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Going for gold: Ruairidh Gray gathers top Gaelic singers for historic concert

More than 80 Gaelic singers, spanning eight decades, will gather in Glasgow this week for a first-of-its-kind concert orchestrated by a Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student.

Ruairidh Gray, who is in his final year of the BA Traditional Music degree programme, has brought together some of the nation’s finest Gaelic voices – all Gold Medal winners at the Royal National Mòd – who will perform alongside RCS students on Thursday 21 March at St Aloysius Church.

Ruairidh Gray is performing in a semi circle of traditional musicians. He is side on, holding a microphone to his mouth, and smiling

© Robbie McFadzean


It’s the first time anyone has ever attempted to bring together so many Mòd winners, which will see singers aged from 20 to 91 take to the stage alongside students from across RCS’s strings, keyboard, brass, traditional music and woodwind departments.

The line-up also includes acclaimed traditional musicians such as John ‘Ikey’ Carmichael on accordion and Kirsteen Grant on piano, as well as RCS tutors Anna Michels on piano and Ciorstaidh Beaton on clarsach.

The Royal National Mòd, organised by An Comunn Gàidhealach (The Highland Association), was founded in Oban in 1891 and the festival celebrates Gaelic linguistic and cultural heritage.

As a double gold medal winner, Ruairidh will also perform in the concert, which is free. In 2022, he won both the Bònn Òr a’ Chomainn and the Bonn Òir an t-Sèann Nòis at the Mòd in Perth, becoming the second person ever to have won the two medals in the same year. Later that year, he was also voted the MG ALBA Gaelic Singer of the Year at the MG ALBA Scots Trad Music Awards.

Tell us about the concert – what inspired it?

In September, I started the three Ps module – the public performance project – where we’re tasked with coming up with the idea for organising, advertising and eventually putting on a performance. And you have to put on the concert to pass the module.

Initially, it was myself and another Gaelic singer and a pianist for an hour. That was the plan. And then I got to thinking, well, you know, I’ve been given a chance here to do something really quite special. And I wanted to invite as many living gold medallists as I could to come and take part in this project. It’s never been done before.

I was at a concert at the Glasgow Mòd in 2019. And they had about 20 gold medallists coming together. I was in the audience, it was before I won mine, and I cried all night. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I thought, I want to do this, with one hundred of these people.

So, we’ve now got over 80, going all the way back to Alasdair Gillies MBE, who won his medal in 1957 – 65 years before I won mine. We have medallists from eight decades.

The concert involves three of the most meaningful institutions in my life – the Royal National Mòd, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and my church. They’re the three places that mean the most to me in all my life. So, it’s amazing to do this.

How did you bring everyone together?

Most of them are very good friends. The Gaelic scene is very small, so you come across the same people all the time.

I started sending messages and phoning people out of the blue and saying give me your email address, I want to officially send you an invitation and I was brutally honest with them. I said, I can’t pay your accommodation, I can’t pay your travel. You are all serious professional people with careers, but if you want to come and do this, remember, it’s not for me, it’s for our Gaelic language. And it worked! Seriously, going into this, I thought, I’m not going to get thirty of them.

I sent the email and I had to get up and walk away from the computer because of the nerves – we’d passed the point of no return. But within an hour, I started to get replies.

What’s the mood and feel amongst everyone that has agreed to perform?

It really has taken hold in the Gaelic world and the wider Scottish trad world, and in here, because we have musicians from across five departments of the School of Music. We have a brass band, a bassoon quartet from the woodwind department in combination with a string quartet, one of the pianists from the keyboard department is playing the organ for us, and we have a few pipers from the traditional music department.

Where are the medallists travelling from?

Skye, Lewis, Harris, north and south Uist, Barra, Benbencula, Tiree, Isla, Glasgow, Wick, Edinburgh, Aberdeen … all parts of Scotland.

Audience members are also coming specially from the islands who have been following these singers for many years.

One of the people who’ll be joining us is my mentor Iseabail T. MacDonald, who was the first woman to win the Traditional Gold medal at the Mòd, when that medal was established in 1971. And I was the 50th to win that medal. She trained me and I’ve been with her for almost eight years.

Many have connections with RCS, and some of them are former lecturers, including Dr Kenna Campbell MBE. When the Traditional Music course was founded here, she was the Gaelic song tutor.

Calum Ross taught Gaelic language here as well and won his first medal in 1968 and his second medal in 1980. We’ve got some amazing people who have come through RSAMD/RCS.

Some of the singers haven’t seen each other since they won, so it’s especially meaningful. Some of them I’ve never met, I’ve just listened to them all my life, so they’re my heroes.

I’m going to be a wreck! I’ll need to take several handkerchiefs with me. Every picture will be of me with big, red puffy eyes with tears streaming down my face.

What can the audience expect?

The singers are performing in groups by region. So, it’s like, as I keep saying, it’s like West Side Story but with Gaelic! All the medallists from Lewis and Harris are together, all the Uist medallists, the Argyll medallists, for example.

There will be the old songs, the classics, the proud, triumphant stuff, moments of solemnity.

I’ll never be part of anything like this again, not with the people who are going to be there.

I chose the programme, selected all the music and the groups and the musicians. The first Mòd took place in 1891, it is a Victorian ideal. The first gold medals were awarded in 1892, I won on the 130th anniversary of the first gold medal competition in 1892.

When you won the gold medal, you became a premier Gaelic singer. And in the Gaelic language, no higher honour can be bestowed upon a person. So, what I want to do with this night is almost as if those people in 1891, if they could be there and if they could hear it, they would say, ‘this is what we had in mind’.

I’ve said it before, and time and time again, but without the people that are going to be on that stage, there is no me without them. We owe them so much. And this concert is my little way of saying thank you.

What sparked your love of music?

I was around music all the time but not so much in the household. My mother had an immense knowledge of Gaelic poetry, so that’s where it stemmed from initially. And then the singing came, and I would go to the ceilidhs and village and church halls, and people seemed to enjoy it. When did I start singing? Oh, probably publicly around four or five.

Do remember performing at such a young age?

Oh, I remember it very vividly and how much I enjoyed it. I remember getting up there and thinking, this is great fun, people clap for you.

How did you take these traditional songs, that had been passed down generations, and deliver them as a young child?

There are songs I used to sing as a child and I was told that I’d have to feel sad at certain parts but now, I don’t need to pretend, because I feel it.

I close my eyes and I think of the houses that are now empty, the people I learned the songs from who are not there anymore. What did they take with them, what have we lost?

You’re singing the same stuff but it’s real, it’s authentic, because you can you understand what they were talking about and you feel the pain, and it really is a sort of heartbreak.

We have a wonderful expression in Gaelic that we say when a group of us gets together and roughly translated in English it’s ‘what a fantastic night we had last night. I don’t remember the last time I cried as much’!

You’re graduating this year – what does the future hold?

I’ve applied for the Masters course in Gaelic song, and have been given a conditional, so hopefully, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

Can you sum up your experience of studying at the Junior Conservatoire and your undergraduate degree – what have you taken away from RCS?

I’ve never been as happy as I am here, that’s a fact. My best friends, the greatest people I ever knew, are all in here.



Cuirm nam bonn òir le Ruairidh Gray (Gold Medal Ceremony by Ruairidh Gray)

Thursday 21 March, St Aloysius Church


Book tickets at the RCS Box Office