Peter Ross: Whisky Olympics continue to thrive in a Mod-ern world

FALKIRK, a largely teuchter-free zone, is not the first place that springs to mind when listing Scotland's Celtic heartlands. Yet for the last week, the town has been home to the Mod, the annual celebration of Gaelic culture.

The festival, now in its 105th year, is usually associated with the likes of Stornoway and Skye, but audacious organisers are claiming that "The Mod is coming home"; the theory being that, during the 18th century, cattle drovers from the Highlands and Islands would meet in Falkirk and ceilidh.

Not everyone agrees this is how the Mod originated. "That's a load of shite," one man from Lewis tells me. "It reminds me of a friend of mine who used to claim Enrico Caruso was from Tain and his parents ran the local fish and chip shop."

A day spent at the Mod starts early. At 8.20am on Thursday, a bus draws up outside Erskine Parish Church and about 25 middle-aged men and women in kilts emerge. This is the Mull Gaelic Choir. They are met at the door by a jolly chap in tartan trews who says: "Folk from Tobermory are banned," while waggling his bushy eyebrows in a manner supposed to signify irony but which looks like badgers at war.

Elizabeth Jack, the conductor (of the choir, not the bus), tells me they are here to compete in the Puirt-a-beal, or mouth-music, "all the diddly-diddly stuff". It's a type of singing which resembles the sound of bagpipes and fiddle, and is thought to have developed when those instruments were banned following the Jacobite rebellion.

Backstage there's great excitement and everyone knows everyone else. It's a scene where a man can walk into a room and ask "Is Angus here?" in full expectation of a positive reply.

A door is ajar and I see, briefly, into a dressing room where one choir are warming up with a wee nip of something. It's a hectic business being a chorister. You might compete in four competitions in a single day, some of them taking place simultaneously at different venues. The upshot is that Falkirk is full of men and women hurrying, in kilted conga lines, from one church to another, desperate not to miss their slot. "If you're not fit at the start of the Mod, you're certainly fit by the end," says Alan Jack, secretary of Mull Choir, who also plays in a pipe band. "I'm a drummer; a piper's labourer, as they say."

The Mull Choir have had their digs – the Red Lion in Larbert – booked for three years. You have to do that or it's impossible to find somewhere to stay. There are 3,000 competitors taking part, and everyone wants to be as close to the action as possible. In Falkirk, the equivalent of the Olympic village is the Park Hotel, where the adjudicators and members of An Comunn Gaidhealach, the organisation that runs the Mod, are staying. In the bar at any given moment you'll find men with wild ginger beards in confidential huddles with glamorous young women wearing badges that say "Mod babe". It's one of the places where the serious drinking gets done.

The Mod is known as the Whisky Olympics. Depending on who you ask, this is either a vicious slur or fair comment. Someone tells me it goes back to one year the Mod was in Fort William and builders from a nearby site drank the bars dry, leaving the poor sober Gaels to take the rap. However, according to Ian MacLeod, convenor of the Fringe: "Ten thousand people are expected at the Mod this year, and will spend between 1.5m and 2m. Half of that's on Whyte & Mackay."

MacLeod is 58 and has been to every Mod since 1971. Mod for it, he begins each day with a 7.30am meeting and tends not to get to bed until 4am. "The adrenalin keeps you going." He's known to all as Sgadan (pronounced "skadden"), which means "herring" and is a nickname he acquired at school in Stornoway. There were 10 Ian MacLeods in his class, and so, to avoid confusion, the helpful senior boys dunked him in a bath of cold water until he chose a new name. "It was either that or drown."

Sgadan is responsible for booking bands such as the Red Hot Chilli Pipers to play at the fringe events taking place in pubs and hotels. If the Mod competitions are Apollonian displays of technique, these late-night gigs are Dionysian affairs designed to get you dancing, and can be regarded as a riposte to those critics who say the Mod is old-fashioned and staid. "I do always wonder," says Sgadan, "why they choose such dour songs for the competitors to sing."

Falkirk Town Hall is the place to hear great singing of sad songs. It's the final of the Gold Medal – the most prestigious competition at the Mod. Nine men and nine women each sing two songs and are evaluated by a panel of four judges, none of whom resembles Cheryl Cole, on both their musical ability and their Gaelic. To even compete in this event, you have to first prove your fluency in the language.

The hall is packed and the crowd delighted by the host, Allan Campbell, who gets big laughs for jokes which, as they are in Gaelic, mostly pass me by. A helpful man in a Harris tweed jacket translates one for me; something to do with an old couple from Portree who are plagued by rats.

The men's Gold Medal – and a cheque for 5 from the Clan MacLean – is won by Lyle Kennedy. He is a Bonnybridge man, who only started learning Gaelic in 1994. I talk to him afterwards, and wary of clichs he tries hard not to say he's over the moon. We chat instead about his woolly socks, which his wife made, and about his preparations for competing; instead of listening to rivals, he gets in the zone by pacing around outside, a ritual known as "the Mod plod".

It seems fitting that this year the Gold Medal was won by a Lowlander, and maybe in future the festival will be held more often in the Central Belt. Paisley has expressed an interest, which sounds odd until you remember that the town already lays claim to Elvis Presley. Once you've co-opted the world's most famous rocker, perhaps a Mod isn't entirely out of the question.