Dingwall Gaelic Choir 1904 – 1954

Attribution: unknown (Greenhill street  in Dingwall looking North)

Dingwall Gaelic Choir 1904-1954

The introduction of Gaelic music through choral singing appears to owe its existence to the encouragement and efforts of An Comunn Gaidhealach, the Dingwall branch of which was formed early in 1901.

Choral music was not unknown in the town since Dingwall Choral Union had “over 90 voices” in its ranks, and so another attempt by An Comunn in October 1902 saw 22 young men enrolling in the Gaelic nightclass/choir. To give encouragement to the group, Roderick Macleod and his Inverness Gaelic Choir were invited to give a concert in the Masonic Hall the following month. All stops were pulled out on the evening of the concert! The Inverness Choir, headed by the pipe band of the 1st Volunteer Brigade Seaforth Highlanders, marched from the Railway Hotel to the hall.

The plan worked. By March 1903, and now named “Dingwall Gaelic Choir”, the group, supported by An Comunn Gaidhealach and increased to 40, felt confident enough to hold a combined Gaelic and English concert. Sir Hector Munro of Foulis was named as chairman and Roderick Macleod was back as soloist. Proceeds from the concert and subsequent contributions would go towards the expenses of holding the evening class and preparing students for the Inverness Mod of 1903. However, in the report on the latter, there was no mention of Dingwall Gaelic Choir.

Early in 1904 the “singing class” held under the tutelage of Mr Donald Mackay, MA, headmaster of Maryburgh school, finished their winter session by holding a concert in the Caledonian Hotel, Dingwall. A month later, a meeting of “some of our citizens favourable to the continuance of the teaching of Gaelic reading and of Gaelic singing” was held and it was resolved to resume weekly classes in October of that year in the hope of encouraging some younger citizens to “acquire knowledge of Gaelic and of our Gaelic melodies”.

Donald Mackay, MA

Donald Mackay, MA

In September of that year, An Comunn Gaidhealach announced that the 1905 Mod would be held in Dingwall and, when classes began, forty names were enrolled as members, with Donald Mackay once more as conductor. Progress was evident because, in the Spring of 1905, the choir gave a concert where they sang their testpieces, this time in the Masonic Hall, chaired by the Countess of Cromartie who had been appointed President of the forthcoming Dingwall Mod.

Meantime, the Town Council and other supporters of the Mod had not been idle in making preparations for this notable event, including fund-raising and other practical matters such as accommodation for visitors, competition venues, hospitality, etc, and as no hall in Dingwall was large enough for the final concert, a marquee holding 1000 was proposed for the grounds of the Academy in Tulloch Street. It transpired that the final concert saw the marquee filled to capacity, including a total of 300 on the platform, comprising an orchestra and combined choirs, and 3,000 in the Academy grounds!

Another bonus for the town prior to the Mod was the display of the Lovat and Tullibardine Shield in a local shop window, as this was the first time the newly-created trophy would be awarded “for the best rendering of a Gaelic song”. In the event Oban Gaelic Choir and Inverness Gaelic Choir emerged as joint winners. The claim that this was “the first time” appears to be inaccurate, since the trophy was donated on the occasion of the 1903 Mod when the first winners were Dundee Gaelic Music Association.

And what of the embryo Dingwall Gaelic Choir in all this? They emerged first in a class for choral singing confined to choirs that had not formerly gained a prize at a Mod and were later praised for their success, particularly as “they were opposed by choirs which had as many years’ practice as Dingwall had months’”. All successes, including some junior soloists, were attributed to the efforts of Mr Donald Mackay and a report on the Mod stated (somewhat immodestly) that “It was admitted by all who had knowledge of Mods that it (Dingwall Mod) much surpassed any previous Mod”.

The choir resumed practices under Donald Mackay as conductor and gave concerts in Muir of Ord and Dingwall in the Spring of 1906, following which he received a presentation in appreciation of his services during that momentous session, being described as “clever and indefatigable” and having “reached a considerable high standard in Gaelic singing”.

