A JOURNEY of discovery that starts and ends in the same place need not be a wasted one. The familiar often has unseen secrets to divulge – if looked upon closely.

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Hamish Napier’s travels have taken him from his childhood home in Grantown on Spey to Glasgow, then on to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and back again to Speyside. And it is at home, rooted in the landscape where he grew up, that Napier began to see the beauty and mystery hiding in the familiar.

“If you are looking for something really interesting then dig where you stand,” says Napier. “If you look at something really closely it becomes absolutely fascinating.

“I remember one night after I’d moved back up here thinking ‘what have I done?’. I’d moved up from Glasgow and I was thinking there was nothing to do. So I got up and went for a walk. I had a wee tree app on my phone and the next thing I knew I’d learnt about hawthorn, poplar, elms. Now, I see all these beautiful trees – and the birds and the other wildlife – and it’s a constant source of interest. You just begin to really notice all the things round about you.

“When you go away and return home that’s when you really appreciate what’s on your doorstep.”

For Napier, the surroundings of home have become more than just a source of fascination. They have become his inspiration.

His first solo album, The River, is a homage to the Spey. A multi-layered exploration of the river, those who work on it and live by it, it is a rich cascade of tunes that bring the water to life to the extent that you can sit and imagine the flies buzzing above the swirling eddies and whirlpools.

Moving up from the Spey valley floor, Napier followed that with The Railway – an exploration of the Strathspey Railway. And now he is putting the finishing touches to what will be the third work in his planned pentalogy, The Woods.

“I had been teaching at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and I was approached by Celtic Connections who commissioned me to write a piece of music as part of their New Voices series, and for me the easiest thing to theme it on was home,” says Napier of the genesis of The River. “So I got three piano players and four flute players, bass and drums, and I composed it all about the river as I grew up right next to it.

“Speaking to my folks and my neighbours, I started discovering all these old stories about the Spey. People were approaching me with all these old legends and tales and then there was all the wildlife to write about – like the freshwater mussels. I was just marrying all these facts I was learning and relearning about the river. And I began experimenting musically with layering and multitracking myself.”

The result was The River and following that he was asked by Grantown East Heritage Centre to write a piece of music about the old railway station and that grew into The Railway.

“I had always intended making an album about the woods,” says Napier. “I already had tunes ready for The Woods at that time and now I already have tunes ready for the next album, The Hill. The last album will be called The Ether and will be about the sky, the light and the greater forces at work.

“The idea is a pentalogy of modern folk music all composed about the area. It’s going to take me 10 years and I’m only four years in.”

Napier’s enthusiasm for the area and for the process of composing is infectious. He spent years immersing himself in different genres of music – he won a scholarship to study jazz piano in Boston – as well as completing a degree in astronomy and music in Glasgow. But his real passion remains Scottish folk music.

“It was an endless search to develop my playing, to listen to loads of music and to discover my own sound and way of playing,” says Napier.

“During my last term in Boston I worked with a guy called Mark Simos who’s written songs for Alison Krauss and I was his very first tunesmithery student. He’d done songwriting with people one-to-one but never tunesmithery. So we worked on all these tunes together and had a blast but it was then that I realised that I loved Scottish folk music more than anything. I love Stevie Wonder and funk music, and I love Aaron Parks the jazz pianist, but at the end of the day hearing Brian McAlpine playing with Session A9, Dave Milligan playing with Simon Thoumire or Brian Finnegan playing with Flook is what really grabs me.

“That’s why I went back to folk music. Working with old forms of music and casting them in a new light, making them sound modern, maybe putting a modern rhythm section on them so they can appeal to the younger generation but are still recognisable as say a reel or a march is really important to me.”

It is certainly an approach that works. But Napier has been fortunate in that he has been supported by his community in a way that gladdens the heart.

The Woods is being financed by Cairngorms Connect – a local partnership that aims to restore the natural habitat of the area and which has a vision covering the next 200 years. It is an ambitious project yet one which remains grounded firmly in community.

“I met with them to speak with them about maybe sponsoring a track and they said they’d like to sponsor the entire album,” says Napier. “I was jumping for joy.”

Napier is currently putting the finishing touches to The Woods ahead of its release at Celtic Connections on January 19. Before that, though, he plans to release a single of each of the tracks, all of which relate to a letter of the Gaelic alphabet which is itself based upon tree names, on his bandcamp page.

“Every fortnight I’ll release a new tune on my bandcamp page,” says Napier. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do.”

And while he has plans for The Woods, he still has time for Nae Plans – his touring collaboration with fiddler Adam Sutherland. He remains an in-demand musician, playing with the Jarlath Henderson band, with Ross Ainslie, with Duncan Chisholm and with the Cask Strength Ceilidh Band.

But is Napier’s connection to the landscape and communities of Speyside that is at the heart of his compositions. He immerses himself in his subjects and the results of that immersion are recordings that have an almost unique ability to transport the listener. He is a musician for whom heart is where the home is.

For more info go to www.hamishnapier.com. To learn more about Cairngorms Connect visit www.cairngormsconnect.org.uk

Hamish Napier plays The Woods at Celtic Connections on January 19 at the Mitchell Theatre