Mod Memories and New Beginnings

14 Oct 2011 in Festival, Gaelic, Music, Outer Hebrides

KATIE LAING looks back on memories of the first Stornoway Mod, and tells the story of a new choir using internet technology to overcome geographical separation ahead of this year’s event.

FINAL preparations for this year’s Royal National Mod were bringing back memories for those involved in staging the first one in Stornoway in 1979 – none more so than for Donald Martin, who was secretary of that organising committee.

Donald, who now chairs the Harris Tweed Authority and is a former chief executive of Comunn na Gàidhlig, remembers vividly the struggles they faced.

He admitted: “I didn’t think so at the time, but I suppose it was a bit of a nightmare, looking back! We hadn’t had such an event in the Western Isles before; it was new to us. We were starting with a blank sheet compared to other areas that had previously hosted the Mod. Personally, the only involvement I had in a Mod prior to that was when I had gone to the final night of the Ayr Mod in 1973.

“I had no idea what a Mod looked like, felt like, had never been involved in competitions – but somehow I found myself as secretary of the local Mod nan Eilean Committee 1979.”

Children from Back School offer a colourful welcome to the Stornoway Mod

Children from Back School offer a colourful welcome to the Stornoway Mod

Of course, the Mod has come to Stornoway four times since then – but back then there were no past experiences for the local committee to benefit from. As Donald said: “Like everyone else on the committee, you had to get on with it.” There were between 15 and 20 of us on the committee and Donald recalls, in particular, the late Kenny Dan Smith, who was their convenor. He was a teacher in Leurbost at the time and a great champion of Gaelic, being one of the first to be involved in preparing Gaelic educational programmes for the BBC.

Donald said: “He was very inspirational. He was a very good spokesman for the local committee – good at handling the media and his experience and contacts in the Gaelic world at the time was obviously of great benefit.”

Others on the committee included the late George Clavey, Bob Scott and Rodney Mackenzie and there were many local volunteers who also played an important role. Staging the Mod meant raising a significant sum of money – which the organisers managed to do twice over. Donald said: “We had to think of innovative ways of raising money because we had to raise a fairly substantial sum. I think it was about £15,000 but we raised nearly twice that.”

Donald recalls a sponsored cycle run being undertaken from Ness to Barra by two men, Jim Ross and Peter Manuel, who carried with them a Crann Tara, the fiery cross that was the rallying cry of the Vikings. This symbol was carried into the hotels and venues the cyclists stopped at along the way – and where ceilidhs were held to mark the event.

Donald said: “Ceilidhs were, of course, plentiful during the fundraising years but this event – with ceilidhs at Tarbert, Benbecula, Lochboisdale and Castlebay – helped to make it a true Mod nan Eilean.” One particular ceilidh had been organised by the Lewis and Harris Association in Glasgow and a tape recording which was produced of it later sold very well.

There was a lot of work to be done on a much more practical level too, though, with the main problem being where to find accommodation for all the visitors. It still poses a challenge today.

Donald said: “In a way accommodation was a problem and in a way it wasn’t – because while we lacked a lot of hotel accommodation, we had the advantage of being able to use the school hostels.”

There were four of them, of course – the Lews Castle Hostel, the Elizabeth Haldane, the Macrae and the Gibson hostels.

“In addition to that,” said Donald, “we had the some children accommodated in Stornoway Primary. You wouldn’t get off with that now, with health and safety regulations, but the children were sleeping on the floor in the assembly hall and thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember the week before the Mod, going down with two or three others, picking up mattresses and bedding from the Scaladale outdoor centre and taking them to Stornoway Primary.

“There were about 20 children given accommodation there and they had breakfast in the canteen. Although the schools and canteen staff were on holiday they willingly came out and worked in Stornoway Primary and The Nicolson Institute Canteen to provide eating facilities for visitors and participants. I remember, in the Nicolson canteen the favourite item on the menu for the adults was salt herring and potatoes.”

Despite the provision at the hostels and the school, an issue with accommodation remained, with some choirs staying in hotels as far away as Tarbert’s Harris Hotel and Claitir in South Lochs. There was a radio plea for islanders to put visitors up in their homes, while volunteers from the committee “actually went round houses, knocking on doors, asking if anybody had any spare beds”.