Throughout the remainder of 1906, in 1907 and most of 1908 there is practically no mention of DGC and it would seem that Mr Mackay had turned his attention to Maryburgh School Gaelic Choir which featured in a (the?) Mod in Inverness and held a concert to raise funds for their attendance at the 1909 Mod in Stirling. Also, in 1908, the Ross-shire Journal reported the formation of choral unions in Dingwall and several adjacent villages. Could these have accounted for desertion from the Gaelic Choir?

However, there was a resurgence of interest in October 1908 when Dingwall Gaelic Choir met for the first time under the conductorship of Mr Hugh A Fraser, MA, the recently-appointed senior science master in Dingwall Academy. Progress was evident, the conductor was popular (he received a presentation at the end of the session for his “enthusiastic and gratuitous services”) and the choir held a Grand Highland Concert in the Masonic Hall in March 1909, featuring a celebrated Gaelic vocalist and Scott Skinner, ‘the Strathspey King’.

Never ones to rest on their laurels, the choir held a Ceilidh in the Academy a month later, when there were more presentations to conductor, accompanist and choir secretary, with musical contributions by choir and individual members, and an excellent tea (nothing changes!).

November 1909 saw a ceilidh in the Carnegie Hall (Dingwall, not New York!) and a social evening for the choir a month later comprising a musical programme, dancing, and three speeches in Gaelic.

New Year 1910 brought the second annual concert given by the choir in the Masonic Hall, which featured the first appearance of The Dingwall Orchestral Society and a display of Waulking as performed before the Colonial Premiers in the Queen’s Hall, London. Apart from the choir the concert featured a junior ladies’ choir. The accompanist was Mr J R Freeman, ARCO, music master in Dingwall Academy and Organist and Choirmaster of St James’ and St Anne’s Churches. Following the concert, choir members enjoyed a dance with music supplied by a local band plus outside catering. A week later the choir entertained the patients in the Seaforth Sanatorium which had opened the previous year.

From 1910-1911 there seemed to be little activity, although there was reference to “a Gaelic singing class” being formed once more in October 1911. The class, now 36 in number, “practised enthusiastically” and by April 1912 announced a Grand Gaelic Concert with notable Mod medallists and an address by the President of An Comunn. A feature of this concert was bagpipe selections by Pipe Major Macpherson of the 5th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, including specially composed for the occasion The Dingwall Gaelic Choir March. Recent research has failed to trace any written notation of this piece and perhaps this is an opportunity for someone to honour the Dingwall Gaelic Choir of 2014 by composing a replacement?

Hugh A Fraser, MA

Attribution: Hugh A Fraser, MA (photograph courtesy of Mrs Margaret Mackintosh)

Encouraged by a reaction to the concert – “the most successful Gaelic concert ever held in Dingwall” – the choir ventured forth to give a concert in Evanton and, at a ceilidh in Dingwall later in the year, were urged to prepare for the 1913 Mod in Dundee. This advice was followed during 1913 through “a musical recital” and concerts in Dingwall and Strathpeffer, the proceeds from which, plus generous contributions from the public, benefited the choir’s coffers.

In September 1913 the Dingwall public gave the choir an enthusiastic send-off as they left by train for Dundee and an even greater welcome when they returned with the coveted Lovat and Tullibardine Trophy. On arriving at Dingwall Station the 25 members of the choir were greeted by prolonged cheering. Two brakes accommodated the choir but enthusiasm was so great that some young men unhitched the horses and pulled the brakes through the town, preceded by the pipe band of the 4th Seaforth Highlanders, to the Town Hall balcony where the trophy was displayed and there were speeches by members of the Town Council and officials of the choir.

Dingwall Gaelic Choir 1913

Dingwall Gaelic Choir 1913. Conductor Hugh A Fraser in Highland dress at rear left holding a baton. Could this be a replacement for the baton which broke in two when, in a fit of temper, he hurled it at the choir?

Practices were resumed a month later and in February 1914 the choir promoted a ‘Grand Highland Concert’ in Tain, the advert for which proclaimed them “Winners of the Lovat-Tullibardine Challenge Shield, Dundee Mod 1913. First Prizewinners Inverness Mod 1912”. There was even a special train taking the locals to and from Tain. This was followed, in May, by a concert in the Masonic Hall, Dingwall, at which they sang Mod test pieces before an audience which was described as “the most distinguished seen at a Dingwall concert for many years”, comprising as it did many of the landed gentry from east to west of the county, some of whom were no doubt eager to be associated with the fame the choir had brought to the county town.

