Sunday, 24 March 2013


Holes left where branches once extended the trunk sideways
Shape our view
Of the forest croft
Then – a placed lived in
Now – reliving the place through our imagination

The image of holes in the planks of the bench once again takes me back to my experiences at Pitcowdens. By stepping a little bit to the left and to the right, the holes in the planks gave me different views of Pitcowdens. On my way back to the car, it gradually emerged to me that my favourite view would be imagining the ruined forest croft from the viewpoint of a bothy ballad. Bothy ballads, a kind of folk song traditional to North-East Scotland, are the songs that used to be sung by unmarried farm labourers. After browsing through several volumes of songs of life and love, I found The Dying Ploughboy. In a similar way as Marian Leven considers her pictures to express remembered feeling, I felt that this song captured the feelings Pitcowdens triggers for me.
In The Dying Ploughboy, one of the farmworkers feels his end is near and says farewell to his master and the land he used to work:

Fareweel my nags, my bonnie pair,
I'll never yoke and lowse ye mair,
Fareweel my ploo, wi you this hand,
Shall turn nae mair the fresh red land.

I have often felt that the ploughboy not only bids farewell to his master and the land, but ultimately also to a way of life and working the land. Before gamekeepers and forest workers lived at Pitcowdens, the croft was a farm. As farming gradually retreated to the more fertile, lower-lying grounds along the river Dee, the forest took over. In the end, the estate was handed over to Forestry Commission Scotland.
In Pitcowdens, a composition for flute, oboe, bassoon, horn and cello, I have tried to express some of the memories and imaginations conjured up by Pitcowdens. When the land around Pitcowdens was farmed, the farmer had farm helpers who would have sung bothy ballads like The Dying Ploughboy. I have taken the first four notes of this song – the sequence of the dominant, mediant, subdominant and dominant – as a motif to base Pitcowdens on. The opening bars, repeated several times, suggest my observation at Pitcowdens that ultimately gave rise to the series of feelings and imaginations in the composition. One may detect a sense of longing, the rhythm of working the fields, and a more lyrical scene that alludes to the bothy ballad. In the final scenes the different feelings and imaginations merge into a more rounded perspective.

I have written Pitcowdens as part of the project Said in Stone.

Below the composition:

Pitcowdens was shortlisted in a competition by the St. Andrews New Music Ensemble and played by the ensemble in a workshop with Sally Beamish.

 Copyright text and music Petra Vergunst

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Burn of sound

Golden birch leaves rustle in the disappearing sun while 
silver drops scar the reflecting surface of the water.
The above words came to my mind when resting on a bench alongside a small lake an early autumn a few years ago. I used words to describe a nature experience and express my emotional response to it, perhaps even using my imagination to conjure up new experiences. Irrespective of the kind of experience I had and the words I used to capture it, the very act of writing has made the experience a memorable one. The creative activity has etched it in my mind.

The community music project Burn of Sound, commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage to celebrate the Year of Natural Scotland 2013, aims to use the creative activities of writing and singing to deepen the participants’ engagement with Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve. One cannot only capture nature experiences through the meaning of words, but also through the rhythm and sound of words. The meanings and musical qualities of words can be further enhanced if set to music. A selection of the material written by participants during creative experience workshops in the first part of the community music project will therefore be integrated in a series of rounds that will be sung with participants during singing workshops in the second half of the project. 

The project Burn of Sound will start with a series of creative experience walks that start from the Muir of Dinnet visitor centre – for schools on Monday 29 April and Wednesday 1 May and for families and  on Saturday 11 May from 10.30 am to 12 noon. During those walks participants will be encouraged to use the meaning, rhythm and sound of words to capture their nature experiences. Families will have an opportunity to sing the rounds based on the material written during the creative experience workshops at the Muir of Dinnet visitor centre on Saturday 15 June from 10.30 to 11.30 am, whereas local schools and community groups will be offered singing workshops in the week starting 17 June in schools and the venues where they usually gather.

Parallel to the work with schools, families and community groups, the community music project will provide an opportunity for local artists, writers and musicians to explore how they, in their creative practice, engage with their natural world and if their experience would be different if they engaged through a different art form. This creative experience workshop for artists will take place on Saturday 11 May from 2 to 4 pm. The subsequent singing workshop, in which there will be an opportunity for further reflection will be held on Saturday 15 June from 2.30 to 4 pm.

