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William Heinesen’s Windharp

by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

We are half-way up a mountain in the Faroe Islands, chasing the weather. The small island group of the Faroes is situated in the Atlantic Ocean, half-way between Scotland and Iceland, and normally it is easy to find a windy spot. However, today it is unusually calm and sunny. We need to find a place where the wind is blowing strongly enough to play an Aeolian harp – specifically, a windharp that belonged to the Faroese writer William Heinesen.

An Aeolian harp is a musical instrument that is played by the wind alone. They can be as simple as one string stretched between two points, but the one we are carrying up the mountain is more elaborate, with six strings fastened across a rectangular wooden sounding board, and a hinged part that can be opened and closed, which will, we think, alter the sound. The windharp is about half my height, and is being carried, very carefully, by William Heinesen’s granddaughter Elisa. It’s wrapped in black scarves to protect it from any rain that might fall, and it’s the first time it has been out of Williamshús, and the first time anyone will hear it played properly.

Windharps feature in the opening scenes of one of William Heinesen’s great novels, “The Lost Musicians”. Kornelius and his three sons are sitting in the tower of the church in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, listening to the sound of an Aeolian harp that Kornelius has built. The wind blows across the strings, producing an eerie type of music, a rising and falling sound that stops and starts as the breeze blows, that varies in intensity from moment to moment, an ethereal, magical song. It is the first time Kornelius’ sons have heard any music other than the badly-played church organ, and they are transfixed. In the book, Kornelius dies young, and his poor sons are left to fend for themselves – but all are gifted by their father with “an inordinate love of music”, which brings them great joy in amongst the sadness of their difficult futures.

The story of the three sons in “The Lost Musicians” is also the story of the small community that they lived in. However, despite the relative size of the Faroe Islands, William Heinesen (1900-1991) is a writer of great stature, considered as a candidate for the Nobel prize for literature. His multi-award- winning books have been translated into 25 different languages, with English-language versions of all his major novels available. Publisher Dedalus is set to bring out more of his work in the U.K. early next year, and Heinesen continues to be widely recognized – shortly after we recorded the windharp, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen set off on the Huginn mission to the International Space Station: astronauts are allowed to take with them small items of cultural significance, and Mogensen took Heinesen’s handmade tie, crafted from Faroese wool.

Many of the themes and storylines William Heinsen looks at were familiar to me from Scottish literature – the focus on the small community, the feeling for the natural landscape, the overwhelming presence of the sea, the importance of religion. However, although Heinesen’s novels often have old Faroese beliefs at their core, they then show how these beliefs interact with the more modern world – before spiralling off into a vivid world of the imagination. Above all, no matter how dark the subjects he treats, there is a sense that this writer offers a safe pair of hands, because he cares about his characters. There is a great kindness and gentleness behind much of his writing. These are books filled with an enormous sense of hope and joy in living, wherever people’s circumstances may take them.

William Heinesen spent most of his life in Tórshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands, and his house – Williamshús – is open, by appointment, as a small museum. His family hope, in the next few years, to develop the museum into a larger attraction. When I visited, however, myself and my family had a private tour, just the four of us, from Elisa Heinesen herself.

Williamshús is at the top of a hill, above the harbour at Tórshavn. It used to stand on its own, surveying the scene below and looking out across the water to the island of Nólsoy, but now it is surrounded by other family homes. Building regulations in the Faroes encourage individualistic houses, so this is not like a modern housing estate in Scotland where all the houses are the same size and colour. Williamhús is a wooden house, painted a dark red colour, with a green roof, while other homes nearby have the traditional Faroese grass roofs.

Inside, Williamshús still looks like a family home – but an incredibly special, peaceful, artistic home. In addition to his writing, William Heinesen was creative in many other ways: he made his living primarily as an artist, and the walls of his home are covered not only in his own paintings but also with favourite prints, and originals by his many artist friends, including the acclaimed Faroese painters Sámuel Joensen-Mykines and Ruth Smith. Heinesen’s wife Lisa loved to have every space in the house decorated and made special. Meanwhile, in the living room sits a record player and a piano, and Heinesen composed his own pieces. His love of music is evident in his books like “The Lost Musicians”.