Donald remembers this being done in Tong, Coll, Back and Gress. The response, he said, was “fairly good” – once people had been assured they didn’t need to provide any “fancy breakfasts and that a packet of cereal and some orange juice would be fine” for their guests.

“Our main concern was whether we could find sufficient accommodation for everybody. People had to accept that they weren’t going to get five-star accommodation but then they weren’t charged five-star rates so people accepted that and were quite happy. We had no difficulties at all with the venues. Obviously we didn’t have a venue big enough for the final concert but the Comhairle converted the sports centre into an excellent Mod venue, by putting drapes on the walls and carpets on the floor, so it wasn’t a problem for choir competitions and other events. ”

The final ceilidh was actually held in two venues – the Nicolson’s assembly hall where the concert started at 7pm and in the sports centre where the artists went on stage three quarters of an hour later. The combined seating was equivalent to one normal major venue at previous Mods. Staging a successful Mod on an island did mean certain changes had to be made to the programme, though. The main change was the staging of the children’s learners competitions on the Tuesday to allow young people from mainland to travel across on the Monday, as this was a long time before Sunday sailings were introduced.

All in all, Donald said: “The whole week was quite memorable. We had good weather; there was a fantastic atmosphere. It was very friendly. You knew that a Mod was taking place in the Western Isles. It was also the first Mod at which we tried a Mod Fringe programme for the late evening sessions and that worked very well.”

There was also “a lot of buzz” about the place because Radio nan Eilean had been launched the week before the Mod. Donald recalled: “To coincide with the Mod in Stornoway we had, the week before, the opening of Radio nan Eilean. A lot of work went into that with a view to having it on the air before the Mod. It started off as a 10-minute daily programme and over the years it expanded. It was very exciting and opened up a whole new world for listeners from Ness to Barra.”

Donald has taken a back seat in the staging of more recent Stornoway Mods, although he has been involved as an adjudicator and a chairman of competitions. He said: “I thought ‘I’ve done my bit and there are many others around who are more than capable of organising Mods. I think those who’ve been have done a fantastic job in ensuring that every one has been as enjoyable, memorable and successful as the first one.”

Now, 32 years on, he is eagerly anticipating this year’s gathering – and believes a Royal National Mod held in the Western Isles is truly special. As well as looking forward to meeting up with old friends again, there is also the pleasure – as an adjudicator – in seeing youngsters grow up through the competitions.

“That gives me a great deal of satisfaction,” he said. “I adjudicate the local mods and it always gives me pleasure when I see youngsters who participated when they were five, six, seven, now taking part in competitions at the National Mod and winning their competjtions. However,” he added, “winning isn’t everything. I always emphasise, when I’m adjudicating, that it’s not the winning that’s important, but the taking part.”

The Mod, said Donald, “represents everything that embodies our culture, tradition, our heritage, our language”. A Stornoway Mod works well because the town is such a compact place, with little distance to travel between venues and competitions, and everyone seems to get involved. Mainly, though, it is special because “it is a Mod in a strong Gaelic community”.

Donald said: “You could have a Mod in, for example  Oban and Fort William, – both excellent places for a Mod –  but they do not have the same natural Gaelic ambience that you have here. A Stornoway Mod is truly unique.”

Carloway Choir rehearse via Skype - Cathie Mary MacIver and Donald Macleod, with conductor Mairi Macleod on screen.

Carloway Choir rehearse via Skype - Cathie Mary MacIver and Donald Macleod, with conductor Mairi Macleod on screen.

WHEN the 108th Royal National Mod does get underway, many eyes and ears will be on the members of the newest choir in town  – although they have already been attracting media attention for their unusual rehearsal process, of which more in a moment.

The newly-formed Carloway Gaelic Choir will be making their debut this month and are hoping to take on the might of the established choirs in the rural competition – and have a thoroughly good time in the process. Most members of the choir belong to Carloway, or have strong ties to the area, although not everybody lives there at the moment. Several members live on the mainland and their conductor is currently resident in Somerset in the south of England.

