Under a complicated and carefully timed system, the hot food arrived in
their thermally insulated urns. Cases of beer and bottles of whiskey
followed in unison, together with borrowed plates, meat for roasting,
crowdie, new potatoes and haggis by the score. All was underway; all the
ingredients for a delicious feast for the evening of the nineteenth.
They came by ferry from Oban and Mull and across the water by fishing boat
from Orasay. They came from around the island by rickety bus with no
mudguards nor front grill. They came by private car or like Celtic Shelagh
who arrived on the back of her favourite cow. Some crossed the muddy shale
from Dura, boots in hand and skirts up high and in every case the men were
already three sheets to the wind.
I sat on the steps that led down to the water, a loaf of bread in my lap
as I ripped slice after slice and lazily tossed them to the swans and
their cygnet, marvelling at their gracious movement. For such large birds
they seemed only to ripple the very surface of the water as the flotsam
and jetsam of breadcrumbs disappeared.
Confusion mounted elsewhere in the harbour as the flotilla of fishing
boats arrived, each skipper intent on butting the other for the most
favourable berth under the shadow of the huge Caledonian MacBrayne ferry.
It was all so comical really, and I couldn't help have a good laugh to
myself as one skipper shook an angry fist at another, curses flying - not
to mention the odd halibut or two. Above it all, a lone piper broke into a
solemn lament from the ferry's upper deck. The scene was rather quite
picturesque; the huge white ferry with it's black hull moored in the water
under a cloudless sky, the quaint little whitewashed village of Craigan as
a backdrop. In the harbour itself, a dozen or so fishing boats, all of a
different colour, jounced and butted until each were eventually settled
and moored for the night.
The weather station had called for rain, but as yet there was no sign of
it as the crowds padded dry-shod along the pier. They were crofters for
the most part - wide jawed, red-faced menfolk and toothless old wifies,
teens in Doc Martin boots and pretty young women. The only commonality
among them being that they were all islanders, islanders intent on having
the time of their lives.
Above the padding crowd, seagulls jostled for airspace, pelting a chap or
two with guano, the gulls shrills and squeals sounding not unlike
laughter. One particular gentleman, a burly figure in full highland
regalia by the name of Ken Mackie from Oban, broke the cardinal rule of
never looking skyward at such times and I'll wager he never does it again.
There was also a little highland Sheltie whose yapping and heroic skyward
leaps of almost two feet, told me that he, too, was non too happy with the
flying vermin messing his wee tartan overcoat.
And so, as a damp Saturday morning gradually turned to a beautiful sunny
afternoon, the padding crowd made their way to Highland Hall, scene of
what was promised to be the most memorable Ceilidh of all: The Angus
MacKay band, along with the Fiona Duncan singers had arrived from the
mainland on a previous ferry!
I had thought of staying at home, tossing an extra lump of coal onto the
fire and getting down to some serious work. After all, my publisher was
beginning to shriek. He was, as he all too often reminded me, footing the
bill for my twelve month stay on the island. And really, what did I know
of Ceilidhs and Celtic dancing, of island life for that matter. I was
Scottish born and bred, but I only knew the madding crowds of Glasgow, the
hustle and bustle of city life, traffic and congestion, litter and smog
and soccer fans.
I guess my greatest fear was that I wasn't truly certain what a Ceilidh
was. I'd feel out of place. I just knew it! On top of this, Gaelic - the
language of Scotland would be used extensively and I had no intentions of
showing my ignorance. Also, having spent the last ten years in Canada I
thought my presence at Ceilidhs and other such social venues might be
"Oh, away with your nonsense!" Gord Duffy, a lifelong friend and local
baker scolded me as I sipped on a much needed cup of coffee in the cafe.
"You're as Scottish as the next man and more so than most!"
I offered him a slight frown. "But Gord, I can't even dance."
"Rubbish, man!" laughed Geoff Baxter as he banged two more coffees down in
front of us. "Sure its all stomping feet, clapping of hands and a damn
"Aye. Just so," continued Gord. "You see, it's like this; Couples in a
long line down the centre of the room. Men on the right, women on the left
as viewed from the band. Don't forget, couples number from nearest the
band. First couple works down the line of the opposite sex, turning
side-person right hand and left hand. A new couple starts every sixteen
bars, so you'll have to have your ears open for that."
I grimaced. "Gord, you've lost me already."
