By C P Castle
Records show that an even earlier choir in fact preceded the London Gaelic Choir. This was the Celtic Choir of 100 voices which was formed in 1876 under the auspices of the Gaelic Society of London and which had as its patron, Lord McDuff.
The story behind the founding of this choir is in itself of interest. It came about following the publishing by the Society of a collection of Highland Melodies; these were taken from the collection of John Cameron MacPhee, a prominent member of the Society. He whistled the tunes, which were taken down and put to music for modern accompaniment by Herr Louis Honig, a professor of music at the London College of Music. James Cameron MacPhee then provided the English translations of the words. The purpose behind this was to provide non-Gaelic speakers with the discovery of the beautiful melodies of Gaelic Song. Although, due to costs, only 500 copies of the book were published, it did cause quite a stir at the time and it led directly to the founding of the Choir. In 1877 the Society staged the first ever Concerts in which Gaelic played a principle part and the Choir was prominent in these. What is not known is the length of time that the Choir was in existence.
By the 1880’s there was a great resurgence in the Gaelic language and London was very much to the forefront of this. In addition to the Gaelic Society, which was probably then at the height of its powers, William Gillies, a brilliant teacher, had formed Gaelic Classes and these included a Gaelic music appreciation class. The Gaelic Society in 1889 staged the world’s first ever all Gaelic Concert and this led to a strong movement for the formation of an all Gaelic Choir. It was in 1891 that this agitation was rewarded with the formation of Coisir Chiuil Ghaidhlig Lunnainn.
Member of the Gaelic Appreciation Class formed the Choir and as these classes were the direct ancestors of the present London Gaelic Classes, one can see just how strong the link between the Choir and classes had been right from the start.
The first conductor of the choir was a Mr Campbell. After a short time he was succeeded by a Cornishman with a great love of Gaelic and its music, H. W. Rodda, who was a groom at Buckingham Palace. In time Archibald Tait, who was by profession a tailor and furrier, succeeded him. The conductor before the outbreak of the First World War was William Ross, who was the Precentor of the Gaelic Services at Crown Court Church.
The Choir achieved considerable renown and popularity with some outstanding all Gaelic Concerts at some of London’s leading concert halls. Reading through the concert programmes one cannot but be impressed with the sheer volume of songs that the Choir performed. One such programme reveals no less than 25 songs. It says much for the dedication of its members to have achieved such a repertoire.
In 1901 The Gaelic Society had taken over the Gaelic Classes but by 1904 they decided, that as they had their hands full running a Gaelic Education Scheme in Scotland, to pass the running of the classes over to the Choir. The Choir looked after the classes up to 1914 by which time their tutor was Choir member and Secretary, Isabella Murray. In 1902 the Choir was affiliated to the Gaelic Society of London, although later, due to a misunderstanding the Choir withdrew from this.
It must be said that not a lot of information is available on the members of this period. It is known that the Choirs in those far off days had an accompanist and that the first of these to be appointed by the Choir was W. MacGregor Stoddart, who as a Headmaster at St Stephen’s School and also a direct descendant of Rob Roy.
An important name in the Choir’s history is Ranald MacInnes who not only served in the Choir for many years, but his wife, two daughters, son and grandson all sang with the Choir. One daughter Flora Craighead, was for a number of years Choir President and grandson is David Thornley, who now sings with the Lothian Choir.
The only singer from these pre-war days whose name is familiar to me is Kenny MacRae, who sang as a soloist with the Choir just before the war. He was very young but was already regarded as one of Gaelic’s finest singers and he was to become known as the Gaelic Caruso.
The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the Choir having to close down with many of its members going into war service. The Gaelic Society (with whom happy relations had by now been re-established) organised a number of ceilidhs in the camps of Highland and Canadian troops. It is thought that members of the Choir took part in these and certainly Isabella Murray was on the concert committee.
In 1921 the Choir was reborn. The celebrated Gold Medallist, Miss Margrat Duncan, who was residing in London, was asked to accept the conductorship but due to business reasons was unable to accept. She did however serve on the music committee and sang with the Choir for several years. Mr Edwards, the Choir Master at Crown Court, then accepted the position and it was he who gave the Choir their initial training. Just how successful he was can be gleaned from the following report from the ObanTimes:-
“On Sunday 2nd December 1922 the Choir was invited to take part in the service of the Scots Guards at the Guards’ Chapel, Wellington Barracks”
The article then went on to describe how the gallant guards headed by a dozen pipers swung into view, past the front of Buckingham Palace followed by members of the London Gaelic Choir who fell in behind and made their way to the beautiful chapel (N.B. this was destroyed by a flying bomb in 1942)
“The members of the Choir occupied to overflowing the Choir stalls of the Chapel, and were of course, at home in the praise used, and their well trained and beautifully tuned voices in the Communion Paraphrase thirty five, and Psalm one hundred and three were especially effective.”
