A Visitor to Innerpeffray Library: Héloïse Russell-Fergusson

Reposted with permission from the Innerpeffray Library Blog’s ‘Visitor Vignettes’ series

The Innerpeffray Library visitors’ books contain signatures and details of visitors to the library from 1859 to the present day – with each modern visitor adding to the living archive. By digitising and investigating the information within the visitors’ books, it is possible to discover more about what kind of people were visiting the Library of Innerpeffray – and this is one of the research goals of my PhD.


Visitors’ Books Volumes 1-12, covering 1859-1982

Visitors’ Book Volume 2, f.10r

Today’s spotlighted visitor is Héloïse Russell-Fergusson (1896-1970), who visited the Library of Innerpeffray on Friday, 30 July 1897. Born in Glasgow the previous year, it appears that Russell-Fergusson was brought to Innerpeffray as a babe in arms, accompanied by some of her mothers’ relatives, including Agnes and Jessie Russell, from Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, and William Russell, from Glasgow.[1]


Visitors’ Book Volume 2, f.10r

Although Héloïse’s mother, Hélène Russell-Fergusson (1873-1952) is not recorded as being present with her daughter on 30 July, her signature does appear in the Innerpeffray visitors’ books just over a week later, on Monday 9 August 1897, where she indicates that she lives in the Scotstounhill area of Glasgow. Perhaps Hélène was unable to join her family on 30th July and simply had to plan her own visit after they all came home singing the praises of the library!


Visitors’ Book Volume 2, f.11r

Héloïse Russell-Fergusson was an influential musician, teacher, and composer, who travelled the world playing the clarsach and piano. Growing up between Glasgow and Argyll, as a young adult she studied piano, song and harmony at the Royal Academy of Music in London and subsequently taught piano at an American girls’ school in Washington D.C. In fact, it was in America that Héloïse first discovered the clarsach, an instrument which shaped her future life and career.


September 1923 Outward Passenger List for the S.S. Paris, from Plymouth to New York

June 1926 Incoming Passenger List for the T.S.S. Caledonia, from New York to Glasgow

While the outward passenger list for her 1923 journey to New York lists her occupation as “Pianist”, and the incoming passenger list for her return to Glasgow in June 1926 lists her occupation as “Teacher” (as we know, she worked as a piano teacher during this time), the outward passenger list for a December 1935 trip to New Zealand lists her occupation as “Musician”. Héloïse continued to travel as a performing musician throughout the 1930s, giving recitals across the Americas, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.


December 1935 Outward Passenger List for the R.M.S. Remuera, from London to New Zealand

Héloïse composed and published numerous pieces of music, most of which are part of a collection of almost 2000 items she donated to Glasgow’s Mitchell Library in the 1960s. She was also interested in ethnography, and her nineteen-volume collection of photographs and cuttings about harps and harp-like instruments, titled the Russell-Fergusson Collection of Harps, is also held at the Mitchell Library.


While researching Héloïse for this blog, I was delighted to find that some of her musical recordings are available to listen to online! The following song was recorded at the Kintore Rooms, 74 Queen Street, Edinburgh on Tuesday, 26 September 1933.


Héloïse Russell-Fergusson, Scottish harpist and singer, 1933.

For more information about both Héloïse and her archive in the Mitchell Library, Hélène Witcher (Héloïse’s niece) has published a book about her aunt: Madame Scotia, Madam Scrap: The Story of Héloïse Russell-Fergusson, 1896-1970.

The following website, Rare Tunes, is also full of information about Héloïse and contains further recordings of her music: https://raretunes.org/heloise-russell-fergusson/


[1] The 1891 census shows two sisters, Agnes Russell (born around 1835) and Jessie Russell (born around 1833), living in Rothesay, who may be Héloïse’s Great-Aunts, but I have not been able to confirm this.