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

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