Helene Witcher’s first book lovingly excavates the life of her aunt, Heloise Russell-Fergusson, a prominent but little remembered Celtic cultural connector. Born in 1896 into Glasgow’s industrial bourgeoisie, Russell-Fergusson died a solitary figure in 1970, having lived out her final years in insalubrious Oban hotel rooms.
Witcher’s account delicately balances the overwhelming detail afforded by Russell-Fergusson’s extensive archive with the speculation necessary to fill in the private blanks of her life whilst confronting the irretrievable loss of Heloise from family memory. Recalling only one meeting with her aunt, Witcher retrieves her story from a trolley-full of treasures deposited by Russell-Ferguson in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, a box of personal memorabilia and the scant memories of the last people to know her.
A key figure in the inter-war Celtic Revival, Russell-Fergusson became a world-renowned clarsach player, composer and collector, performing and interpreting Gaelic music and song. Invested as a Bardess of the Grand Festival Celtique et Gorsedd de Bardes at Roscoff in Brittany in 1934, she was heavily involved in the inter-war Pan-Celtic movement touring her brand of Hebridean music and song across Europe, the United States, Africa, the Far East, New Zealand and Australia. Defying the sedate image of the lady clarsach player, a lone traveller, her off-track explorations stimulated a life-long interest in what is now called roots or world music. Composer and performer of original song-tales, including Tir Na Nog which ran at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1950, Russell-Fergusson was an innovative but commercially unsuccessful recording artist in her later years. A regular traveller around the Scottish Highlands and islands her self-taught Gaelic was spoken through her own posher tones. A keen historian, she completed The Russell-Fergusson Collection of Harps, a nineteen-volume illustrated world history of harps which, between 1955-1964, she donated to the Mitchell. Three months before she died she made her final recordings on two small battery tape recorders set up in her car parked at Ganavan Sands outside Oban. The twenty-three recordings with notes for ‘would-be enthusiasts…’ were posted to the library where they lay unheard for over forty years.
Where did her interest in Gaelic music and culture come from and why the clarsach? With grandparents on her mother’s and father’s side partners in The Saracen Iron Foundry and Barclay Curle and Co. shipbuilders respectively, Heloise was the oldest of Helene and William Russell-Fergusson’s four children. The double barrelling projected the substantial pedigree of an extended family whose wealth was created in the industrial epicentre of Victorian Glasgow. In the imperial heyday of the Empire’s Second City, iron, shipbuilding and engineering dominated the city’s industrial output, soaked up workers and made Glasgow one of the most overcrowded, deprived and insanitary cities in the country. By what alchemy was Russell-Fergusson transformed from a direct beneficiary of Glasgow’s aggressive industrial capitalism into an enthusiastic devotee of fanciful Celtic romanticism? How did she escape from her debutante destiny, buy a secondhand clarsach in Washington DC and discover her life’s passion?
Witcher speculates on four key influences: early exposure to the Gaelic language, to rural living in Argyll, Christian Science and piano lessons. The chatter of Mary and Rebecca, the Russell-Fergusson’s two Gaelic-speaking servant girls, may have laid down early linguistic memories. Heloise’s parents both had strong Argyllshire roots: Helene grew up on the Isle of Bute, the daughter of Thomas Russell the local MP. Heloise’s father’s family, the Fergusons, originally came to Glasgow from Strachur. The Russell-Fergussons bought Ardtur, an estate in Port Appin, Argyll, following an outbreak of plague in the Glasgow in 1900. As a child Heloise was introduced to Christian Science by her mother. Its key text, Science and Health, advocated the power of faith and prayer for overcoming physical illness with Christ’s healing powers within the grasp of anyone. In its organization and theology, the church was, unusually, led by a woman, had no gendered hierarchy and advocated gender equality and independence. A combination of Christian Science’s self-reliant theology, wealth, piano lessons and family connections took Russell-Fergusson to the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1916 to study classical piano. Her first job as a music teacher was in Washington DC where she spied a clarsach in a shop window. Renamed ‘Harplet’, it was to change the direction of her life.