There was no stopping him, however, and he continued. "When your all up,
take two steps forward to the centre of the room - your wee lassie heading
forwards with right foot then left foot. You, Peter, go backwards with
your left foot then your right and then you take three steps sideways
towards the lassie's right. That would be your left. Stamp both feet. Take
two steps anti-clockwise, then clockwise - pulling leading shoulder back
to face alternately away from and towards your wee girl with each step..."
"I'll never remember all of that," I protested sullenly.
Geoff nudged me, spilling my coffee. "The lassies like a man who can show
a little Ceilidh spirit, if you ken what I mean. Besides, Gord and I will
both be there and we'll not see you make a fool of yourself."
By this time Gord's instruction was nothing but a garble. I could not
honestly say for sure if his flamboyant tutorial on dance technique was
genuine or whither he was just pulling my chain. Regardless, whenever I
raised the coffee cup to my lips, Gord's hand staid its progress and he
resumed his litany. "Now, your wee lassie will have her hand on your
shoulder. Your hand should be around her waist. Touch heel and then toe of
outer foot to ground twice, bouncing on the inner foot with each touch..."
"Alright. Alright." I bellowed. "I'll go! If only to shut your yap and
have a moments peace."
"Do you have a kilt then?" Geoff wondered.
"I have a tunic and kilt," I told him.
"And ghillies?" he asked, referring to the low cut sports shoe with
fringed laces that are worn on such occasions.
"I do." I said.
Geoff offered a wry grin, folded his arms and changed his footing. "Of
course," he sniffed, "The island of Moray follows official British Army
regulations for under-kilt wear."
There was a pause and Gord chuckled. "Or not, as the case may be."
I began to feel sweat bead on my brow. "Regulations?"
"Aye," Gord said, "Regulations as to whither or not underpants are worn."
I lifted my coffee, sipped and swallowed with great difficulty. "And are
they?" I asked, taking another sip.
Geoff cleared his throat. "Oh Aye, lad. The regulations strictly state
that underclothes are worn when taking part in organised sports, or at the
dancing. Or at any time ladies are present in the church."
It was the latter which caught my breath, sending the coffee into a tickle
at the back of my throat. I gagged and coughed, spilling the coffee down
the front of my chin, eyes blurring. It was Gord who came to my rescue
with a few hefty thumps on my back. "Aye, just so," he affirmed, "At all
other times the wearing of undergarments is discretionary."
I coughed and wiped my eyes, laughter boiling over. "And whose discretion
might that be!"
"However, if nothing is worn," Gord added, "It should all be in perfect
That did it for me. "Working order?" I laughed.
"The kilt, of course!" Gord exclaimed. "What the dampty did you think I
meant, man! It's a dance no' an orgy! And a mixed dance at that, so of
course you'll cover."
A mixed dance? I was immensely relieved to say the least. But whither one
could discard underwear in a same sex dance, and of when and where such
dances took place I could not bring myself to ask.
Geoff nudged me again and winked, "By the way, a wee bird tells me Tracy
Jennings will be attending the dance. Is that not right Gord?"
"Oh, aye, indeed she is!" Gord confirmed, "And you're gay fond of yon wee
lassie, are you not?"
I bit into my lower lip and moved my eyes to the view beyond the window.
The small narrow main street was no more than forty feet wide and was
already crowded with cars, the sidewalks bustling with Saturday shoppers,
children running. I was indeed fond of Tracy Jennings. An angel, that one.
She had taken my breath away the first time I saw her. Long blonde hair
framing an attractive face, sky-blue eyes that stared from under long
eyelashes for just a moment too long. She was younger than myself, about
twenty seven, had a neat, slender figure under the short pleated skirt and
white blouse. Smiling warmly and with a soft Scottish accent, she had
inquired as to whither or not I was lost.
Fifteen minutes earlier I had disembarked, suitcase in hand from the
Glasgow to Oban train, only to watch my ferry connection cut its way out
of the harbour. I cursed the system. I cursed Caledonian MacBrayne. I
cursed ScotRail and I cursed my bad luck. My destination, the small island
of Moray, showing itself as nothing more than a little dark mound on the
horizon, seemed so distant. Now, with my ferry turning northward, it might
as well be on the other side of the world.
Pointing out to sea, I turned to the young woman and explained my dilemma
of having missed my connection to the island of Moray.
