Historic Botanics tree returns as musical instrument

Mark Norris with his harp. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Mark Norris with his harp. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE Royal Botanic Garden’s Wych Elm was a star attraction in its time – a 197-year-old giant that may have been the institution’s oldest tree.

But when its towering figure had to be cut down suddenly in 2003 after it was infected by Dutch Elm disease, it left a massive hole in the garden grounds close to Inverleith House.

Now the tree, which was a favourite with the garden’s visitors, is to return to its former home – as a harp created by expert instrument-maker Mark Norris.

The harp, fashioned from the Botanics’ Wych Elm, is most unusual.

Called an Aeolian harp, and with 39 rather than the normal 34 strings, it is designed to be played by the wind rather than a person.

Mark, 53, who made the harp after he was approached by Botanics officials in 2007, said: “The strings are set at a lower tension so they all resonate together in the wind.

“You get this weird, kind of ethereal, haunting sound – very different from what you’d get from a harp played conventionally as all the strings are sounding together at the same time.”

Now only weeks away from completing a new, 
purpose-built home, which will include a revolving plinth maximising the harp’s ability to sound, Mark said making the instrument was “pretty special”.

He said: “It had to be cut down because of Dutch Elm disease, which is increasingly spreading in the north of the UK, and Scotland’s population of the trees was devastated.

“The fact the harp is made from that tree and that it’s going back to the site where you could have seen it growing – it does feel great.

“There would have been many regular visitors who would have known the tree over the years and this harp means they will have a good experience going back to the garden and seeing that the tree is back as a harp.”

The harp – named after Aeolus, the ancient Greek god of the wind – will return to the Botanics in a hexagonal-shaped pavilion with open sides and a glass roof.

With the frame already complete and work on the roof now under way, Mark, who has been making harps for 20 years at his workshop in Peebles, said he hoped the pavilion would be open within eight weeks.

He said: “The whole thing was designed from scratch, although I came up with the idea of it being a six-sided building pretty quickly.

“It will be a fantastic for anyone who comes to the garden. The wood is much nicer than any other Wych Elm I’ve ever been able to buy and work with.

“It has a richer, darker colour and more interesting grain that flows around the curves of the harp.”

Confirmation that the Botanics’ ancient Wych Elm would return as a harp was welcomed by garden bosses.

Dr David Rae, director of horticulture, said: “As the harp is crafted from timber that once grew in the garden, it is great news that it is coming back.

“It is a beautiful work of art. It is a sculpture that will sit perfectly in the natural surroundings of the garden.”