Three months ago, in October 2005, the Royal National Mod took place in Stornoway. Or should I say "Mod Naiseanta Rioghail"? I am not a Gaelic speaker, but felt I could not miss this celebration of Gaelic culture now that it was taking place on my doorstep. So, on the 17th of October, I acquired a program book, which made my jaw drop. In it were listed hundreds of competitions, taking place over a six-day period in various locations in the Western Isles. Not just in the town of Stornoway, but also in Benbecula, where the shinty matches took place. Down the road in Lochs, the North Lochs Community centre hosted the Highland Dancing competitions. There were some grumblings that people had to travel 10 miles out of town to reach Leurbost. As I said, I do not speak Gaelic, neither do I understand the language to any useful extent. However, I have a keen interest in music, so went out of my way to select musical competitions. There was this nagging feeling that I was missing out on the spoken word side of things, but there is no point sitting in on a competition that you don't understand. Competitions took place in various locations around Stornoway, and sometimes choirs or individual competitors were required to be present at two or three different locations at the same time. This sometimes led to waits, or a reshuffling of the order of performance. Fortunately, the 5 days of the Mod were virtually dry and without much wind. If there had been gales and / or heavy rain, it would have been a disaster.
The first two or three days of competitions were devoted to children, as young as 5. As John Farquhar-Munro (Inverness MSP) said on the opening night, there is a battle going on to keep Gaelic alive. In order to do that, you have to start young. Children can go into Gaelic-medium education, and there is (e.g.) a Gaelic medium primary school in Glasgow. Unfortunately, there is also a battle going on at the moment in the Mallaig area about this issue, as those wishing English medium education for their children feel they are being disadvantaged. Leaving those issues to one side, I was stunned by the standards of singing. In the evening (Monday to Friday), there was a Prizewinners' concert. I only attended the first one. There was this wee girl, can't have been more than 5 or 6, singing in such a tiny voice that the whole auditorium fell silent. The only audible sounds were the girl's singing, and the air-conditioning system. Another girl sang a piece, and the audience began to applaud - although she had not yet finished. To make good for the interruption, the audience sang along with her for the final verse.
Apart from solo singers, there were also the school choirs, recitation, action songs and much, much more. On the third day, the adults commenced their competitions. My interest in Gaelic culture stems from finding a book in the library with the songs collected by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser and Rev Kenneth MacLeod around the start of the 20th century in the western isles of Scotland.
Five ladies sang a song each early on Wednesday morning, in the British Legion Club. I then proceeded to the Town Hall to listen to self-accompanying soloists. Another competition involved folkgroups. Later in the week, I attended the choir competitions for adults. I am a chorister myself, so sat in on proceedings with more than average interest. I should also add that the competitors were not all exclusively British. There were people from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and many other places around the world. .
On Wednesday afternoon, I also went to the clarsach competitions. Competitors included school girls singing along whilst playing the Gaelic harp, which I found quite a feat. Apart from the girls, there were three groups of clarsach players, the largest comprising 14 harps!
On Saturday morning, all the choirs assembled in Percival Square in the town centre for a mass sing-along. After that, everybody went to their various modes of transport for going home. Whether it be the plane, or to the ferry. A piper played from the roof of the bridge on the Isle of Lewis, and it was quite a throng pushing itself on board. The ferry hugged close to the shore, as far as Battery Point, before resuming its normal course.
For all intents and purposes, the summer had come to a close. Stornoway hunkered down for winter.
During the competitions, I recorded about 70 entries, which I have placed on the Internet, free to download for anyone interested. Click here to go to the recordings ]]>