Her fingertips touched my arm as she offered an enormous smile, dimples
showing. "That's no problem," she said. "I'm going that way myself if you
don't mind the wee sixteen footer. You might get a wee bit wet and it's a
bit of a rough ride, but the next ferry isn't until seven o'clock tomorrow
I accepted her offer with much thanks and she quickly strode off ahead of
me, her short pleated skirt, along with the manner in which her right
wrist flicked outward and backward with each step only enhancing an agile,
almost youthful movement. "Steady on, old boy," I told myself as I
stooped, lifted my suitcase and hurriedly followed this watersprite of a
girl along the jetty.
As the small craft putted out of the harbour and turned towards the
horizon, the young woman leaned forward and depressed a button on the
cassette player. A rich mournful drone of Celtic music lifted in the air
with the seagulls, a cool breeze on my face as the beauty of Scotland
opened up before me.
Moments later, the young woman called out and pointed across my shoulder.
I turned to find that we were coasting past a small rocky island. A dozen
Grey seals resting there. "Long ago," she said, "sailors used to mistake
seals for mermaids. Did you know that?"
"That story always did puzzle me," I told her.
"They're Grey seals," she said. "Kind of throws you a little when you
consider the great variety in grey seal coat coloration and shading."
"I really hadn't given that much thought." I said.
Her eyes widened at the prospect of a captive audience. "Males tend to
have a dark-brownish coat, sometimes nearly black. Females are generally
light grey in colour. Lighter on the front though, with dark spots and
patches. Oh, look, that one's pupping! Aren't they adorable!"
I agreed that they were and followed with a question of my own. "Do you
live on the island?"
Again that smile as she said. "An islander through and through. That's me.
Daddy was lighthouse keeper on the point until they went modern eight
years ago. And what about you? Come to think of it, you haven't even told
me your name."
"Peter Gibson," I said. "I've taken a lease out on Seal cottage for the
next year or so."
"The Walmsley place?"
I nodded. "On the condition that I take care of their dog Rusty."
She laughed at that. "Then all I can say is that you'll have your hands
full, Peter Gibson."
Part Two - The Ceilidh
The school children specially prepared a short introduction, consisting of
traditional Scottish dance and Gaelic song. It was really quite lovely to
see those rosy-cheeked youngsters up there, dressed in their Sunday best,
giving it their all for the betterment of the community. And boy could
The meal was served after the children's brief opening ceremony. The list
of delights on offer included pork, ham, delicious salmon, lamb, venison,
prawns, new potatoes, tomatoes and fine green salad. There was something
for everyone; veggies for vegetarians and sausages and pizza for the
A finger tapped me on the shoulder as a voice behind me quirked. "All of
this was cooked in ovens all around the island." I turned to find Mary
Lorrie, a huge celery stick in her mouth. "I kid you not! Almost everyone
made some kind of contribution. And I helped! You ought to try my Pasta,"
she added gleefully, "I've been told it's a matter of favourable comment.
Oh, and we have a splendid display of puddings also! And aren't the
flowers just lovely!" I feared I was in imminent danger of being trapped
by one of Mary Lorrie's inordinately lengthy monologues when, for some
inexplicable reason, she offered me an out that I could not refuse. "Would
you like a drink?"
The bar was organised and run by Linda and Denis Finnigan, assisted by
Carol Becket, who said she never had a bar job as a student and may have
missed her vocation! It was a splendid bar, more than the usual array of
upturned bottles along a mirrored wall. I called for a pint of best lager,
was not disappointed and Angus MacKinnon struck up the band and the
At nine o'clock exactly, local farmers Tommy Barnes and John Burns cleared
the floor, sliding dining tables to the side as James and Laurie MacTavish
set about chucking handfuls of soapflakes onto the floor. The lights were
dimmed and it was take your lassies hand for the first dance!
It didn't take me long to realise that Scottish country dancing was not
unlike American square dancing. "Oh," said Patricia Keenan. "It might seem
just so, but, in truth, it's more likely that square dancing sprang from
Scottish roots. Many of the formations are similar, as are many of the
musical tempos. But Scottish country dancing traces its beginnings back to
eighteenth century Scottish gatherings and celebrations."