And so we are back to the windharp. In the course of my email correspondence with Elisa Heinesen, setting up our visit to Williamshús, I learnt a little about their plans for expanding the museum. One thing she hoped to do, she said, was make a recording of a windharp that had been gifted to William. This can be difficult to do, because the noise of the wind – which is essential to ‘play’ the harp – can overwhelm the recording. However, myself and my husband, having worked in radio, had access to a high-quality microphone and audio software, and experience recording outside in the Scottish Highlands, where it is often quite windy. I offered to try and make the recording.

The windharp that we were carrying up the hill had been a present, from a Danish composer called Harald C. Herstad, who had worked on a documentary film about Heinesen’s writing. However, William Heinesen was older when it arrived, and had started to go deaf – Elisa remembered that they tried to make the windharp play when they received it, standing it at the door to the house. William nodded as the children screamed and played around, but he wasn’t aware that it just wasn’t making the sound they had hoped. It was put to one side.

Now, we have taken it out of the house, and Elisa has driven us up and out of Tórshavn. We stop at a high point in the hills. A winding road leads down to the water, where the smaller islands of Koltur and Hestur (the ‘colt’ and the ‘horse’) sit. We’ve pulled off the main road to a parking spot, but there is still the occasional car passing behind us. We debate where will be the best place to catch the wind. My two children, warned that they can’t make any noise too close to the recording, wander off to explore by themselves. My older son holds his little brother’s hand tightly as they pause to acknowledge an inquisitive sheep. After a short stand-off, the boys decide they can walk past carefully, giving it a wide berth. Another sheep watches us as we carefully place a scarf on the rocks so that we can balance the windharp without scratching the base. Even as we start to position the harp, there is the occasional swirl of noise from the strings.

The wind is strong enough to pull ragged clouds across the sky, moving patches of light along the ground as the shadows change. It’s not quite strong enough, though, to get a consistent, loud noise from the windharp. We get hints of the eerie noise I had been expecting, but much more faintly – and, if a car passes, we have to stop the recording. The sheep baa-ing, though, adds to the atmosphere.

Eventually, though, through gentle experimentation, we start to get a better sound. My husband is crouched beside the harp with the large microphone, listening intently through earphones. Either me or Elisa stands, holding the harp so it doesn’t fall, but trying not to get in the way. The noise of our coats flapping can interfere with the recording too. We decide to move to a different spot, slightly higher, slightly further away from the road. I look over to my children. They are quite high up now, and have stopped, looking out towards Koltur and Hestur. When we get home, we will discover that my older son has taken beautiful photos of the landscape. In the moment, we feel quite at home, but it looks more austere in our photos. There is no heather, as we are used to in Scotland, and, although there are tiny wildflowers, yellow buttercups and white daisies, the landscape is mainly covered in short, springy green grasses and moss. The sides of the hills are bare in places, as though the greenery is barely covering it and the rocks are wearing through, strips of scree trailing down the hillsides.

At the new higher point, we finally get the result we were wanting. A long, continuous recording of the windharp, the noise rising and falling as the wind varies, odd high and low tones appearing unexpectedly. It is completely different to the noise a stringed instrument makes when the strings are plucked: there is no initial note, just the vibrations of notes that were never played. I step away for a second, conscious that I don’t want to spoil the recording, keeping an eye on the children. There is a small bird high up above me, swooping around. In the final recording, its call is captured alongside the windharp. I take a couple of short phone videos – in these, the sound of the harp is almost completely obscured by the wind rushing over the phone’s small microphone, but our professional recording equipment captures the sound we heard in real life. The sound of William Heinesen’s windharp, high on the hills in the Faroe Islands, the noise of nature and imagination brought to life.

Copyright: Jennifer Morag Henderson

For more information on Jennifer’s writing go to

For more information on Williamshús go to

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