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Shadow SHADOW05 

The supernatural has played a vital part in the annals of folk music; from epic ballads like Tam Lin to the stories of returning ghosts and changelings, the folk tradition has its share of these stories, with witches often depicted as inhuman characters.

Humanisation of the often dismissed as inhuman is the context of Heal & Harrow, a new project from Lauren MacColl and Rachel Newton. Their work pays tribute to innocent women who were accused of being witches - nearly 3000 of whom were murdered in the wake of Scotland's 1563 Witchcraft Act. Often, they were just healers, midwives or herbalists and deemed different in some cruel way.  Now, by humanising the subject matter, Heal & Harrow pays respectful tribute to these women, and explores historical beliefs in the supernatural with an eye to modern-day parallels. 

The pairing of Rachel Newton’s harp and vocals and Lauren MacColl’s fiddle and spoken word makes for a formidable collaboration. Their original music here is based on the writings of author Mairi Kidd, and each piece is presented to tell the story of the people concerned – e.g., Lilias (Lilias Adie from Fife), Isobel (Isobel Goudie, accused in 1662). They provide melodic pen pictures of the protagonists within the form of a series of contemporary songs based on traditional idioms, and describe the events of their accusation and exploits in a compassionate and thought-provoking manner. An Teine (The Fire) is a rumination on the viciousness of the treatment meted out to the people concerned, and Judge Not issues a warning to right the wrongs of the past.

Musically, it’s a tightly bonded whole where the combination of harp, fiddle, viola, mandolin and various keys work in tandem with the voice to create a lyrical melodic backdrop for the songs in question. It’s a rich sonic palate, spacious yet tightly confined, and courageous in its subject matter. It seems that being different then had the same connotation as it does now, with the subjects being misjudged as outcasts and consigned to the margins of society. Heal & Harrow humanises the people behind the myths, and presents them as real living forms whose stories deserve attention.

John O’Regan


This review appeared in Issue 143 of The Living Tradition magazine