For me the year began properly on Monday night with the annual village dance. In the middle of Birnam is a large, ugly Victorian hotel with one marvellous, possibly unique, feature – a huge first-floor baronial hall.
Here we gather every New Year to dance and greet those neighbours we didn’t bump into in the car park of the Taybank pub which, complete with covered stage, raucous band and compulsory inebriation, has now become the focal point for Hogmanay itself.
The ceilidh, by contrast, is a family event. Every generation is there and most people know one another. There’s a great atmosphere, excellent music from Edinburgh’s Bella MacNab ceilidh band, pretty well everyone dances, no one gets too drunk or shouts, and the feeling of goodwill is palpable. I leave each time with the glowing sense of belonging to a real community. It’s a constant delight and a novelty that never wears off for someone brought up in the kind of rarefied circle where one was more likely to have tea in a castle than mix with the local village folk.
It made me think what an elastic word ‘community’ has become. We talk of communities today to mean groups of people who are bound together only by someone else’s idea. There’s much talk of community in the corporate social responsibility report I’m currently writing for a large manufacturing plc. They’re eager – quite understandably in these scrutinous times – to be seen to be connecting with people beyond the factory walls, and doing the right thing by them. But the members of these communities, be they whole towns local to the factories, or particular common interest groups with whom the company has dealings, or just, collectively, the people who buy their products, have no knowledge of one another. So are they really communities? No, of course not. In a real community everyone is known to everyone else and all are nourished and supported by their membership of that group.
Which doesn’t, of course, mean that they must live cheek-by-jowl. A community that flowered briefly but thrillingly, and which I now miss greatly, was that of the musicians that gathered every Monday night at my local pub, the Birnam Tap Inn, during the first five years I lived in the village. Over the last few days I’ve been listening again to recordings I made of those sessions and the feeling of nostalgia is, at moments, almost unbearable.
We came together one evening a week to make music in the most spontaneous, open, communal way possible. Everyone was welcome, whatever their musical ability. There was no programme or agenda. We simply played what we felt like on the night and because the place attracted excellent musicians, the music was mostly of a much higher quality than usual for a pub session. It was exhilarating and deeply connecting, not just for the players but also for the audience of regulars and passers-by. We were all enriched by the experience and on certain nights, when the energy was high and the musicians hit a particular groove, there was an almost religious intensity to the experience.
The session finally ended when the hotel to which the pub belonged closed down. That was three years ago. Now the place is a pizza parlour; home, perhaps, to a new community of regulars. Whatever brings us together, most of us need communities – although it wasn’t really until I returned to Scotland, in my early 40s, that I realised it. Now I belong to several, the village of Dunkeld and Birnam, Dark Angels and 26, to name but three. The thought warms me as we face the uncertainties of 2012.