Restoration Project

A blog by Benjamin Graves, RSNO Composers’ Hub 2016:17.

I love Grand Designs: the monumental designs, the originality of the buildings and the way they fit within their surrounds. But most of all I love Kevin McCloud: his dryness, consistent incredulity at the viability of each build and genuine surprise every episode at the quality of the finished product, despite an unchanging format. But, however much I adore him he didn’t inspire my folk song arrangement for the Celtic Connections Festival. What did was the restoration of Hellifield Peel Castle from ruin to fully functioning bed and breakfast.

Derelict for 50 years, nature had reclaimed the castle: shrubs and trees were growing out of every wall, their roots penetrating deep into the mortar, and every exposed brick was carpeted with lichen and moss. It seemed attempting to restore this ruin was madness, but Francis and Karen Shaw, having spent upwards of £150,000 to acquire it, were going to give it a go, pushing Kevin’s dubiety to its limits. Or at least the local stonemasons were, Shaw just coughed up the cash. What resulted was spectacular: all credit should go to the wonderfully named “Jason the Mason” and his team. They had faithfully and tirelessly reconstructed old stonework, fitting it alongside the original, all in strict compliance with the 1882 Ancient Monuments Protection Act.

The Shaws now owned a real castle, parts of which originated from around 850 AD. Past owners included Saxon and Norman lords; a Knight Templar, Sir John Harcourt; the Knights Hospitaller; a Catholic dissident, Stephen Hamerton who was hanged, drawn and quartered for opposing Herny VIII’s Protestant Reformation; and Hamerton’s uncle, Lord Clifford, who betrayed him and further Hamerton family members. Having cost the Shaws somewhere in the region of £600,000 to restore the castle (or, as Rightmove describes it, the seven-bedroom detached house) it was recently sold for £1.65 million.

What interested me most about this project was its potential to inspire musical form: a musical restoration project with new musical “stone” added to old. The story of my chosen folk tune, coincidentally, is not dissimilar to that of Hellifield Peel Castle. Griogal Cridhe or Beloved Gregor is a lament supposedly written by Marion Campbell to her husband Gregor MacGregor as she viewed his head on an oaken steak, after he was betrayed and executed in 1570 by her father “Grey” Colin Campbell Laird of Glenorchy. Its lyrics, originally in Gaelic, speak of how Gregor cared for her and how much she misses him.

In the piece Griogal Cridhe is presented directly. Its rhythms appear modern, but are in fact a direct transcription of interpretations by various folk artists, a modern rendering of the old. More bricks for this musical castle are forged from various extended techniques such as harmonic glissandi, trills and tremolos; quartertones and new harmony derived from the old, all combined with canonic versions of the original melody.

My piece doesn’t evoke directly the story of Marion Campbell and Gregor MacGregor, rather it represents a restoration of it: Griogal Cridhe’s history is told in the tune left behind. I hope this approach will lend an alternative perspective to the musical treatment of folksong, but mainly I hope it’s a piece Kevin would be proud of and perhaps one day he’ll deliver a philosophical closing monologue on one of my projects.