The harp duo of Patsy Seddon and Mary Macmaster adopted the name of a late 17th century female Gaelic bard, Sìleas na Ceapaich – Sileas MacDonald of Keppoch – and exploited the contrasting timbres of gut and wire-strung harps as well as the newly developed electroharp to bring Scottish harp music and Gaelic and Scots song to an ever-widening contemporary audience.
Growing up within a musical family, Patsy Seddon took up the Scottish harp at the age of eleven and was taught by the influential Alison Kinnaird. Mary Macmaster started learning as a young adult. Looking for a cheap harp in the pages of Exchange and Mart, she ordered one and found to her bemusement that it was unusual among modern Scottish harps in that it had wire strings – as did the original Gaelic clarsach. She took to the instrument’s clear, ringing tone however and, largely self- taught, has recalled that, “as nobody really knew how to play the wire-strung harp, I made it up as I went along”.
The pair first met briefly during a Clarsach Society summer school in 1977 and then a few years later when they were both students in the Celtic Studies Department of Edinburgh University. By the time they had graduated in 1985, they had already come to the attention of audiences, as the two harpist-singers within the seven-strong all-women band Sprangeen, with whom they recorded a single, eponymously titled album.
Most of Sprangeen’s members played on a part-time basis, but Macmaster and Seddon decided to go professional, taking the name Sileas, after the bard Sìleas na Ceapaich, who had composed verses in praise of harp music. They took a tongue-in-cheek delight in describing themselves as “Scotland’s number one harp duo”, having been billed as such in the United States and aware that there simply weren’t any other harp duos to contest the title.
They found that they complimented each other well as a duo, sparking off each other’s ideas in working out song and tune arrangements – an important song source being their tutor Morag Macleod at Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies – while the combination of gut and wire-strung harps proved a winning one. Another important element in their sound materialised in 1985 when they met the French harp-maker Joël Garnier, who had developed the Camac electroharp. They soon acquired one of the first models, and the electric instrument’s expansive bass tones not only fortified their sound but broadened the range of material they could tackle.
Sileas released four albums – Delighted With Harps, Beating Harps, Harpbreakers and Play on Light – and took their distinctively interwoven twin-harp sound to such far-flung places as the Sudan and Japan, as well as the United States and most European countries. Back in Scotland, they became an important presence in the burgeoning clarsach revival, influencing up-and-coming young players, while Patsy in particular has been heavily involved in teaching and was the first principle Scottish harp tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Scottish music degree course.
Over the years, the duo took their harp partnership into various other projects, most notably Clan Alba, Caledon and another all-women band, the Poozies. As individuals they have also been consistently active. Seddon has collaborated with various artists including Dougie MacLean and is involved in a new trio, Madge Wildfire, with Gerda Stevenson and Kathy Stewart. She also curated Steele the Show, in tribute to her late husband, Davy Steele, featuring Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart and other well-known musicians. Macmaster’s collaborations have included Shine, with Alyth McCormack and Corrina Hewat, Ensemble Mystical with Kathryn Tickell and currently with percussionist Donald Hay, with whom she has recorded two albums, Love and Reason and Hook. Macmaster also played in Sting’s If on a Winter’s Night album and crops up in recordings by the electronic jazz collective the Hidden Orchestra.
Amidst these wide-ranging commitments, Seddon and Macmaster continue to make occasional appearances as Sileas, notably at 2013’s 30th anniversary of the Rencontre des Harpes Celtiques in Dinan, Brittany, and they are both involved in running the Edinburgh International Harp Festival.