Written by Eilidh Whiteford MP on 22 November 2010 in Culture
SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford recalls the crimes of fashion she has suffered as a choral singer

English choral music is an unlikely passion for a Scottish Nationalist. There are many things to admire in English culture, but for my money, the choral tradition is a unique treasure.

I've sung in community choirs, chapels and cathedrals, a cappella groups and symphonic choruses. One of my annual summer rituals in recent times has been to descend upon an English cathedral city during the school holidays and spend a week with like-minded enthusiasts singing cathedral services while the regular choristers enjoy a holiday.

From my student days I have fond memories of touring the leafy shires as part of a madrigal group. We weren't very polished, or even sober half the time, but there was something very romantic about the nomadic lifestyle of itinerant musicians, quite literally ‘singing for our supper'.

There's a downside to every hobby, and the fly in the ointment for us women who choose to sing in public, but are not sufficiently divaesque to wear whatever we like, is that we are expected to wear some truly hideous and outlandish outfits.

The sartorial indignities range from the relatively mild white blouse/black skirt combination, which with effort can be made to look passable (notwithstanding the risk of being mistaken for a waitress), to hideous rainbowcoloured smocks. The red academic gowns of Scottish undergraduates resemble nothing more than old woolly dressing gowns retrieved from a dog's basket - but I admit there were many sub-zero Sunday mornings in the chapel when I was very glad of said cosy dressing gown.

By far the greatest affronts to taste, however, were the gowns worn by the ladies of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) chorus. Thankfully, these have now been consigned to history. I sang with the RSNO chorus for several seasons. It was great fun, both musically and socially. However, while the gentlemen wore dignified dinner jackets and black ties, the women were required to wear long voluminous black polyester monstrosities that looked rather like over-stuffed black bin-liners. To finish the effect, we were supplied with detachable, white broderie anglaise collars, which added a ‘puritan widow' feel to the ensemble.

On one memorable occasion, permission was granted for members of the chorus to use the unsold seats in the balcony to hear the young virtuoso pianist Lang Lang play in the fi rst half of the programme, provided we were backstage as soon as the interval came. A number of us got changed early to take advantage of the opportunity and ventured front of house in our long black nighties. A young usherette confi ded sympathetically to one of my fellow altos as she showed her to her seat: "You're going to be gutted. There's a woman sitting beside you wearing the exact same dress." Could anyone really think a sane person would choose to dress like that?

Since arriving in the Commons, I have joined the Parliament choir. It is the only choir that would accept parliamentarians as members, given our propensity to miss rehearsals, or run out in the middle of one, just because a bell is ringing elsewhere in the building. The collective responsibility involved in choral singing is not dissimilar to that demanded of parliamentary party groupings, and I will leave it to those with relevant insights to decide which is more autocratic.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford is the SNP MP for Banff and Buchan

This article was first published in Total Politics magazine.

Tags: Dr Eilidh Whiteford, Hinterland, Issue 30, Snp

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