Catching the ceilidh fever

ROCK HOLIDAYS Tuesday night is ceilidh night. So was Monday. And Wednesday... Marion Hume dances until dawn in the Hebrides

"Curry Night" on an island off an island in the Outer Hebrides sounded too weird to miss. But it turned out that it was not the curry (lots of sultanas, not much chilli) that made my first evening on the Isle of Berneray. After piles of popadums had been chomped through; after White & MacKay bottles, disappointingly full of orange squash, had been consumed; the half-bottles of whisky popped out of handbags and coat pockets and a ruddy-faced crofter stood up to sing.

His Gaelic song - a million miles away from the background music in your average Indian restaurant - had folk dabbing at their eyes. Then the tables were cleared, the piper tuned up and four little girls started to dance. Others then stepped on to the dance floor. I tendered my regrets to a man who asked me, on the grounds that I had on gallumping great hiking boots. "Och, we don't mind that here," he said, and gallantly led me on to the floor.

White Sergeants were dashed, Gay Gordons were skipped. My next dance partner was my B&B landlord, who has tried to resist the fame of being the man who gave shelter to the Prince of Wales when he did a disappearing act a few years back to live as a crofter with the people of Berneray. What was that song about dancing "with the man who danced ..." which somehow ends up "with the Prince of Wales"?

Tuesday was official ceilidh night: a ferry ride and an hour's drive away from Berneray, down to South Uist. Berneray is Protestant, South Uist is Catholic, and religion matters a lot in the Hebrides. The difference is evident in the ceilidhs; "Go north and you take your dram in your pocket, but down here the Catholic town halls have bars," a South Uist crofter-fisherman told me, stating the obvious because the bar was buzzing.

On offer entertainment-wise was more Highland dancing, more piping, more singing and a compere from BBC Inverness who brought the house down with a joke in Gaelic including, I think, the words "hula-hoop", "Mrs Thatcher" and "Polar bear". Gaelic speakers say their humour (which seems to involve lots of jokes about errant wives and sheep) lose much in translation. Then it was outside for 20 minutes, while the men of Borrodale cleared the chairs for dancing. For a further pounds 3 ("Aye, we get your money as we can," said a local postmistress as she sold us yet another raffle ticket), we got to go back in and dance. "Can't we just move here?" pleaded my 100 per cent English husband Peter after he had waltzed with the prettiest girls in the hall.

Wednesday night was the pipers' ceilidh at the Dark Island Hotel on the island of Benbecula. Officially a more formal affair, the reigning piping champions (several of them young girls) did virtuoso performances, including a head-splitting 15-minute solo from one man. Behind the scenes, in the hotel's saloon bar, things were even noisier as pipers "jammed" together (if such an expression can be applied to bagpiping), once fuelled with their prizes of massive bottles of Famous Grouse.

We were too sissy Sassenach for Thursday's beach ceilidh because it was pouring down. Three free coaches, leaving after "crofting hours", headed south. We dithered over the 10.30pm bus and the 11.30pm bus and were asleep before the 1.30am bus departed. "No, the storm didn't spoil it. We had our own ceilidh in the bus," said our bright-eyed waitress - who could not have got to her bed before 5am - as she served our breakfast on Friday.

Friday meant back to Berneray for the island's biggest summer ceilidh night. But where to sleep? "We're full to the gunnels. Have you tried Mrs MacAskill?" said our host from Monday night when I telephoned. "Have you tried Mrs MacDonald?" said Mrs MacAskill. "Mrs MacLeod?" said Mrs MacDonald. "Mrs MacIver?" said Mrs MacLeod.

At last, I spoke to a lady I shall call Mrs MacKindly. "Oh, but I've little to offer you for your breakfast," she said. I said it was a bed we were after and could we show up at 4pm? We did, to find she had cooked up roast chicken with tatties and neeps from her vegetable patch, baked an apple pie and given up her own bed for two strangers she had never met. As we sat drinking tea around a peat fire, I asked her how Berneray had changed in her lifetime. "Well, in the past the people were friendlier," she told me.

Mrs MacKindly said she had had her dancing days, but her fisherman-crofter son, Roddy, would join us. Down at the village hall, people staked their territory around the floor by lining up their whisky bottles next to their chairs. Then they hit the dance floor. Those lily-livered townies like myself who joined them bore the scars afterwards; the men of Berneray have arm muscles like cheesewires. My arms were bruised for a week.

Much drinking, much dancing, yet another raffle (first prize - a bottle of whisky) that we did not win. The music ranged from Gaelic to American country and western, particularly Roddy's favourite, Dolly Parton. "As a journalist, do you think you could ask her to come to Berneray?" said Roddy. So Dolly, we have never met, but next time you are touring in Europe, you should fly up to Glasgow, then on to Benbecula, then catch the little ferry to Berneray. There are not many people there. But they can pack out the village hall and you will not find a warmer audience or a better dram.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
News
i100
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
people
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little