If you are a family, school, community group or artist interested in participating in the project, please contact community musician Petra Vergunst at For more information about the project you can also contact Muir of Dinnet reserve manager Catriona Reid on

Other blogs on this project:
Images, words and sounds
I felt moss, I held water
Celebrate summer singing

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


One of the common threads in my community music practice is that the place that inspired the music is also the place where it is rehearsed and performed with participants. In the Warp and Weft project at Verdant Works, the music, inspired by the jute industry of Dundee, was rehearsed in a former mill. In Hear the Drum, a project with the National Trust for Scotland, the music inspired by the Tower of Drum was sung and acted out with school children in the castle earlier this week. 

In October, I participated in Out of the Box, a weekend of site-specific opera performed in lighthouses, horse stables, hotel apartments and pubs. Pippa Murhy’s opera Bolted, about the tension that may arise when a young woman loves her boyfriend as well as her horse, was performed in a stable. The ambiance and physical properties provided by the stable replaced the need for scenery and props that might have been needed if the opera had been performed in the more traditional opera setting of a theatre. Yet, the opera could have been performed in any stable. This is not to deny that the stable contributed significantly to the ambiance of the opera, but it was merely the physical properties of the space that did so, not the history and personal stories engrained in the place. In contrast, the site-specific music I compose for rehearsal and performance in my community music projects has this extended link to place. School children thus sung and acted out scenes that were inspired by the history and stories of the tower of Drum.

So what are the merits of engaging with music that is inspired by the physical properties, history and stories of the place in which it is rehearsed and performed? Mapping the Terrain, a book about new genre public art edited by Suzanne Lacy, opens with a picture of a women, obviously a passer-by, standing still to read some of the text that is being written on the pavement by artists. This image captures the essence of site-specific music as well: the creation of an experience for participants or the wider public that makes a place memorable

During the first two days of workshops with primary schools at Drum Castle this week, children left the room chatting about who would be King Robert the Bruce. During the lunch break, I heard some other children singing ‘Open the doors!’. Through the music of Drum I’ve been able to tell the story of how Drum became a place to be reckoned with. Through singing, talking about the historical events, and acting out the scenes, Drum Castle became a memorable place for the children.  

  Copyright text Petra Vergunst
Pictures taken by Laura Paterson (National Trust for Scotland)

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Curves and hollows

Coming from the dense plantation, Pitcowdens opens itself up as a field scattered with broadleaved trees and stone structures. Owned by the Forestry Commission Scotland, it can only be approached on foot. Birdchatter and treefelling in the distance are the only sounds to break  the silence. When I volunteered for Friends of Durris Forests several years ago, I used to visit this abandoned forest croft regularly. Since then, the heritage project  has come of age. The tumbled down stones of the house and byre still lie where they used to be. I had forgotten about the wooden fence poles on the wall that used to border to garden. The treehut and willowhide are new and will certainly be a hit with my sons. Yet, it is a new bench that stops me in my track.

The bench might well have been a sculpture. The curves and hollows in the planks have Hepworth-like qualities. Held up by granite stones, I wonder about the symbolism of this structure. Wood and stone as the essence of a forest croft. At the same time I feel a sense of irony: are the planks really being supported by the stone? Once the croft was the home of farmers, gamekeepers and woodcutters, but as the it was abandoned in the middle of the 20th century the link between the house and the woods was broken forever. 

When I sit down to write down my first impressions I realise that the bench is placed on a viewpoint. Against the backdrop of the plantation I can just about distinguish remnants of dykes in the distance. Once, Pitcowdens was an active farm where man and horse ploughed the fields. Archives show that the family who lived on the farm used to have a ploughboy. When I put down a cup of tea from my flask next to me I notice the rusted hook in the stone that flanks the seat on the right. What was the hook used for? Could the Clydesdale horses in the byre have been tied up to it overnight?

Though it is early March the sun has not come out and I feel the bitterly cold wind. I get up to see whether there are any objects that could help me tell the story of the abandoned croft. The forest school has left some branch structures that remind me of the kind of washboards that must have been used at Pitcowdens to wash clothes. When I return to the bench I take some pictures of the concentric patterns of cracks in the planks to inspire some abstract drawing. My eyes then fall on the views seen through the holes in the planks. Upright oval shaped, the hollows frame a narrow portion of the fields and plantation behind. I move a little bit to the left and right to find my favourite view. The holes in the planks seem to grow on me. Could it be that what I see when I visit Pitcowdens is only a small part of the stories that are written in the stones of the abandoned croft?

You can listen to the music inspired by my experiences of this heritage site at the blog Pitcowdens.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst