The Royal National Mod

1946 Aberdeen Mòd programme
1946 Aberdeen Mòd programme.
1970 Oban Mòd programme
1970 Oban Mòd programme.

The Royal National Mòd, which is organised by An Comunn Gàidhealach, is probably the largest and best known event in the Gaelic world. It offers opportunities for fluent Gaelic speakers and learners of all ages to perform and compete in a range of Gaelic musical, literary and sporting activities.

For over 125 years this prestigious annual event has played a significant role in sustaining, celebrating and promoting Gaelic culture and in reuniting friends and families from around the world.

Many Mòd programmes and An Comunn publications can be found in the Digital Gallery.

First Mòd: 13 September 1892, in the Argyllshire Gathering Hall, Oban.

‘The first Mòd, or gathering, of the Comunn Gaidhealach was held at Oban on Tuesday. The gathering was very successful, the musical and other competitions being keen and interesting, and the large audience thoroughly appreciative.’
The Oban Times, 17 September 1892.

Holding an annual gathering was one of An Comunn Gàidhealach’s ‘Manifesto’ aims when it was formed in 1891. It was seen as integral to its wider objectives of developing and promoting Gaelic literature and music, and encouraging the teaching of the language.

1900 edition of Choisir-chiuil.
1900 edition of Chòisir-chiùil.

There had been much discussion about what to call it, with ‘Fèis-ceòl’ and ‘Mòd-cùil’ being early suggestions, but ultimately the simpler term of ‘Mòd’ was selected. The event’s format was based on the Welsh Eistedfodd, with whom An Comunn still maintains strong links.

Prior to the first Mòd, the organisers realised that there was a lack of suitable published choral music for the choir competitions, so they published ‘Chòisir-chiùil’ in 1892 to meet this immediate need. It was compiled by Archibald Ferguson, the conductor of the Glasgow St Columba Church Gaelic Choir. This highlights an important and continuing feature of the Mòd - the publication of new music and arrangements for the annual competitions, helping regenerate traditional music and making it readily available.

New choirs were formed and others were reorganised to compete in this Mòd, but there were very few advance entrants for the solo competitions and the organisers had to canvas potential competitors. However support was boosted hugely by the surprise appearance of the eminent Gaelic poet, Màiri Mhòr nan Òran (Mary MacPherson), from Skye. She had not entered her name in advance, but arrived on the day to compete in the solo singing competition.

The Mòd was chaired by An Comunn’s President, Lord Archibald Campbell, and opened with an ode of welcome, written by John Campbell, the Bard of Ledaig:

Failte Do ‘n Mhod
(Ode of Welcome to the Mòd)

Fàilte do’ n chomunn tha cumail a suas
Na cànain tha lasadh ‘nar cridhe gach uair;
Ge be àite ‘san tàmh sinn air uachdar an fhuinn,
Gràdh d’ ar cànain ‘s d’ ar dùtlaich dho chaill sinn a chaoidh.

Cia cho sgapta ‘s am bi sinn measag dhùthaichean cèin,
Tha smuaintean ar cridhe mar ghathan na grèin,
A’ garradh roimh ‘astar ‘s n’ arachdadh romh ‘n cheò,
‘S gar giùlan ‘san spiorad gu lèithean ar n-òig.

A’ dh’eisteachd nan òran cho blasd is cho binn,
A’ chluinntin nan sgeulachd mu Ossian ‘s mu Fhionn;
A’ dh’ fhaicinn nam beanntam is gleanntaidhean fhraoich
‘S an d’fhuair sinn ar n-àrach ‘s an trà thug sinn gaol.

Tha caochlaidhean mòr tighinn air dùthaich ar cri,
A cànain ‘s a gnàtha gun tàmh a’ dol sios;
Ach tain do gach aon chuir an lamh ris a’ chrann,
A chumail air chuimhn’ gach deadh chleachdainn a bh’ ann.

Tha dùrachd ar cri leis a’ chomunn gach trà,
A thrusadh ‘s a ghleidbeadh seann eachdraidh is dhàn,
Gach òran is sgeulachd tha seàmh feadh ar tir,
Mu’n tèid iad a mugha ‘s nach faight iad gu sior.

There were ten competitions, but “the choral competition, for which four choirs had entered, was unquestionably the feature of the Mòd. The competing choirs showed evidence of careful training and acquitted themselves in a way that reflected utmost credit on their conductors.” Oban Times, 17 September 1892.

It was a close competition, and the judges asked to hear the performances twice. It was won by Glasgow St Columba Gaelic Choir, with equal second place being awarded to the Ballachulish Gaelic Choir and the Oban Gaelic Musical Association.

A business meeting was held after the competitions, and John Mackintosh of Oban was appointed as An Comunn’s first Treasurer and Acting Secretary, with a salary of £10 per year

The day concluded with a ‘grand Gaelic concert’, which was attended by HRH Princess Louise and her husband the Marquess of Lorne. The choirs and soloists performed, as did the Inveraray Pipe Band.

There is an informative report of the first Mòd in the Oban Times, 17 September 1892 (National Library shelfmark: Mf.N.67).

