The light has returned at last, brought back to us by a cold north wind that has also brought with it hard frost and snow. Gone are the seemingly endless days of twilight and the interminable rain we’ve endured this strange winter. Now the season feels as it should. Order and balance are restored.
At least the Christmas holidays are marked by rituals, however unseasonal the weather. We may quickly lose track of which day of the week it is or even, this year, whether it was daytime at all, but we can reliably count the passage of time to Christmas itself, then to Hogmanay, and then, in Birnam, to the New Year Ceilidh Dance.
This takes place in the very large Victorian baronial hotel which stands in the centre of the village and which, to digress for a moment, has been frequented over the past year or so by busloads of Chinese tourists. The hotel owners either own or have a tie-up of some sort with a tour company. Several evenings a week during the tourist season, gaggles of disconsolate-looking Chinese wander Birnam’s mostly deserted single street, cameras at the ready. There’s nothing else for them to do here and I wonder what on earth they make of this small, and to our eyes unexceptional, Scottish village.
When it gets too dark they return to the hotel where they either eat in the adjoining pizza parlour or, if they’re on a budget, return to their rooms to boil up noodles and sometimes fish in the electric kettles – a perfectly respectable practice in China, apparently, but one which lends a peculiar flavour to subsequent guests’ coffee and, so I was told, causes the hotel to have to jettison a number of kettles every week. Such are our cultural differences.
Our Chinese visitors would have no difficulty grasping the principles of the ceilidh, however. This takes place in the Birnam Hotel’s prize feature, its enormous first-floor baronial hall, complete with sprung dance floor which has been known to shower plaster dust on the guests in the bar below when subjected to a particularly energetic Strip The Willow.
Our visitors might well struggle with the dances (one doesn’t have to have travelled that far to find them baffling) but they would instantly recognise the fact that this is a family occasion, and a true community event. Pretty well everyone knows everyone, and all ages are represented not only among the spectators but also on the dance floor. The music is always provided by the Edinburgh-based Bella MacNab’s Dance Band who guide us through the dance steps, then keep us at it with legendary swing.
This year the star turn was a fiercely determined three-year-old called Dougie. Dressed in a diminutive kilt and Scottish rugby shirt with his name on it, he took to the floor for almost every dance with one or other of his parents, quite unperturbed at being swung about by giants; then assisted at the raffle by dashing back and forth across the empty dance floor to deliver the prizes as if his life depended on it.
If anyone embodied the spirit of the evening it was wee Dougie. There is a rare sense of wholesomeness about the occasion. Every year, come late afternoon on the day of the ceilidh, I wonder whether I have the energy to dress up, go out in the cold and dance for three hours. And every year, come midnight I walk home again with a warm heart and a feeling of having been enlivened and replenished, my connections to friends and neighbours strengthened for the year to come.
The truth is we need each other. And dancing and music at the turn of the year not only keep the darkness at bay, they celebrate the importance of community in all our lives.
If you’d like the prospect of some real warmth to get you through the weeks ahead, there are places available on our week long residential course, Life Stories In The Sun, at magical Cortijo Romero near Granada, May 14-21. Early bird rates for bookings before 14 Feb.