The Scottish Ceilidhing Tradition

If you are you thinking of booking the Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band for your wedding reception or birthday party, then it is interesting to learn about the long history of the Scottish Ceilidh and the families that developed the tradition? So, what is the Scottish ceilidhing tradition and what is traditional Scottish folk music? It depends who you ask! Let me first of all get you worried by one description of a ceilidh, BUT then I will describe the sort of ceilidhs that we would normally put on for a wedding or party, and is the sort of ceilidh that is enjoyed in a large part of Scotland.


So here's the scary version of a ceilidh. Ask a person in an east coast Scottish town, and you may well get a description of an event that is likely to scare the living daylights out of you (unless you've been to dancing classes) where dancers are dancing complicated things like strathspeys, have all been to dancing classes, and dance to a band who play at exactly the right speed of 93.5 bpm, or whatever. (Yes, seriously, to the nearest decimal point. I have a copy from a very old book on Scottish dance, which gives the dance speeds for various kinds of dance to such ridiculous accuracy.) Is that sensible? No, not at all. But it is reflection of one attitude to Scottish dancing. It has to be perfect, it has to be just so. It is a perfect art form. And in this form it is really, seriously good, but it is more closely related to ballet or competition ballroom dancing, (as you might see on the Come Dancing TV series) than it is to a Scottish ceilidh that is intended to be a fun social event.

Does this description of a Scottish ceilidh scare you? It certainly scares me. I've played for plenty of dances for Scottish dance societies, than for reeling events, where the band is playing appropriately for such an event. It's more like playing Mozart in the position that is required, the folk music, and in my view it isn't really folk music.


Now, go and ask the same question in a West Coast Scottish. Let me recount a conversation I had with a guy on the island of Skye, on a beautiful sunny day (yes, very occasionally it does stop raining on the island of Skye, but you have to go at the right time of year, and this was May.) He was a guitarist who played in some of the local ceilidh bands, and also played internationally with the Scottish band toured around Europe. When I told him that I played in the Scottish ceilidh band in England, he looked alarmed. Was it a ceilidh band almost a Scottish country dance band, he asked? He then told me that they did ceilidhs on the island of Skye, and only once a year did they invite an east coast Scottish country dance band to the island, just to satisfy those people who liked to dance strathspeys, and do it all just right, just the right speed, in just the right way, in just the right attitude. On Skye, he said, we have wild ceilidhs. The right speed is as fast as you can go. That applies to the band and the dancers. 


Well, that sounds like fun to me. And when we put on a ceilidh in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Shropshire with the Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band, then the emphasis is on fun for everyone, young or old.  This is the sort of laid back and fun ceilidh that goes down well at weddings and birthday parties and the like. The band doesn't necessarily play as fast as they can, because the band and caller will adjust the tempo to suit the people at the event. If they are elderly or have had a tiring day at the wedding ceremony, the drinks reception and have stuffed themselves full at the wedding breakfast, then perhaps the dancing will go quite slowly. But if there energetic bunch of graduate doctors who have just got their degrees and celebrating the end of their university life, or if they are an athletics group used to running 20 miles every night, then they are going to be full of energy and wanted to go flat out and the band mustn't disappoint them!


So how come they can be one term, a Scottish ceilidh, and to seemingly opposing descriptions The history of Scottish folk music is very different to, let us say the history of Irish folk music. Irish ceilidhs tend to have the same background, it is music and traditional folk dance of the people for the people of Scotland, in other words genuine FOLK. Although there is a strand of Scottish folk music and Scottish ceilidh that is the same as this, there is another strand that diverged to become the music and dance of the aristocracy, the music of the military, indeed the Scottish pipes that you hear in the military pipe band, perhaps playing the original pibroch pipe music, is part of a military weapon, the ancient equivalent of a tactical nuclear weapon. This might sound daft, unless you've heard a pipe band in the open coming towards you marching.


I had this experience years ago at RAF Holton. It was an open day, the pipe band was out in force. The runway at RAF Holton goes over a hill, so that if you're standing at one end, you can't see the far end of the runway as it disappeared over a gentle rise and fall. The band were marching from the opposite end of the runway. At first you could only hear this faint howling in the distance. You could hear the groans, but you couldn't hear the chances playing the tune clearly because they were too far away, there was just an unearthly in human howling sound. As they marched towards us the sound louder and louder, bit by bit. Gradually as they approached, though still out of sight, you could start to make out the skirl of the pipes, the tunes that they were playing. It was an original pibroch piece, completely suited for the rather strange scale that the pipes play in. (When bagpipes are playing the well-known marches, it never sounds quite right, because the more modern music is written in the usual key that author instruments play in, the tune of the bagpipes and the intervals between nodes aren't quite the same, so it always sounds a little odd. However when playing the original old people music, then that was written and developed for the scale that the pipes really play, and to me it's absolute perfection.).

Anyway, you were hearing this scream of the massed pipes getting gradually louder, but couldn't see anything of them, until just over the rise you saw these vertical spikes bobbing and swaying gradually getting taller and taller, what sort of creature was this? Was it some mythical monster, because the size of it was hugely stretched from left to right, right across the runway. It was alive, because was moving like a giant enormous centipede lying on its back waving its legs in the air, and it was coming straight towards you, screaming and howling. I can tell you, the goosebumps were coming up all over me. Even though I knew what it was, it was still terrifying. Yes, perhaps ridiculous to feel terrified on a beautiful sunny day in Oxfordshire, but there was something primaeval about this, something supernatural, something slightly inhuman.


