So you want to host a cèilidh!
First, for the uninitiated, we must ask the question: “What is a cèilidh?”
Cèilidh (Scotland) or Céilí (Ireland), pronounced “kay-lee,” is a Gaelic word and it simply means “visit.” The word comes from the Old Irish ‘céle’ or ‘companion’. A ceilidh is a social gathering of any sort that might include storytelling, singing, instrumental music, jokes, proverbs, sharing of local news, and dancing.
“On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house and hold what they call a ‘cèilidh’. Young and old are entertained by the reciters of old poems and legendary stories which deal with ancient beliefs, the doings of traditional heroes and heroines, and so on. Some sing old and new songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old.” – MacKenzie, Donald A., Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend, 1917.
These gatherings have similar counterparts in other Celtic lands. The Troyl tradition is still practiced in Cornwall, the Noson Lawen in Wales, and the Fest Noz in Brittany. Ceilidhs were originally hosted by the ‘fear-an-tigh’, meaning ‘man of the house. Cèilidhean (plural of cèilidh) had other important functions within society such as facilitating courting and the sharing of news. They are still an important and popular social outlet in all Celtic areas.
In recent times, the dancing portion, not necessarily always a part of the original cèilidh, has become the main thrust of the event. These gatherings are called ‘ceilidh dances’ in Scotland. They tend to be most popular at special events such as weddings, parties, fundraisers, or large dinners.
Music for these events is provided by a cèilidh band made up of 3-6 players. However, it is important to note that this was not the original intent of the ceilidh and is considered a related but different variant of the phenomenon.
It is this author’s opinion that the term ‘cèilidh’ is quite overused today. To quote an older woman in Baddeck, Cape Breton: “They’re calling everything a cèilidh these days to make money.”
So now, armed with a historical perspective on the traditional cèilidh, on to the advice to host your first event.
How long should a cèilidh last?
To answer this question, one must decide what you want to have present at your ceilidh. Will you have a quiet social visit or a wild tune-filled rage session with blasting bagpipes everywhere? You can choose whatever length works best for your group, but generally, most cèilidhean are evening events, so 3-4 hours is a good guide. Send out your invitations early so that your guests will have plenty of time to respond.
But what do I wear?
Cèilidhean is as formal or informal as you wish them to be. However, it is a great chance to break out your fèileadh (kilt)!
Playing music, dancing, singing, and social visits really require some sustenance. Plan on having some good drinks and finger food prepared. This is a great time to dig into some great Scottish recipes for an authentic feel. Things like meat pies, Scotch eggs, scones, stovies, cranachan, bacon butties, shortbread, or tea cakes will be appreciated. If some of your guests stay overnight, you can surprise them with a full Scottish breakfast in the morning as a restorative.
Ah, the most important part of the event! Cèilidh music may be provided by an assortment of instruments such as fiddle, Highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes (a big favorite), whistle, accordion, bodhràn, guitar, or bouzouki. The music is generally livelily consisting mainly of marches, strathspeys, reels, hornpipes, and jigs, but may also include some slow airs and laments. If you are interested in hiring some musicians for your cèilidh, contact us and we’ll be happy to make some recommendations.
Your local pipe band may also have advice. My own pipe band, the Catamount Pipe Band, has its only cèilidh band. If it’s dancing you’re after, try contacting your local Scottish country dance organization.
But let’s not forget the original purpose of this wonderful event, socializing! In this crazy new world filled with far too much social media, people are glued to their phones. We are losing our ability to relate to each other in natural human ways. Find those friends and acquaintances that are natural storytellers, or always have a ready joke. They will be the life of the party. Encourage your guests to share and interact with one another.
Our house has always been the ‘taigh cèilidh’ or cèilidh house in our community. It is a tradition that my parents inherited from their ancestors, and I now share it with our friends. I feel very fortunate that it is one of the traditions that has survived in our family. I remember, before covid, we had hosted quite a large cèilidh at our house and we had invited Norman Kennedy. Norman lives on the other side of town and is an important torchbearer for Scottish culture. In 2020 he was inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame.
Norman doesn’t drive anymore, so afterward we drove him home. On the way, he said, ‘Iain, you know, when you invited me I didn’t know what to expect, but I heard singing, piping, jokes, and people enjoyed one another’s company. That was a real cèilidh’.