Friday, 20 May 2011

Les Jeudistes Scottish Choir Tour No. 3

Tir nan Og

Ullapool, far away on Scotland's remote north west coast, has a dreamy, Local Hero quality to it, a siren-song that calls you to ditch everything and just lap yourself in the still waters of Loch Broom, cradle yourself in the mountains of Wester Ross and stay there forever. There's a Gaelic expression for it: Tir nan Og, which means something like the 'country of the ever-young'. Or fairyland.

It's not like that at all, of course. Things are seldom what they seem. Les Jeudistes enjoyed the 50-mile drive there, oohing and aahing at the North Highland scenery, especially when after miles of bleak moorland you suddenly begin to descend towards the Atlantic coast with its temperate climate (thank you, Gulf Stream), lush vegetation and seductive views of the little town and port of Ullapool. And maybe in keeping with the unreality of all this there's nowhere to pull in and take photos. Except maybe of the road sign that says 'A835 Stornaway/Steòrnabhagh', which is about 50 miles away by sea across the Minch. To be fair, the road sign shows an image of a car ferry. Place names are given in English and Gaelic in this part of the world.

We're due to share the concert programme with a New Age folk-band calling themselves Pineapple Tuxedo, and it would need someone like Geoff with his encyclopedic knowledge of such things to explain why. And a Gaelic choir, calling itself Coisir ghaidlig an iar tuath. (I'll spare Geoff that one.)

Ullapool High School

We rehearse in the almost brand-new theatre attached to Ullapool High School. Hardly anyone has a local accent, virtually everyone we meet speaks the speech of southern England. Have they all been seduced by Tir nan Og? We meet members of the Gaelic choir. They're all super people, we get on very well. There's an American among them, and I think instantly of Local Hero. Few, if any, speak a word of Gaelic. The songs they sing they've learnt by rote. They have the gist of what they're singing about, but not much more. They rely entirely on their elegant and very musical conductor, Lisa Macdonald, who is a native speaker.


Between rehearsal and concert we stroll down to the water's edge. It's still, sunny and so warm. We sit on the sea-wall, drinking in the view up Loch Broom, lifting up our eyes to the hills. The pull of Tir nan Og is very strong. We could sit here, a happy little band of musicians enjoying each others' company, for ever. It's hard to pull ourselves away, return to the theatre, put on uniform and take the stage. Pineapple Tuxedo (P Tux for short) kicks off, bass guitar, electric guitar, accordion and bagpipes played without the drones. We follow with all my Shakespeare songs, and I'm conscious how curiously incongruous they are in this never-never land.

At the interval there's a big surprise. The pipes and drums of Ullapool High School, girls and boys, are drawn up for us in horse-shoe formation on the front concourse, 17 pipers and a dozen drummers including a small lad with a bass drum so large that he probably sleeps in it and rolls to band practice like a hamster in a wheel. They play several military marches, some in the wild harmony that the limited bagpipe scale allows, and far from being dressed in kilt, tunic and plaid like soldiers they're all in ordinary clothes, jeans, trainers, football strip tops and so on. At the end they form up in ranks and march off into the distance, maybe into the very heart of Tir nan Og. But more likely to home, chicken nuggets, Coca-Cola and the X Factor, or whatever.

In the second half the Gaelic choir sings, maybe a bit diffidently, finishing with a phuirt-a-beul, very rhythmical singing that does duty for dance music when no instruments are available. Les Jeudistes are fascinated. They've never heard anything like this before, a rapid, urgent, toe-tapping succession of sometimes nonsense syllables. Could we do that? they ask, and I skirt round the enormous effort needed to learn this hyper-exotic music at such a far-distant remove from my beloved Brahms or Schubert by saying maybe they could persuade the lovely Lisa Macdonald to come and teach us.

We follow with our Occitan songs. We're on level ground with the Gaelic choir here. None of us is a native Occitan speaker. It's all an elegant pretence, one I sometimes feel quite uneasy about, especially when it comes to bilingual road-signs. All the same at the end of the concert I put a few words of Gaelic together, almost my entire vocabulary: Gaidhlteachd gu brath! Tapadh leat, agus oidhche mhath. ('Gaeldom for ever! Thank you, and good night.' Sorry, my spelling might be a bit wonky). I might as well have spoken to my knees for all anyone in the audience could make head or tail of this. The one person who might have understood, Lisa Macdonald, had to go home early to relieve her babysitter.

That's Tir nan Og for you. You have to face up to reality some time.

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