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A Brief History of the Choir
The Choir began back in 1967. Jimmy Scott was the Principal teacher of music at Breadalbane Academy, and in 1966 he took a girls’ school choir to the Mod in Largs, where they won, and Jimmy expressed a desire to enter an adult choir the following year at the Mod in Glasgow.
Elizabeth McDiarmid from Lawers was to teach them Gaelic and, with no funds at all, the Station Hotel agreed to allow them to practise free of charge. Jimmy and Elizabeth paid for the bus to the Mod, and for meals for the choir.
On the first Saturday in March, in 1968, a full evening dress, grand concert was held in the Town Hall to raise the necessary funds. The choir was supported by The Atholl Highlanders Pipes, in full regalia, the Dunkeld and District Strathspey and Reel Society, and Mrs Hay’s Junior dancers and choir. Every seat was taken, and this annual event was to support the choir for many years.
They recruited many of the original members from Aberfeldy, some of whom were singing with the Pitlochry Operatic Society, and along with several more locals coerced into joining, entered the Sheriff McMaster Campbell Trophy competition, for Rural Choirs, at the Mod in Dunoon in 1968. The first song to be sung in 1968 was “Mo Run Chailin”, a song still sung by the choir.
They were very pleased to come in 2nd to Carradale, a choir of some renown at the time, and the following year, in 1968, at the Mod in Dunoon, and with some more members, they won the trophy. They won again the following year in Aviemore, and again in Oban in 1970.
After several years of success in the Sheriff McMaster competition, Jimmy, ever one for a challenge, decided to up a gear and enter the Choir for the next level - the Margrat Duncan Competition, for Choirs requiring 20% of members having a pass in the Gaelic test, as it was then.
An Comunn Gaidhealach were approached and asked to alter the rules to allow choirs from areas, as well as towns of 2000 residents, to enter the competition. The Choir rose to the challenge and at the Mod in Stirling in 1971 the choir won both the Gaelic trophy and the Music trophy, with marks of 181 for each.
They were knocked back to 5th place the following year in Inverness, although with a bigger choir, but success came again at Ayr in 1973, when they once again won both trophies.
In 1974, at Dundee, they were 2nd , but a tour to Cologne that year saw them singing with the Gummersbach Male Voice Choir, who came to Aberfeldy for the local Mod. Both choirs sang in the Friday night concert, and Provost James Fisher, and Aberfeldy Town Council, held a civic reception for them.
1975 saw another win at East Kilbride, when they took home the Gaelic cup, and they were again 2nd in Aberdeen in 1976. The boards were swept in 1977 with the winning of the Margrat Duncan, the Gaelic trophy, and the Mull and Iona Shield and the Glen Ballachulish Trophy for the male voice choir. 2nd again in Oban 1978, though success eluded them in Stornoway the following year.
However Elizabeth, by now very busy in other areas of her life, was ready to step down as Gaelic tutor. She would prove a hard act to follow, but providence sent Helen T Macmillan to teach at Breadalbane Academy. A native of Dervaig on Mull, where her father was the local schoolmaster, she was one of 6 sisters and 3 brothers, and a former gold medal winner. In fact her sisters, Annie Isabella MacMillan and May Margaret MacMillan, and her brother-in-law, Donald McIsaac (married to her eldest sister, Mary), were also gold medal winners, an amazing achievement for one family.
1980 saw the Choir at the Mod in Perth, where they once again swept the boards and came home with a busload of silver cups and salvers. The Choir was feeling justifiably proud, and ready to rest on its laurels, but Jimmy had other ideas. He wanted to move into the premier league, and aim for the coveted Lovat & Tullibardine Shield. This meant more people had to pass the Gaelic speaking test, so hard work would be required.
Helen continued to teach Gaelic to the Choir for more than 10 years, and she was a dedicated teacher. She ruled all with a rod of iron, and settled for nothing less than perfection. Under her tuition, and still with Jimmy at the helm, the Choir entered the Lovat & Tullibardine Shield competition at the Mod in Fort William in 1981 and came in 3rd, an amazing achievement.
At the Mod in Skye, in 1982 the choir came very close to winning the shield, finishing a close 2nd to the Glasgow Islay choir, and winning the Oban Times silver salver for the highest marks in music. Jimmy felt he had done his best, and he was ready to retire. That year the Choir sang Gleann Bhaile Chaoil, which in 2007 was once again the prescribed piece for the Lovat & Tullibardine.
By now Jimmy had retired from Breadalbane Academy, and he was ready to join his sister in Closeburn. He was another very hard act to follow. Many had known Jimmy since their days in his school choir and, truth to tell, he still treated them as if they were still at school! Dusters could be flung, and the Choir dismissed if not up to scratch. He conducted with a polo mint on his tongue, and he was a colourful character who raced up and down the streets of Aberfeldy in his purple Triumph Spitfire sports car.
However, once again, the choir were lucky enough to find a replacement. They were able to persuade Nancy McKenzie, Principal teacher of Music at Crieff High School, and living in Aberfeldy, to take on the Choir.
Under her leadership the first success was at the Mod in Edinburgh in 1986, winning the Puirt a Beul competition. This national success led to an invitation to appear on television with Calum Kennedy. Following on from this, Nancy led the choir to Glasgow in 1988 to win the coveted Lovat & Tullibardine trophy. This was a tremendous achievement - the ultimate accolade.
