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Scottish harp player Karen Marshalsay visits Inverness this weekend.

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Karen with the bray harp.
Karen with the bray harp.

A harpist who taught at Balnain House returns to Inverness to play Eden Court for the postponed launch of her album The Road to Kennacraig in a concert at Eden Court on Saturday (May 14).

Scottish harp player Karen Marshalsay will bring three different kinds of harp for the event.

A baroque harp with its own built-in amplification device, the bray harp was designed to cut through the hubbub of dances and gatherings in castles during the15th and 16h centuries. Karen will also have the wire-strung harp from the Gaelic tradition and the third harp Karen’s audience will hear is the modern gut-strung clarsach.

“Harp players were the ceilidh band leaders of the day back in renaissance times,” says Karen, who used to give regular harp lessons at Balnain House when it was a traditional music centre in Inverness. “And the bray harp was the instrument they played. Each string has a “bray” – a small piece of wood – that makes a buzzing effect, not unlike the sitar. If you put that together with ancient instruments such as a crumhorn and a tabor, or hand drum, that would have been the band that people danced to.”

Karen, who has worked with some of traditional music’s most respected musicians, including singer and flute-player Cathal McConnell of Boys Of The Lough and renowned piper and Gaelic singer Allan MacDonald, was originally scheduled to play at Eden Court to promote her album in 2020. But the Covid pandemic got in the way.

“I still see the concerts I’m playing at the moment as the promotional tour,” she says. “The album was produced by Robin Morton, who oversaw classic albums including Dick Gaughan’s definitive recording Handful Of Earth, and he was great to work with because he was such a stickler for melody and clarity.

“He really made me work and I think the album sounds better as a result.”

Unfortunately, Robin Morton has since died, meaning that The Road To Kennacraig was his final production, and his input, says Karen, has become all the more special as a result.

Karen’s CV also includes collaborations with Indian, African and Paraguayan musicians.

But The Road To Kennacraig focuses on the Scottish aspect of her playing. All the music on the album is either traditional or written in the traditional style, with around half of the tunes being Karen’s own.

“As a former teacher at Balnain House, I think fondly of Inverness and it’ll be good to be back in the town where I spent so many Saturdays,” she says.

“I’ll be playing music from the album and I’ll also be talking a bit about the tunes and the harps because people seem fascinated by the instrument.

“It has associations with angels, of course, although the bray isn’t quite so angelic.

“It often comes as quite a surprise because it looks as you might expect a harp to look but sounds quite a bit different from the other two.”

Karen Marshalsay plays Eden Court on Saturday (May 14).

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