Imagine this happening to you standing on a battlefield, perhaps the Battle of Culloden or some other similar events in the wilds and mists of Scotland. Standing there with your sword knowing that soon you would be fighting for your survival. Imagine seeing this coming towards hearing this coming towards you, you had hundreds of men around you but what was this was coming at you, something in human, you didn't stand a chance.


This was a runway in Oxfordshire. The lakes grew longer and longer until you began to see these hairy beasts stretching across runway dozens of them, furry vicious -looking creatures with their wavy legs. I knew that what you are seeing with the tall bearskin helmets the pipers were wearing, and that the waving legs with the groans of the chances, but even knowing that didn't change the primaeval fear that was welling inside me. Gradually the men grew taller and taller as they came over the hill first their bearskins, then their heads, then their shoulders made to look even broader by the bagpipes they had slung over their shoulders and the splaying drones, then their sporrans waving from side to side in unison as they marched, then their kilts, and then there are whole forms as they came over the brow of the hill, superhumanly tall extended upwards by their bearskin hat and the drones of their pipes. One part of me wants to run. I'm sure if I was in the opposing army, we would have all turned and run by now. They would have won the battle without drawing a drop of blood.

So there are many elements in the history of Scottish ceilidh music and dancing which have little to do with folk on the ordinary population of the country, and this makes it somewhat different to most folk music. So let's examine it.


Scottish folk music has a long tradition, going back to the people what is a Scottish traditional pibroch bagpipe music. From there it became part of the music of the aristocracy and the Royal Courts, was hijacked by the purveyors of nostalgia in the Victorian era, was rescued by people like the Shetland fiddle player, Tom Anderson, and is now fit and well both within Scotland, and beyond, particularly in parts of calendar and America where there is not a dry eye at the sound of the pipes, and great enthusiasm for good old Scottish ceilidh dance.

Even within Scotland there is a huge difference between an East Coast and West Coast ceilidh. I was only up in sky earlier this year, talking to a guy who played in a number of local ceilidh bands. When I told them that I played in a Scottish ceilidh band down in England, he looked alarmed and asked whether it was a Proper ceilidh band or one of those Scottish country dance bands, played so oh genteel the video so perfect dancing. He told me that once a year they had a dance band from the east coast for those who liked to do the highfalutin dances, but for all the other ceilidhs they expected to have a West Coast ceilidh. He explained that it is always better to have two fiddlers are to accordions in the band, because you could make the dancing go faster and faster, (I think the idea was that when one of the musicians started to flag all got muddled up, the other would take over and keep things going without any slackening of pace), and that the object of the exercise was to see how fast the band and the dancers could go before they fell into a heap. This is so very different from the common attitude in England, where the aficionados keep impressing how important it is to go steadily so the dancers can do all the steps. Not so on the West Coast of Scotland. They have a much more upbeat attitude to the whole process. BRILLIANT!

So let's run through some the history of and background to the Scottish ceilidh.


The art of music-making has often produced particular families whose involvement has extended down through several generations, the skills being handed on from father to son. Scottish traditional fiddling has proved no exception in this respect with such famous names as the Allan family from Forfar, the Cummings from Speyside and the Gows from Dunkeld.


Outstanding among these fiddling families is the Hardie family. In the realms of both performance and violin-making.It was common for fiddlers to also be violin makers, and the business tended to run in families where skills, both in violin making and in violin playing, were passed down through the generations. There is no jumping on the train and popping down to London to the music shops there, travel was hard in the past, particularly if you're living in the Highlands and Islands, if you wanted something, you made it there and then. This was brought home to me by the filmmaker who used to live on the banks of Loch Hourn, on the mainland opposite the island of Skye. It's a wild place now and takes a long time to drive to from the head of Loch Duich, round past Glen Elg and the little ferry that still runs across the sky, and along to Arnisdale and Corran. Is now very different to how it was only 25 years ago, before the EU funded the programme of replacing all the singletrack roads in the Highlands with wide, gently cambered and inclined roads that you can zoom along at 60 miles an hour. Back then the average speed was probably about 25 miles now, having to dive into passing places whenever the occasional car or tractor or lorry came by. It was an adventure in itself, especially to started at Lochalsh, where they used to be a ferry going cross to sky it where there is now a rather beautiful and elegant bridge.


To get to Arnisdale from the end of line railway station at Lochalsh, on drove to Dornie, past the world-famous Eileen Doane and Castle in all its picturesque beauty with the sea leg of Lochalsh as backdrop, inland along q. week towards the Five Sisters of Kintail range of mountains, past Morvich with the National trust Lodge and the Caravan club caravan site, where earlier this year I met a fiddler from a different genre, a member of a very prestigious baroque ensemble, who was backpacking with his son in the area. On past Shiel Bridge, when they sometimes hold c traditional Scottish ceilidhs at the village hall, or bingo sessions as I discovered when I stumbled into one by mistake some years ago and left just before Rattagan to head over the high Mam Rattagan pass leading over the mountains to Glenelg. This in itself was an adventure that in the old days could take a couple of hours by the time it had stopped to take in the view at various scenic locations. But you only halfway there. Things really got wild after that. Very little habitation, and the scene changed as you passed the islands of Sandaig, made famous by the author Gavin Maxwell and his book the Ring of Bright water about his life there with the otters. On wood along the coast into the frighteningly wild and impressive Loch Hourn, where several miles before its head, the road ends. There is no way out from the head of this law except on foot, with an overnight camp before reaching another road and habitation. It was here that they used to be a fiddle maker, much as the fiddle makers of old would have been isolated in their own little communities. He made his instruments was looking out onto the, he played in his local ceilidh bands, that was it. And so it was with the fiddlers that I'm describing here.

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