The Gaels who flocked to Glasgow and other centres of population during the late 18th century and the early 19th century, whether through necessity or choice, found themselves in an alien environment. It was a strange new world and there can be little doubt that the indigenous town dwellers were inclined to gently mock the Gaels' quaint ways, their foreign tongue and speech patterns, not forgetting their inherent religious beliefs and forms of worship. It was no easy task for the immigrants to absorb their new way of life. Housing conditions left a lot to be desired and initial employment was, on the whole, menial.
Ever a resilient people, they took such setbacks in their stride and went on to make an almost immeasurably and, happily, continuing contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of their adopted city. The early Glasgow Gaels missed the sense of community they had enjoyed in the native heath and craved for social contact with their own kind and this led, largely, to the formation of the territorial Highland Associations.
First off the mark in 1857 was the Glasgow Sutherland Association which was for many years the largest and best supported in the city. It still continues to function albeit in a more low key manner. Coming a close second was An Comunn Ileach in 1862 which was set up by a group of Glasgow Ilich following an inaugural meeting in Garrick's Hotel in Stockwell Street. In charge of the proceedings was city printer Archibald Sinclair who was born at Mulindry and operated a highly successful printing business at 62 Argyle Street - premises which were a mecca for the city's literary Gaels of that period. Among others at the first meeting were the Rev Robert Blair of St Columba Gaelic Church, Thomas Pattison of Gaelic Bards fame, Donald Carmichael, later to be minister at Inveraray, and Dr William Mac-Donald, joint author with John Murdoch of the Sketches of Islay.
Archibald Sinclair became the founder president followed by Malcolm Smith. The president's mantle then passed to the founder's son and namesake and an esteemed Gaelic books editor who is best remembered for being responsible for the compilation of 'An T-Oranaiche'. During the Association's jubilee celebrations in 1912 the Sinclair Memorial Fund was established as a tribute to his memory. This provides annual Gaelic prizes for all the Islay school - a practice that continues. Following Sinclair's death in 1899, the presidency passed on to William Campbell, followed by John MacTaggart, Duncan MacLean, Finlay MacKeachan, Alex MacArthur, Duncan Campbell and Iain Millar. Following Millar's extended tenure as president it was decided that the office-holder would occupy the chair for a three year term only - another continuing practice.
The first 'get togethers' of the Association were very different from the annual gatherings we know today. Early reunions took the form of a 'soiree and ball', held in the Waterloo Rooms. Tea was 'on the table' at 7:30pm., followed an hour later by fruit. As many as 3 orations were given during the course of the evening and these were interspersed with 'light entertainment'. By the turn of last century the concert and dance replaced the 'tea and fruit' format, and following the 1st World War the Association began to greatly expand. The 1920s and 30s proved to be heady days for the Association and the annual gatherings became a must for city Gaels and Ilich in particular.
The gathering heydays were undoubtedly in the years leading up to the outbreak of the 2nd World War and this impetus continued into the early 1970s. The St Andrew's Halls was a favourite venue and at the height of the 'Islay's' popularity the people who were turned away from the event were sometimes in excess of the total number attending today's gatherings. The gathering chairmen of that time were usually distinguished Ilich and the roll call includes local land owners, clergymen, doctors, decorated soldiers, schoolmasters of distinction and a lady distillery owner. Curiously, during the gatherings most auspicious days few travelled from the island to attend the event. This altered in the 1960s with new modes of travel making the city and the gatherings more readily accessible, and for the centenary gathering in 1962 a group of islanders chartered a plane to take them to the celebration.
The Islay Association, along with their Glasgow Skye and Lewis and Harris counterparts, remain as the 'big 3' on the city's Highland scene and while they all have attempted to move with the times their annual gatherings' programme remains highly traditional. Other smaller Associations continue to function but most if not all of them changed their gathering format and have enjoyed great success as a result. Attendances at present day 'Islay's' average around the 400 mark; this encompasses an ageing support which does not augur well for the future. The gatherings dances, however, are a different kettle of fish and they continue to pull in the younger revellers.
The objects of the Association have little changed over the last 145 years and the benevolent fund contines to support worthy causes on the home island and beyond. Financial assistance has also been given in the publications of Gartmain bard William Livingstone's 'Gaelic Poetry', Hector MacLean's 'Ballads', Duncan Johnston's poetry and song collection 'Cronan nan Tonn' and for the second edition of John F Campbell's 'Popular Tales of the West Highlands'. Prizes and trophies have also been donated to among others the local and national Mod and the Scottish Pipers' Association. The monuments to Iain Og Ile at Cnoc na Dala at Bridgend and to Hector MacLean at Ballygrant were provided by the Association and the Comunn Ileach is also responsible for the upkeep of the island's War Graves and the American Monument at the Mull of Oa.
More information is available on the website Glasgow Islay on the Ileach where you can find contact information, news, pictures and a membershipform.
This page is published with kind permission from The Ileach