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The Origins of the Ceilidh

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It’s the Holidays and all everyone wants is to have some fun, forget their problems and have a laugh!

Well, I have just the way for you to do so and it’s called “Ceilidh”!

First things first. What is a Ceilidh? 

I am sure that the people that had the luck to have traveled to Scotland have heard of a Ceilidh, as it is something still practiced today.

A Ceilidh is a social gathering—nothing formal—where there is Irish and Scottish music playing and people dancing. Sometimes there is even storytelling! 

It is pronounced “Kay-lay”! I know, who could have guessed? 

The word derives from Gaelic, of course, and it can mean many things. Originally it meant a “visit” and it can even mean a “house party” or a “concert”.

The form of  Ceilidhs is different in the Lowlands and the Highlands. In the Lowlands, they are meant as dances whereas in the Highlands as concerts. I don’t know about you but I can already imagine a few broad and strong Highlanders dancing these amazing songs

Have you ever heard of the Scottish country dancing? Well, a Ceilidh is a more informal version of that. The Scottish country dancing’s main goal is the demonstration of one’s skills.

But Ceilidhs are completely different considering that their first aim is not to win any contest but simply the enjoyment of one’s self. 

I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun a Ceilidh is...

Scottish cèilidh dancing at the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Washington, DC). Image source. 

Who Can Dance a Ceilidh?

The answer is simple: everyone! That is the great thing about Ceilidhs, you don’t have to have a partner to dance. Some songs, of course, can be danced as a couple but most of them are danced in a group. 

Also, there is another upside with a Ceilidh dancing. You don’t have to know the steps. Why? Because there is a caller, of course. A person from the band usually explains the steps beforehand. So all you have to do, my bonnie lass, is to show up there and have fun! 

Ceilidh’s History

As I told you above, the original word signified a simple social gathering. So Ceilidhs could even happen without music or dancing. 

Back in the day, people would recite poems and ballads during a Ceilidh. So as you can understand, it was more of literary entertainment

According to tales, in small villages, old and young people would gather at a house during cold and rainy nights. Entertainers would recite ballads and stories of legendary men and women! 

I don’t know about you but it sounds lovely to me. There is nothing better to do during a cold night than hear tales of legendary people. 

Also, Ceilidhs were originally hosted by the fear-an-tigh, which means man-of-the-house. In some places in Ireland, it’s still called this way but most people today are called simply a “host”. 

The Northern Constabulary Pipe Band Fundraising Cèilidh at North Kessock, Scotland. Image source. 

It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that Ceilidh took its place in the Scottish dance floor. And thank God that it did. 

Ceilidhs Today

Today Ceilidhs are very popular, not only in Scotland but in many places. People choose to do a Ceilidh dance at their weddings or at big gatherings. Fun tip, Ceilidhs at weddings are the best way to bring the two families closer. It’s the perfect way to get the party started, lads!

What should you expect from a Ceilidh band? It usually includes two or three people, a fiddler, an accordionist and of course the caller! 

Some most of the popular dance routines include The Eightsome Reel, The Dashing White Sergeant, and The Gay Gordons

Most people in Scotland know how to do a Ceilidh dance since they were taught during gym lessons at school. 

So next time you hear that there is a Ceilidh dance going on, be sure to go, whether it’s in Scotland or not! 

Trust me, it’s the best and the most guaranteed way to have fun.

Until next time…

Written by Lydia Kendall

  • It sounds so amazing! Thanks for sharing your Ceilidh with me. Did I get the word right?Sure, if I had a chance, I would like to travel to Scotland to join one of the most exciting parties in the world.

  • I am so glad you told me how to pronounce it! I have read so many books and it is mentioned but I was clueless on how to say it. It sounds like such a wonderful time to be had by everyone. I just want to tell you how much I love your books.

  • Thank you so much for this informative article! I’ve been to Scotland several times but never learned the pronunciation of the word Ceilidh so I have always struggled when reading it–mispronouncing it in my mind each and every time. I had perhaps heard “Kay-lay” spoken, but never associated it with it’s spelling. Again thank you–and to be sure if I am able to visit Scotland again, I will try to attend a Ceilidh.

    • It is indeed a difficult word, my sweet Kay! Do attend a Ceilidh if you are ever in Scotland again. ❤️

  • I just adore your articles ! You never fail to entertain me and teach me something new!!!!
    Thanks so very much !!!

  • Thank you so much for your enlightening info on Ceilidhs! As the mom of a former Irish dancer, we’ve been to many of these but knew very little about them. Your info is much appreciated!

  • Oh gosh you have made a n old lady of 62 remember my school days. When we loved from Ireland I was 8 yes old and at our junior school our Scottish teacher Miss Bell would have Scottish country dancing in the main hall every week. I absolutely loved it and did it for a few years. Great memory. Thank you for prompting it.

    • My sweet Wilma, I was so moved by your comment. I am glad that my article made you remember such sweet memories. ❤️

  • Thanks for the wonderful information, always wondered how to pronounce the word. Didn’t know that there was a caller for the dance steps. Sounds like so much fun!!

    • It is indeed a very tricky word. Yes, most of the time, especially today there is a caller in the band! ❤️

    • Haha, me too my sweet lass. Until a Scottish man told me how to and I thought it to be very interesting too! ❤️

  • I always enjoy your articles. Thank you. I apologise I don’t always get to them right away
    because life is crazy right now but I do eventually get a moment and read them. And I always love reading them. I love especially the Scottish history.

    • It doesn’t matter that you don’t always have time to read my articles, my sweet Carol. The important thing is that you enjoy them when you read them. ❤️

  • My daughters husband is Scottish and they live in Scotland with my two grandchildren, their school does keilidhs at Christmas time they attend this as a the whole family in school I have never been to yet. But I love reading the Scottish books from the past and the romance books with the correct information back in the past.

  • Love your articles! They brighten up my day enormously. I have travelled to Scotland many times and they bring back many memories.