World Mental Health Day 2017: The Role of Music

Hello! First of all, I’m so sorry for neglecting this blog for the last two years. An update is long overdue and is in the pipeline. For now I’d like to write a brief post.

Today (10 October 2017) is World Mental Health Day. Over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in and passionate about the positive impact of the arts – in particular music – on our wellbeing. From curating a month’s music programme for vulnerable children in Uganda to facilitating a 9-week songwriting project for people with dementia and other memory problems and their carers, I have consistently experienced and observed the power of music and the arts to aid self-expression, relaxation and self-esteem. I’d like to share with you the story behind one particular song, ‘The Birks of Invermay’, which I sang on tour with the Fèis Rois National Cèilidh Trail this summer.

Robert Ferguson was an 18th-century Scottish poet, who suffered from depression throughout his life. In mid-1774, his illness became particularly serious and he was admitted to Edinburgh’s Darien House, known as Edinburgh’s Bedlam. Mental health care in the 18th century was appalling. Darien House was little more than a prison where patients were locked up and chained to walls. Ferguson occupied a damp, cold cell with straw on the floor and only basic sanitation. He died within a few months, aged 24.

Andrew Duncan was a Scottish physician, professor at Edinburgh University, and joint founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who treated Ferguson throughout his illness. Shortly after Ferguson died, Duncan began a campaign for better mental health provision. In 1813, an institution was built in Morningside, now called the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders. You can read more about the hospital’s history here.

The reason I’m telling you this story is this: Ferguson sang songs during his time in Darien House, the quintessential use of music to help us cope through adversities. Duncan was particularly moved by Ferguson’s rendition of the Scottish traditional song ‘The Birks of Invermay’, given its lyrics. At each gig on the Cèilidh Trail this summer, I told the story of Robert Ferguson and sang this song. I’m afraid I didn’t record it, so instead please enjoy a rendition of it from the wonderful Karine Polwart, from whom I first heard this song: Karine Polwart’s rendition of ‘The Birks of Invermay’. Fortunately, music is still heard at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in its Hive Day Centre, where all sorts of creative activities take place every day, including a session facilitated by Music in Hospitals & Care Scotland.

I hope you have a restful World Mental Health Day.

Behold the hills and dales around
Wi’ lowing flocks and herds abound
The wanton kids and frisking lambs
Gambol and dance aroond their dams
The busy bee wi’ humming noise
And a’ the reptile kind rejoice
Let us like them then sport and play
Amang the Birks o’ Invermay.

How soon the winter o’ the year
And age life’s winter do appear
‘Tis then your living bloom will fade
And that will strip the verdant shade
Oor taste of pleasure then is o’er
And the feathered sangsters are no more
When they droop and we decay
Fareweel the Birks o’ Invermay.

Hark how the waters as they fa’
Loudly my love tae gladness ca’
The wanton waves sport in the beams
And the fishes play throughout the streams
The circling sun does now advance
And a’ the planets ‘roond them dance
Let us be blythesome and gay
Amang the Birks o’ Invermay.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s