Isobel Mieras is an inspirational figure in the world of the clarsach and has been a teacher and mentor to generations of young musicians as well as being, for many years, a tireless advocate of the harp and an outstanding servant to the Clarsach Society and Edinburgh International Harp Festival.
Isobel was born in Edinburgh on March 11, 1940 and grew up in a family where music, especially singing, was part of everyday life. Her mother was a singing teacher and among Isobel’s earliest memories are of lying in bed listening to her mother giving singing lessons and learning the huge repertoire of Scottish traditional songs that she taught to her pupils.
On leaving school Isobel trained as a primary school teacher and used to supplement her meagre student’s budget by singing at clan association concerts and ceilidhs in Edinburgh. At one of these gatherings she was told that her voice would sound beautiful with clarsach accompaniment. At this point the clarsach was virtually unknown to the general public, including Isobel. Soon afterwards, though, she was introduced to the redoubtable Jean Campbell, doyenne of the Clarsach Society.
After a few initial lessons Isobel gave up the clarsach but in 1966 she was welcomed back into the fold and forged a musical and personal bond that resulted in Jean Campbell passing on her wealth of experience and enthusiasm and giving Isobel the opportunity to appear in concerts including the Saltire Society’s Edinburgh Festival series where she accompanied singers and actors including Ian Gilmore, John Shedden and Neil Mackie.
While being much in demand as a performer, Isobel continued teaching at South Morningside Primary School, sharing her knowledge and love of Scottish traditional song with her pupils, until the number of clarsach hopefuls turning up at her door looking for lessons became such that her full-time job had to go. She taught as a clarsach specialist at Howgate Primary then established the clarsach at George Watson’s College, St Mary’s Music School then the City of Edinburgh Music School while giving a solid grounding in the instrument to a list of private students that includes Catriona McKay, Maeve Gilchrist, Ailie Robertson and Fiona Rutherford, all now well established as musicians, composers and performers.
In the 1980s Isobel became director of na Clarsairean, the Edinburgh branch of the Clarsach Society’s harp orchestra, contributing compositions and arrangements for players of abilities ranging from beginner to accomplished working together in an inclusive environment, and went on to oversee their annual Christmas concerts and organise well-received trips to consecutive World Harp Congresses in the US, Prague and Geneva.
Since 1999, having watched it grow from small beginnings to a genuinely international event, she has served as Artistic Adviser to the Edinburgh International Harp Festival and as well as consistently presenting leading harp players from across the world, in 2006 she took the festival into the Guinness Book of Records by organising the largest, at the time, group of harp players ever amassed, two hundred and one, to play the final concert.
As ever with Isobel, this was an inclusive group – with festival guests joining complete beginners – and her great joy remains passing on her knowledge and skills to youngsters and seeing them getting enjoyment and expressing their personalities through music.