Day 23, A Fog of Weariness

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12 July 2013

The last day of Ceòlas is today. We walk around in a fog of weariness. I can barely think what to pack for the day. When I arrive at my class of reels and quadrilles the thought of spinning is enough to make me feel slightly ill. But when the music starts there is nothing to stop us. Our spirits lift to the beat and our feet move against our will. My favourite quadrille is a new one I have learnt, in six parts, a complexity of weaving and twirling and passing from one to the next. The best surprise in this dance is when each couple takes off at a fast skip around the hall, light of foot and hands joined, I feel like a child on a spring day.

I chat with Frank about the dancing and he talks of how even today at ceilidhs on the islands, women will sit on the row of red-cushioned chairs lined down one side of the hall, and await a man’s request to dance. It is tradition, he says.

He talks about how the forms of a dance can be influenced by place. On Eriskay they dance more in the homes, he says, and the lack of space has effected how the dances have evolved.

Dances can be influenced by patterns elsewhere too, he says. In England there is more handclapping than in Scotland, but in the last twelve years, three claps of the hands have materialized in the Dashing White Sergeant. First it arrived in Edinburgh, then Perth and Stirling. Now we are even doing this in the Western Isles.

The last event of Ceòlas, Crossover, is when all the classes combine to put on a small performance for the village and each other; fiddles and pipes with dancers, clarsach with singers, singers with dancers. It is a heartwarming testament to the living culture of Scotland.

Walking home in the dark along the single-track road, the grasses swishing at the roadside, silver shining on the loch. The gentle breeze blows a cool finger across my cheek, tickling my hair. Soft black velvet, no light, just one glowing in the distance that Morag leaves on to guide me home, and only once a glare of headlights that blind me, pushing me onto the verge. Then the return to silvery stillness. Always the sweet smell of salt and sand. 2am – the bewitching hour. It is always the time I arrive home on South Uist.

We have been at the final ceilidh mor, ablaze with fiddles and pipes and voice and step; strings and voices that could dazzle any world stage, rich and clear and powerful; fast and precise. We fill the Borrodale hotel for one last time after the ceilidh, and the pipes play on, the voices rock the roof. “Take my hand and lead me to the Uists”, the song I have heard most often here. See you next year everyone says. I hope so.

My next post will come from Australia, from the second part of the Grounded residencies. I hope you will join me there too.

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Day 22, Fiddle ceilidh

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11 July 2013

As days run into the next, overlapping the midnight marker, I am losing track of where they should go as diary entries.

Tonight is the fiddle ceilidh at St Peter’s Hall. I think if I had to list the dances through my life in order of fun this would be at the very top of the list. Fiddle tunes fly into the air, every person is on the floor, leaping and twirling in a blur of movement, weaving careful patterns across the room. This is no random movement here but a story that knits us all together in the united rhythmic tapping of shoes on wood. It is a breathless event with no room for rest. Reels and quadrilles have all ages skipping the length of the hall and back again, or spinning until the room is no more than a colour-wash in merry mayhem. When else do we get this opportunity to skip?

With the final Strip the Willow called, we are lined the length of the hall, two sets of 25 pairs or more, swung on the arm of our partners from one person to the next, until we have all been connected with every other person in the room; the inevitable “Whooo-hoo” as the pace builds, and the final collapse of exhaustion at the end.

We spill out into the night and the cool still air outside is welcome on our hot damp skin. My ears tingle in the silence. Mist hangs in layers on the fields so that houses appear to be floating, ghost-like above the ground. As we walk in groups, home along the country road, the Borrodale Hotel beckons us in, with the sound of pipes drifting through its open door. Step dancers take to the floor in the bar. I stay a little while but by 2am, I have to get home if I am to make class at all tomorrow.

Day 20, Gaelic music and a house ceilidh

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9 July 2013

There is a fine mist throwing moisture over everything this morning as I walk into Daliburgh. And there are signs of Ceòlas on the road; a young boy walking with his fiddle case, the sounds of the pipes drifting towards me from Borrodale Hotel. It is 9am.

Today I am joining the step dance class, and reels and quadrilles. It is intense getting from one to the next and managing a cup of tea somewhere in there too. I don’t make it to the Gaelic class which runs between first and second choice classes. I am pacing myself for the day.

By 4 o’clock the mist has burnt off and the sun is intense. A bus is waiting for those who want to go for a walk on the island of Eriskay.

Dòmhnall Ruairidh takes us along the shoreline to Roisnish, telling us snippets from history as we go, and the island of Barra comes with us as we walk, a curve of shadowy hills on the horizon. Returning over the single-track road, we stop at a grassy verge with a view, for a dram and a plentiful supply of home baking. Home baking appears regularly throughout the day here; cakes and scones, pancakes, shortbread and dumpling. Peggy, I believe, is up until 3am each day baking behind the scenes.

It is scorching in the sun and I struggle to shade myself from this unaccustomed burning, sinking into the grass and closing my eyes. We are seated in a large group, and as is the norm, someone starts singing. The group sways to the music, joining in with the chorus. I swear there must be enough Gaelic songs to wrap the entire length and breadth of the islands and back again in a cocoon of stories from the crofts or the sea; of love and of loss, or describing some activity of the day.

In true South Uist style we are still on the hill at 7pm; sun floating high in a summery sky. I know transport is organised for the house ceilidhs tonight at 8pm. I am only just home and showered when my lift arrives to take me to Father Mackay’s of St Peters.

Ceilidh means a meeting of friends. The singing and dancing traditionally happened in the barns or homes of the village, and this tradition is continued in house ceilidhs today. During Ceòlas, these ceilidhs are spread over 6 or 7 homes around the village, but I am told we move between them as the night goes on.

The villages here are not clustered around a square as in other parts of Scotland, but spread widely across the landscape, houses seemingly randomly scattered. But after Father Mackay’s I don’t have to move far, just across the road to Mairi’s house. In both houses the living room is filled with song and fiddle, pipes and dance, the drinks passing round and a constant Gaelic banter.

When I finally leave, I walk the 2 miles home along the road, and once more the air is laden with moisture and mist, smelling of sweet, warm, dew-heavy grass. There is total silence in the dark, the loch a silver shimmer at the roadside and the hills a grey shadow against the stars.

2am – just home – and I am writing this. I know many are still roaming from one living room to another. Last night I hear they were still singing in the hotels and homes until 4am. This is late enough for me. I have work to do tomorrow.

(Check out the blog Scotland Digital Resources page for more on Ceòlas and Gaelic traditional music and language)