As I looked on, I couldn't help notice that dance formations were really
quite simple, such as three facing three around the room, man between two
ladies or lady between two men. Couples joined up in a circle of six and
circled around to the left for eight bars. Stepped four bars and danced
back around to the right. It really was quite marvellous, and with the
delightful toe-tapping, lap-slapping Celtic music getting the Scottish
blood up in me, it wasn't long before I was caught up in the whole
intrinsic emotion of the evening.
Tracy was at my side, an arm around my waist as she said. "The basic idea
of a setting step is to spend two bars admiring your partner (or someone
else) while shifting the weight from foot to foot. Watch how they do it,"
she laughed excitedly.
I looked on as Tracy clapped and stomped with the best of them. She
certainly knew how to thoroughly enjoy herself. At a well known moment she
gripped my arm and pointed. "Watch for the set step!" I did as I was told,
took in what was taking place before me. "See it?" She asked, "Got it?"
I nodded understanding, even though I still didn't have a clue. Tracy
continued, her enthusiasm boiling. "To be more precise the setting step is
alien to the Ceilidh dance ethos, but hey! the step is the pas de Basque!"
For some inexplicable reason my heart began to thump in my chest, and when
her soft lips blossomed into a heart warming smile I knew then that for
the first time in my life I knew love, real love.
With Angus MacKinnon's kilted arse swaying in jolly harmony with the beat
of the band, his fine boys played on. They played The Highland Barn Dance.
The Cumberland Square Eight. The Dashing White Sergeant and The Eightsome
Reel. Within minutes the entire room was vibrating with clapping hands and
stomping shoes. I'd never in my life seen a dance hall so moved, a crowd
so aroused. Heavens what a people.
As I stood there clapping and stomping time, a small hand reached out,
locked onto one of my own and Tracy led me onto the floor for The Gay
Gordon's. The Highland Schottische. The Pride of Erin Waltz. The Saint
Bernard's Waltz and Strip The Willow.
Not to be outdone were the Fiona Duncan singers with many traditional
Scottish songs, Burns being a favourite so that by eleven o'clock many
began to flag. Not so Celtic Shelagh, though. Eighty-four years old, I'm
told, and others say she could add ten years.
"Does she really ride that cow everywhere she goes?" I asked.
Tracy nodded emphatically. "She's as blind as a bat and drinks like a
fish. Many's the time her only way home is on Dabney's rumps."
I tried to picture Shelagh riding home on the back of her favourite cow
and the looks she'd get from a busload of American tourists. It just
didn't bare thinking about!
By midnight traditional music had given way to a more rocking-pop
selection and we, all of us, took to the floor for Angus' rocking version
of Scotland The Brave. By one o'clock all were three sheets to the wind
and Sally McNeesh was giving a rather poor Karaoke rendition of John
Lennon's Imagine. It was Clap If They're Crap time and the worse
singer would take home a bottle of best Scotch!
I wondered if it was the drink, for each and every singer, save for Hamish
Knox and Becky Hamilton sang pretty well. Jean Ann Sullivan's Gary Glitter
was no worse than a poke in the eye. But it was an unfortunate Jimmy
Galbraith, the local electrician, who took the bottle and so ended a most
I found Tracy on my arm as we left the hall, her sweet perfume
overwhelmingly seductive as we strolled under what was a strange
luminosity in the sky. I'd never in my life seen the remnants of a
midnight twilight, let alone with a full moon high on the eastern horizon.
The stars, too, were magnificent, just magnificent amid a colourful
shimmering array of purples and violets. "That's the Northern Lights,"
Tracy told me. "The Aurora Borealis. It's really quite common this far
With Tracy's hand locked in my own I began to dread my eventual departure
from the island, wondering if I really could turn away from these people,
this lifestyle. What did I need of a yuppie Toronto condominium,
overlooking an eighteen hole golf course, the incessant drone of highway
traffic at all hours of the day, or the distant mournful wail of the CN
freight as it rolled across the top of the city, the ubiquitous shopping
malls, fast food franchises and car dealerships.
It was only then that I realised that for the short time I had spent on
the island, for all my arduous efforts in trying to acquaint myself with
the community, getting to know the farmers and crofters and their families
by name, I'd been rewarded by being accepted into that same community. I
was, in fact, now one of them.
"Look," Tracy laughed, "There goes Shelagh!"
I turned just in time to see Celtic Shelagh on the back of Dabney as the
cow's bony rump disappeared over the crest of a stony bridge. And darn me
if she wasn't singing the words to Lochnagar as high as her eighty-four
year old vocal chords could carry them.