The Sutherland Mòd

A view of Bonar Bridge in the daylight, blue sky with clouds in the backgroundThe 4th June was the day that the Sutherland Mòd took place this year in Bonar Bridge.  For those who don’t know, a Mòd is a festival celebrating all things Gaelic and was first established as such at the end of the 19th century.

There are competitions for poetry and prose reading, conversation, songs (both individual and choral), and music (mostly traditional). The competitors range in age from the just-out-of-nappies to the almost-back-into-them-again! There are local Mòds happening all over Scotland during the summer season, culminating in the National Mòd in October, which is held over a week and coincides with the mid-term break for the Scottish schools (a fortnight long, meaning that children can attend the Mòd but then still have another week’s holiday). Generally, Mòds are very well attended events.

The word Mòd comes, as you might have guessed, from Gaelic. Originally, it was a court held by the local magnate to dispense justice to his people. Now that the word has come to mean a Gaelic competition, the word cùirt is used for the law courts (the original meaning of Mòd can still be found in the dictionary, though most people would no longer recognise that usage).

Anyway, A’ Chòirsir Ghàidhlig an Iar-thuath, or the Gaelic Choir of the Northwest – to which I belong – took the road over to Bonar Bridge to take part in the choirs part of the competition.  As the choir has close connections with the Ullapool High School, we were able to take one of the school mini-buses, and as luck would have it, the smart new bus was available for our use that Saturday.

As Ullapool is south of here, and Bonar Bridge is roughly east, I met the bus at the Altnacealgach Inn on the road across to the east coast, known in our family as “the top road” to differentiate it from the main road which runs across from Ullapool to Inverness. The top road is single track and runs almost straight across country, taking one down the scenic Oykel, Castley and Shin Rivers, which must rank as some of the most picturesque salmon rivers, in a part of the world famous for its picturesque salmon rivers! The road is very winding and, on the west side, runs through some superb wild country with big mountains in view. As you cross the watershed and eventually run down towards the east side, the countryside gets more lush and a wee bit more tame.

Bonar Bridge itself is a very pleasant village. When we arrived, we crossed the bridge for which it is named and parked in a peaceful riverside park, which I’m glad to say had the necessary facilities! Here we settled in a recently-built stone circle and had a picnic lunch, with the Kyle of Sutherland running beside us, and undisturbed by the few cars that crossed the bridge. There was a definite need to relax for a while before the work of the afternoon!

After eating, we formed a horseshoe and had an impromptu practice of the songs we were going to sing, before heading off to find our choir leader, Lisa, who was somewhere in the village with her two small children. Having found them at the village school, we had another more formal practice under Lisa’s direction. Then we discovered that our competition was to be at the Village Hall, so it was back on the bus and down to the road on which we had arrived!

The choir practising in the stone circle at Sutherland MòdAt the Village Hall, we learned that there were to be three other choirs in our competition: Lairg, Melvic and Dingwall, which are all choirs of long standing with loads of singers! We were to be last on… We don’t generally get nervous, though. Our choir is very small, fielding (on that day) just 13 of us: 5 sopranos, 3 altos, 3 tenors and 2 basses. So, in such competitions we can never realistically expect to come anywhere but last!

Although we constantly hope for more male tenors, our tenor line is actually three persons of the female persuasion, myself included. This causes endless confusion for the judges, because while it is far from unusual nowadays to see women singing the tenor part, they are generally in the minority! On this occasion, the music judges had thought that our two men were one tenor and one bass, and although they had noticed that there were “female tenors”, they hadn’t appreciated that the tenor section comprised only females! The poor judges always seem to be left a bit at sea by this, and we are desperately trying to recruit at least a couple more male tenors into our ranks!

Well, never mind: it’s all good fun and we always get a good mark for our Gaelic (which is even more surprising, as one of our menfolk is Polish!). I guess the reason for this is that we are lucky enough to have quite a big proportion of choir members who have some Gaelic, including one native speaker, and our leader is very proficient, having been to Stornoway College to get a degree in Gaelic. Many of the bigger choirs actually have very few people with a knowledge of Gaelic – and it shows, even to a learner such as myself!

So there we have it. Our good Gaelic mark made up some for our lower mark for music, and we were only three points adrift of the choir that came 3rd, which for a small new choir is not at all bad! And it had been a glorious, sunny, breezy day to boot!

We drove home a tired but happy band…

Looking up the Kyle of Sutherland from bonar bridge; grassy, rocky land in the foreground, mountainous land in silhouette in the background.


[Photos by Clarinda]

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