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Freedom and Whisky

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Our mission at Thistles and Coos is to provide honest and authentic stories, reviews, and how-tos for all your travel needs. We are here to support and offer you tips to make your travels affordable and accessible. On our many journeys, we have made new friends, tried new foods, and experienced many new cultures.

“Give and take makes good friends” ~Scottish Proverb

One of our favorite times was when we were invited to a local ceilidh in Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Scotland. Trust us when we say, this is one of those once-in-a lifetime things to experience if you are searching for the essence of the Scottish people; we at Thistles and Coos would be hard pressed to argue.

A Ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee) is the Gaelic word for a social event or gathering where traditional folk music, singing, dancing and storytelling is shared. Cèilidhean (plural of Ceilidh) are still held throughout Scotland; for Cèilidhean in Edinburgh; try and, and in Glasgow, check out

Cèilidhean were traditionally hosted by the head of the household and were a gathering of friends whom told tales, recited poems, sang songs and quoted proverbs. It was also a social event for those who had been displaced from their place of origin to reconnect and reminisce about their past heritage and traditions.

On long, dark winter nights it is still the custom in small villages for friends to collect in a house and hold what they call a "ceilidh.” Young and old are entertained by the reciters of old poems and legendary stories which deal with ancient beliefs, the doings of traditional heroes and heroines, and so on.

Some sing old and new songs set to old music or new music composed in the manner of the old. ~Mackenzie, Donald A., Wonder tales from Scottish myth and legend

To understand how we ended up at this particular ceilidh, we need to go back a bit to the very beginning of our day.

We had spent most of the day driving all over the Isle of Mull, finished with dinner at the Mishnish Pub and decided to call it a night at our hostel in Tobermory.

Bras off...Pajamas poured...journals out to document our day.

We were sharing a quad-room at our hostel with 2 other women. One of them, Jennifer, was in town for a singing competition. Her group from West Lothian (near Edinburgh) had won, and everyone was meeting that evening for the ceilidh event.

She looks at us (not noticing we are in pjs) and invites us to come to the ceilidh as her guests.

We thank her and say we’ll think about it, but we had planned to stay in for the evening and journal. #lame

We realize that this “seasoned” lady was heading out to sing, dance and party… our plan: we were going to stay in and journal. Natalie and I look at each other.

When would we ever have another opportunity to attend a Ceilidh? #asif

It is amazing what a little bit of mascara and lipstick can do. We are off to the party with our new friend Jennifer.

We walk into an old church that has been renovated into a “hall” for performances and are met with that familiar, yet somber sound of bagpipes.

There is something about the Great Highland bagpipes that elicits a physical and emotional response. The sound, unlike any in the world, fills every crack of the walls, radiates with a pulse in the air, and beckons you ever forward to grasp the closest hand and make a new friend. The pipes will make you smile with tears in your eyes. I can't recall an instrument that can do that with such insistence.

Goosebumps and the hair on the back of your neck raises.

We follow the sound of the music into the fellowship hall; the chairs were in a circle around the room, and a young bagpiper was in the front playing.

Wow! We stood there in awe as we realized the bagpiper was maybe 11 years old. The pride of all those watching was something real and tangible. It was written on everyone’s face.

This is something akin to what oral historians do; the old teach the new, and the new go forward and honor the traditions and tell the same stories (perhaps with some poetic license), and on and on. The wheel keeps turning. Traditions get passed down in this fashion.

Our roommate was with her choir group; she came over to greet us and introduce us as her new “American friends.” They handed us a songbook with all the lyrics in Gaelic; we didn’t understand the words and yet we did.

The power of music.

The small choirs sang and everyone danced. Many of the songs had a sad undertone whispering the bittersweet stories of Scotland’s history, the Highland Clearances, and the people’s perseverance through adversity.

“Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.” ~Elton John

We felt this suffering if just for a moment and listened with tear filled eyes. How could a country experience such violence and be stripped of their identity yet be so resilient and welcoming?

We felt a connection. It was like we were Home.

In between performances, the host of the ceilidh was coming around with a “bowl” and a bottle of whisky. We learned the bowl or quaich is a Scottish tradition for offering and accepting friendship.

A quaich, is a two handled drinking vessel used by Highlanders. It is thought the shape resembles a shell and would have been carried during outings and reserved for a dram of whisky.

The gentleman pours whisky into the intricately decorated silver bowl, slides the whisky bottle back under his arm and then holds the bowl with two hands.

He takes a drink and then offers the bowl to the person in front of him.

This person would then take the quaich with both hands, take a drink and hand it back.

The two handles on the quaich is a sign of trust between both parties.

While drinking from the quaich, one person is vulnerable while the other would have the ability to wield a weapon or launch a physical attack on the other.

Throughout time, this ceremony became symbolic for trust and friendship.

Natalie and I were offered the quaich; we took our turn and drank a dram with our new friends.

Taking more from this experience than they will ever know.

Their willingness to include the “Americans” in a traditional ceremony and let us in on their celebration, strengthens our love affair for Scotland and its people. #community

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne.

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet, For auld lang syne.

~Robert Burns

We stayed as long as we could because we didn’t want to miss a single performance. It was fun to just be present and observe.

The ceilidh continued long after these two Americans snuck out and went off to bed. We had an early ferry to Oban to catch.

If you are travelling to Scotland and get the chance to go to or be invited to a celidh, take the offering and go. Listen, See. Understand.

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