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Sam Sweeney and the Case of the Accidental Nyckelharpa

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Sam Sweeney sitting under the Saxon tower at St Mary's Church Guildford with a nyckelharpa on his lap. He holds a bow in his right hand and is talking to the audience in front of him.

At our May concert, Sam Sweeney tells the story of how he accidentally acquired a nyckelharpa, a Swedish keyed fiddle. (Image credit: JoAnne Hughes)

During a gig with his band, Leveret, in Germany in 2021, Sam met a nyckelharpa maker, tried out one of his instruments, said he liked it, and thought no more about it. Then an invoice arrived unexpectedly a few months ago. Sam embraced this potentially awkward situation, bought the instrument and took it on his solo tour. We were very glad he did.

The nyckelharpa became an object of curiosity. It attracted clusters of people during the interval of every concert. When Sam started playing it at our concert in Guildford, solo and unplugged, sitting under the Saxon tower of St Mary’s Church, the audience’s curiosity turned into quiet admiration. The church’s acoustics were perfect for the harpa’s multitude of sympathetic strings. The accidental nyckelharpa was earning its keep!

Eurovision was no competition

It was obvious to us that Sam had a far-reaching reputation as a brilliant fiddle player. Our first gig leaflet drop at the local library extracted an excited cry of “Oooh! Sam Sweeney!” from the librarian.

Sam also has quite a following as a teacher. Fiddlers of all ages came to his afternoon workshop at St Mary's and left feeling inspired, not only by his easy skill in breathing new life into old tunes, but also by his ability to teach us how he does it in a way that didn't seem out of reach.

As the sun set on Saturday, 13th May, people arrived to fill the full length of the nave of St Mary's. The air was cool but alive with anticipation. The Eurovision final didn’t distract, nor the rail strike deter.

"There will be no singing"

Through Folk Inspiration’s connection with the arts charity Creative Response and with the generosity of the Holy Trinity and St Mary’s Parish team, concert goers were also treated to a private viewing of the Art for Ukraine exhibition. St Mary’s has held a weekly vigil for Ukraine, almost without a break, since the war started in February 2022. It provided a fitting setting for the work of three professional artists, Mariya Borysova and Natalia Sharomova from Ukraine, and Niel Ballingal from the UK.

Nothing conveys the spirit of Creative Response more eloquently than the wonderful people who work there, and we were particularly pleased that chief executive Kathryn McManus, and the artists Niel and Natalia were able to join us at the exhibition and concert. As it turned out, Kath also did a steady trade in art cards and felted jewellery created by the Ukrainian art support group, while Niel was indispensable serving up a brew or two alongside Barbara in our bar-come-tearoom. Natalia turned her photo-journalistic skills to capturing the mood of the evening (see a selection of her photos in the gallery below), and her young son Taras took on the full responsibility of lighting engineer with impressive seriousness.

As Sam picked up his fiddle to play the opening set of morris jigs, evoking a typical English May Day scene of dancing up the dawn, our thoughts turned to our Ukrainian guests and the people in this country who have opened their homes and hearts to them. Sam's beautiful music, St Mary's wonderful atmosphere and acoustics, and the poignant, beautiful art on its walls combined to form a symbol of hope, a hope that springs from knowing that we are surrounded by kindness and compassion. It was moving, and it felt right.

Sam originally had doubts about doing a solo tour. Getting people to come out to listen to two hours of fiddle music is a big ask, he told our audience. He needn’t have apologised for the lack of singing. An evening of gorgeously uplifting solo fiddle, viola and nyckelharpa playing, interspersed with stories of Dave Swarbrick’s essence and accidentally-acquired instruments, were quite good enough to bring the audience to their feet.

Scenes from Sam Sweeney's solo concert at St Mary's Church Guildford on 13th May 2023.

All images in this gallery are by Natalia Shamorova

With much gratitude to Sam Sweeney and his agent Sarah Coxon, the wonderful team at Holy Trinity & St Mary's Parish, everyone at Creative Response and Activate Learning. A very special thanks to Mariya, Natalia, Taras, Niel, Louise, Andre, Anna and Kath. Last but not least, thank you to Irene and Barbara who (willingly) volunteered to help us run the event.

Sam's set list

Orange in Bloom

Untitled Waltz #1 / Tweedside

Young Collins / Filberts (Rob Harbron)

Set of Minuets

Bonnets of Blue / Don’t Be Lazy

Dave Swarbrick Set of Traditional Scottish Tunes


Old Captain / May Reel Number 1 (Paul Sartin)

Want to Fly, Want to Flee (Sam Sweeney) / Steppy Downs Road (Sam Sweeney)

Untitled Waltz #2 / Mr Lane's Minuet

St Patrick's Day in the Morning / Young May Moon

Old Ways Best / Booth’s Hornpipe

Red (Sam Sweeney) / Maid of the Mill (encore)

All tunes arranged by Sam Sweeney

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