Sounding Out the Past

'Sounding Out the Past' is a haunting song cycle by Suzanne Parry, written as an inventive and collaborative response to a commission to interpret the heritage of three historic Borders houses. Drawing on local children’s explorations of the houses and their grounds, it used rich musical storytelling to animate their histories and the imagined lives of their female occupants.

The commission for the Borders Heritage Festival 2017 instigated a new collaboration between composer Suzanne Parry and Borders writer Jules Horne, local primary school children and curators from three Borders historic houses. The resulting song cycle was performed by emerging Scottish singer Hannah Rarity, three musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and local school children on 6th and 7th September 2017.

To begin the collaboration, Parry and Horne worked with four classes of primary school children from two rural schools in the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys and two schools in Selkirk and Galashiels in May 2017. The children met with the composer and writer at the houses to explore and respond to the history and stories connected to Abbotsford House, known as home of iconic Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott, Aikwood Tower, a 500-year-old Border Peel Tower, and Bowhill House and Estate, the family home of the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry. Each group of children spent a day at one of the houses and wrote their own text and melodies in response to their exploration of the house and its stories.

Parry and Horne then created a Song Cycle, drawing on the children’s explorations of the houses, with three of the songs directly based on the children’s creative ideas. For the other three songs, Parry and Horne focused on the lives of women in these houses - a history less explored. 'The Reiver Wife' is based on the Borders legend of the ‘dish of spurs’, and a woman wrestling with the decision to send her husband out reiving, having already lost her son on a dangerous border raid. 'The Kist Bride' tells the fable of an ill-fated wedding night game of hide-and-seek at Abbotsford House, and is inspired by a wooden chest collected by Sir Walter Scott. In 'The Palimpsest', a debutante sings to her secret love during a drawing room recital to dinner party guests. In this movement, you hear tiny fragments of Robert Burns’ 'My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose' alongside her inner thoughts. 

Sounding Out the Past was developed through a partnership between Live Borders, Scottish Borders Council, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Borders Heritage Forum. It was supported and made possible by the generous partnership of Abbotsford House and Estate, Aikwood Tower and Bowhill House and Estate. The project was funded by Creative Scotland Open Project funding as part of the Borders Heritage Festival 2017.