Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey


The following article appears in Celtic World and Scottish Traditions of Trust Newsletter

Dannsa (Gaelic for 'dance'), is a fairly new traditional dance performance group whose core consists of Caroline Reagh, Sandra Robertson, Frank McConnell and Mats Melin. The group came about in 1999 when Mats was asked, by the National Kidney Association, to put together a performance piece bridging traditional and contemporary dance elements for a Charity Gala performance at Eden Court in Inverness. From one single idea based on the rhythm and the sounds of a spinning wheel, a 15-minute piece, now called the Spinning Reel, was created.

As we enjoyed the crack of dancing together, we continued to meet up on a semi-regular basis, which in turn led to more performance requests wherefore more material has, over time, been worked out. We take traditional dances, or elements thereof, and create new arrangements, which are to our mutual liking.

Last year we decided that maybe we should go on a tour of the Highlands and the Western isles. Sandra was instrumental in setting up a plan and approaching possible venues. To cut a long story short, eight months later, after a lot of hard work fundraising, advertising and planning, it was the beginning of April 2002, and we were in rehearsal in Kingussie about to go on a three week tour to 14 venues. In addition to this we were to teach a number of workshops and attend a house ceilidh.

The way Dannsa works is that we have the core of the four dancers, and then we use a flexible pool of musicians and singers. At any one point we would have at least two musicians and one singer with us. In rehearsals we had singers Mary Ann Kennedy, Fiona Mackenzie (Dingwall), Liz Roussin and Anna Murray; fiddlers Ronan Martin and Mairi Campbell, Kenny Fraser to join us later in Mull and piper Fin Moore. In addition to this we had employed sound man Gavin Ramsay from Aberdeen and Nicola Marshall to help us manage the tour.

Depending on the venue, our show is either a straight performance of combined music, dance and song, or if in a suitable village hall we have the audience up to dance well known and new ceilidh dances in between our performance pieces. So our show was anything from 2 to 4 hours long!

Reflections on a tour

We knew it was going to be hard, but to some it was probably a surprise such as how much this kind of work takes out of you. Our first performance was at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen. It would be the first time that a number of our pieces were performed in public. One piece in particular was a set of four waulking songs to which we had created steps and movements. We had been given a grant from the Scottish Arts Council to create a 15 minute piece based on the various rhythms of the work songs used when waulking the cloth in times past. At the time Mary Ann Kennedy worked with us to find the right songs and the movements to go with them, so this was the first performance for us all to see if the concept worked! It did, but the piece is a marathon for the singer, and even though we help in singing the vocables in two of the songs, it is jolly hard work. The audience on the night was not huge but very appreciative. Mary Ann now left us but would join us again later on in the tour.

From Aberdeen we moved on to Cromarty, where we did the first Ceilidh Dance Performance of the tour and the crowd were very keen on getting on to the floor all evening. Fiona Mackenzie gave us some excellent songs as did Mairi Campbell.

The next performance was at Carrbridge, and because of the size of the hall and the good acoustics we did the evening un-plugged, which was lovely and made for an intimate evening. The 70 or so strong audience was with us from the start and we had a good laugh indeed. Both Fiona and Mairi left us at this point and Liz and Kenny were to join us in Mull in two days time.

The tour began in earnest when we got into the hired green mini bus and headed off for Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Beautiful sunshine took us via Laggan, Fort William down to the small ferry port at Lochallan for the short crossing to Mull. We rehearsed in An Tobar, the Arts Centre in Tobermory, now incorporating Kenny Fraser for the first time in our line up. School workshops were given in Salen to both the Gaelic and Mainstream pupils. A small crowd of 24 saw us that evening in An Tobar.

The weather was changing for the worse as we headed from Mull, via Oban to Barra and for those in the company who do not like the big swell of the Minch it was a very long crossing. The following day we taught in two primary schools and in the evening we headed for Northbay Hall. 20 minutes into the performance the islands suffered a complete power cut! So the candles were brought out and the most atmospheric night of the tour took place. Dancing, and singing in a candle lit hall was fantastic. Local singers gave us several beautiful songs as did visiting Father AJ MacMillan from Cape Breton. A local lass also played beautiful tunes on the clarsach. The social dancing was cut down to minimum due to the number of candles on the dance floor. But we did manage a Posties Jig and few waltzes, the last with Kenny, playing solo fiddle, walking up and down the middle of the hall with the dancers all around him. Dancing in a candle lit room brought its problems too as at one point during the evening in the twilight it became very difficult for Mats to see so at least one dance was done virtually blind! It became a matter of sticking out a hand and hoping he was going in the right direction and turning the right person! Once his eyes had adjusted properly he was completely in the dark - ha ha! It was a night to remember and the hall was full almost to bursting point! The lights eventually came back on but only as we were packing up!

