The Spirit of the Ceilidh

“You know, in times past, ceilidhs weren’t all about skipping around community halls. It wasn’t just about the dancing, but gathering and sharing, with stories, songs, and whatever else folk had to offer. More about the craic than sets and reels.”

by Douglas Mackay, Professional Storyteller

“You know, in times past, ceilidhs weren’t all about skipping around community halls. It wasn’t just about the dancing, but gathering and sharing, with stories, songs, and whatever else folk had to offer. More about the craic than sets and reels.”

That’s as far as I understand it anyway, and whilst I’m sure very few reading this need explanation, over the past few years this summary has often passed my lips. “Really?” I’m often answered with a glint in the eye, “I had no idea. That’s fantastic.”

I agree. People seem to feel some sort of excitement at this revelation. Maybe it’s excitement at learning some archaic hidden knowledge, some trivia to impart to curious pals, or discovering something of our cultural inheritance. Maybe it’s excitement at the thought of replicating such a timeless gathering and feeling a rich sense of connection. Something in the nature of the ceilidh excites and enchants me as much as the stories themselves: not quite the adrenaline rush of skydiving or the like – more the familiar buzz of an old pal returning from their travels, an unexpected joke tickling your ribs or noticing the turn in the seasons reflected in the natural world. A wee additional buzz comes at the sense of being ahead of the mainstream curve, like tapping into the next big thing before the hipsters have arrived, as surely the ceilidh’s time has come again.

With a background in Community Learning and Development, the intrinsic value and social necessity of such a gathering speaks clearly to me. Personally speaking, if it wasn’t for the ceilidh, I wouldn’t be writing this article, or spending a good part of my week out and about telling tales. The ceilidh was where I first began my storytelling experimentation. A number of years ago, a friend organised a storytelling event in Edinburgh. This was my first introduction to storytelling in any kind of semi-professional, artistic capacity. Collectively entranced, we journeyed to the village of Kittlerumpit and bore witness to a witch with an unusual name trying to steal a baby (the baby of course being the mother’s dearest love, except for a poorly pig called Grunty Grice). It was mad, enthralling, and it heralded the start of something special. The gates of the storytelling world burst open to me.

I found a book called The Power of Stories, and that was it: I had to tell them. I wanted to tell the tale of Jumping Mouse to the young people I worked with…but how to get there? I would surely need some practice before telling stories to surly teenagers. So I too organised ceilidh gatherings. About ten of us would meet in a friend’s house, and we’d all try out something new. Many in the folk scene ken it well, but for us, at that time, this was something new, fresh and dynamic. I could feel a community growing around me. There was a richness in the sharing – and we got a bowl of soup into the bargain.

People loved these simple gatherings, and with my development head on, the buzzwords were jostling through my brain like monkeys up a mango tree. ‘Sustainable entertainment.’ ‘Community capacity building.’ ‘Engagement.’ ‘Empowerment.’ Confidence grew measurably. Many people shared something in public for the first time. Bonds were built. There was a lot of gratitude in those spaces.

These gatherings also highlighted something special in a particular style of storytelling: having the right story for the right moment – a responsiveness to the place and the people present that elevates the story sharing experience. This involves not only honing one story to pristine perfection, but having a treasure trove
of tales to draw upon, each with its own moment to create the magic. It’s about having a sensitivity to the right ‘story-medicine’ for the right moment. At the time I was lucky if I could remember the ending of the stories I was attempting, but still something in the storytelling alchemy just worked.

Now, the essence of the ceilidh underpins most of my current story sharing activities. A quality of listening to the needs of the space and including those within it. A simplicity and adaptability that makes it the key to the door linking storytelling and community development.

Undoubtedly the ceilidh is a fantastic and under-used cultural resource. It reminds us of our heritage of inclusion, hospitality, equality, self-sufficiency and decent craic. This a resource dearly needed, perhaps now more than ever in a time with escalating cultural trends of isolation, competition, disconnect from the natural world and each other, and empty consumerism.

Despite the ceilidh’s subtle, understated nature, it’s something of a radical act to be gathering and sharing in such an inclusive way and to actually listen to each other. It reclaims a means to participate. It’s about togetherness and enjoyment (and maybe a dram or two). Through the ceilidh, we can appreciate organic, social entertainment in a way echoed around the world and throughout the ages. Instantly, in some small way, it brings us into harmony with people across the planet: those who’ve come before us, and hopefully future generations too.

So, in that spirit, I’m championing the ceilidh as key to these times. Whether via the hottest inclusive arts festival this side of the Sahara, having pals round for a hearty gathering, or sparking something off whilst waiting at the bus stop, the spirit of the ceilidh is an adaptable ally. This is about rebuilding the chords of connection, establishing creative communities and exploring an ancient tradition that in the modern cultural context is more pertinent than it has likely ever been.

And unless something goes seriously wrong, it should be decent craic.

Douglas is currently working with The Village Storytelling Centre in Glasgow, and in 2015 initiated and organised the Inverness Storytelling Festival.
Douglas’ website