Calum Ross - in the CD racks at long last
Calum Ross hasn’t quite got the hang of the self-promotion that comes naturally to the social media generation who trumpet every small achievement on Twitter and Facebook.
At the Glasgow Skye Association’s recent annual gathering concert, Ross was one of seventeen medal-winning singers due onstage. With a debut CD, Mu Dheireadh Thall, not long released he took along a few copies for people who had asked for one but he hadn’t thought too much more about it. After all, he’d made an EP back in the 1960s when he won the National Mod Gold Medal - and earned, he says, six shillings and threepence – so any fuss would have felt unseemly.
He was, thus, mortified to discover that his record company boss, Gaelic singer and activist Arthur Cormack had created what’s known to concertgoers as a merch stand with posters advertising Mu Dheireadh Thall and copies of the CD for sale that the recording star presently would be signing.
Gaelic speakers have the advantage in knowing that Mu Dheireadh Thall translates as “at long last” and Gaelic music followers will appreciate that the album is well named because Ross, a lovely singer, will be eighty-two in January. A Facebook campaign was in fact begun in 2013 to cajole – Calum would say bully – him into making a CD before he turned eighty but better late than never.
“It really started when Morag Macdonald from the BBC phoned one night and told me that they had lots of recordings of me in the archives and we blethered on for about half an hour,” says Ross. “I never thought anything about it but when I got home from school the next day my wife, Isabel, told me I’d just been on the radio for an hour. Morag had made a whole programme from our chat and these recordings she’d mentioned.”
Ross’s daughter, Fiona, took up the subject of a Calum Ross CD with Arthur Cormack at the Hebridean Celtic festival two years ago and Mu Dheireadh Thall was set in train, using some of the songs he’d recorded for the BBC and others specifically recorded for the album.
It’s a collection that reflects a lifetime’s exposure to and interest in Gaelic singing, even if Calum has sometimes been a reluctant participant. His parents both came from the north end of Skye and although Calum was brought up in Partick, Gaelic was the language spoken at home.
“My dad precented in Duke Street Free Church - two of his brothers were precentors also – and he’d apparently sung at weddings as a young man,” says Ross. “And my mother was always singing around the house. She sang Irish songs as well as Gaelic and her brother Angus was a piper. So music was just a natural part of family life.”
Calum sang in school choirs and took up piping at the age of twelve. He inherited his uncle’s pipes and went for weekly lessons to a man a few streets away whom he later discovered was the prominent pipe music composer Peter MacLeod. He played in the Boys Brigade, TA and Clan MacRae Society pipe bands and still plays occasionally. His big regret, however, is that he didn’t pay attention to the old singers he came into contact with.
“I’d been evacuated to Uig, on Skye, during the war and there wasn’t much singing going on there at the time,” he says. “But later, after I’d joined the Govan Gaelic Choir and become interested in learning songs, I realised that these old singers that I’d heard on subsequent visits to Skye and thought couldn’t sing for toffee had the songs I should have been singing.”
Through the Govan choir he was invited to sing at a concert in East Kilbride, realised he didn’t have the required repertoire and became determined to learn. He recorded Iain Nicolson, the Uig village bard known as The Skipper, and would ask singers in the choir for songs. The choir also opened the door to competitions and he became one of the few singers to win the Nova Scotia Medal, the Oban Times Gold Medal, the Mod Gold Medal, and the Mod Gold Medal for Traditional Singing.
Having become a history and Gaelic teacher following his national service and a spell with the Clyde Port Authority, Calum was ideally placed to join the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as a Gaelic and Gaelic song teacher when he retired as acting head of Cranhill School in 1998. Many of the current crop of singers and musicians on the Gaelic and traditional music scenes – including BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year winners James Graham and Claire Hastings and Norrie MacIver of Gaelic band Mànran – have benefited from his guidance and Ross took great delight in exchanging CDs with Graham when they met recently. That’s one rite he’s picked up from the younger generation.
As for promoting Mu Dheireadh Thall, he’s bracing himself for the pressure from Isabel and Fiona to hold a CD launch but his record label possibly won’t be using his own over modest endorsement - “It’s no worse than some of the other CDs I’ve heard” - in its publicity drive.
Calum Ross’s Mu Dheireadh Thall is released on Macmeanmna Records.
From The Herald, December 16, 2015.