"A row broke out at the Mòd last night..."
It is highly unlikely you will be reading this line over the next week from Paisley, where Scotland's premier celebration of Gaelic culture brings native Gaels together with learners and enthusiasts from near and far.
Their spirits are high following census evidence that the haemorrhage Gaelic speakers has been all but stemmed. There is optimism that the figure of 58,000 will provide the foundations to sustain the language, given the rise in young speakers.
But the line will be all too familiar to veterans of the (Royal) National Mòd. Indeed there were times when it seemed that every second news report started with rather depressing words about a row breaking out. What they prefaced was that some Gael(s) or other had been publicly sinking the boot into An Comunn Gaidhealach, the Mòd, organisers.
Controversy over the Mòd goes back a long way. Seventy six years ago, the celebrated Highland writer Neil Gunn wrote of how troubled he was by the festival that was just about to start in Dundee. In his essay Ferry of the Dead, Gunn wrote: "When I turn to the Mòd and try to see what it is doing for Gaeldom, I find it difficult to be impressed. Despite its concern with the things of the spirit, it is essentially neither a creative body nor an inspiration towards creation. At the core, it stands for the remembrance of things past, and does not envisage a future in terms of that past.
"And that is why no real Gael, in his heart, believes in the the Mòd. And when he is a decent man he is troubled, because here in truth are precious things of the spirit, and he knows that the life that bred them is dying."
It is revealing that in 1937 Gunn feared that the Mòd was seeking to cover up the fact that the writing was on the wall for Gaelic. At that time there were still over 130,000 speakers (1931 census) around. Mind you that in itself represented a drop of around 100,000 in 50 years (1881 census).
Concern became very public in the 1970s in a Scotland that was wrestling with how to shape its own identity as the devolution debate intensified. Through that decade and into the next, awareness was growing that the tide really was ebbing on the Gaelic language, with fewer than 80,000 speakers left in 1981. But An Comunn and the the Mòd seemed to be caught in the headlights of the emerging Gaelic movement. They became the focus of much criticism, with some activists publicly burning their Mòd programmes and tearing up their An Comunn membership cards.
To them the national body, far from fighting to save Gaelic, appeared almost apologetic about speaking the language, and was content for whatever crumbs of public support thrown its way. Not only did An Comunn appear to have some monoglot English speakers in positions of influence, the Mòd itself was based on a very formal presentation of the songs, which to many appeared alien to true Gaelic culture.
One who did tear up his membership card was award-winning Gaelic poet and writer Aonghas MacNeacail (widely known as Black Angus), from Skye. A few years back he recalled: "I did it out of a deep impatience and frustration with An Comunn and the Mòd. Not enough was being done even within An Comunn's own operation to ensure that Gaelic was used whenever possible, and there was an apparent unwillingness to make the moral case for the language. This at a time when Gaelic was dying, with over 13,000 speakers lost between 1981 and 1991.
"I have not mellowed on that score. There are still too many happy with too little from government, but there are targets other than the Mòd now for my dissatisfaction. In recent years An Comunn has reminded me of Britain, losing its empire and casting around for a new role. But I would say the Mòd does serve a useful purpose and lives up to its derivation which, ironically, is from the old Norse word 'moot', for a meeting. It is a place where family and old friends meet again."
The problem was also that for a century An Comunn had been the only Gaelic body around. But it was only ever a voluntary organisation. It wasn't until 1984 that Comunn na Gaidhlig was established by the Scottish Office as an official Gaelic development agency. Now you are tripping over Gaelic bodies.
Another part of the problem at that time was that the Mòd was unique as an arts festival, in that it was covered almost exclusively by news reporters. They/we of course loved the "A row broke out..." type of story.
Duncan Ross, former editor of the Golspie-based Northern Times, is a member of the award-winning male voice choir Coilich a Chinn a Tuath (Cocks of the North) - which brings together the men of Lairg and Melvich Gaelic choirs - and is now the press's "Modfather". He has the longest unbroken record of Mòd coverage of any journalist. This record will continue in Paisley.
He says: "Although they complained about some of the coverage in those years, I suspect that, deep down, An Comunn was grateful that Gaelic and the Mòd were being kept in the public eye. And let's face it, whatever its failings, without the Mòd having been around for over 120 years, Scotland would have forgotten about Gaelic long ago."
He is right, and those in Paisley should be proud of that.
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