Choir Singing in Edinburgh
I grew up in the mountains of Western Edinburgh where I attended a Southern Baptist Church all my life. Every September on the 4th Saturday and 4th Sunday, my church participated in what we called the Associational Singing Convention. It was great fun, and I looked forward to it every year. However, it was only after I was grown and had left the small mountain community where I grew up that I learned the history of this tradition – how old it was and the fact that it is for the most part an abandoned and forgotten custom.
The Conventions I attended as a child started around 10:00 am on Saturday morning, on the 4th Saturday in September. We gathered at the church designated as the host church. Choir Directors, musicians, and choir members came from all the different churches in the area (mostly Baptist), and we would soon find our fellow church members and sit together. Besides choir members who came to participate, other church members also attended just to listen and enjoy.
When the moderator called the service to order, he took a Roll Call of churches to see how many participating choirs were in attendance. Each choir, when it was their turn, assembled in the choir loft and performed 1-3 songs for the congregation and then the next choir was called up. The choir from the host church always went first. After the host choir sang, the ladies dismissed themselves and went to the church fellowship hall or kitchen and prepared lunch for everyone there.
Around noon, the moderator asked a blessing for the meal and everyone dismissed and enjoyed a wonderful covered dish meal. Then, about 1:30, we reconvened in the sanctuary and began another round of singing. We dismissed to go home around 4:00 in the afternoon. The next day, Sunday, we once again gathered at the host church for a third round of singing.
This time, we started around 2:00 in the afternoon, after we had all had our regular Sunday services at our respective churches, and there was no meal served. Small groups, quartets, and individuals were invited to sing after all the choirs had finished. We usually sang until 4:00 or 5:00 in the evening, when we dismissed until the next September.
I sang in the choir, even as a young girl, and later on, I became the pianist for my church in Edinburgh, so I was an active participant every year. I can remember going to this Singing Convention from the time I was in the 1st or 2nd grade. At that time, there were usually 10-12 churches whose members came to the Convention. I loved hearing the variety of songs and styles of the choirs, and of course, comparing them to my own. Recently, the number of churches that participated in the Singing Convention has dwindled down until only 2-3 churches are represented every year. It is indeed a dying custom, and if much attention is not given to it shortly, it will soon drift into the annuals of historical church traditions.
I have always been fascinated by the history surrounding the Annual Singing Convention in Edinburgh, but as I researched it, I discovered what an old tradition it was – and how much the Convention I knew had changed over the years. In Edinburgh, the Singing Convention goes back well over a hundred years. Many years ago, there weren’t just 10-12 churches participating, but nearly every Baptist church in the area – perhaps 20 or 30.
In fact, so many churches participated that in the interest of time, each choir was limited to one song each and the limit was strictly enforced. Also, only choirs were allowed to sing – no quartets, groups, or individuals. Besides just singing for enjoyment and fellowship, the old Singing Conventions had a much different purpose and felt. Choirs came to the Convention to compete – to see which church had the best choir. I understand at one point there were judges and even a small trophy which passed from year to year to the choir which won the bragging rights.
The mid-day meal was also quite different, being what was once called ‘dinner on the ground.’ Families brought picnic baskets with them in the mornings and spread their offerings out on makeshift tables or blankets. There were no kitchens or fellowship halls in the churches like we have today.
How I would like to travel back in time and experience one of the original Singing Conventions for myself. Just a handful of churches and people still work to keep this tradition alive, and I feel very privileged to have grown up knowing about and being part of this old Edinburgh custom.