Little did anyone suspect that this would be the final appearance of the choir on the concert platform for many years because, with the outbreak of the 1914-18 War, the cancellation of the National Mod throughout the duration, and no doubt the enlistment of male members in the Forces, there would be little enthusiasm or opportunity for the Gaelic cause to advance. In fact, “home grown” talent declined during War years when entertainment was provided by professional musicians serving with Forces in the area and recitals by London-based artistes such as soprano (later Dame) Clara Butt.

Spasmodic references during War years revealed that some remaining members kept the flag flying through involvement in fund-raising for “comforts” for the Troops and raising money for the national appeal to provide a ward in Woodside Hospital, Glasgow, for Gaelic-speaking servicemen. When, in 1918, Hugh A Fraser helped organise a war-effort concert, with professional artistes, there was no mention of Dingwall Gaelic Choir.

So, Gaelic music in Dingwall fell into the doldrums from 1914 to January 1929 when a familiar advert appeared, with the re-formed branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach inviting enrolment in the “singing class” with Dean of Guild Macrae as conductor and Alistair Fraser as Gaelic tutor. Re-formed An Comunn and re-formed Dingwall Gaelic Choir featured in the monthly ceilidhs held in the Temperance Hall and by March of that year the choir opened the ceilidh with Suas leis a’Ghaidlig. Enthusiasm rampant!

By October 1929, again referred to as the “singing class”, the choir numbered 40 ladies “and a few gentlemen” but when An Comunn promoted a Gaelic and English concert in the Town Hall a month later, the programme was sustained entirely by Inverness Gaelic Music Association (that year’s winner of the Lovat and Tullibardine) with no participation by Dingwall Gaelic Choir. However, An Comunn still regarded DGC favourably and allowed Alistair Fraser to use their copy of Gaelic grammar which had been written in Dingwall in 1829.

January 1930 saw Dean of Guild Macrae being replaced by D E Roberts, ARCO, Inverness, as conductor and, as the same Mr Roberts was conductor of Dingwall Choral Union, he must have been a busy man! However, he was not too busy to arrange a Grand Gaelic and English concert in the Town Hall in April when the programme revealed that the Dingwall Gaelic Choir would sing six choruses.

In July, Dingwall submitted a bid to hold the National Mod in 1931and success was confirmed in October. The latter month saw an advert by An Comunn regarding the formation of junior and senior choirs with Mrs Gall, Inverness, replacing D E Roberts as conductor.


Dingwall Gaelic Choir 1930

Attribution:Dingwall Gaelic Choir on a previous outing to Ullapool in May 1930 (photograph courtesy of Dingwall Museum).

During winter and spring 1930-31 serious fund-raising began for the Dingwall Mod, estimated to require £600, with sub-committees organising possible competition venues and hotel accommodation in both Dingwall and Strathpeffer. Dingwall’s senior and junior choirs contributed financially through the now-familiar Grand Gaelic and English concert, plus a series of concerts in Fortrose, Bonar Bridge, Tain, Garve, Alness and Culbokie. However, in May 1931 the choir rewarded their efforts by having a trip to Gairloch to view Flowerdale House and have a game of golf or a boat trip on Gairloch Bay. Mindful of Mod funds, they gave a concert in Gairloch in the evening. The entire day cost each member 10/- (50p), including lunch and tea!

Arrangements for the Mod were finalised. Apart from being competition venues the Town Hall and Masonic Hall would hold the grand concerts; special trains would run for the four days of the Mod; in a marquee at the National Hotel 600 lunches would be provided daily; at the official opening the Town Council would hold a reception for over 700; each child listed as a competitor would be given 2/- (20p); monetary prizes amounted to over £300. Fund-raising had provided a budget of £1,100 and total expenses were anticipated as £1,000.

The Ross-shire Journal in early October 1931 devoted almost two full pages to the events of the previous week regarding a Mod which had been voted “a triumphant success”. There had been nine entries in the Lovat and Tullibardine competition but Dingwall Gaelic Choir did not repeat its success of 1913, the trophy having been won by Campbeltown Gaelic Choir. Two grand concerts had been held in each hall, the final one in the Town Hall being broadcast by the BBC.

