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A Highland Ceilidh

by Ethel G. Hofman


        It could be any day on the isle of Skye.  A lone piper can be heard, the mournful notes of the bagpipes echoing through the glens.  He’ll be in Highland dress and Gaelic is his mother tongue.

        The isle of Skye is one of the islands, which make up the Inner Hebrides chain, located off the northwest coast of Scotland. Today, getting to Skye is easy. If you’re driving, take the bridge from the Kyle of Lochalsh on the Scottish mainland to Kyleakin, a tiny waterfront village on the southeast end of the island or by ferry. Skye  is  a destination worth traveling to - one of the few remaining unspoiled areas of the civilized world. It is a place where the islanders retain Highland hospitality and values of another era.  In the midst of the spectacular scenery, rushing waterfalls and majestic mountains, it’s easy to imagine a bygone era where ceilidhs were an integral part of daily life.

       The modern ceilidh is entertainment – a light-hearted couple of hours of toe-tapping Scottish song and dance at concerts, weddings and New Year’s eve. But it was not always so.  To find out more, I spent time on the magical island, talking to historians and Skyemen, as they like to be called, to understand the Highland’s dark background, which in part led to the uniquely essential gatherings – the ceilidhs.  

       The isle of Skye is steeped in  a history of  Norse invasions, bloody clan rivalry and the sorrow of the Highland clearances. This is where in 1746; young Flora MacDonald helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from the English after the brutal battle of Culloden. Flora MacDonald together with Prince Charlie disguised as her servant girl sailed “over the sea to Skye.” One of the most romantic Scottish heroes, Flora Macdonald is buried in Kilmuir churchyard, near the northern village of Uig, her grave marked by an imposing tall Celtic cross. In Skye today, Highland dress is proudly worn, the skirl of bagpipes and the notes of the clarsach (a the Highland harp) can be heard of an evening, and Gaelic is not only spoken but is compulsory in the island’s schools.  A far cry from over two centuries ago, when under the Disarming Act, all things Gaelic were banned  – bagpipes which led the clans into battle, kilts and tartans, language and gatherings. The English regarded the Highlanders as barbarians – and this was a futile attempt to Anglicize the population.  Dissenters were imprisoned or shot.  Missionaries were sent to from Edinburgh to speak English and to make sure church services were conducted in English – which few Highlanders could understand. Today there is still bitterness against the Lowlanders who fought with the English against the Highland Scots, the Jacobites, and who abetted the Highland Clearances where Anglicised chiefs and landlords found it more profitable to give the land over to sheep than to depend on rents from crofters (small farmers). Whole communities were forced to leave their homes to start again in new countries. Some landlords helped the crofters with money for tickets on ships but others evicted their tenants without remorse. In the 18th century, after the battle of Culloden, when everything Highland was suppressed and gatherings were forbidden, the ceilidh house became more important. It was where the future was planned – perhaps emigration, rebellion, or meetings with landlord or chief. In the 1770’s, emigrant ships sailed to the Carolinas, a half-century later they poured into Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island in Canada and in the mid-nineteenth centuries they left for Australia and New Zealand.   According to historian, Jonathan MacDonald, who lives in the northern part of Skye, between 1840 – 1843, forty thousand people were evicted. In 1840, on one day, three ships with one thousand people aboard left for Australia. Today, tumbled hearthstones by the seashore and remnants of shelters where families struggled to survive after eviction can be seen.

        “You can have a ceilidh with just one or two” insists Skyeman Donnie MacKinnon describing how late one recent summer evening he had a call from a friend to come over and have a ceilidh. “I took my pipes and we played and yarned (talked) till the wee hours” he laughed.       

         For exiles around the world, a visit to the isle of Skye, will re-kindle the treasured memories of nightly “ceilidhs” round a peat fire and the warmth of the people who are born and raised there may pass on the gentle values and culture of a bygone era.

Ethel Hofman’s latest book “Mackerel at Midnight –growing up Jewish on a remote Scottish island,” Camino Books is available at Amazon  by clicking this link.  For an autographed copy, contact the author at



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Updated 13/4/2005