J. Norman McConochie
Joseph Norman McConochie was born in Glasgow in 1887, just six years before the formation of the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association. His father Robert was an engine finisher in the A. & J. Inglis shipyard, and his mother, Christina Morrison, was the daughter of Norman Morrison, (Shoemaker) and Ann Morrison (nee Macintosh) of 30 Newton Street, Stornoway.
On graduating with a Master of Arts degree from Glasgow University he became a peripatetic music teacher based at Woodside Secondary School in Glasgow.
Woodside at that time was one of only two schools in Glasgow which taught Gaelic, and he was later to use this as a source of recruits for the GG Juniors.
He became music master at the High School of Glasgow before transferring to primary school teaching. He eventually retired as headmaster of Kent Road School, the school which he had attended as a boy. During his time at Kent Road School he organised annual school concerts. Each concert filled the St Andrew’s Hall for five nights, and with the proceeds he chartered a steamer which took the whole school of over 1000 pupils “doon the water”, a trip which was for many of the pupils their first sight of the sea.
In 1919, in response to an advert in the Glasgow Herald, J. N. McConochie applied for and was appointed Conductor of the GGMA, a post he was to hold for over forty-eight years. His tenure of the conductorship however, might have been even shorter than that of some of his predecessors, for later that same year, he tendered his resignation. The reason for his resignation is not made clear in the choir’s records, but fortunately the committee was able to persuade him to reconsider his decision.
Under his baton the GG became one of Gaeldom’s foremost choirs, and he enjoyed many successes at National Mods and brought a high standard of Gaelic singing to a wide audience of Gaelic and non-Gaelic speakers at home and abroad.
One of his major contributions to Gaelic choral music was his arrangement of Puirt-à-beul in four part harmony. He recounted that his inspiration for this came to him when walking home from adjudicating at a local Mod in Stornoway. He was passed by a cart carrying local children who were singing “Cairistìona Chaimbeul” – “a song which my mother had often sung to me”. So impressed was he by the simple beautiful singing of the children, that he resolved to arrange this and other Puirt-à-beul in four part harmony.
In 1930 he prevailed upon An Comunn to introduce a Puirt-à-beul competition. Not surprisingly the GG was the only entry at that year’s Mod in Dunoon, but so impressed was An Comunn by the GG’s performance that the competition was retained and has become one of the principal and most entertaining choral events at the Mod.
The publication of Òrain is Puirt-à-beul in 1930 so popularised the genre that every Gaelic choir now includes it in its repertoire.
He arranged many Gaelic songs in four part harmony and won several awards for the arrangement of Test pieces at the Mod. His arrangements were never simple and often caused problems for the competing choirs, and he tells with some degree of satisfaction of overhearing a member of the audience on hearing one of his more difficult arrangements saying “…the man who arranged that should be shot”.
Joe McConochie was a patient, gentle man and a compulsive teacher. He never lowered his standards even in the most difficult of times. A lifetime of devotion to the GGMA and to Gaelic Music earned him the affection of the members of the Association and the high regard of his contemporaries in Scottish music circles.
A Fellow of the E.I.S. and an Associate of the R.C.O. he was awarded the MBE for his services to music in 1975.
We are delighted that his son, Norman McConochie, remains the Honorary President of the choir to this day.