The junior choir, first mentioned as being formed in 1930, had participated in fund-raising for the Mod through involvement in a concert early in 1931. Post-Mod, they now had Mrs Fraser, wife of the local minister, as conductor and throughout 1932 they held concerts in Garve, Evanton, Strathconon and Conon in aid of their attending the forthcoming Mod in Fort William. In the event they were the only choir from Ross and Cromarty.

Dingwall Gaelic Choir seems to have faded away following the 1931 Mod but revived in February 1932 with Tom Davies, Inverness, as conductor. Apathy must have reigned once more until An Comunn stirred the natives in November 1933 when a choir was formed with William Campbell, Conon, as conductor and Alistair Fraser as Gaelic tutor. This new Dingwall Gaelic Choir gave a concert in April 1934 and was described as “not a large one …. but some voices of excellent quality”. The programme, described as “lengthy”, contained 26 items! Another activity the following month was a visit to Invergordon Hospital to entertain the patients.

[Soloists at the concert included Peggy Strachan, Ishbel Mackenzie, Mary Mackenzie, Grace Bain, Miss M Beaton, Alistair Fraser, John Mackenzie, Ted Reid, James Martin and it is reasonable to suppose that these persons feature in the photograph. Front row, 5th from left, is conductor William Campbell and 7th from left is thought to be Rita Ross. Back row, 1st left is Miss M J (Maggie) Beaton, 2nd left is Alistair Fraser.]

There is no further mention of choir activity until their concert in April 1935 which featured test pieces for the Edinburgh Mod which the choir did not propose to attend, and included Tom Maciver (billed as “humorist”) Another concert was held in March 1936 featuring soloists similar to 1934.

Practices resumed in October 1935 in preparation for the customary spring concert, when the choir was described as “numerically not too strong but of excellent material”. With the Mod being held in Inverness that year, choir members lent support by holding a concert in Strathpeffer Pavilion as part of fund-raising. However, monetary support did not equal tangible support because there were no Ross-shire competitors in music at the Mod.


Dingwall Gaelic Choir in 1934

Attribution: Dingwall Gaelic Choir in 1934 (photo courtesy of Dingwall Museum)

Moving on to April 1938, when the BBC broadcast a ceilidh from the National Hotel, there was no mention of Dingwall Gaelic Choir participating. A year later, at an An Comunn ceilidh, Alistair Fraser made an appeal for recruits for “the choirs” in order to have a presence at the forthcoming Provincial Mod. This led to involvement in a series of ceilidhs aimed at funding the Provincial Mod.

At the Provincial Mod there were three senior choirs and ten junior choirs from all parts of the county, with DGC emerging first in their competition – by ½ mark! It is interesting that one of the adjudicators at the Mod was Margrat Duncan, with whose trophy the choir would have a regular connection in later years. The success of the choir encouraged those attending the choir’s AGM to continue practices in the new session for both senior and junior choirs and to promote several ceilidhs during winter months.

With the outbreak of the Second World War the National Mod, scheduled for Aberdeen, was cancelled as was the proposed 1940 Provincial Mod. In addition, the local branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach ceased to function.

By November 1945 the Dingwall branch of An Comunn had been resuscitated and choir practices had begun under conductor Miss Ethel Bassin, LRAM, ARCM, music teacher in Dingwall Academy, but whether the choir featured in ceilidhs and concert organised by the branch during that session is uncertain.

Again, in October 1946, there appeared the now-familiar proposal that a choir be formed for the study of Gaelic and Scottish song, hopefully to appear at the National Mod in the next two years, and practices began under conductor Miss Sybil Mackay, teacher of music and daughter of Donald Mackay of 1904 fame. Within days of this announcement came the news that the Education Committee intended to appoint a County Music Organiser – a decision which had implications for the future of Gaelic music.

There is no further mention of Sybil Mackay and the choir, but the Provincial Mod arranged for 1947 was cancelled owing to lack of entries, so apathy about Gaelic and choral music had crept in once more.

