What is a Ceilidh?

Origins of Ceilidh

Ceilidh Dancing
Ceilidh Dancing

First off Cèilidh is a Scottish Gaelic word.  Céilí is the Irish word.  The Scottish and Irish Gaelic are very similar and are often thought to be derived from the same language, but it is also widely agreed that there are enough differences in the 2 languages to be considered as separate entities. 
Cèilidh is pronounced phonetically as ‘Kay-lay’ in Scotland.  
It’s often spelled wrong by those unfamiliar with our culture. For example, Kaylee, Caleigh, Kayleigh, Kayley, Kalee are all very wrong but understandable misconceptions.
 Originally it is thought the word comes from the old Irish Gaelic. Céle  – meaning companion.
There is a lot of history surrounding the language and culture of ceilidh.

Many years ago, a Ceilidh or Céilí would be the word Scottish and Irish people would use for a social gathering and probably didn’t always involve social dancing.  There was a time in Scotland when it was forbidden to play Scottish traditional music, to wear a kilt or tartan and it could be punished by death.  So, a ceilidh might have been a code word that the ‘Authorities’ didn’t understand.   A ceilidh may have been an evening of poetry and a nice chance for a good yarn and a few drams with family or friends.  Without any television or a Netflix subscription the highlight of entertainment would be the ceilidh and the stories, legends told of the days of old. The Witches and the Fairies. The Princess and her wedding or Selkies from sea.  What yer Grannie did before the Battle… Tales of bravery against the English, Wallace and Bruce or fights among the clans.  

Modern Ceilidh

As the years have rolled on the word took new meaning in more recent times. Most would now recognise a ceilidh to be a social dance. Like a Barn Dance in other areas of the world.
A ceilidh now will almost always involve some musical performance and dancing.  No experience is needed at a ceilidh as there is usually always a dance caller on hand to give you a quick lesson on each dance before it begins. A good caller will make this easy to understand and will be encouraging the newbies to take part.
The great thing about a ceilidh is that it is pretty timeless.  Almost anyone can join in so it’s intergenerational entertainment. Which can be a great thing in our modern world where we are averse to mixing the generations. There are not many occasions when an 80-year-old, could be dancing alongside adults and young children in a large group, laughing and feeling like a young person again.  There are no barriers to age in music so why should there be in dancing? Our modern media would have you believe it’s not possible, that there is a generational divide and only young good-looking people play music and dance but with ceilidh we do this all the time.  There’s something magical about it. Almost some kind of invisible deep spiritual connection with our ancestors and our past.

 ‘Nobody ever forgets a great night at ceilidh. There’s nothing comes close to it.’

Charlie Abel, Accordionist with Iron Broo Ceilidh Band. 

​What should you wear to a ceilidh?

This will depend on the occasion of course. It it’s a Scottish Wedding Ceilidh in an upmarket hotel then you might want to hire a Kilt and the whole formal outfit.  If it’s a less formal occasion, then you can wear anything that’s comfortable or if you still love the kilt you can wear a casual dressed down kilt.  It’s not that important really. As long as you can get up and dance comfortably. If you are not wearing any underwear be warned. Some dances involve a bit of lift and sometimes ‘things’ can be displayed if you are not careful. Men and ladies… Pay attention. Sometimes there are things that cannot be unseen.  In the days of modern technology this could be embarrassing. Ahem…

ceilidh set dancing
Dancing in sets.

Modern Ceilidh Bands

Modern Ceilidh

These days ceilidhs are a very popular favourite for functions and events throughout Scotland and even around the world.  Any Scottish wedding band is most likely going to be asked to play at least some ceilidh and some bands specialise in pure ceilidh for the whole evening. ( Like Iron Broo ) or offer a Disco option as well for special events. (like Iron Broo )
These days modern Ceilidh Bands will be asked to play for weddings, corporate events, anniversaries, civil partnerships, students, universities, 21st parties, Burns Nights and very often for larger charity events as a great fundraiser pull.  Your Scottish wedding could never really be complete without a really good ceilidh band. Nowadays, people will really have ceilidhs for any excuse they can find.  Hogmanay ceilidh night is the most popular of all dates in most good ceilidh band’s diaries.
The major difference now with modern Ceilidh bands will be that they are using amplification. Sound equipment has revolutionised possibilities for musicians to perform.  Midi, keyboards, backing tracks, electronic drums, effects, microphones, electric fiddles or guitars, stomp boxes all these things would not have been possible to use without modern sound equipment. 

