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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.