Seonaidh Caimbeul: Mod and Gaelic are not quite in tune

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HOORAY! It’s Mòd week again. That special time of year between the tattie holidays and Hallowe’en when media attention turns briefly to celebration of Gaelic language, music and culture.

Usually the spotlight fades like some celestial lighthouse beam on an annual sweep, leaving most people wondering “What was all that about?” Apart from a trickle of reports of shenanigans at the development quango, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and odd complaints about public spending on anything native, Gaelic generally disappears from the mainstream media firmament.

This year things could be different. BBC Alba, the Gaelic digital channel, is now available on Freeview and may be seen by more people than ever. The Scottish Government is persuading Gaelic bodies to engage more positively with the media to achieve a more balanced profile for the language throughout the year. The twin assumptions that Gaelic is the Mòd and the Mòd is Gaelic will have to be set aside.

However, some fear that if media representation of Gaelic becomes less focused on the Mòd then its organising body, An Comunn Gàidhealach, might seem less important. The Mòd Manual, a set of guidelines for organisers, suggests An Comunn should be “seen as the main body which best represents the interests of the Gaelic language”. That statement may be regarded as a simple truth, a cheeky PR tack, a two-fingered gesture to rival organisations or just plain deluded, depending on who you are speaking to.

Some Gaelic activists express a petulant pride in never having been to a Mòd. Others regard the de jure position of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the named body under the Gaelic Language Act, as evidence of pre-eminence and ignore the de facto ham-fistedness with which the Bòrd conducts itself. For example, this will be the first time in 30 years that the ebullient director of pre-school organisation TAIC, Fionnlagh MacLeòid, will not be present to ask Mòd-goers the simple question: “Why don’t you speak Gaelic with your children?” The organisation had its funding withdrawn completely.

Fèisean an Gàidheal, whose chief executive, singer and businessman Arthur Cormack, is also chairman of the Bòrd, has recently announced plans to expand the use of Gaelic in its youth-oriented music festivals. Which makes people wonder which language they have been using since the organisation was set up in 1991.

The community-oriented organisation, CNAG, seems to perform better – it certainly has the best website and has upset fewer people over the years. Some traditional communities have managed to hold on to or let go of their Gaelic without the help of a Mòd. The Isle of Barra held its first local Mòd since the 1930s only a couple of weeks ago.

The 2011 National Mòd, centred in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, is styled Mòd nan Eilean Siar – the Western Isles Mòd – and the local MSP is Alasdair Allan, the new minister for learning and skills with responsibility for Gaelic and Scots. He will be under pressure as all sides jostle for a word in his lug.

It is customary for the minister to offer some words in Gaelic at the opening of the Mòd as a mark of respect for the language. This is often a ritualised performance as difficult for the listener as for the speaker. Mr Allan, however, has learned Gaelic to a very natural and comfortable fluency. His experience of participating in competitions as a member of a Gaelic choir might also help soothe some anxieties about the future role of the Mòd.

What exactly that role should be and how it might be realised has been debated ever since the first Mòd in 1892. The “Royal” epithet was a result of later 20th century sycophancy, although part of the original thrust of the Mòd was to make the Gaels and their music seem less alien to the English-obsessed cultural establishment in Scotland. This was a sensible defensive strategy, given the genocidal tendencies of British imperialism, but it produced some bizarre results. The fluid, modal forms of Gaelic song were transcribed to fit tempered scales and allow for the obligatory pianoforte accompaniment. Much was lost, damaged or overlooked in the process, although much was preserved for successive generations to rediscover and to reinterpret according to their own fashion.

Mòd style singing is rejected by traditionalists as an inauthentic product of 19th century parlour sensibilities frozen in a rigid set of competitive regulations and prescriptions. Organisers point out that the Mòd offers participants clearly defined standards and encourages a measure of interpretative freedom within that structure, especially in the choral arrangements. The range of influences might not be immediately apparent to the new listener, but it is impressive and can include anything from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Lady Gaga. The influence is multi-directional and Gaelic has contributed greatly to the worldwide community of choristers.

It is unfortunate that the creativity, hard work and emotional commitment of the choirs and their conductors often don’t come across well on telly. The frightened faces caught in the arc; the dodgy outfits; the exaggerated jaw movements and mad rolling of eyes; the hyper-correct pronunciation of English as well as of Gaelic – all can collude to produce a cringeworthy parody of Scottishness that for many Gaelic speakers is an embarrassment. Some have suffered snobbery and rejection by Mòd cliques for whom being seen with the right crowd is infinitely more important than being able or willing to speak the language.

People say you either love or hate the Mòd, but the reality is much more complex. Even if you are someone who might break a leg in the rush to turn off the telly when a choir comes on, you can find yourself responding with the most incredible pleasure when you are immersed in Gaelic song. It’s a physical thing. You would have to actually go to a mòd to understand.

Taking the Mòd to a different part of the country each year helps it feel like a national event. It also works wonders in quelling anti-Gaelic racism, as was evidenced in Caithness last year. Despite a campaign by a disaffected bunch of publicity-seeking local worthies, some of whom were daft enough even to claim that Gaelic was never spoken in Caithness, the Mòd was a great success there, generating immediate cash returns to the local economy and doing much to promote the area as a tourist destination.

But mòd success isn’t just about money, it’s about enjoyment. Some of the smaller towns, even those with plenty of hotel beds, just can’t absorb the 6,000+ extra bodies that a Mòd typically attracts. Spreading events and accommodation between Thurso and Wick meant that the Caithness Mòd was less exciting for some.

A big part of the enjoyment of the Mòd is in just being there, encountering familiar faces or just being surrounded by like-minded people. There is a strong attachment to the idea that the Mòd should be located permanently in its romantic home town, Oban, where it all started 108 mòd years ago. Stornoway would be the other main contender and you can bet that they will be pulling all stops out there this year to show they can offer as much or more than Oban. One unique selling point is the sheer number of local Gaelic speakers and supporters who have an amazing ability to go doolally and turn the Mòd into a kind of fiesta.

The 1891 census showed 210,677 Gaelic speakers. Now it’s less than 60,000. Developed in a permanent location, the Mòd could rival the Edinburgh Festival. That might do a lot to promote Gaelic but would it help more people to speak it?