Elm tree harp goes on display in capital gardens

Stobo craftsman Mark Norris's Aeolian harp in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Stobo craftsman Mark Norris's Aeolian harp in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Peeblesshire craftsman Mark Norris has unveiled the latest creation to evolve from a much-loved elm tree felled 11 years ago at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE).

The Stobo expert has created an aeolian harp, played by the wind, which recently went on display in the gardens, in the pavilion he also created.

He told us: “I had to build the (pavilion’s) roof structure and its brass cupola separately, so I had never seen the completed work myself until it was installed. I was a little nervous my nine months of work would look small and insignificant when placed out of doors, but I am very pleased with the final effect.”

The commission is the largest Mark has undertaken and he says it may be the only aeolian harp he creates.

“Any harp begins to sound on its own in a strong wind and this Aeolian harp is simply made with thinner, lower tensioned strings which respond more easily to the wind.”

The commission came about after Edinburgh poet and friend, Valerie Gillies heard about the RGBE’s Wych Elm Project to create furniture and other work from the 200-year-old felled native and suggested the idea.

The pavilion stands at over five metres tall including its elm wood finial, turned by Bruce Frost of Woodworks, Peebles.

Mark said: “It is substantially built, from 2,500kgs of elm timber, brass and glass, so I hope it will survive the Scottish elements for a good few years and will be enjoyed by visitors to the gardens for many decades to come.

“The delighted reaction from visitors to the gardens, both during and after the three-day installation has been lovely.”

The 55-year-old creator grew up next door to the daughter-in-law of musical instrument creator Arnold Dolmetsch in Peebles and trained at Dolmetsch’s respected workshops, specialising in harpsichords, spinets and clavichords in Surrey.

Mark met and, in 1979, married renowned harpist and composer Savourna Stevenson “which is why I started designing and making harps”.

He returned to Peebles in 1981 to set up his own workshop making harps and has worked out of The Old School, Stobo for the last 20 years .

Asked if he had made harps for anyone famous or sent them anywhere unusual, Mark said: “I am happy to be married to one of the most famous harp players, Savourna Stevenson; I made a harp to be played at Madonna’s wedding and recent harp customer Anna McLuckie performed on the TV show ‘The Voice’ and has clocked up 7,000,000 views on YouTube with her Norris harp.

“I have made harps for many professional performers around Europe, Scandinavia, the USA, Canada, Japan and my most unusual international harp delivery to date was to Outer Mongolia!”

Asked why he enjoys his work, he said: “It is enormously satisfying to design and make musical instruments because, in addition to creating a beautiful object, you are also creating something which goes on to inspire further creativity from musicians and will give pleasure to audiences through concerts, broadcasts and recordings.

“I have many beautiful CDs which have been recorded on Norris harps.”