At a meeting in October 1922 it was stated that there was a membership of 70, an active membership of 40 and an average attendance of 28. The following year Kenny MacRae took on the Conductorship. He took his first Choir practice on 6th March 1923 and selected 25 members to approach the Highland Societies in London with an appeal for funds, so that the Choir would be able to afford to go to the Mod, which that year was being held in Inverness. The funds were forthcoming but in August Kenny MacRae decided the Choir was not yet ready and the money had to be returned to the donors. Kenny continued as a conductor until 1924 when he resigned in order to concentrate on his highly successful career as a concert and recording artiste. He was made Hon. Vice President of the Choir.
THE CHOIR’S FIRST APPEARANCE AT A NATIONAL MOD
His successor was J.S. MacIntyre, a pre World War One member of the Choir who had the honour of leading the Choir at their first National Mod appearance at Greenock in 1925. It should be added that Margrat Duncan conducted the ladies Choir. The Choir was evidently pleased with their performance as the following year saw them in Oban. At Oban they were awarded 3rd prize for language with marks of 94%. A quartet won first prize. Alex MacRae and Ian Clark won 2nd prizes. The Misses MacDonald and MacInnes tied for 3rd place and John M. MacPherson attained 3rd prize for playing the violin.
The Mod of 1927 could again be counted as a success as the mixed choir, the ladies choir, the soloists and the violinist gained between them no less than 12 prizes. The following Mod was in Inverness and for the Choir the long journey was well worthwhile as one of its members, J.C.M. Campbell, surely one of the greatest Gaelic singers ever to draw breath, won the Mod Gold Medal, in addition to which, he also with his wife won the Duet Competition.
1932 saw the Choir back at Fort William where Miss Kirsty Maclennan, who won a number of Mod Competitions, won the Oban & Lorne Medal. In 1934 at Oban, success came for choir member Mrs Lowe who won the first prize for singing in the “Song with Clarsach Accompaniment” competition.
In 1935 the Choir sang on the soundtrack of the film “Eriskay”. A review of the film was held at Londonderry House on 30th April 1935. Soloists from the Choir were Miss Molly Wilson and Alex MacRae. Also taking part was a young pianist from the Isle of Lewis, Duncan M. Morison and the tenor, Sidney MacEwen, both on the threshold of famous careers. During the period of their time in London both appeared with the Choir on a number of occasions.
In addition to the National Mods the Choir and its soloists regularly appeared in the Gaelic Society of London’s local Mods. These were first run in 1913 and were continued (with wartime breaks) up to 1976. These local Mods were without any doubt very useful as a good training ground for the National Mod.
As might be expected the choir was forced to close during the Second World War. Since the war, records are somewhat sketchy. The first conductor post war was Dr J Macdonald and who was succeeded in 1951 by Walter Ross, a schoolteacher and much loved conductor, for the next 20 years.
The Choir attended the Mods in Glasgow 1948, Inverness 1949, Dunoon 1950, Edinburgh 1951, Oban 1953 and of course there have been many since that date. In 1953 the Choir won the “Cuaich” for top marks in Gaelic. At this same Mod J.C.M. Campbell and his wife repeated their feat of 1928 by winning the duet competition, the winning of this prize twice was remarkable, but to do it after a gap of 24 years was downright astonishing. To top matters Walter Ross, the conductor, received the baton of John G. Sneddon (who had conducted the Oban Choir to success in 1905.)
During the 1950’s the Choir visited Brittany where they sang in the folk festival. They also sang on the film soundtracks of “Whisky Galore”, “Silver Darlings”, “Dark Island”, “Rockets Galore” and “The Isle of Skye”. Sir Compton Mackenzie, the author, became a Choir member although I suspect it was a non-singing role.
A young lady who achieved much success with the Choir and who appeared in concerts in America, was Kathy Kennedy, whose parents had both been Choir members.
The Gaelic Society of London in 1960 formed a Junior Choir, which appeared at the London Mods, in concerts, and made radio broadcasts. A number of its members were to graduate to the Senior Choir. The most notable of these was Alexandra Thompson, who from 1967 onwards won almost every prize going (with the exception of the Traditional). In 1972 at Inverness she created history by being the first person born outside of Scotland to win the Gold Medal.