Obituary: Helen MacLeod

First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2018

Helen MacLeod, who has died aged 37 in a car accident, was one of Scotland’s finest harp players. She was a passionate champion of traditional music, new music and classical repertoire; she was a spirited teacher, a warm-hearted collaborator, a talented composer and arranger. She will be profoundly missed by Scotland’s musical community.

MacLeod grew up in Inverinate, a small village on the north shore of Loch Duich near Kyle of Lochalsh in the West Highlands. Her father, Roddy, is a native Gaelic speaker and Helen studied Gaelic throughout her school years. Her love of music grew out of the rich traditional culture of the area, and she first learnt the clarsach locally with Christine Martin before winning a scholarship to study at St Mary’s Music School – a specialist music school in Edinburgh. There she continued her studies in both traditional clarsach and pedal harp with Charlotte Peterson as well as Isobel Mieras.

As a student at St Mary’s, MacLeod was gregarious, generous, witty, full of energy. I remember her from those years as a bright spark and joyous trouble-maker, a glamorous role model who spoke her mind and acted with conviction. She was also a tremendously caring friend.

Between the years of 1999-2003 she continued her studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester with Eira Lynn Jones. During her undergraduate she participated in an exchange programme with the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, USA, and presented workshops there as part of their summer school programme. After graduating with a Bachelor of Music degree in 2003, she worked regularly with all the orchestras in Scotland, as well as with Manchester Camerata, the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the Hallé Orchestra, and performed on many occasions at the BBC Proms.

Above all, MacLeod loved playing chamber music, because smaller ensembles allowed her to flex her creative dynamism and engage in vivacious exchanges with her collaborators. She was one half of the flute and harp duo Hoot! with Emma Wilkins; they released their album Garden of Adonis (2010) at Sound Festival in Aberdeen, and premiered Helen Grime’s Fantasie, Danse, Ceremonie for flute and harp that same year. The duo was awarded an EMS (Enterprise Music Scotland) Residency Award and the Tunnell Trust for Young Musicians Award. MacLeod was also a regular player with Hebrides Ensemble, most recently performing Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp as part of their May 2018 tour.

As a teacher, MacLeod brought to her students all the best qualities of her musical personality: she was fun, committed, instinctive, original, discerning and infectiously passionate. She taught at St Mary’s Music School for many years, with her pupils going on to win scholarships to top conservatoires including the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the RNCM and Berklee College of Music, USA. She was a regular teacher at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival, and a visiting tutor at the RNCM for the past five years.

MacLeod loved the Highlands, which always felt like home; she went back as often as possible to visit her family and her favourite landscape. She adored animals, particularly dogs, and would seize any chance to look after other people’s pets as well as being utterly devoted to her own. Friends, colleagues and students describe her as a warm, kind and boundlessly generous person; she was energetic, creative, vibrant and inspiring. She was wickedly funny and full of spirit, a person who would light up any room. She is survived by her mother Dolores and her father Roddy; by her sister Tina and by her partner David Keay.