THERE can be few countries as shaped by their relationship to water as Scotland. From the islands of the north and west, the deepwater lochs of the Great Glen, the great rivers shaping the landscape, the sea lochs bringing tidal waters deep inland and, of course, the rain falling from the sky, ours is a country which is defined by water.

Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters is a celebration of this reality. Throughout 2020 a variety of projects will explore this theme beginning with a Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) commission entitled Message in a Bottle, composed by Ingrid Henderson of the Glenfinnan Ceilidh Band. The multimedia piece will be performed for the first time at Celtic Connections on January 18 and then tour the country at various festivals.

For SNH, the idea was to encapsulate the changing nature of the waters surrounding us and to encompass concepts of climate change, changing currents, marine wildlife and our connection to the sea over the centuries. As such, the decision to employ harpist Henderson was an inspired one.

From a musical family which includes Megan Henderson of Breabach and Ewen Henderson of Manran, the Hendersons are also a family with deep-rooted ties to the sea, and especially the waters of the west coast.

“SNH approached me I guess because they know me as a musician,” says Henderson. “But possibly also because of my ties to the west coast. I was born and brought up in Mallaig and my family on my father’s side were boatbuilders and on my maternal side (MacLennan and Robertson) ran the mail boats out of Mallaig to the Small Isles and Knoydart.

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“The connection of communities to the sea was all around me when I was younger – the gain from booming industries but also the loss both in terms of people and also environmentally. The influence of the sea is also prevalent in the songs and music of the Highland and Islands, with stories of love and loss, great voyages and tragedy.”

The piece will be accompanied by a visual display and a specially commissioned animation which has meant for Henderson several weekends spent camping at some of the less accessible parts of the west coast.

“Somhairle MacDonald – who’s a great artist and a great photographer as well – is doing a lot of the visuals so I’ve been out a lot with him camping around the coastline, mainly on the west coast, while he’s been photographing seascapes. We’re also using some footage from SNH, some of their research work on wildlife. And then there’s an animator involved as well, Cat Bruce who’s created a four-minute piece which will exist as part of the piece but also online after the piece as well.”

For Henderson those familiar ties to the water continue to shape her life and work. Based now with her husband, fiddler Iain MacFarlane, in Glenfinnan where the pair run a recording studio and production company, The Old Laundry, as well as teaching and performing, being around the lochs and the sea is simply a part of who Henderson is. As is music.

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“There’s music on both sides of my family,” says Henderson. “The Hendersons, going back years and years ago, were hereditary pipers to MacIain of Glencoe, so we can claim some lineage there. But my mum was always very musical and when I was younger my mum and dad used to run a folk club in Mallaig and would bring lots of bands to the local village hall, so we were very much surrounded by it when we were younger.”

Despite now living around half an hour from the coast, Henderson remains drawn west at every opportunity.

“It’s been mainly west coast but that’s really because that’s what I know best and what influences me more,” says Henderson. “I’m always drawn westwards. Last year the celebration of my sister’s wedding was at Camusdarach beach (near Morar). And when things go wrong I’m drawn to Camusdarach beach. I think if you’re born and brought up by the coast then you’re always drawn there, even if you no longer live there.

“Being brought up in Mallaig, my father’s family were boatbuilders while my mother’s family ran the mailboats and I had uncles who were fishermen, so as well as the kind of environmental idea of being near the coast there’s this connection to the people for who the sea provides a living.

“But then being able to access all this SNH research – the tagging of basking sharks and things – has been an eyeopener. Their work with birds on the coast and finding out where they migrate to has been incredible. It’s something that I wouldn’t have necessarily known about coming from a musical and creative side.

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“That’s the joy of a commission like this. You get an insight into another world which is just amazing and you then get the chance to tell other people about stuff that’s going on that you ordinarily wouldn’t know about.”

BRINGING together the many disparate strands of what the sea and the water mean into a single piece of music is an enormous task, but it is a challenge that Henderson relishes.

“That’s the tricky task,” says Henderson. “You could research it forever and you could include absolutely everything, so it’s what you miss out. With coasts and waters you’re not just talking about the sea or lochs, you’re trying to encapsulate everything that this means, so the hard part is what you leave out.”

As well as the light, the wildlife and the history, there is also a human cost attached to working and living by the sea. For Henderson, as a native of Mallaig, this is brought into sharp focus by a tragedy that occurred in 1998 when the Silvery Sea, a trawler and the pride of the Mallaig fishing fleet, went down after a collision off Denmark with the loss of all on board.

“I have mention of that in the piece,” says Henderson. “I’ve written a song and part of that is that idea that everything the sea brings you, it can take as well. It also touches on the forced emigration away from Scotland and what the west coast especially might have been like without that exodus. And then there’s the boom times as well. I remember clearly Mallaig and other ports swimming in money during those times but also the absolute tragedy that the money could bring.”

With such a massive topic to explore, Henderson had to find a focus to allow her to begin her journey. Being able to distill the concept into a single event from which the composition could travel outwards, Henderson was able to tackle the enormity of the commission. For her, that event was the finding of a message in a bottle on Canna which would give the piece its title.

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“I’d read this story about a young boy in Northern Ireland who was in primary school and had sent this really simple message that he was in love with a girl in his school and always had been. And he’d put this lovely simple message in a bottle and it floated around in the sea for about 10 years and then ended up in Canna. So the idea was taking that small tiny gem of an idea – the idea of throwing something into the water and allowing fate and the currents to carry it and ultimately pass on the message – to speak to bigger ideas. Ideas about what we’re doing to our seas, and what we’re not doing to protect our seas, is a thread that runs throughout the piece.”

Henderson’s relationship with the sea and the water is not simply an abstract one. She is out on the water at any given opportunity and the connection that gives her informs her music.

“The minute you push your boat off the shore you’re in a different zone completely. If I’ve been working in the studio all day, instead of sitting down to lunch I’ll go out in the kayak or the paddle board and I’m in a different world. You come back refreshed. I think as a musician it’s so important to what I do to be able to do that.”

Speaking to Henderson it’s as clear as, well, water, that SNH have commissioned the perfect artist for this job. She is shaped in so many ways by the seas and waters around us and that deep understanding of all that means is sure to reflect itself in the piece.

Message in a bottle premieres at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on January 18 as part of Coastal Connections at Celtic Connections. For more info on Ingrid Henderson go to