When you hear the word Cèilidh, a few things may spring to mind. Kilted dancers skipping gaily around crossed claymores, a Highland dance-band in full swing, and eightsome reels perfectly executed amidst a mass of flying tartan.
Popular old Scottish TV programs, like the legendary Thingummy Jig from the 1980s and countless other Hogmanay shows, only further cemented these cultural cliches in the collective consciousness. But, today we’re here to reclaim the cèilidh once more!
In our native Gaelic, the word simply means 'a visit' or, more commonly around these parts, a relaxed and informal gathering of friends and family, usually at someone’s house, though it could be extended to a nearby village hall.
It’s a concept which lies at the heart of Outer Hebridean history, and the generations of local social lives that revolved around the warm hearth of the home fire.
Back in the Blackhouse days of old, long before television and the long roads to a public bar, the cèilidh was commonplace, a natural part of living in the crofting communities which are scattered across our islands.
After a long day's work, particularly in the dark days of winter, men, women, and children would gravitate towards one of the larger blackhouses in their village, where the doors were never locked and a peat fire was always burning.
This then was the cèilidh house and, surrounded by stone and a fragrant smoke rising through a small hole in the thatch above, they’d gather, finding seats where they could, using peat slabs as stools, or just simply standing.
It was the realm of the storyteller and the bard, a place for tall tales and ancient poems. There would often be songs sung as the night wore on, the mouth music known as puirt à beul, and perhaps even a set of small pipes or an old fiddle would be played.
And good gossip would abound, swapped and shared in Gaelic from sunset until the small hours, as news from near and far was traded like the precious currency of the community it was.
There was no structure, men might use the time to mend nets while they talked, and women spun wool for weaving as they ‘yarned’ among themselves. A bottle of something spiritual would often also make an appearance and help the convivial feelings flow.
It’s a tradition which was continued into the 20th century, as the famous congeniality of islanders remained the same as it ever was. The blackhouse may have been swapped for the bungalow, the peat flames for a two-bar fire, but the cèilidh lived on.
Through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the village ceilidh house gave way to the village hall, with wooden floors and bright strip lights, the perfect place for bigger gatherings and no end of dancing.
And, to keep the night going, the younger (and younger at heart) revelers often moved from village to village, as long as they found themselves still standing and able to avoid the prying eyes of a passing minister.
Today in 2020, the words “thigibh a chèilidh!” are still music to our ears, that age-old invite to “come round for a visit!”. There’s no need to dress up, just bring yourself and maybe a bottle and let the events of the evening take care of themselves.
As the world emerges from lockdown life we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can stay social while remaining safe and socially-distant, and we think this cornerstone of Harris community and connection is the answer.
So, we’re now intent on bringing the simple pleasures of The Harris Cèilidh to the world in a celebration of the ties which bind us, no matter where in the world we each call home.
Friendship and family, music and song, stories and good spirits, the cèilidh brings all the important things in life, something this year has reminded us to cherish, together in a single idea.
We’ve begun by embodying the best of all this in a beautiful new half-bottle of our Isle of Harris Gin, made by hand by our friend and ceramicist Rupert Blamire.
Each one is unique and full of character, its colours capturing the blues and greens of Harris seas and sky, and held within a wonderfully designed box, full of surprises to help you connect with the culture of the cèilidh yourself.
We invite you to join with us and others as our plans progress, reminding ourselves of the old saying...
“Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl.”
The world may come to an end but love and music will endure…
Learn more and join the Harris Cèilidh at www.harrisdistillery.com/ceilidh