Second Mòd: 12 September 1893, in the Argyllshire Gathering Hall, Oban

1893 Mòd programme
1893 Mòd programme

The second Mòd followed the same format as the first, but there were 12 competitions, as can be seen in the programme. In addition to the choral and solo competitions, there were competitions for ‘Writing to Dictation for Juniors’, ‘The Best Unpublished Sgeulachd’ and also Lord Archibald Campbell’s Prize for ‘Gaelic Singing with Harp Accompaniment’.

The programme of the next Mòd in 1894, while very similar, also advertises the 'end of Mòd concert' on the cover, a good illustration of the growing importance of the social aspects of the Mòd. These first three Mòds set the basic structure of the event which continues today.

Mòd competitions

From the outset, competitions have been held for choral and solo singing, instrumental performance, recitation, dictation, translation and new writing, with both junior and senior competitions taking place. New competitions have been introduced at the request of donors of prizes and medals, and others at An Comunn’s own behest.

Some new competitions have been controversial. For example, the Lovat and Tullibardine Trophy for choral singing was intended as a means of involving more choirs in the Mòd in 1903, but gave rise to a debate about forcing traditional Gaelic folk songs into choral harmonies. Competition triumphed over controversy, and it remains a much prized and contested trophy today. A competition for folk groups was introduced in the 1960’s, reflecting new musical trends at the time.

An Deo Gréine
An Deo Gréine

Some competitions have come and gone, a number of which are quite intriguing to us today. In 1899 a competition to gather ‘Gaelic Technical Terms’ was introduced, followed by one for ‘Gaelic Terms of Affection and Invective’ in 1901. These helped capture many phrases, some of which were in danger of being lost. This treasure trove can be enjoyed in the pages of ‘An Deo Greine’ where they were published at the time.

Though no longer held, for many years there were also Art and Industry competitions, in line with An Comunn’s Manifesto pledge to support local industry. For example there was a Celtic Art Competition in 1896, and at the 1966 Mòd there was a prize for a ‘Souvenir with Celtic Design for Display and/or Sale to Tourists’.

A Mòd Bard has been crowned annually since 1923, an honorary and prestigious position awarded to recognise a significant contribution to Gaelic literature. In 1969 a shinty Mòd Cup was introduced, acknowledging the game’s importance to Gaelic culture.

There is a helpful history of the Mòd’s first ten years in ‘An Gaidheal’ No.5, May 1955 which describes some of the early competitions and lists the prize-winners.

Mòd locations

1979 Programm.
1979 Programme

After 1894 the Mòd was held in a different location every year, a practice that continues to this day, though they were cancelled during the two World Wars. The local Mòd committees compete to hold the Mòd and then fundraise to support it. Oban, Inverness and Glasgow have held most Mòds over the century, but they have also been based in smaller communities, such as Golspie and Largs.

The first Mòd to be held in the Western Isles took place in 1979, in realisation that ‘if Gaelic is to be saved it is vitally necessary to halt the steady process of erosion and deterioration of the language in its homeland and to establish there a secure base from which to campaign for revival elsewhere’ (1979 Programme: President’s Remarks).

For the same reason, An Comunn had opened an office in Stornoway, as reported in the 1972 Annual Report.

The Mòd is now such a large event that there needs to be sufficient local infrastructure to support it, such as concert halls and accommodation, so this means it tends to be held in larger communities. However there is also a wide network of local Mòds held throughout the country, which are especially important in encouraging junior competitors.

The Mòd today

1990 Dingwall Mòd Fringe programme
1990 Dingwall Mòd Fringe programme

The Mòd was granted royal status in its centenary year of 1992, becoming the Royal National Mòd.

Today’s Mòd lasts for over a week and there are around 200 competitions and over 500 prizes to be won. They cover a wide range of instrumental, choral, written, oral, sporting, literary and dramatic subjects. New musical arrangements are commissioned and published for Mòd competitions and a volume of Mòd prize-winning new writing, ‘Lasair Litreachas’, is published each year. The event is broadcast on BBC Alba and other news media, reaching a huge international audience.

A Mòd Fringe has been developed in recent years, attracting additional concerts, plays, displays and music into the local hotels and bars. Research revealed that the 2014 Mòd brought £3.5million to the Inverness economy and around 9,000 visitors to the city, a significant achievement for a single event, and an indicator of the Mòd’s continuing strength and of the interest in Gaelic language and culture.

The National Library of Scotland collections contain some of An Comunn’s archival documents, as well as a large collection of An Comunn publications and Mòd programmes. Many are now digitised and available in the National Library's Digital gallery.

The publications themselves can be sourced via the Library’s catalogue.

An Comunn’s website has been archived annually since 2013 as part of the UK Legal Deposit web archive. Due to copyright constraints, this web archive can only be viewed in person at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh or the Moving Image Archive at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

Further reading

  • Oban Times, 17 September 1892. National Library shelfmark: Mf.N.67
  • Francis Thompson. The National Mod. Published by Acair Books in 1979. National Library shelfmark: HP3.79.2319
  • Francis Thompson. History of An Comunn Gaidhealach: the first hundred (1891-1991): centenary of An Comunn Gaidhealach. Published by An Comunn Gaidhealach, 1992. National Library shelfmark: HP2.93.5275
  • Francis Thompson. Mod memories : four decades of pure nostalgia. Published by the West Highland Publishing Company Ltd in 2014. National Library shelfmark: PB6.214.893/4