The modern Ceilidh bands fall into 2 main categories I feel.   Rock or Traditional Ceilidh.
Then there are also pop cover bands that will offer a token ceilidh set.   I feel the best choice for the magic to happen is the traditional ceilidh band.   What I mean by that is one that has a traditional style line up with the instruments being largely acoustic though using sound equipment and a few modern twists to enhance the sound.  I believe that the traditional music is at its best when you can feel the emotion coming from the players.  Each player has a style and when they practice for many years that style begins to shine through during their playing.  The ceilidh dancing lends itself to this style and the repetition of the melodies and the ornamentation that flies off the fingers. There is an emphasis under the beat that is addictive when played at its best. Good old foot stomping tunes that will carry you off your feet and into the sky!
   Accordions, Concertina, melodeon, Banjo’s Mandolins, Fiddles, Acoustic Guitars, a skilled ceilidh drummer, bodhran and bouzouki.  A flute, Tin Whistle or pipes.   I find that with some of the ceilidh rock bands you can often tend to lose some of the magic.  Often, they have a heavy drum beat with a loud electric guitar and a screeching picked up fiddle.  10 minutes of listening to that and you’ll know what mean.   Think Edinburgh tat shop. 😉
I might rub people the wrong way by saying that by that’s how I see it. Very few rock bands can pull off a good ceilidh as well as the more melody driven trad style. There is a lightness and fleeting tempo change to traditional music and I feel it gets overpowered and lost with a heavy sounding, rock style bravado.  As a wise man once said…

‘It’s nae brave, It’s nae funny and it’s nae working.’

A. Wiseman. 

The traditional music played in ceilidh is often most commonly played in Reel, Jig, Slip Jig, March, Hornpipe, Strathspey, Waltz and Polka time. The dances are usually in couples or in a set of number of couples. Each dance has different combinations and figures of movements and bands will often adapt a dance to suit the number of dancers taking part. It’s a flexible social event. ​

couples ceilidh dance
Couples Ceilidh Dancing

Most of the tunes used by a traditional ceilidh band would be from Scotland and Ireland or around the British Isles.  English tunes and dances are also popular at a Ceilidh.  As are European and world music tunes and dances.  You never know what you might happen on the spur of the moment at a great ceilidh.

Folk music also goes very well mixed in with ceilidh as the line-up of the good ceilidh band lends itself also to the good line up of a folk band. After all it’s the same style of music just with words added as song.  An extra melody line.  

Scottish Country Dancing

Scottish Country dancing is similar to ceilidh but it’s not the same thing in practice.  A Ceilidh is a very accessible open social dance. All the dances are pretty easy. No experience is needed, and anyone is welcome to join in and have a go as a caller will likely keep you right.
However, Scottish country dancing may appear the same to the uninitiated, but it is much more complex and is taken very seriously by those who are involved.  You would probably be advised to take lessons at a class before attempting Scottish Country Dancing if you’ve never done it before.  It’s probably what gave you nightmares at school. 

Scottish Country Dancing
Scottish Country Dancing

Scottish Country Dancing classes are also pretty popular and are held around the world.  The dances are easy enough to learn with a little practice and are a great way to keep active.  The authority in Scotland for SCD would have to be the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society(RSCDS) based in Edinburgh. They run classes all though the country in different places and for all ages.  They are a wealth of knowledge and have an absolute treasure chest of dances and tune books.

Many of the ceilidh dances came from Scottish Country Dancing and vice versa.  There’s a whole lot of cross pollination between them but the way tunes are played in Scottish Country Dancing can be a sticking point for many SCD enthusiasts. They like the sets and tunes in a certain way and the right length of bars and the right tempo.  They want particular tunes for a particular set and the emphasis played on the right beat and with minimal ornamentation and maximum lift. It’s very difficult for a musician to keep all of the dancers happy at the same time!   😉
You can almost sense the friendly but tense subtle friction between the ceilidh dancers and the SCD followers.
But for me as a musician I like it all the same.  The tunes are all the same when they are on the paper until the player makes them sound.  When they come from the musician they are the way the musician intended to play them. Without musicians and their music there’d be no more dancing. ​

Highland Dancing

Highland Dancing
Highland Dancing

​Highland dancing is something very different from Ceilidh.  It’s very physically demanding and is usually done by younger people over crossed swords or in groups.  A competition format often seen at Highland games. Its origins lie in Scottish Gaelic folk dance but it has been formalised with influences from Ballet. Dancers wear special shoes called Ghillies, very similar to ballet shoes in appearance if you ask me.  In most cases the Highland dancing is accompanied by a Piper. You can also get modern tracks played for group displays etc. Riverdance being a popular one.
Highland dancing is highly competitive in Scotland and is very technical. It needs a lot of practice to master the technique. Not to mention stamina, strength and a lot of discipline.

Scottish Sword Dancing
Scottish Sword dancing

 I hear it said they danced on swords because of tradition.  It was a martial training exercise for the clansmen. In the olden days soldiers would train by dancing round swords in order to strengthen their legs, ankles, co-ordination and balance. Competing against each other.  It is often said in combat that you die from the feet up.  Many of the highland tunes might also be used to dance at a Ceilidh or Scottish Country Dancing.

Step Dancing

​Step dancing is great fun. Most famous in Ireland and to a lesser extent in Scotland though it is part of our tradition that has been in danger of getting wiped out by modern times.  There is a great revival of step dancing going on in Scotland at the moment and you will often find step dancing classes at festivals and evening classes in most cities.  Step dancing can be danced alone or as a group.  Quite an exhilarating spectacle to see some people who really know how to do it properly.  Sometimes you might be lucky enough to see someone go at it big style at a ceilidh or in a session in bar after a few drams to loosen them up. 

Celtic Step Dancing in the USA
Celtic Step Dancing in the USA