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A long tradition of Highland hospitality – the cèilidh continues

By Liza Mulholland

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Liza Mulholland
Liza Mulholland

I write these words having just watched an online talk by fiddler Ewen Henderson, of Lochaber’s acclaimed Henderson family, as part of Fèis Rois’s Virtual Fèis Weekend – and how wonderfully timely it was.

His subject was Songs and Tunes of Highland Hospitality and, with our hospitality venues now reopening, it felt like a very fitting topic.

Ewen gave us a whistle-stop musical tour of several hundred years of Highland hospitality, from the open door of a humble thatched cottage and welcome sharing of what little they had – often simple fare of milk and bannock – through fair days and wedding traditions, the taigh chèilidh (cèilidh house) and bothan (bothy or hut where men gathered to share stories and a drink, at times product of an illicit still), to village hall dances and hotels of more recent years.

Sustenance to visitors included not just food and drink but nourishment for the heart and mind too, in the form of music, song, stories, discussion, gossip and fun; the handing down and sharing of a community’s knowledge and frame of reference, within the old oral tradition.

As a born and raised Highlander with Hebridean connections, I have been lucky to grow up familiar with some of this and although not experiencing the older traditions, I do recall my grandmother talking of the cèilidh house in her Isle of Lewis village in the early decades of the 20th century.

Cèilidh nowadays usually means a gathering or dance, but originally it simply meant a visit to your neighbour where news and stories would be shared. Cèilidh houses were homes – perhaps two in a village – where it was customary for folk to gather, possibly homes with a singer or storyteller in the family.

I was fascinated to see the historical references in Ewen’s presentation, in the form of old paintings and quotations from figures such as writer James Boswell who toured the Highlands in past centuries. Hospitality has undoubtedly been an enduring traditional cornerstone of Highland society.

Ewen is well placed to talk about the subject, having been raised in a home brimming with music, song, stories and a deep knowledge of history. The Henderson household was also one where a warm welcome was assured.

Some years ago, in my work as a television producer, I made a documentary on the Gaelic world’s leading musical families, including the Hendersons, and I recall myself and the crew being welcomed into their home, fed, watered, and treated to the heartiest of cèilidhs. Ewen was just a wee lad of around eight but was clearly soaking it all up.

With a friend’s summer wedding on the Isle of Barra – still community events where everyone helps out – I am very much looking forward to island hospitality in the traditional style.

Meanwhile, as Highland pubs, hotels and restaurants reopen, I am sure there are warm welcomes everywhere. Maybe even a tune or two composed in celebration!

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