She is Mairi Macleod, daughter of An Comunn Gàidhealach president John Macleod – who is himself one of the members of the new choir, being a native of Carloway, as well as a member of Lothian Gaelic Choir. Music teacher Mairi, 24, was living in Manchester until leaving to take up the post of house mistress at Wells Cathedral School, a specialist music school in Somerset.

Her interest in conducting goes back to her schooldays growing up in Edinburgh, when she would occasionally lead sessions of the Lothian choir, of which she used to be a member. “That was just the beginnings of things,” she said. After that, Mairi conducted children’s choirs when she had the chance and, when the idea of setting up a Carloway choir was suggested, was keen to be involved.

She recalled: “It was Jennifer Speirs who first had the idea way back in February and she put the feelers out on facebook. There’s a lot of good singers in the Carloway area so it made sense to have a choir.”

Not everyone is a permanent resident, though. And with members strewn across the whole of Scotland – not to mention Mairi in Somerset – assembling everyone for rehearsals has not been easy. They have, however, come up with a somewhat modern solution to this age-old geographical problem – Skype.

In order to rehearse, the singers have been gathering around their computers at appointed times and going online. Until Mod week itself, the choir had only physically got together once, for a series of four rehearsals at the end of the August. The rest of the time they have been rehearsing in ‘conference calls’ through Skype, the internet telephone and video-calling facility.

A rehearsal on one particularly windy Lewis night, for example, some choir members gathered in the Carloway Community Hall to rehearse with other members who were online in Edinburgh, Dingwall and Aberdeen, as well as Mairi in Somerset. What they can’t do, though, is conduct them all together, as Skype’s small time-lag would make this impossible.

Mairi explained: “On Skype, there’s a one-second delay, so in terms of everyone singing together it’s a bit of a nightmare. I just rehearse each part – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – as a solo. That’s all we’ve been able to do. “ However, she added: “It has enabled me to help them remotely with parts. For example, when one person was getting stuck on a certain line, I was able to coach him over Skype and help him with that. With 15 of them, I could have been emailing or calling everybody individually and maybe answering the same question every time, so Skype helps with that. It is helping us, time-wise, but the only difficulty is actually rehearsing as a choir. I discovered that conducting would be impossible but I can set the metronome and count them in. It doesn’t matter about the delay as long as they all start together.”

The choir will be competing for the Lorn Shield and will be performing two songs – one of them prescribed, Eilean Scalpaigh Na Hearadh, and one their own choice. For many it will be a completely new experience as a good number of them have never belonged to a choir before. As Mairi said: “As a choir, we’re new. And as choir members, we’re new too.” She thinks they will do themselves proud, though.

“I’m really pleased with them. Over the summer they were sounding amazing. To begin with, everyone was understandably a bit nervous and dubious – many of them hadn’t sung in a choir before or had maybe only sung in a primary school choir – but once we learned parts and put parts together, they sounded really great. I was amazed at how quickly we were learning, but because we’ve got good singers it was just natural that the sound blended well.”

Alto and wardrobe mistress Sue Boyd is presented with tweed for ties and brooches by Cathie and DJ of Carloway Tweed Mill.

Alto and wardrobe mistress Sue Boyd is presented with tweed for ties and brooches by Cathie and DJ of Carloway Tweed Mill.

Style-wise, Carloway will not be wearing tartan to the Mod. Instead, their uniform will be all black, accessorized with purple tweed flowers and ties made from fabric donated from their local mill, Harris Tweed Textiles. They have had other support too, from sponsors including CnaG (Comhairle na Gaidhlig).

Of course, the sole focus of the judges’ and the audience’s attention, when they get on that stage, will be the quality of their singing. But Mairi is determined not to burden the new choir with the weight of too much expectation.

She said: “I’m just really pleased that we’ve got it going and I think that we will just be pleased to go and sing and have a fun time – that’s all our rehearsals have been about; having a good time and having this experience. It’s daunting and it’s a gamble, of course it is, but it’s so exciting and we’re looking forward to it.”

The Royal National Mod in Stronoway runs from 14-22 October 2011.

© Katie Laing, 2011