The Gathering

Cameron Welke University of Aberdeen, Scotland


October 6, 2017

How do you feel about traditions? Take a survey and you’ll likely get a whole assortment of opinions and emotions on the matter. Some feel that traditions are the bedrock of families and cultures, while others are more of the opinion that traditions are the vestigial limbs of history that must be severed at all cost and then burned if at all possible, and a whole host of intermediary beliefs exist between these two extremes. To what degree do we proactively examine our own personal, familial, and cultural traditions, and why do we hold on to the ones that we do? What dictates whether a tradition is still relevant, and how can we judge when a tradition may have become harmful? This should be an especially interesting question for my American readers in light of such recent issues as the removal of Confederate statues from public display and the continuing debate on gun control since particularly controversial traditions are inextricably linked with these questions. Is tradition in itself a reason to perpetuate behavior, and to what extent can tradition justifiably serve as an exclusionary rationalization for a particular viewpoint? This is not intended as a partisan statement, but rather as a call to continually question why we believe what we believe and to be able to honestly admit when an opinion is ultimately rooted in tradition rather than utility; but I digress.

If any of you are concerned that this is about to turn into a hyper-politicized diatribe about legislation, fear not, for that concern could not be further from the truth! Rather, I am thrilled to be spending some time discussing the most joyful and wholehearted Scottish cultural tradition that I have yet encountered: the cèilidh. Pronounced kay-lee, the word itself is derived from a Gaelic word meaning “visit” and is rooted in a tradition of story-telling. The oldest cèilidhs were literary gatherings where small communities would come together to tell stories and sing songs, both old and new, and steep themselves in the narratives and melodies that had formed and would continue to shape their culture for many years. This practice is not entirely lost today; literary cèilidhs persist in certain parts of the Gaelic world, while similar traditions can be seen across the globe from the ancient Kavya tradition in India all the way to the very dear Story House gatherings in modern-day Nashville (shout out to Austin Ban if he’s reading this). As time went on, though, the storytelling aspect of cèilidhs became eclipsed by the dancing that would also take place, and so the term now refers to an evening of group dancing, generally to traditional Scottish music. Cèilidhs are common during times of celebration and so are most often found at large gatherings such as weddings and birthday parties, although schools, universities, and community centers also host them with relative frequency.

The evening’s music is provided by a cèilidh band, generally a small ensemble consisting of about four or five members, who lead participants in a succession of rowdy country dances that tend to involve a fair amount of spinning and kicking. Think elementary school PE class, with dances like the Virginia Reel leaving newcomers slightly confused, absolutely exhausted, and thoroughly thrilled if they’ve gone in with the right mindset. Personally, I had a great time at my first proper cèilidh. I met new people, spun my way around a massive dance hall, and kicked my feet as a fiddle spun out melodies that wove together into a simple and ancient tapestry that hinted at the history of Scotland and its people. What astounded me most about cèilidhs, though, was not their form or how fun they are; rather, I was (and still am) taken aback by how enthusiastically every Scot I’ve mentioned them to affirms their deep and abiding love for the art of cèilidh. Think about this: is there any single American cultural tradition that, if you asked one hundred random Americans, would garner at least ninety-five votes of enthusiastic support?  Even Americas oldest traditions, such as baseball, the blues, or immigration, fail to achieve uniform support from the nation today. So it was particularly striking, at least for me, to see an entire culture rally around and find joy in a part of their heritage that they can share with one another, to watch the rhythms of the past flow into a present as the people of Scotland celebrated who they were and who they are and who they are becoming.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of people around Scotland who don’t smile at the thought of a cèilidh. I also understand that the preservation of tradition will look vastly different in a (largely) ethnically homogeneous nation with a population of just over five million than in an ethnic melting pot of a nation with almost three hundred twenty five million people struggling to live in harmony with one another. America will likely never have a cultural practice that unifies us like the cèilidh, and I do not resent this because America is not Scotland and to compare in such an self-deprecating way is to rob oneself of joy and contentment. However, I do think we can learn something from the cèilidh, both in its ancient and modern iterations, about the importance of community and of how communities engage with themselves. When you listen to someone read a story they wrote or dance around a room with someone you’ve never met, you come away knowing that person in a sense that is unique. A story or song may show you that person’s pain and struggles, while a dance will allow you to share a moment of joy and exhilaration with someone else; and is community not the act of corporately sharing our hearts with one another, baring everything from our deepest sadness to our most transcendent joy? Imagine, then, what can happen to a community that makes a habit of this, of finding ways to share themselves with each other regularly so that their knowledge of each other is deep and true and intimate. Imagine a community where the people’s understanding of each other goes so far below the surface that there is no fear in vulnerability and no one lacks a true friend. Would it not be beautiful? Would it not be fulfilling? 

Would it not be holy?