On a rainy Friday afternoon, Dale Gillis stepped into his Aunt Sandra’s kitchen carrying an old teak table top. “A little dancing board,” he said, referring to how the house’s soft grey carpet was not a suitable platform for the evening’s festivities. That day, they were preparing to host a ceilidh, a special party that would involve food (like oatcakes and cheese), drink, and plenty of music and dancing – and include the whole of Scotsville, a small town tucked into a remote corner of Cape Breton Island in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
Pronounced ‘kay-lee’, ceilidh is a Gaelic word for a gathering of people or a visit. On Cape Breton, these often impromptu get-togethers – commonly referred to as ‘kitchen parties’ – have evolved from the early days (when people settled here from Scotland in the 18th and 19th Centuries) to centre on fiddle music.
“A kitchen party happened at that time because it is the central room of the house, it was the central source of heat, it was where you had your food and all the things that happened in a general way of life,” said Allan Dewer, music director at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre. “And because they were sitting around having a drink or a meal, it was easy to take out a fiddle – and in some of the older homes, the piano was actually in the kitchen.”