Art in a landscape: An interview with Hamish Napier

13th July 2020

David Russell

The creation and experience of art in a landscape – be it music, poetry, sculpture, dance, literature, or another form – can help people connect to a place in new ways. It can stir our emotions, rekindle memories, and help us understand the past and present in a way that that binds us to the land and its nature. Crucially, it can help open our minds and imaginations to start thinking about the kind of places we want our landscapes to be. Last year, the ELP-funded Cairngorms Connect project commissioned Hamish Napier, a traditional music composer and performer local to the project area, to develop an album – The Woods – inspired by the forests and different tree species in the Cairngorms area.

Joanna Holland from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s Arts, Science and Conservation Programme, spoke to Hamish about his work.

How and when did you start making music?

I have always been drawn to music and I’ve been singing for as long as I remember. My mother is a singer, harpist, and composer. She taught music in our house, so music has always been around me. I remember playing the piano with the keyboard a foot above my head! I then played classical piano and flute at my primary school. I found it very technical and felt little connection to it. The big change for me was my first summer music camp Fèis Spè (the festival of the river Spey) as a teenager. I got to play folk music. And hang out with my pals in an amazing setting! It had a huge impact on me. Whereas classical music felt mostly like technical exercises, folk immediately just felt like my natural environment.

I also realised that the skills I was learning at camp would enable me to play with other people – this, along with listening to people like Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain, was exciting. I went down to Glasgow to study astronomy and physics, but right after my degree toured all over Europe and the States with my band Back of the Moon. Playing in places like Boston’s famous Club Passim, in the footsteps of Joni Mitchell, was pretty memorable. But Playing on a makeshift stage in the vast mountains of British Columbia was completely amazing, as was playing to a crowd of thousands at Philadelphia Folk Festival with a huge purple thunder cloud overhead!

I then studied music in Glasgow, with a year in Berklee College of Music in Boston to study jazz piano and composition. I’m lucky enough to have played all around the world, including in some very cool places in Europe. Our band was most accepted in Holland and Germany – there is a huge affinity for Celtic music over there, where many folk bands find they are asked for multiple encores!

Hamish says “I’m trying create authentic music with such integrity that it can take people, in their minds, somewhere else. Somewhere they have been or might go to…” Photo credit: © Sean Purser.

How do you think your life/work/music might be different if you had not had your relationship with landscape?

I was very fortunate to be brought up in the Scottish Highlands. I think, even if I had become a physics or maths teacher after my Astronomy and Physics degree, my relationship with nature would be just as strong – because of my parents. And where we went on holiday as a family. Our family holidays were not on the beach resorts of Spain but always in remote and beautiful places in Scotland – Mull, Ullapool, Orkney, Shetland… Holidays were always about what was around us, museums, art galleries, castles, Munros, nature and looking closer.

I was always amazed at what my parents knew of the natural world. They are very knowledgeable about the Scottish hills, wild flowers, birds, trees, land management and more. Holidays were more often wet than not, but they were still exhilarating – whether we were at the top of a mountain or in the woods – wet but cosy. Just magic times!

I would still be interested in trying to express this connectedness – to share my love of landscape, heritage, and people, whether through teaching, music, or something else. When you share with people, you get so much back. Collaborating with others is such a brilliant thing and feeling connected with both people and landscape is an amazing feeling. My compositions are becoming more and more of an expression of my gratitude for Scotland’s landscape, people, and heritage – the things that my parents showed me.

I have just started writing solo album number four, a pentalogy composed in praise of my native Strathspey. The Hill (due for release in 2022) is about the Cairngorms and surrounding mountains. The River (2016), The Railway (2018) and The Woods (2020), were albums written for the River Spey, the Speyside whisky railway line and the beautiful forests and woodlands of the Cairngorms Connect area of Strathspey.

The final album, The Sky, will explore the harder-to-see aspects of my world here; the night sky, the weather, the birds in flight and the creatures tied in to the cycles of the moon.  These five albums reflect the five classical elements seen in dozens of cultures and religions worldwide: water, fire, earth, wind, and aether.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) fishing at dawn in the Cairngorms National Park.

Photo credit: Peter Cairns /

This stunning image is taken from Hamish’s album ‘The Woods’.

Photo credit: David Russell / Highland Wildscapes.

With thanks to Hamish Napier for taking the time to speak with us, Joanna Holland for arranging and writing up this interview, and finally to David Russell from Highland Wildscapes for the fantastic main image.

To find out more about Cairngorms Connect, please visit their project page.

To read the full interview, please visit the Endangered Landscapes Programme news page here.