Music interview: Mary Ann Kennedy on celebrating the Clyde at this year’s Mòd

Mary Ann Kennedy  PIC: Sean Purser
Mary Ann Kennedy PIC: Sean Purser
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Back in 1988, as the Glasgow Garden Festival was in full efflorescence on the south bank of the Clyde, just across the river, Mary Ann Kennedy was winning the coveted Gold Medal for Gaelic singing at the National Mòd. She celebrated by nipping across the newly opened Bell’s Bridge to the periphery of the Garden Festival, where there was an ice cream parlour: “It was probably Nardini’s,” she recalls, “but by some weird coincidence they had an ice cream flavour called ‘Gold Medal’.”

Thirty years on, Kennedy, long established as a Gaelic singer, harpist and broadcaster, is preparing for this month’s Royal National Mòd in Dunoon by creating a celebration of the Clyde in music and song as part of an extensive Mòd fringe programme. Kennedy, who grew up amid Glasgow’s vibrant Gaelic community, has seen the Clyde “at its scabbiest,” and her piece, Cluaidh: Ùrachadh na h-Aibhne – “Clyde: A River Recovery”, will evoke the way in which the river and its firth have regenerated over recent decades, and not just in environmental terms.

In preparing for the concert, she has been working with Scottish Natural Heritage, who will have a presence at the Mòd, increasingly viewing environmental and cultural concerns as interconnected. Mixing traditional material and her own compositions, Cluaidh evokes episodes in the river’s history, ranging from the once great shipyards to traditional seaweed harvesting. The project is given a certain synergy as part of the countdown to her next album, which she describes as a love song to her native Glasgow, due for release in the spring.

It may be a celebration of regeneration, agrees Kennedy, speaking from Lochaber where she and her husband, Nick Turner, run Watercolour Music Studios, “although it doesn’t avoid why there has to be regeneration in the first place because of the state the river was in before.”

She has drawn her geographical parameters as stretching from the Broomielaw to Ailsa Craig, which gives her plenty of scope. One song she uses is a 19th century one by the Mull-born bard John MacFadyen, who lived most of his life in Glasgow, and whose Òran don Clutha is a

mock-heroic epic about the busy Clutha ferries which once plied the urban river. Another borrowing is from the traditional piobaireachd Pilililiu, evoking the song of the redshank, of which the Clyde once again boasts a healthy population.

There’s a Gaelic translation of Michael Marra’s iconic Mother Glasgow, while compositions of her own include one about Glasgow’s GalGael traditional boat-building venture, which pursues its own distinctive form of social regeneration. The finale involves a tune for her uncle, Calum Sheumais Chalium, forester and footballer: “He knew the Gaelic for every bird and blade of grass.”

Her fellow performers are guitarist Finlay Wells, from Oban, piper Lorne MacDougall, who hails from Carradale, Argyll, while husband Nick has been creating electronic and “found sound” backdrops for the show. Also involved are Caoimhe and Saorsa Ni Bhroin, from one of the few families still speaking the Cowal dialect of Gaelic (their father, Àdhamh O Broin, is probably best known as Gaelic consultant to Outlander), and pupils from two Gaelic-medium schools, Sandbank and Whinhill, in Dunoon and Greenock respectively.

Her interest in pointing up connections between Gaelic culture and the wider environment is endorsed by SNH’s deputy chair, Angus Campbell, who is enthusiastic about the environmental agency being involved in the Mòd: “If we’re supporting the Gaelic language, we have to be seen to be doing more than just producing a Gaelic plan and tying in to things like the Mòd is a very good platform for us. The Clyde is very much an example of an environment that’s changing, being reborn in different ways, yet still supporting a city and its people and very relevant to Gaelic culture.” - Jim Gilchrist

The Royal National Mòd runs in Dunoon from 12-20 October. Clyde: A River Recovery, is at Dunoon Town Hall on 16 October.