Performing as Heal & Harrow – also the title of their already acclaimed new album – the duo’s music is inspired by specially commissioned stories by celebrated Scottish author Màiri Kidd that remember individual women who were tried as witches from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Each piece of music pays a humanising tribute to these women while also exploring historical beliefs in the supernatural and modern-day parallels.
Known for their work with bands such as The Shee, The Furrow Collective, Salt House, Rant and Spell Songs – the latter based on The Lost Words book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris – Rachel and Lauren are two of the country’s most celebrated folk musicians. While they have collaborated on each other’s projects for many years, this is the first time they have worked together as a duo.
This musical exploration of a particularly dark chapter in Scotland’s history is timely, set as it is against the backdrop of the Scottish Parliament debating a bill that, if approved, will pardon those convicted and executed during the witch trials.
In Scotland, the Witchcraft Act was enacted in 1563 and remained in law until 1736, during which time lawmakers pursued prosecutions with particular zeal compared with many other countries in Europe. It is thought that around 2,500 people, mostly women, were accused of witchcraft, tried and executed, including many in the Borders.
“As traditional folk musicians, we have always been very interested in folklore and storytelling but it struck us that this is a very real part of our history in Scotland that we are not really aware of,” commented Rachel Newton, speaking recently as part of a performance on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. “The scale of the witch trials was so huge, we just felt like there was a lot to explore.”
And while the subject matter itself is undoubtedly grim, the music is far from sombre. Instead, Heal & Harrow have created an album – and a performance – that is tender, thought provoking and really rather beautiful.
Heal & Harrow perform at the Eastgate Theatre, 7.30pm, Sat 19 Feb. Tickets priced £17, £15, £8 under 16s, available from Box Office on 01721 725777 or online.