Travel: Scotland - Listen, but try to keep your head

Jon Winter goes on a musical tour with an undertone of violence
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The Independent Online
Anyone who imagines Scottish Highland music as a rather dreary, overly nostalgic genre should consider the content of "Ann Bron Binn", an ancient Gaelic ballad. It recounts the tale of a chap named Arthur who succumbs to the enchanting harp-playing of a beautiful young woman, eventually falling asleep with his head in her lap. Seizing upon his vulnerability, the beautiful woman swaps her harp for a sword and, for reasons that are unclear, lops off his head. Forget All Saints and the Spice Girls, that is Girl Power.

Learning of such savagely romantic ditties is just part of the conversion that cynics undergo when they visit Balnain House in Inverness, the self- proclaimed "Home of Highland Music". Situated in a handsome Georgian mansion on the banks of the River Ness, Balnain House is not just for folk enthusiasts. Visitors of every musical orientation are invited to embark on an brief interactive, audiovisual tour of Highland music.

Your hearing is first introduced to the primitive tones of ringing rocks and droning battle horns popular around 2,000 years ago. To modern ears, these early instruments might sound harmoniously challenged, but when backed with a recording of the wind or the ocean, they combine to make extraordinarily haunting music.

Visitors then continue through a series of themed listening stations, each equipped with headphones, where a selection of tracks can be listened to as you absorb the accompanying written information.

It quickly becomes apparent that far from being inspired by quaint sentimentalities, much of the music has its roots in war, religion and the rigours of everyday life in the Highlands. One area focuses solely on work and communal songs "whose primary function was to increase work efficiency and maintain concentration by providing a steady rhythm". Plug in here and you can listen to, among others, butter churning melodies, spinning ditties and "baulking" (shrinking) tweed tunes.

For my ears, though, some of the more beguiling tunes were those from Orkney and Shetland - eerie, monastic-sounding choral singing, and jaunty fishermen's songs for attracting seals, who have for a long time been thought to respond to such music.

Although for the main part the exhibition may seem to dwell in the past, Balnain House is no museum. If fact, any restrained museum-like ambience is likely to be kicked out by a dance class enthusiastically stamping their feet on the ceiling above you, or by the reels and jigs of an impromptu music session drifting up from the cafe in the basement. "Cultural centre" is perhaps a more accurate label, a viewpoint reinforced by the noticeboard in the foyer, which is crowded with advertisements for dance classes, instrument tuition, festivals, pub gigs, ceilidhs, instruments for sale and even weekend harp-making courses.

Whatever you make of a visit to Balnain House, arguably the most memorable moment for most visitors is the opportunity to test your musical talents on a number of traditional instruments (including several enchanting harps) on hand around the exhibition. Thankfully, today's visitors have little to fear from homicidal harp-players, but when a group of inquisitive tourists find the bagpipes, you just have to run for your life.

Balnain House, 40 Huntly Street, Inverness IV3 5HR (01463 715757). Admission: adults, pounds 2; over-60s, students and unemployed, pounds 1.50; children under 16, 50p. Opening times: 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, session night on Thursdays. The Shop contains a wide range of books, CDs, written music, instruments and other learning materials. Fresh Scottish fare, seafood and vegetarian specialities feature on the menu in Cafe Balnain.

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