Tag Archives: Glenbuchat Hall

Tha ceilidh agam

Ceilidh. In Gaelic, A’ cèilidh is a verb. Though it is a noun. Its meaning settles upon ‘visit’ in the Gaelic-English and English-Gaelic dictionaries – distinguished, therefore, from ‘meeting’ – cruinnich, coinnich.

Then again – there is ‘the session’ – seisean (which seems like an interloper).

Ceilidh slips back and forth across the boundaries eadar gaidhlig agus beurla like a smuggler, a drover, a reiver.

The Dee and Don Ceilidh Collective launched its programme of 6 weekend workshops, ceilidhs and sessions on Saturday 14th May with a spectacularly successful and enjoyable series of events in Ballater on Aberdeenshire’s Deeside. Thanks to the effort and leadership of the Collective’s volunteers and the sponsorship of Crerar Hotels, participants enjoyed a range of workshops in fiddle, small pipes, whistle, guitar, singing and song writing in the course of a long hot Saturday in Ballater’s Victoria and Albert Halls and the Deeside Inn. The professional tutors at the event included Fraser Fifield (pipes and whistles), Jenny Sturgeon (songwriting), Paul Anderson and Averill Blackhall (fiddle), Shona Donaldson (singing) and Pete McCallum (guitar).

The workshops were followed by a spontaneous session of music and singing and rounded off with an evening of dance, music and more song in a ceilidh which blended the dance music of The New Distillery Band with contributions from workshop tutors and participants.

I am a Scots-speaking Scot – which might be almost (though not quite) indistinguishable from Anglophone bit isnae really. Despite a vocabulary of Doric and a few stumbled phrases of Gaelic, I lack the easy fluency and interchangeability of language I have so often admired in others I have met on my travels – South Americans, Africans, Asians, Europeans.

Despite having danced at ceilidhs since I was a child – An Comunn Ghaidhealach ceilidhs in Whiting Bay on Arran where the Highland Schottische was an endurance test and Strip the Willow was (then as now) a blood-sport – I’ve never sung nor played. Until this week and then briefly, meekly (I hope). And I hope to again.

A fiddle is an awesome thing. The small pipes – wondrous. The human voice…

People come together. People play and sing and people dance. Ordinary people who practice and play and feel abashed in the presence of more experienced musicians…but who play in any case to be a part of it.

It is not a ‘professional’ activity…though excellence deserves its due and tariff.

It is a session, a meeting…a visitation.

There is a sense that a ceilidh might be an entertainment – like a Burns Supper or a discotheque (yes…I know…who goes to discotheques these days?). The word which is omitted though – for it might be seen as a profanation – is comanachadh. Is that too blasphemous?

Ceilidh agus comanachadh.

Dipping, ineptly, into the flow of music in the session on Saturday, in the company of like-minded strangers – yes, I was visiting but equally I felt community, communion. Comann. Collective.

Tha ceilidh agam

Saltfish Forty, Glenbuchat Hall, Glenbuchat, 19th Feb. 2016

Saltfish Forty. They’re a bit Orcadian,” my daughter said when I told her I was going.


But what does that mean in the modern world of traditional music. True, Brian Cromarty (guitar, mandola, vocals) has broad flat vowels when he speaks to this ‘Sooth’ audience and Douglas Montgomery has an ‘island’ sense of humour – but the music, like all that is best about ‘traditional’ music, is eclectic, cosmopolitan, skillfully-inflected, modern, affectionate.

There are Orcadian rhythms and motifs worked into the craft of the playing but the ‘tunes’ include Shetlandic, Mainland (Scottish) and Canadian pieces, Western Swing and 12-bar blues. For this is North Atlantic music. (if Texas can be co-opted for now as a North Atlantic Province – delete Florida and Louisiana – it’s all about the Gulf Stream after all!).

I note in myself, as a musician of ‘limited accomplishments’, an interest in mid-20th century jazz and (Celtic) traditional music when I play. No pop nostalgia or rock anthems. I go back – and come forward. These genre share – I think – a quality of syncopation, appropriation, openness – and an established aural tradition. Learn by ear – then improvise. The orchestral score and the cover band ‘nail’ the tune – ‘the karaoke blues’ as Brian Cromarty sings in one of his pieces – but trad and jazz flow. As transatlantic music should.

The Orcadians were on the mainland here – Glenbuchat on Donside – Strathspey territory I suppose – with its own local ceilidh traditions, a strong fiddle heritage (Scott Skinner et al) and the Old Blind Dogs as the local headline group with a network of excellent ceilidh bands and associated groups such as Clachan Yell, Danse Mccabre, Clype and The New Distillery Band. This is, I feel, my home territory – odd for someone who has never felt quite at home anywhere. Here, in the West of Aberdeenshire, where the land lifts onto the Grampians, the sense of community is strong and the community I know is a community that dances.

It was a sell-out event, about a hundred people of all ages – teens to octogenarians – seated at trestle tables, whisky, wine and beer, crisps and cashew nuts. Tie-dye and printed fabrics on the walls – fairy lights. A stage. Two men. Fiddle, guitar, mandola. (and a rough box of a stomper Douglas Montgomery swears he made himself). And the sound comes. The music comes.

Netherbow and The Glassel Jig. The Red Diesel Reels. Reiländer. Some Canadian jigs. A tune from Shetland.

Provenance is tentative…Cromarty speaks of where the tune was found…as if it were a piece of driftwood. This song, he says, ‘I found…I’ve changed the tempo, the key, the tune…and some of the words.’ So he teaches us all the chorus to sing along to…La-la-la – La- la- la. Oooo-ooo-ooo-aaa-aaa-aaa. And we sing along to a tale of lost love, drowned sailors, mermaids and such. It is traditional. Now it is part of our tradition.

Strong throbbing stomping rhythms. It took until half way through the first half before the women (and a few men) began to dance. The rhythms could not be resisted. In the beginning people clap, then tap time with their feet, their fingers, glasses, beer cans. And then the women dance. For it cannot be denied. We are dancing to Orkney, to the North Atlantic drift, to Western Swing and Blues, to jigs and reels, strathspeys. It is all traditional and re-invented in the moment, at this moment, now. It is alive. We are alive. Musicians bring this gift of life. Outside the night is dark and full of stars. Driving back, I saw an owl on a post. It turned its head to watch me pass.