Kitchen party, Scottish style

Edinburgh’s Ceilidh Culture festival attracts folks from all over the world

Shawn Hayward
Published on April 23, 2011

Scotland is an ocean away from Newfoundland and Labrador, but the tradition of Celtic music and dance is strong on both sides of the pond.

The Scottish city of Edinburgh celebrates traditional music every spring with Ceilidh Culture, a month-long festival honouring the ceilidh — a gathering of friends and family that involves dancing, music and storytelling, similar to a Newfoundland kitchen party.

The festival is now in its ninth year and holds events all over the medieval city.

The first week included a storytelling session at the National Museum of Scotland led by Michael Williams of Hamilton, Ont., who moved to Scotland 25 years ago.

“The old-fashioned notion of a ceilidh is a house concert, a get-together,” he says.

“It’s not just about dancing and music. It’s people of all ages getting together — teenagers, adults — to share stories.”

Williams wrote his PhD thesis on Scottish immigration to Canada in the 19th century. During his session, he told a story to an international audience about a family leaving for Canada, while museum interpreter Fiona Campbell provided atmosphere with some fiddle music.

“I think the festival is a fantastic idea,” he says.

“It reminds people of our traditional music and dance. I think it’s a pinpoint for people who aren’t sure where ceilidhs are taking place. During Ceilidh Culture you know to come to Edinburgh and there will be things happening.”

The City of Edinburgh started the festival to give traditional artists a platform to reach a wider audience, just as the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival promotes Newfoundland acts.

Organizer Tessa MacGregor says the festival gets a lot of international visitors coming to Edinburgh in the spring. 

“It helps that people from abroad are interested in Scottish traditional activities and are keen to take part,” she says.

The dances are popular with the international audience because it’s tailored to beginners. People known as “callers” decide on the dances and teach dancers which steps to take so no one feels out of place.

When tourists aren’t dancing to Highland music they can see the Highlands themselves by taking a hike up Arthur’s Seat, a hill in the centre of Edinburgh which rises 251 metres and provides a perfect view of the city.

Visitors to Edinburgh can settle down after a day of hiking and see live music almost any night of week, especially during Ceilidh Culture when more than 50 musical acts take to stages across the city.

Kim Edgar of Scottish band Newfangled Folk says the fest is succeeding in its mission to promote traditional music. Her band formed three years ago to perform at the festival and it has been together ever since.

“We really enjoyed that experience and that’s why we became a touring trio,” she says.

The festival is a great way for bands like Edgar’s to gain international exposure, because while the ceilidh is a Scottish phenomenon, the festival attracts visitors from all over the world, something that doesn’t surprise Michael Williams. Whether they’re from Scotland, Newfoundland and Labrador or anywhere else in the world, people just want to have a good time together. 

“I think there’s something about the ceilidh that they recognize as something more than just Scottish,” says Williams.

“There’s just something human about getting together, no matter where you come from.”