Héloïse Russell-Fergusson (1896-1970), aka Madame Scotia, Madam Scrap, Bardess of the Gorsedd and Jane, was born in Glasgow but spent much of her formative years in Port Appin, Argyll. She studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London from 1914-1916 and in the 1920s she taught piano in a girls’ school in Washington D.C. On seeing a clarsach there in a city shop window, she instantly bought it, saying, ‘it seemed no stranger’. She devoted the rest of her life to learning about and sharing the songs of the Hebrides with audiences from Finland to Bali, Cairo to New York.
Described by some as eccentric and by others as deeply creative, she was an outlier who could participate in the mainstream but resisted being defined by it. She preferred to plough her own furrow which included relentless exploration of the universal relationships between music, the environment and day to day life. In the 19 volume Russell-Fergusson Collection of Harps lodged in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, she illustrated these relationships with photographs of harps and harp-like instruments being used throughout history and around the world to accompany daily activity; iron smelters in Northern Cameroon; Indonesian farmers; wool waulkers (fullers) in the Hebrides.
Her repertoire was drawn largely from Marjory Kennedy-Fraser although her archive in the Mitchell includes songs and music thought to have been noted during her trips to the Hebrides from Kenneth Macleod, Annie Johnston and others. She developed and took two ‘song-tales’ to performance: Tir-nan-Og, presented in London in 1949 and Edinburgh in 1950; and Hailing the Highlander, presented in Pitlochry in 1951. In the 1960s, she set up Clarsach Recordings and released 4 EPs of much more experimental music, revealing her deep spirituality (she was a Christian Scientist) and her profound sense of connection to the natural world.
Notes kindly supplied by Hélène Witcher.
The following tracks were recorded at the Kintore Rooms, 74 Queen Street, Edinburgh, in September 1933 and released on the Beltona Label.
‘Sa Choill Ud Thall (The Island Herd Maid)
(arr.Kennedy Fraser) Bel 2034, BL-2034, ABL-502(LP)
Land of Heart’s Desire
(arr. Kennedy Fraser) Bel 2146
A’ Chruinneag Leach (The Islay Maiden)
(trad. arr. Russell-Ferguson) Bel 2035, BL-2035
Iona Boat Song / ‘Strusaidh Mi Na Coilleagan
(The Cockle Gatherers)
Traditional Bel 2035, BL-2035
This paper, by Hélène Witcher and Stuart Eydmann presented to the 2015 Musica Scotica conference and at the 2017 Edinburgh Harp Festival, describes research into Héloïse and her music and has references to further information.
See also Hélène Witcher’s book Madame Scotia. Madam Scrap on Héloïse: