HAMISH Napier grew up between the woods and the water. The River Spey wound its way around his parents’ house. A pine forest, Anagach Wood, nestled close.

On summer days he would climb over the fence and go walking in it for hours. Other days he would play at soldiers with his two older brothers and his friends or watch the girls from next door climbing the tallest trees without fear while he stood on the ground hoping they wouldn’t fall.

Memories. Even now he can drift off into a dwam remembering those days. “It’s the smell of the pine woods. It’s the chanterelles in the autumn. It’s all the beautiful birds. Picking blueberries … Coming back with a blue tongue.”

On those long summer evenings his mother, a former opera singer, would sing “Cooee” to summon them home. The sound travelled through the trees, maybe a mile or more.

Between the woods and the water. Eventually, Napier would grow up and try to find the music in all of this.

If I’m honest, I tell Hamish Napier when I speak to him, I had to look up the meaning of the word pentalogy. “A set of five connected works of art,” is the dictionary definition. That’s normally the stuff of fantasy fiction. You might expect it of George RR Martin or Steven Erickson. Traditional Scottish music? Not so much.

Yet Napier’s pentalogy is (or will be) five albums of original music based on the world he sees around him living in Grantown-on-Spey.

That’s quite ambitious, Hamish, I suggest. “Yeah and the exciting thing is I’m three-fifths there. I’m making an album almost once every two years,” he says.

That Stakhanovite work ethic is all the remarkable given that it is only part of Napier’s story. On his website he offers a comprehensive summary of who he is and what he does. “Scottish Highlander,” the legend reads, “Folk Musician. Composer. Tutor.”

And so, Napier, whose older brother Findlay is himself a songwriter, plays flute and piano and regularly performs plays with Duncan Chisholm and Ross Ainslie, as well as performing with the Jarlath Henderson Band, in the duo Nae Plans, with Adam Sutherland, and in the Cask Strength Ceilidh Band.

His then, is a life that is lived out in reels and jigs and marches.

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But during this year’s Celtic Connections it is the composer who will come to the fore. Napier is launching The Woods, a new suite of music that explores the forests he grew up in and lives beside now. An album will follow in March. It contains a stonking 20 tracks (incorporating 25 folk melodies within) and features guest appearances from the aforementioned Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson, as well as Innes Watson, Calum MacCrimmon and his partner Su-a Lee who can normally be found playing cello with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. (On The Woods you get to hear her play the musical saw at one point. She has a history. She once played saw for Eric Clapton.)

And did I mention that the album is based around the Scottish Gaelic tree alphabet? I didn’t? Well, it is.

It’s been commissioned by Cairngorms Connect, a partnership of land managers working on a land enhancement that has an ambitious 200-year timescale. There has always been a tradition of landowners commissioning music in the area. The Laird of Grant was commissioning musicians and artists from the 18th century, including the Cummings of Freuchie.

The Woods follows on from Napier’s previous albums The River and The Railway. Two more albums, The Hill and The Sky, will appear in due course (or 2022 and 2024 approximately). In totality, they will form a pentalogy of music inspired by the landscape and the people of Strathspey.

“It’s about digging where you stand,” Napier says, “celebrating where you live and looking for interesting stories that are already there, that are maybe not quite so easy to see.”

His own story is one that, perhaps unsurprisingly, is swimming in music. It’s in his very DNA. His mum, Marie-Louise, sang in the Scottish Opera chorus. She played the clarsach and the piano and sang and taught in the family house. His grandmother loved Burns’s poems and songs and his fourth great-grandfather Peter Grant [Padraig Grannd nan Oran] wrote Gaelic psalms that were sung all over the world. In short, the family ceilidhs must be good.

“I’ve been singing since before I can even remember,” Napier says as he gets to his part of the story. “Apparently I used to sing to people when I was three or four in the Co-op. I remember wanting to play the piano like my older brothers. And I got right into the flute.”

He loved traditional music, the way it made everyone feel, the way it made him feel.

“I wanted to learn how to play it. And it’s hard. It’s a difficult style to learn. It takes many, many years.”

When he was 18, in the year 2000, he came to Glasgow to study physics at university. (He was fascinated by astronomy). What he also found was a vibrant hub of trad Scottish music. He went to listen to his peers play in the Ben Nevis pub in Argyle Street, even sat in on sessions. “It was a really exciting place to be.”

After graduating with a physics degree music claimed him. He toured for several years with the band Back of the Moon, spent a year studying jazz with Rob Hall and then studied jazz at Strathclyde University. From there, he got a scholarship in 2011 at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, where he studied jazz piano and composition for a year.

But even in the US he ended up playing Scottish music. “I had a duo with Jenna Moynihan, who’s a fantastic fiddler from New York State. We played Scottish tunes and her tunes and my tunes that were inspired by Scottish music. It’s always been the thing that has tugged at the heartstrings. The thing that got me the most fired up … Maybe that and Stevie Wonder.”

Napier then returned to Glasgow, to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to teach. But in 2017 the call of home began to become overpowering.

By then he had already completed the first album in the series. The River was commissioned by Celtic Connections in 2016.

At this point he was still teaching in Glasgow travelling up and down from the Highlands to teach teaching flute and composition and arranging (“Tunesmithery actually”) at the Royal Conservatoire two days a week.

When another commission, this time from the Grantown East: Highland Heritage & Cultural Centre, to write music about an old whisky train line followed, he began to realise there was work and a life to be had in the north.

“I realised I could live up here and work with musicians like Duncan Chisholm and go and play in Bruce MacGregor’s venue [MacGregor’s Bar] in Inverness.”

The resulting album, The Railway, came out in 2018. “It was basically an album about moving home,” he says.

That move home opened up a rich seam of inspiration. As the idea of recording a group of albums firmed up, he began to read and research and talk to the people he met. There were stories all around him, he quickly realised. The new album The Woods is certainly full of them.

“I was chatting to a guy my uncle skis with. He’s a builder and it turns out his mother was a lumber jill during the war. He’s got this massive two-hand cross-cut forestry saw in his shed – the sort of thing the lumber jills would have used – and so we recorded him and I using the saw. That’s ended up making it onto the new album.”

Soon, he was working with photographers such as David Russell [of Highland Wildscapes] who is himself obsessed with the woodlands at the foot of the Cairngorms, and Will Boyd-Wallis, Head of Land Management & Conservation at Cairngorms National Park Authority. Boyd-Wallis lives in the middle of Tulloch Wood. It is his recordings of axes chopping wood, the call of woodland stags and ice clinking in Loch Garton you can hear on Napier’s new album.

When he began to work on The Woods, Napier admits, he probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the wood from the trees as it were. “I would say maybe I could have recognised a pine and a birch.”

But going out with a tree app he soon learned to identify the different species he was seeing. “Now I look at a birch and go, ‘Is it a downy birch? Is it a silver birch? Is it a hybrid?’ When I go up a hill I go, ‘Oh, is that a dwarf birch? I’ve read about that.’”

Napier has immersed himself in the arboreal. Now he is an advocate for it, too. “I would recommend anyone to go for a walk in the forests of Rothiemurchus. You see this ancient pine wood with giant hummocks that used to be ant hills or tree stumps.

“There’s a perfect balance between heather and blueberries and juniper and old trees and new trees and dead trees helping to provide the nutrients for all the insects and birds.

“You’re looking at an environment that has been perfected over hundreds of millions of years.”

Even the soil is fascinating, he says. “There’s mycelium connecting the trees together under the ground, fungus that connects the roots of the trees. Trees can communicate with one another. There’s continuing research on this.”

To look deeply enough is to see the connections. Both the ecological and the human. Kompani Linge, the Norwegian soldiers who would become the heroes of Telemark trained in Glenmore, Napier points out.

There was a time when trees were even marked on maps because they were local landmarks. “I loved reading about ‘The Tree of the Return.’” he says. “The people of Rothiemurchus used to take their cattle up to the shieling way up the Cairngorms in the summer and when they got to the treeline there was a massive tree there called the ‘Tree of the Return.’ It was the point where they turned back, and they let the cattle walk on themselves. The cattle would walk the eight miles up to the shieling on their own.”

He is full of such stories. Stories of the flora and fauna, the myths and legends that flutter around the forest, of fairies and their love of the Elder tree. “The fairies made their bagpipes out of elder wood.”

In the past, Napier says, people would plant a Rowan tree in front of the house to stave off witches, an Elder tree out back to fend off flies and a holly tree nearby to catch any lightning. It didn’t take much for a thatched roof to go on fire, after all. “Nowadays people probably have a couple of wheelie bins.”

You have to wonder, I ask, how you then translate all of this into music? Part of it is incorporating the sounds you hear, he says. But, really, traditional music itself is a toolbox for all that’s required.

“There’s a wide variety of moods and feels and tempos for the tunes you write. Major, minor, jigs, reels, marches, slow airs.”

And, anyway, the trees communicate in their own way. “You ask, ‘how does that tree make you feel?’” he says.

“When you look at a big ash tree it’s got this big, cheerful feel to it. It’s got compound leaves. They’re always dancing. They’re full of life. So, I’ve written an upbeat, really fast polka for that.

“An elm tree is known as the tree of the underworld. It’s got this dark, twisted, gnarled feel to it. They used to make coffins out of them. That’s going to be a minor tune. A lament.”

Napier’s work weaves history, ecology and human stories into his music. Digging where he stands indeed.

Maybe that’s not typical right now. “In this day and age there’s a lot of social media engagement,” he says. “There are a lot of people spending hours on Netflix. There’s this danger, I feel, of people becoming more and more insular.”

That is not his story. He is firmly rooted in the world around him.

The world that is and the world that was.

Walk into the forest, Hamish Napier says, “and you become aware that everything around you is in different time scales. You’ve got insects with short spans living inside the bark of massive 500-year-old Scots pine trees. You just get this tremendous perspective of time.”

We are all children of the forests, he says. Since the last Ice Age, we have been living in their shadow. Trees gave us shelter, gave us fuel, gave us the raw materials to build boats and travel in. We are, all of us, sons and daughters of the green. “We are forest creatures. It’s in all of us.”

And Hamish Napier knows what that sounds like.

Hamish Napier debuts his new work The Woods at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow tomorrow night as part of Celtic Connections. The album will be released on March 20. A series of digital download singles will be available earlier. For more details visit hamishnapier.com