Next morning was beautiful and sunny and we had a great crossing to Eriskay and on to Uist. St Peter's Hall, Daliburgh this evening housed a crowd of some 120. Attendance was fantastic - it turned out to be the biggest crowd we got on the tour. This evening was different again for us as we did it in three halves! Performance, a few dances for all, performance again, tea and spread and then a dance for all to the local band (which actually is five parts - but who is counting on a good night!). It was a big night especially for Liz, as she sang in public as part of a performance for the first time at home. Liz's port-a-beul (mouth music) that night for Frank's solo stepping was something special indeed! My own special moment of the tour was dancing the Quadrilles that night! We also saw the faint northern lights in the night sky.

One special little story comes to mind at this point. In Barra we met a woman from Denmark over on holiday, she came to our Barra evening and then again to see us in Uist. She said that both nights had been very special to her and that she had felt her heart thoroughly moved by our performances, specially the interaction between the song, music and the dance meant a lot to her. She expressed it as ' that she had experienced real Scottish culture!' When we reached Ullapool eight days later a letter, sent from Durness and written in Danish, was given to Mats from her, with a drawing for us all and a Danish greeting wishing us all the best of luck with our work wherever we go in Scotland! The Danish woman was only one out of at least ten people that we know of that saw us twice during the tour. Another person saw both in Aberdeen and in Ullapool!

After Uist we headed north to Stornoway in the rain and wind, leaving Kenny and Liz behind to join up with Ronan Martin. Kathleen MacInnes was our singer. We had a respectable turnout for a Saturday night in the Stornoway Town Hall. The crowd was again game to join us for dancing.

The next day was a day off and as the island is closed on a Sunday, we spent the day sleeping and relaxing! There was nothing else to do in the pouring rain and gusting winds anyway! Monday saw us in Ness by the Butt of Lewis. We were to have performed in small Arts Centre - Taigh Dhonnachaid - but as filming was taking place there we held our evening in the nearby Lionel School. We had our smallest audience of 14 this night, but what we did not have in numbers we had in enthusiasm and we had a great evening, including another power cut!

Tuesday was spent doing the laundry and other chores and in the evening we went to a private house ceilidh on the west coast of Lewis, the setting of the house is fabulous overlooking Berneray and Tolstachaolis. The place has also got a sauna with the best view in the west looking south towards Callanish. Sore legs and bodies got some much needed heat treatment!

We had a good crossing to Ullapool, the seas were in our favour for a change. We drove south to Achmore by Plockton, via the craft centre and coffee shop at Achnasheen, which comes highly recommended. We were accommodated by the organisers 'Lochan' in a castle, which looks centuries old but is actually only about 10 years old and which has excellent features such as under floor heating. It was a great treat to stay there. This was our return to Achmore hall, as we performed there in November last year, and we had another tremendous evening. Mary Ann had rejoined us, so the Ceilidh dances were done to fiddle, pipes and clarsach.

We went on to Skye for two performances, one at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College in Sleat, and the other one at Aros in Portree. In the latter performance our line up was boosted by the singing of Arthur Cormack. Mary Ann left us to go to Shetland for the weekend recording the Folk Festival on behalf of the BBC. So our sixth night on the trot was in Ullapool were Fiona Mackenzie, in great form rejoined us for a very enjoyable evening in theMacPhail Centre.

Sunday was spent mainly sleeping and resting in the Ceilidh Place. Typically, being our day off it was raining and blowing heavily again!

Two nights of our tour to go and we headed north to Lochinver, where to our surprise the floor had been re-varnished just for us - well, not quite but for a Monday evening in Lochinver we got a tremendous turnout of over 80 people which filled the hall. This included some 16 Slovenian climbers who had been driven off the hill by the bad weather. They joined in the dancing with great enthusiasm. The floor was full for the ceilidh dances. Mary Ann, who had managed to get off Shetland intact that very morning, in the bad weather, had rejoined us. We had a tremendous evening and if it had not been a weekday evening we would have continued dancing well into the wee sma' oours of the morning. We were all on a tremendous high that evening!

On our last day, the rain cleared away and we had a fantastic journey, via Durness to Skerray on Sutherland's north coast. The hall at Skerray is of the old fashioned type and has a lovely atmosphere. We arrived to a meal laid out in the hall and the sun was shining all evening as we were setting up for our final gig. Some 30 people turned out, which was good, as the area had been saddened by a terrible car accident the night before which took the life of a young man (something which we found out afterwards). Personally it was great as I knew all in the hall bar two, from the time I used to teach a weekly class here. Our tour finished on a high but at a very dignified level. Our reception in Skerray mirrored those of most other venues - warm and welcoming and appreciative of what we are doing.

We had travelled some 1,800 land miles, gone on six different ferries in all possible weather conditions. We suffered no injuries (apart from self-inflicted) or illnesses and we were all still laughing together at the end of it - pretty good in my book. We have learned a lot of what to do and what not to do, and if we ever do this again, which we will in about 2060 when we have recovered, we will definitely not do six nights on the trot!

So why do we do it? Because we love it!

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.