We spent the final night of the tour in the Holiday Inn, Ayr, a mile or two down the road from Prestwick Airport, a dismal place whose motto 'Pure dead brilliant' illustrates a characteristic Scottish thrift in its simultaneous combination of hyperbole and litotes.
The return flight, to Girona in northern Spain - the nearest airport to our base in France offering convenient flights to Scotland - meant checking in at 5.30am. We arranged to meet in the hotel foyer at 5.15, ready to embark in the minibus for the airport. The hotel reception staff said they didn't do wake-up calls, so we left it to the troops to manage their own mobile alarms. We suggested setting them for 4.30am.
Easier said than done. We should all have done it then and there, before saying goodnight, rather than leave it to each individual:
*Few if any had changed the time on their mobiles on arriving in Scotland some days earlier.
*Some were uncertain whether UK time was an hour ahead of, or behind, French time.
*And did the UK put clocks forward an hour at the end of March? Or did they put them back?
*Some had failed to advance their mobiles to take account of Continental summer-time.
*Did this mean that UK time was two hours ahead of, or behind, France?
*Some were uncertain if Spain and France had the same time.
The upshot was that alarms rang at 2.30, 3.30, 4.30, 5.30 and - the following morning, to M.'s annoyance, his mobile having been switched off for the flight - 6.30.
A further consequence was that M. and E., two of the lads, as they liked to call themselves having discovered that this is a popular term for 'man' in Scotland, had virtually to be dragged out of bed at 5.30 by one of the lassies, as they liked to call themselves having discovered that this is popular term for 'woman' in Scotland.
(Actually I should excuse E. from all this horological uncertainty. He leads a charmed life disdaining any kind of technology. He has no mobile, iPad, iPhone, anything like that at all. The most up-to-date artefacts he has about him are a comb and a two-coloured crayon. Sometimes I'm quite envious...)
But they all made it. Head lassie B. has put up a photo gallery of the whole trip here. Do have a look, tho' you would hardly gather from it that this was a Seriously Grand International Choir Outing and that we actually gave a few concerts here and there.
As for J. and me, we weren't flying back but returning a few days later by car. Of course I too in my imbecility miscalculated the alarm, which rang at 3.30. I wasn't too disgruntled. I went back to sleep for a bit. We both got up to drive the troops down to the airport, I went back to bed on return and got up for breakfast 3 hours later, by this time feeling really quite gruntled.
I know I sometimes write the first thing that comes into my head, and anyone reading these effusions is clearly graced with the greatest forbearance (or has no idea how best to spend his/her time), but today's post is something special.
No, it's no illusion, no trick photography. It's the Sultan of Oman's Mounted Pipe Band. Look, you can quite clearly see the camels, with bagpipers mounted. How you do this I've no idea. And just think, the other day I could have found out, but the opportunity passed, and unless any of the myriad camel-mounted pipers that come here every day can enlighten me, it will have passed for ever.
We took Les Jeudistes to Cawdor Castle. It's the one in which Macbeth murdered King Duncan, according to Shakespeare. (In fact Macbeth, who reigned in Scotland - as it often does - at about the time of William the Conqueror wasn't a bad king at all. His queen was called Gruoch, or maybe she was merely clearing her throat when asked what her name was.) It's a fascinating place to visit, and I've known this castle for many years. I once borrowed - by permission of Earl Cawdor, a Campbell - the castle dinner gong for a performance in which I was playing percussion of Carmina Burana in nearby Inverness.
I arranged for a piper to meet Les Jeudistes, thinking we might as well go the whole hog. Mutedly resplendent in mainly blue tartan, he met us at the turnstile, led us in procession to a well-known march called The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill to the castle drawbridge, where we were all photographed with him. When he stopped playing I asked him what his pipe-history was: usually pipers have served with some military unit or other. He wore a silver badge with a stag's head on it, the badge of Clan Mackenzie which eventually became, together with the motto 'Caberfeidh', the emblem of the Seaforth Highlanders, now merged into The Highlanders.
Yes, he'd served with the Seaforths, he said, but after leaving and before taking full retirement he'd been appointed piping instructor to the Sultan of Oman. Here he had to learn not only to ride camels but to play the pipes while riding. I was tempted to think he was pulling my leg, but he was a very serious-minded gentleman, not at all like his interlocutor, so I imagine it must be true.
Les Jeudistes thanked him and moved into the inner bailey, just beyond the drawbridge. Although open to the skies, the acoustic was excellent. Despite our rule never to sing out of doors, we thought we might have a go just this once. We formed up and sang a couple of our Occitan folksongs. Heads appeared at doors and windows, mulberry-uniformed staff forsook the cafeteria to listen. Enthusiastic applause. Not having perfect pitch, I borrowed J.'s tuning fork to find the right pitch. I suppose I could have borrowed the gong again if I'd thought of it.
There's another stag's head on the heraldic shield above the gate. This time the motto is that of the Campbells of Cawdor: Be Mindful.
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.
At the door of Whinnieknowe, the retirement home where my mother is a few months into her second century, Eloi the basso profundo, perplexed by all the un-French Ws and Hs and Ks, asks me how you pronounce it. He might well be extra aware of the pitfalls of pronunciation: only that morning at breakfast Paul, our B & B proprietor, addressed him as 'Elloy' instead of 'Elwah'. General laughter. I pronounce it for him, telling him it means a small hill (knowe) covered with whins (gorse or broom).
We install ourselves in the south drawing room. We're all in uniform, red tops, black bottoms. Christine the accompanist settles herself at the Clavinova. She doesn't like electronic pianos. There's no control. This one is particularly brassy, even honky-tonkish in the higher registers. Christine does her best to draw a flowing cantabile out of it. It needs all her very considerable skill.
We've come to sing to the residents, who have been placed round the outside of the room. They're all more or less sane. My mother isn't among them. Maybe she's chosen not to come. She can be quite capricious. She's also almost totally deaf, so there isn't much point in her coming anyway.
We set off into Le Cantique de Jean Racine, a serenely beautiful sacred motet by Gabriel Fauré. We sing it in French, but the theology is so abstruse that no one would be much the wiser whatever language we sang it in. About three quarters of the way through the doors open and a flurry of attendants eases my mother's wheelchair through. She makes nods and becks and wreathèd smiles to all the company, who respond appropriately. Through the music, now coming to a close, I hear someone asking 'Fa's thon wifie?' This is local dialect for 'Who's that lady?' (My mother stays in her room most of the time.) Le Cantique comes to an end. They've sung it beautifully, despite this interruption. Polite applause.
Taking into account that my mother's entry has spoilt the other residents' enjoyment of this piece, and that my mother herself hasn't had a chance to hear it, and that maybe a particularly persuasive carer has got her to put her hearing aid in for once, I say to the company 'Would you like to hear it again?'
'No,' someone says from the other side of the room.
Having taken very early retirement from teaching in Scotland, I settled in the Languedoc to write and compose. The many distractions from actually getting on with any work include conducting a multi-national chamber choir and building drystone walls.