December 1948 saw yet another attempt to revive DGC and once more the formidable Ethel Bassin was appointed conductor, with Alistair Fraser as tutor. Miss Bassin decided that the choir should be known as The Caberfeidh Choir and entered them for the now-established County Music Festival in June 1949, where they received high praise for the altos and Gaelic – although they were the only entrants in the class! At the Mod in Inverness that year, Caberfeidh Choir “gave quite a creditable account of themselves in music and Gaelic”. A ceilidh broadcast from Dingwall at New Year did not include Caberfeidh Choir as Miss Bassin had “gone south” but she made up for her absence through participation in a couple of springtime concerts. An appearance the next County Music Festival found the choir coming second to Beauly Gaelic Choir.


Miss Sybil Mackay

Miss Sybil Mackay

Caberfeidh Gaelic Choir practices began again for the winter session of 1950-51 with Ethel Bassin still holding the reins as conductor, followed by the choir’s inclusion in the regular Gaelic-Scots concert, an An Comunn ceilidh (organised by new secretary Alistair Maclean) and a couple of local concerts, a Festival of Britain concert but not the annual County Music Festival.

From October 1951 to June 1954 there is no mention of a Gaelic choir bearing the name of ‘Dingwall’ or ‘Caberfeidh’ and while there were regular ceilidhs and the usual Gaelic-Scots concerts organised by An Comunn, featuring local soloists (including a first appearance of Jean Macdonald, later Mrs Alistair Maclean), Miss Bassin appears to have lost interest, although she performed in the role of accompanist.

And so it continued until the appearance of two adverts ……

Ross-shire Journal 24 September 1954:

Dingwall Gaelic Choir – It is hoped to start a Dingwall and District Gaelic Choir this winter. All who are interested are requested to hand in their names at the Old Academy, Dingwall, on Tuesday 28 September 1954 between the hours of 7.00 and 8.00 pm.
Tom Maciver, Further Education Officer.

Ross-shire Journal 22 October 1954:

Dingwall Gaelic Choir – The Continuation Class in Gaelic Choral Music will commence in the Old Academy, Dingwall, on Friday 22 October at 7.45 pm.

Miss Ethel Bassin rehearsing the Choir

Attribution: Miss Ethel Bassin rehearsing the Choir in what appears to be St Clement’s Church Hall.
Second left, front row, is Sybil Mackay (conductor 1946); second row,1st left is Isobel Cameron, 2nd left, is June Macleod (later Robertson), 3rd left is Cathie Mackenzie; back row, 4th left, possibly Ted Disbury, 5th left possibly Murdo Bethune. (photo courtesy of Hamish Menzies.)

Dingwall Gaelic Choir Conductors 1904-1954

1904-1906 Donald Mackay, MA, headmaster of Maryburgh School
1908-1914 Hugh A Fraser, MA, science master, Dingwall Academy
1929-1930 Dean of Guild Macrae, Dingwall Town Counciol
1930 (Jan.) D E Roberts, ARCO, Inverness
1930 (Oct.) Mrs M C Gall, Inverness
1931 Mrs Fraser, St Clement’s Manse, Dingwall (Junior Gaelic Choir)
1932 Tom Davies, Inverness
1933-1939 William Campbell, Conon
1945-1946 Miss Ethel Bassin, LRAM, musical director, Ross and Cromarty Education Committee
1946 Miss Sybil Mackay, Maryburgh, daughter of Donald Mackay
1948 Miss Ethel Bassin, LRAM
1954 James Curr, LRAM

Click on photo album to view thumbnails and then click thumbnail to see the full size images 

In order to compile a history of Dingwall Gaelic Choir (1904-1954) Ross and Cromarty Heritage Society is grateful to the following:
Past editors of The Ross-shire Journal for faithfully recording events.
The staff of Dingwall Library who patiently provided microfiche reels of the newspaper for scrutiny.
Mr Ian Macleod and volunteers in Dingwall Museum.
Mrs Inez Nisbet (nee Curr) for photographs and information.

RCHS has endeavoured to produce as accurate a history as possible and trusts that the public will be sympathetic if errors and/or omissions are found.

Mhairi Mackenzie
November 2014

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