Kenneth Thomson was born in Campbeltown in August 1949. His mother Betty was an accomplished singer, but his father Hugh could not sing at all!
Kenneth received his primary education at Dalintober Primary School, where, for his first two years, the Headmaster was Edward Pursell, who wrote Tuireadh Iain Ruadh, amongst other things. Mr Pursell was succeeded by Hector Macneill, who taught Kenneth his first Gaelic songs, with which he won the Rhona MacVicar Memorial Prize at the Campbeltown local Mod in about 1957. Another strong influence at Dalintober was M G McCallum (Raibeart’s father and the famous conductor of Campbeltown Gaelic Choir) who came to the school every second Friday to teach music – it was always singing.
Kenneth went on to Keil School in Dumbarton, where he was taught singing by Mrs Emily Donaldson, and then joined the National Health Service as an Administrative Trainee in 1968. He went on to have a distinguished career in Health Service Management over the next 32 years – latterly as Chief Executive of Yorkhill NHS Trust.
When Kenneth came to Glasgow he sang in the Glasgow Philharmonic Choir and he then happened to meet Martin Mackay, who persuaded him to sing with the GG at the 1968 Mod in Dunoon ‘just to help out the basses’. The six week period has now extended to almost 48 years!
Nan Douglas took Kenneth under her wing and suggested that he should try for the Silver Pendant, so he went regularly to Nan and Iain’s house on a Saturday to learn songs and eat lunch. He won the Silver Pendant at the East Kilbride Mod in 1975 and then went on to win the Gold Medal in Stornoway in 1979, by which time Nan and Iain had moved out of Glasgow and Kenneth then benefited from hours of Gaelic tuition from Donald John MacVicar. He also had singing lessons from Winifred Busfield.
In 1980 Kenneth was invited to become the conductor of the East Kilbride Gaelic Choir and under his baton they won the Margrat Duncan Trophy at the 1983 Mod. By this time, however, he had accepted an invitation to succeed Anne Strachan as conductor of the GG.
Since 1983 Kenneth has been at the helm of the GG and has steered the choir to success at many Mods – the first being 1989 when the choir won the Lovat and Tullibardine Shield for the first time in 24 years. Since then the choir has been in the Mod prize list almost every year.
The GG has won the Lovat and Tullibardine Shield 6 times with Kenneth as Conductor, most recently in Inverness in 2014. The choir has also won the Puirt-à-beul and male voice competitions many times.
During his time with the choir, Kenneth has trained or assisted several Mod gold medallists and has also recorded three albums with the choir, the last, Slighe an Airgid – “The Silver Way”, marking his 25th anniversary with them. That silver anniversary was also marked by the publication of a similarly titled book containing more than 20 of his Gaelic song arrangements.
Also to mark his 25th anniversary, Kenneth was the subject of a BBC ALBA television documentary, Coinneach T.
In 2013, whilst celebrating 30 years at the helm, Kenneth was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.
In 2004 Kenneth released a solo album, Seòladh Dhachaigh, on which he was joined by Highland music luminaries Allan Henderson, Ingrid Henderson and Mary Ann Kennedy.
In addition to conducting the choir, Kenneth has been a prolific arranger of Gaelic songs for choral singing, initially for the GG and latterly for other choirs, quartets and duos. He has been invited to arrange songs for prescribed competitions at the Mod, and has written a number of tunes and songs – including waltzes for the weddings of both his children – Fergus and Alison. He also runs workshops on choral technique and conducting, and has adjudicated at local and national Mods, as well as at the Pan-Celtic festival in Killarney.
Kenneth served as President of the Association of Gaelic Choirs for several years.
Kenneth has achieved this while simultaneously pursuing a career in healthcare management with the NHS. His musical activities overlap into his healthcare work in that he is an “ambassador” for Music in Hospitals and chair of the committee which organises the carol concert in aid of the CLIC Sargent charity for children with cancer.
Since retiring from the Health Service, Kenneth has kept busy as a member of an NHS Board, of Employment Tribunals, of the Scottish Social Services Council and as a Lay Member of the Investigating Committee of the General Pharmaceutical Council. He also did some teaching of basic Gaelic in primary schools in West Dunbartonshire and was for five years project Director of An Lòchran – the Gaelic Arts Organisation for Glasgow.
In 2007 Kenneth led an ambitious project to commission musical settings of the poems of Sorley Maclean which were performed at six successful concerts as part of Highland 2007. Other An Lòchran projects included the highly successful “Flower of the West” concert tribute to Runrig songwriters Calum and Rory MacDonald.
Throughout his time as conductor Kenneth had been supported by his wife Valerie, who, although professing not to like Gaelic Choirs, was always there firmly in the background, supporting Kenneth’s work with the choir. Valerie tragically died in July 2009.
In his “spare time” Kenneth enjoys babysitting his grandchildren and spending his summers in his holiday home in Islay.