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 21, Tha mi sgìth!

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11 July 2013

I take much pleasure in the shifting and rustling of the roadside as I walk my few miles to Ceòlas and home: the rich vanilla of bog cotton, sumptuous as cream and soft as cloud; great sunny Iris on tall slender stems; cushions of pink and purple clover; tall proud thistles; and the brilliant green of grasses; then the hum of bees, the fleeting blue of a dragonfly hatching by the lochs, the flashing colour of moths in the grass.

Each day I am glad I do not have the hire car any more – such a simple change but with such effect.

Last night was the dance at Eriskay village hall. After another hot sunny day a low fog rolled across the machair as the evening cooled. Angus, our Ceòlas minibus driver, patiently drove around to collect those of us without cars:

“We pile into the bus with fiddles and pipes and laughing voices, and the young lads we are collecting with their bottle of whiskey. Of course, singing starts up, not a drunken brawl but a tapestry of perfectly tuned male voices, confident and full of anticipation. We roll along country roads, rocking the little white bus with laughter and song, and a babble of Gaelic.

The dance is in full swing by the time we arrive, light feet flying, dancers weaving intricate patterns, young and old following an invisible thread that will hover in the air long after the people are gone. No young lad is too cool to dance; many asking someone old enough to be their mother to dance, and matching their lightness of step.

It is 2am and Angus is here to escort us home. There is still light in the sky, a silvery blue across the horizon where the sun is resting for a couple of hours, before it journeys skyward again at dawn.

Tha mi sgìth! (I am tired)”.

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)

Day 19, Ceòlas music, language and dance school

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8 July 2013

It is the first day of Ceòlas classes and I feel slightly overwhelmed. I am here to record, absorb and enjoy. So much is happening all around; people re-uniting, a kitchen in full swing with home made baking and giant kettles of tea, classes beginning in piping, fiddle, clarsach, song, reels and quadrilles, step dance, Gaelic language … A hum of anticipation and excitement from those who return each year and know the ropes.

I am surrounded by Gaelic speakers, – of course! But the fascinating thing is that people are also here from many countries of the world – Japan, Romania, Germany, Canada, America, Austria, Switzerland – and they are speaking Gaelic too. My Gaelic consists of what I have learnt from the BBC online class, Beag air Bheag. This has been a great help, and a beautiful language to learn, though I am still in the ranks of beginners. But there is a place for everyone here and I am gradually finding my way to that place.

We have all signed up for two classes, a first choice class, which we do in the mornings and afternoons, and a secondary one, which we do between morning tea and lunchtime. I have signed up for Gaelic song and step dance, but I will try and go to all the classes, as I am here to record too. There are also Gaelic language classes between morning tea and lunch.

At the end of the day there is a crossover class, where classes merge – musicians with singers and dancers, to pull the work together for a final event.

It doesn’t stop there, and each evening there is a ceilidh or a concert – tonight a piping concert, and of course the music continues on in the hotels and the bars well into the night.

I am in the swing of staying up late here but the pace has just cranked up another notch!!

(Links to some Gaelic language lessons, some songs and the Ceòlas site are on the blog Scotland Digital Resources page)

Day 18, Ceòlas music and dance school and festival

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7 July 2013

The sun is shining, the air is still and breathless. It is the beginning of Ceòlas, a week of Gaelic language, music and dance events held locally in Daliburgh, South Uist, so I have returned my hire car to be on foot again.

I can’t but help feel pleased; my feet pat-patting on the ground as I walk the couple of miles to Gaelic Mass and Ceòlas registration, past the red clover and deep yellow Iris at the roadside, the hills rolling along the horizon. I could not have managed without the car for all the miles I have driven, the length and breadth of the Hebrides to meet people. But now, without it, I feel instantly more connected, and an air of anticipation creeps through the soles of my feet from the ground on which I walk.

Gaelic Mass – the start of Ceòlas .The church is full, the singing translucently clear. In the church I am captivated by measured movements, children in white passing back and forth in ritual altar duties; and at communion by the solemn procession of the congregation, young and old and everything between. There is a very three-dimensional feel to the ceremony, a community revolving around the central pillar of its faith. I am generously allowed to record this service.

At the end of the service a piper pipes the congregation to the hall across the road. A table inside is laid deep with cakes and scones; pancakes and sandwiches. Large pots of tea are steaming ready. We collect our information folders for the upcoming school. I start to meet some of the participants and I have a feeling of being on the edge of something wonderful – a whole week dedicated to music and dance and language; a celebration of what it is to be a Gael.

After registration I walk the few miles along the country roads to Rona’s family home. I was introduced to Rona in Glasgow as the Gaelic Arts Producer for Glasgow City Council. Without Rona, I wouldn’t be here; and without the support of Ceòlas, I wouldn’t be here.

Rona can trace her family on Uist back to around 904AD, as a direct descendent of the Clanranald section of the MacDonald clan, and we go to chat and sit in Cladh Hallan graveyard where many of her family are buried. It is one of her favourite places to visit. Rona’s lineage connects her to the Lordship of the Isles, and Flora Macdonald is Rona’s great aunty, ten times removed.

Rona left the islands to study in Glasgow and had stopped speaking Gaelic for about 15 years. But with the birth of her first child, she realised she wanted her children to speak Gaelic and started to make the reconnection with her heritage.

I am invited home for dinner with the family and after dinner we head out to the Ceòlas welcome ceilidh, the first song and dance event of many in the week to come. It is a beautiful introduction to the week ahead.

(There is more information on Ceòlas and the Lordship of the Isles on the blog Digital Resources page)