The choir was, and still is, competing against 15 of the best Gaelic choirs in the world from cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and London, as well as choirs from the Western Isles, most of whom had grown up singing Gaelic music. To actually win was a great triumph for a choir from such a small Perthshire town.
And success came again 2 years later at the Mod in Govan, when the choir once again won the Oban Times Silver Salver for the highest marks in music. This win was followed by an impromptu concert in Glasgow’s Central Station, where Nancy was sure the acoustics would be excellent!
The choir was staying in the Central Hotel, so trooped out on to the platform, and sang over the tannoy announcing train times! Thinking to explain their presence, the salver was sat front, and they were delighted to find passengers throwing money on to it!
Nancy enjoyed English and Scottish songs too, and she took the choir to success at the Perth Music Festival. Away from Gaelic, Burns has long been a favourite, and over the years many Burns Suppers have been hosted, and many of his lovely songs included in their repetoire.
However retirement was beckoning to Nancy too and, sadly, she said farewell to the choir in 1995.
This time the choir were not so lucky, and were unable to find a replacement for her. Fortunately, Frances McCallum, an alto with the Choir for many years, agreed to step in and take it until someone could be found.
Under Frances’s baton the Choir once again won the Puirt a Beul competition at the Mod in Fort William in 1999. It was a particularly welcome win, as she was to bring the beautiful, silver conductor’s baton back home to Perthshire, where it had been crafted, in Grandtully, by Malcolm Appleby.
By now Helen T Macmillan was ready to retire and return to live in Glasgow with her sisters who, unfortunately, were in poor health. Helen herself lived on to a great old age, dying in 2007, just weeks short of her 100th birthday.
Neil Macleod, headmaster at Kenmore school, and a native of Harris, was persuaded to step in as Gaelic tutor, and with Frances at the helm, the choir was Host Choir at the Mod in Perth in 2004, and the following year went to Spain to put on concerts for the Spanish Cancer Charity. They learned to sing in Spanish, introduced the Spaniards to Gaelic language and music and, in doing so, raised nearly £3000.
The choir was back in Perth for the opening of the new Concert Hall, when it sang in the Pearls of the Tay concert. Margaret Bennett was also on stage for the opening, and this led to an appearance with her at Celtic Connections, in Glasgow, in 2006. This year she invited them back to sing with her again at Celtic Connections, and it indeed felt an honour to stand on such a stage as The Royal Concert Hall, with someone of her calibre.
Neil Macleod stepped down from his post as Gaelic Tutor in 2006, when his position as vice-chairman of An Comunn Gaidhealach left him little free time. Once again the choir was fortunate enough to find a replacement right away, and was delighted to welcome Seonaig Barbour as the new Gaelic Tutor. Seonaig is a native of Skye and farms with her husband, Andrew, at Fincastle.
While all this has being going on, the Choir's Quartet has been quietly winning prizes at local and national level. Individually they are Gilliain MacDonald, who teaches in the Gaelic Medium Unit in Forfar; May Brown, the local veterinary assistant; Peter MacIntosh, the computer manager at Pitlochry Festival Theatre; and Brian Owen, one-time bus driver in Aberfeldy, who has recently fled to the Isle of Mull to work for CalMac. Collectively they are known as “Fuaimeach”, which means “noisy”.
Soloists and duets have also been competing at various Mods. Aberfeldy was again to the fore when the National Mod came to Perth in 2004. The quartet from the choir was 2nd, and the duet of May and Gilliain won the coveted national prize.
Over the years the choir has indeed sung in many a strange place. A visit to Glasgow saw Christmas Carols being sung on the stairs in Fraser’s department store, and Christmas Carols were also sung in Kinnaird one Christmas Eve... without an audience! However there were no complaints, as the champagne flowed afterwards! A post-Mod ceilidh in Inverness, for the BBC, found them singing out the back of a hotel among the empties, and bins! Other TV appearances have been more dignified, and they were delighted to visit Grampian TV studios and sing with Calum Kennedy on his show.
This is a small choir from a very small village and, amazingly, it has sung in churches, cathedrals, halls large and small, on boats, in buses, in marquees, castles, both out and inside, in pubs and hotels, on radio, and even in the Real Madrid Supporters Club in Spain!
And one of the highlights of the Choir year is to take part in the Christmas Carol Service in Aberfeldy. This allows them to relax - forget the competition - and show their versatility in their choice of music. Although Gaelic music is their first choice, they love all kinds of music; in fact they just love to sing.
The choir has also been busy in the recording studio. A cassette entitled “A Taste of the Highlands”, was produced some years ago, followed in 2001 by a CD, "Co-Eismealachd". A DVD has been filmed recently, and it is hoped this will soon be released.
40 years on, this is now the only Gaelic Choir in Perthshire, an area once a stronghold of the Gaelic language and, apart from Mary Stewart, who is from Harris, there are no native Gaelic speakers in the choir. But many who started out learning to sing it phonetically, have progressed to reading and understanding it, and several have passed the new stringent Gaelic testing, required by 25% of the Choir to sing in the Lovat and Tullibardine competition. Gilliain MacDonald studied at school, then her interest in the language took her on to university and teacher training college and, ultimately, to a Gaelic Medium teaching post. Although not a native speaker, she is the choir’s Gold Medal hopeful!
Competing annually in a competition of the standard of the Lovat and Tullibardine is, to say the least, a challenge. It takes lots of commitment to create a 4-part harmony without accompaniment and with a Gaelic atmosphere.
However, we love the music - and the company - and the end result makes it all worthwhile.