Empowering young performers at the local Gaelic Mod

There was only one story in our house last week… Michael, five, went to the Mod! This, as many of you will know, is a great festival celebrating all that is fabulous in the Gaelic tradition and includes a whole raft of competitions including choral and solo singing, music, recitation and drama.

Not to be mixed up with the main event that is the Royal National Mod, held in October, this was Mòd Ionadail Leòdhais — the Lewis Mod. It is one of a network of local Mods that take place across Scotland, for children aged five to 16, and is open to Gaelic learners as well as native speakers.

It was the drama category that our wee guy was in, along with the rest of his Gaelic Medium class from Stornoway Primary, and I couldn’t have been any prouder if I was Leonardo Di Caprio’s mum at this year’s Oscars.

Michael was charged with delivering a grand total of eight lines as Narrator Number Four in ‘Am Bodach Aran-Cridhe’ (The Gingerbread Man). Disappointingly for him, he didn’t get to wear an animal costume and chase the gingerbread man around the stage, shouting ‘yum yum, you look so tasty!” (in Gaelic obviously) but he had taken the whole thing really quite seriously.

We were rehearsing our lines at home for weeks and the excitement in the build-up was tremendous. The nerves were affecting him the night before — “I don’t want to wake up tomorrow!” he declared, with the appropriate amount of drama.


On Mod Morning, he was in his school uniform an hour early and just about beside himself. A minute away from the school gate, he was harrassing his father: “Hurry up dad!” “It’s okay, we’ve got five minutes,” he was assured. “Five minutes?!?! Hurry up!!”

The class went from the school to An Lanntair, where the competition was being held, in the school bus and we made our own way there, accompanied by Michael’s Shen (granddad), for whom it was a bit of a trip down memory lane.

“It would have been 1955 and I was in the recitation competition,” he recalled. “I was about 10. I can’t remember what the piece was but I remember it was in Martin’s Memorial Church Hall and one of the judges was Dolly Doctor. Four of us were taken from Breasclete in the schoolmaster’s Black Hillman Minx — registration number JS8 578 — and I was sitting beside the schoolmaster and I got to change the gears on the way over.

“I remember being in Woolies and I remember getting ice cream in the Italian’s and I remember thinking that Stornoway was a huge place.”

He won third prize but took something else away from the competition too. “It gave me the confidence to perform in public because subsequently I did take part in the Gaelic playlets under the direction of Betty Mackenzie, when I was about 14 or 15. It reduces the anxiety of performing in public, such as public speaking.”

As we waited for Michael’s class to come on, Shen whispered: “I find this almost as exciting as if I was up on the stage myself.”

The cuteness of their actual performance was almost too much, particularly when the cearc (chicken) got stage fright. Michael gave him his cue to come on but there was only a quick flutter of feathers to be seen stage left as our cearc literally turned tail. (I hope he is not too discouraged for next time.)

The show went on, thanks to the disembodied voice of teacher Miss Murray delivering the cearc’s line from offstage, and as they received their applause, I confess to being a bit teary.

When we emerged into the sun afterwards, I was struck by the buzz about the place. Mums, dads and grandparents were rushing about and everyone was remembering their own Mods. “I was always in the choir,” mum Catriona Smith said in passing. “It was always a buzz coming to town on the bus with a few quid for Woolies, even from Bayble!”

SHINING STARS: Some of the prizewinners in this year's literature categories. Pic courtesy of An Comunn Gàidhealach
SHINING STARS: Prizewinners in the literature categories. Pic courtesy of An Comunn Gàidhealach

Traditions take many forms and this is one of ours. Last week’s event was the 83rd Mòd Ionadail Leòdhais and about 400 children took part. Held over four days, it is one of the biggest of the local Mods, and a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes.

Amy Macaulay, chair of Mòd Ionadail Leòdhais, is one of five volunteers on the organising committee, supported by An Comunn Gàidhealach. “It was good, it was really good,” she said afterwards, “and we were helped by the weather. The kids seemed to enjoy it, especially when you see them coming in in their drama groups and their choirs. They looked really excited.

“The number of schools have decreased but the pupils are still there. And as long as they enjoy it, we’ll keep on doing it. Most people locally can relate to (the Mod) in some form or other. I suppose it’s part of who we are, really.”

Many children who start out at the local Mod and win prizes will, sure as night follows day, go on to the National Mod and likely win prizes there too. The fact the same prescribed pieces can be used for both, helps. But it’s also about creating habits: of practice and performance.

For some, it’s the reason they play in the first place. Accordian player Graham Maclennan — incidentally a member of the house band at the fundraising ceilidh for Mòd nan Eilean Siar on Thursday night — is one of these people.

Now 23, Graham won the under-18s accordian competition at the National Mod in Oban in 2009. He started playing the box when he was seven and went to his first local Mod at nine or 10.

“I was probably nervous at the time but I enjoyed it as well. The Mod was something to look forward to and learn tunes for and work towards. At a young age, it was exciting and better than schoolwork. The local Mod is probably one of the things that’s made me carry on and get started in the first place.”

Another Mod child star (winner of the under-16 Silver Pendant for singing, among many other prizes) who went on to great things as an adult is Anna Murray — piper, singer, actress, piping instructor and Mod adjudicator too! She thinks the competition element is really important.

“You’ve signed up, you’ve done the work, you’ve gone on stage and performed in front of an audience. Whether you’ve won a prize or not, you can say to yourself, ‘I have done it’. It’s very empowering.

“It is nerve-wracking,” she admitted, “but if they get used to it, being able to manage their nerves can only be a positive thing going forward for any young person, no matter what course they take in their lives.

“The good thing about competition is not about whether you beat this person or that person, it’s about being competitive with yourself. It’s about, on that day, being a better musician than you were the day before. That’s what you’re striving for, every day.”

I was wondering at what age star quality shows, when Amy Macaulay mentioned Duais na Comhairle, the trophy awarded to the overall Mod winner at the prizewinners’ concert.

This year it went to Lily McDowall from Sgoil na Pàirc, for her recitation. Lily is six.

Pablo Picasso said: “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” By the same token, the eminent educationalist Sir Ken Robinson (check out his incredible Ted Talk on the subject HERE) believes children get ‘educated out of their creativity’ because the arts — particularly the performance ones — are placed at the bottom in the hierarchy of subjects in schools.

I had thought that the Mod ‘made’ children performers as they grew older, more accomplished and more practiced. Now, I’m more inclined to think it gives them the framework they need to remain the performers they naturally are.


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