Who would have thought it? The ceilidh evening was one of this year’s most popular, well-attended Freshers’ Week events, drawing in eager students from near and far to meet new people and experience a flavour of Scottish culture.
The very word ceilidh, in its most basic form, simply means “social visit,” and that truly sums up the spark that lies at the heart of them. A ceilidh brings people together in joyfulness, and that is magical.
Growing up “down south” in the north-west of England, I clearly remember relaying stories of attending family weddings or parties to my friends, only to be met with confused looks and a multitude of questions. “What is a ceilidh?” “How do you even spell that?” Seven-year-old me had absolutely no clue.
However, when I moved to secondary school in Scotland, the popularity of the ceilidh became abundantly clear. “Scottish Dancing” took over the PE department in the run-up to the Christmas party; the fact I played the violin suddenly included a whole extra layer of musical possibility and no social gathering was ever really complete if it was the “only-a-disco” kind of event.
While the utterly humiliating (and, quite frankly, rather old-fashioned) rigmarole of partnering teenagers boy-girl is something I’m more than happy to have left behind, the general atmosphere around ceilidhs has always, in my experience, been one of enjoyment and excitement.
With a ceilidh comes celebration. It brings connotations of friendship and belonging, shatters the awkward “I-can’t-dance” barriers of the average club night, and tends to be accompanied by wonderfully skilled musicians passionately playing generally uplifting tunes.
While traditional dance has been a central part of folklore and tradition, particularly in rural Scottish communities, for hundreds of years, the combination of tunes and dances we know today truly exploded into the phenomena of the ceilidh in the 1970s, and has outlasted so many other fashions, continuing to thrive today, even in our own little bubble.
The two crucial ingredients of any ceilidh are the dance steps, and a fabulous band. Megan MacKay, a fourth-year student studying Film Studies, is a member of the Folk and Traditional Music Society, and has been brought up surrounded by ceilidhs – both attending and playing for them. She told The Saint about her experience: “I have always loved ceilidhs, whether playing or getting to dance at them. I think they bring people together in such a fantastic way, no matter their age, where they come from or whether they’ve ever danced a ceilidh dance before!”
The Folk and Traditional Music Society here in St Andrews welcome musicians from all over the world to join in with the teaching and learning of new songs and tunes, and celebrate the traditions of the local community. Expanding on the inclusivity of ceilidhs, Ms MacKay talked about the popularity of ceilidhs here in St Andrews: “A lot of ceilidh dances aren’t too difficult to learn, so it doesn’t matter where you are from or which language you speak – anyone can ceilidh dance! It doesn’t even matter how well you do the dances or how many mistakes you make – it’s all about having fun really. […] No one should graduate St Andrews without having tried at least one ceilidh!”
Another society promoting the intrigue of the ceilidh to students from near and far is the Celtic Society, who offer weekly Scottish dance classes. Dance teacher Eilidh Garden, a first-year Biology student, told The Saint of her own first impression of ceilidh music: “My first ceilidh was back in high school; it was a school Christmas dance. I just loved the community feel — you could dance with people you’d never spoken to before and be smiling and laughing with them in the dance two minutes later.”
In many ways echoing Ms MacKay’s observations, Ms Garden identified a strong interest in ceilidhs among student in St Andrews: “I think it’s so heavily embedded in Scottish culture that people from all over just want to give it a go. You can’t live in Scotland for any period of time and never go to a ceilidh. Plus, it’s super easy to pick up so it doesn’t intimidate anyone.”
The fact that both societies are thriving, with numerous events coming up throughout the semester, is proof itself of the timeless attraction of a good Scottish dance.
“We’re one of the oldest societies in the University, so ceilidh dancing has been an essential part of St Andrews culture for over 200 years,” noted Ms Garden. “The fact that the society is still here and thriving shows just how much people love it.”
The love for ceilidh dancing is evident in the University’s international student body too, as individuals who have never even heard of the ceilidh experience it for the first time here in St Andrews. Features editor and fourth-year student Kenalyn Ang, hailing from Los Angeles and having never been to Scotland before her time studying here, expressed her love and enthusiasm for ceilidhs. She remembers the first time she ever danced a ceilidh, “It was in my first year, Freshers’ week, in the activities room in the Old Wing of University Hall. The room was ridiculously bright, and almost everyone was clustered along the edges of the big, rectangular room, clutching steadfastly to their plastic cups filled with lemonade and vodka (uni hall’s best!).
“We awkwardly watched the band set up, but once they were ready to go, the music completely filled that empty air, ringing off the expanse of hardwood floor in front of all of us. As if unconsciously, we were drawn towards the center of the room, and within minutes we were set up for our first dance series of the night!”
Indeed, ceilidh dancing can prove to be an immediate icebreaker and remedy for any new mixing event! Ms Ang added, “By the end of the night I’d broken a major sweat and gotten such an unexpected workout, meeting some of my closest friends to this day too. I still remember that night to be one of my best first moments in this town.”
For fourth-year Jack Abernethy, a member of Folk and Trad Society, it was the fast pace and enjoyable music that first drew him to ceilidhs. “I really love how ceilidhs can be such a huge part of student life. From Forgan’s to the Union and student/society balls, it’s something anyone can do, and I think everyone should take advantage of it while here.”
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and I for one am very pleased it is. Having the opportunity to play and attend traditional music and dance events, as well as more formalised ceilidhs, has been such a special part of my own St Andrew experience three years on, and sharing my love and familiarity of ceilidhs with friends from across the world has made it all the more satisfying.
“Ceilidhs are fun, entertaining and welcoming”, summed up Ms McKay, with Ms Garden adding, “I don’t know how you could not love ceilidh dancing.”
Get a group of friends together and get yourself to one of this town’s many ceilidh opportunities. Whether you’d like to get to grips with the steps first with the Celtic Society, or fancy having a go at playing along with the Folk and Traditional Music Society, or just want to attend and have a wonderful night, ceilidhs really are a must for your St Andrews to-do list!