BEM for Campbeltown choristor in Queen’s Birthday Honours

Kenneth Thomson conducting at the Royal National Mòd in Dunoon in 2018. Photograph: Graham Hood Photography.
Kenneth Thomson conducting at the Royal National Mòd in Dunoon in 2018. Photograph: Graham Hood Photography.

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A long-serving Gaelic choir conductor from Campbeltown has been awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021.

Kenneth Thomson, who has conducted the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association (GGMA) choir for 40 years, has been honoured in recognition of his services to Gaelic choral music.

Now living in Glasgow, the 71-year-old was born in Campbeltown and educated at Dalintober Primary School and Campbeltown Grammar School before he began attending Keil School in Dumbarton when he was 14.

Kenneth’s love of Gaelic singing is said to have started at Dalintober where he was inspired by 1960s head teacher Hector MacNeill.

Hector taught Kenneth, aged seven or eight, the Portnahaven song Am Bàta Rannach to sing at the Campbeltown Mòd and the novice singer won.

Singing lessons continued at Keil School where Kenneth became a leading light of the choir but it was at home, in the holidays, that he progressed.

‘Two ladies, Rena Morrison and Morag Grumoli, had taken an interest in my singing,’ Kenneth wrote in a 2018 book titled The GG and Me. ‘They were friends with Agnes Duncan who conducted the Scottish Junior Singers.

‘Her advice was I should join a choir, so I went along to the Glasgow Philharmonic Male Voice Choir where I sang with the basses.’

It was Kenneth’s late wife Valerie who introduced him to Martin MacKay, the president of the GGMA, Scotland’s oldest Gaelic choir.

During a 32-year professional career in the health service, reaching the position of chief executive of an NHS trust, he volunteered as the choir’s conductor.

Within a few years of his appointment, the choir regained the coveted Lovat and Tullibardine Trophy, a top choral prize at the Royal National Mòd which had not been won by the GGMA for 24 years.

During his time with the choir, Kenneth has trained or assisted several Mòd gold medallists and has also recorded three albums with the choir.

The last, Slighe an Airgid, The Silver Way, marked his 25th anniversary with the choir.

That silver anniversary was also marked by the publication of a similarly titled book containing more than 20 of his Gaelic song arrangements and he was also the subject of a BBC ALBA television documentary.

Whilst celebrating more than 30 years at the helm, Kenneth was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.

In addition to conducting the choir, Kenneth has been a prolific arranger of Gaelic songs for choral singing, initially for the GGMA and latterly for other choirs, quartets and duos.

He also runs workshops on choral technique and conducting, and has adjudicated at local and national Mòds, as well as at the Pan-Celtic festival in Killarney.

Alongside this, he has organised many events to fundraise for health-related projects including Music in Hospitals and Care, a charity with which he has close associations.