Peebles on 19th February. The music can be found on bandcamp.com and other platforms, and more about the stories appear on their website, www.healandharrow.com.

Feature image credit: Elly Lucas, http://www.kingsplace.co.uk

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