Her passion for the clarsach and the music of the Hebrides was ignited in America. She studied with Mildred Dilling, an American harpist and devout Christian Scientist, and met the photographer and Gaelic song collector, Margaret Fay Shaw, who was a kindred spirit. Moreover, she was inspired by the work of folklorist Marjory Kennedy-Fraser who, in the 1920s, was causing quite a stir in New York concert circles with her performances of Gaelic music and song. Back in Scotland Russell-Fergusson toured the west coast and islands, practised playing the clarsach and mined local communities for Gaelic music and song. She was also making her name as a concert pianist and toured with John Barbirolli and Malcolm Sargent among others. Instrumental in reviving popular interest in the clarsach, she is credited with stimulating its revival in Brittany and inspiring Arnold Dolmetch to make his first clarsach in 1932. Witcher traces a clear line between Russell-Fergusson and Breton harpist Alan Stivell. A key figure in the Breton folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s, Stivell sustained the close links between the Scottish and Breton folk traditions. Sufficiently confident in her harp playing and singing, Russell-Fergusson developed her Hebridean repertoire and began touring the world.
Wider questions about her endeavours to reinterpret and promote Gaelic and Hebridean culture in the inter-war period place her squarely in the maelstrom of contemporary debates about class, culture and national identity. Should she be aligned with Kennedy-Fraser and the many other classically trained musicians and folklorists whose infatuation with all things Hebridean saw them going a bit ‘native’? Were these middle-class aficionados preserving or expropriating a Gaelic oral culture from which they had carefully excluded the ‘folk’ themselves – opportunists in evening dress conjuring up an anglicised, fantasy Gaeldom for polite society? By the early twentieth century, the rebellious menace of eighteenth-century Highland language and culture had been ‘Balmoralised’ into a de-politicised heedrum-ho cultural artefact later described by Tom Nairn as ‘The Great Tartan Monster’ and typified by Harry Lauder’s ersatz Scotsman who so infuriated Hugh MacDiarmid. Russell-Fergusson appears to have been largely oblivious to the wider political context and meaning of her endeavours to promote that which her own class had been rather successful in destroying. She was extolling the delights of an indigenous culture whose prospects of survival hung in the balance.
She became firmly identified with the Celtic cultural revival, rebooted at the Breton Celtic Congress in 1917. Since the late nineteen century this movement aimed to leap the distance between modern sensibilities and the brutalities of industrialisation and urbanisation by re-imagining a medieval Celtic golden age. While harbouring romantic notions of an ancient pan-Celtic identity in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany their valorisation of the affiliations between Celtic languages, music and cultures contrasted with the political realities of European nation states and their aggressive imperialisms. By the 1920s, and following the slaughter of WWI, the tensions of Versailles, the failed Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War, the search for a transcendent European unity based on pan-Celtic connections once again created a desire to evoke more peaceful times. Some, riding high on this European cultural tide, such as the Breton nationalist Taldir ab Hernin, the Grand Druid who invested Russell-Fergusson in the Breton Gorstedd of 1934, got their Celtic nationalist wires crossed with nastier European versions. With the distinctions between linguistic and ethnic nationalism now blurred by the horrors of the Second World War, ab Hernin was imprisoned for his involvement in Breton nationalism and for collaborating with Vichy France.
Russell-Fergusson appears to have sidestepped these and the contemporary debates raging among the men involved in the national identity wars of the Scottish Renaissance, and sailed on in her characteristically pragmatic way. She branded her stage persona, arrangements and interpretations of Gaelic music and song with a carefully blended pan-Celtic syncretism. It is easy to see the appeal of Madame Scotia in her long, embroidered pseudo-medieval Celtic frock – copied from a trending Irish Arts and Crafts style – to audiences at home and abroad eager to escape into music evoking an imagined village where the ‘folk’ lived in more stable, feudally stratified times. The Madame Scotia brand was a critical and commercial success.
Russell-Fergusson continued to run alongside the Scottish contemporary cultural scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Avoiding the highly politicised stance emerging during the early Scottish folk revival, she carried on composing song-tales, collecting and compiling her grand history of harps and recording and making her own records. It was around this time that she dropped ‘Madame Scotia’ and began using first Russell-Fergusson, then R.F in correspondence and publicity materials. Through a strange process of retro-self-redaction she struck her name from older concert programmes and other publicity memorabilia settling finally on ‘Jane’. Whether this reveals a class/gender/national identity crisis is anyone’s guess.
While Helene Witcher restores Madame Scotia to her rightful place in Scotland’s cultural history and its controversies, the woman herself remains elusive. She never married and her biographer speculates that she may have been a lesbian. It may be, of course, that she remained single because she was of that generation whose chances of finding a husband were limited because of the carnage of the First World War. There can be no doubt, however, that she was a woman of independent means who defied convention and confidently followed her passion. A selective archivist, Heloise Russell-Fergusson controlled the story she left behind and chose to be remembered for her work. From this excellently detailed starting point, future re-assessments of its meaning and value can begin.