Gathering together online during lockdown & the virtual ceilidh

I have seen a lot of things online this week stating that it’s almost a year since everything locked down, and that little did we know how things were going to change.

A year ago, I was preparing a paper that I was due to give at Glasgow University’s Outlander conference. The topic I was going to talk about was 18th-century female servants in the Gaidhealtachd and Mrs Fitz. I was so excited about the conference, friends were going to be coming from all over the world, I was going to be talking with academics about our research interests and there were evening events planned for every day as well. and it was all going to be about a series of books I and many others had read and loved.

Obviously that didn’t happen. My friends Gillebrìde MacMillan, Adhamh O’Broin and Andrew MacAlindon were due to hold an evening concert on 1st June in the centre of Glasgow. Obviously that had to be cancelled as well. In a chat with Gillebrìde, I suggested that it was held online. I had heard about some new software called Zoom, and it sounded like it could be a great alternative. And as a postgrad at the University of the Highlands and Islands, I was used to online lectures and knew that it was a format which worked.

Gillebrìde and the lads took on board my suggestion, and on 1st June last year folks from all over the world were able to gather together virtually from the comfort of their own homes. It was glorious to be in a Zoom with friends I hadn’t been able to catch up with in person for ages and every single person there had a glorious time.

Of course, lockdown didn’t stop and Gillebrìde carried on organising the ceilidhs monthly during last summer, and kindly invited me to give a couple of talks as well. As a highly sensitive introvert, I find giving talks particularly stressful (even when it’s on a subject I know) but I was very glad of the chance to tell folks about stuff I had learned during my second masters’ degree (& dispel a few things that a certain TV show we all love got wrong). The breakout rooms were a great idea of Gillebride’s; they gave the presenters time to relax a bit and also gave us a chance just to chat with those attending. Gillebrìde is a wonderful host, as well as musician and academic, and everyone there felt as if we were indeed enjoying a few hours of what it might like to be at an actual ceilidh (which is not dance-based, but is actually simply a gathering where songs and stories are shared, along with alcohol!)

I was quite upset when Gillebrìde was no longer able to carry on organising them due to work commitments so I asked if I could have a go at organising them for a while, and so I did. I organised six ceilidhs in all, roughly every month, and welcomed folks from all over the world (mainly North America but also Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy Spain and France). There were interesting talks, wonderful stories and beautiful music at each.

I personally felt a real sense of community being created, both with the group of usual presenters (who genuinely love spending time together) and with new friendships which were being formed with guests. It was a chance for friends who haven’t seen each other in ages to catch up, a chance for native Gaelic speakers to have wee chats in Gaelic when they don’t in their everyday lives, and a chance for our friends who have been missing be able to spend time in our beautiful country to go on a wee virtual tour every month courtesy of Andy the Highlander.

I have had some really positive feedback from most folks attending (all bar one, actually). Most have told me how the ceilidhs gave them something to look forward to every month, how they always learned something new and how they enjoyed the company of others. They all stated (again all bar one) indicated that the online gatherings were great for their mental health and offered them a break from “all the nonsense going on in the world presently”.

For me they served several functions. Firstly the camaraderie was wonderful, as was the sense of community. And it felt great helping out friends here financially, all of whom have suffered financially for to the pandemic.

However they were quite stressful to organise, as only the December event broke even (my husband kindly contributing varying amounts every month) and I spent two weeks every month worrying about ticket sales.

I decided to stop organising the ceilidhs, despite loving them, partly due to ill health (I have endometriosis and seemingly now I may well have long covid as well, with it badly affecting my eyes and energy levels) but sadly also because someone I once considered a friend and used to have a great deal of respect for has become someone I genuinely wish I had never met. I won’t discuss it any more, except to say there is only one other person I can say that about.

Over the next few months I want to focus on getting well again, slowly. I’ve also got some exciting things I’m slowly working on just now too. However, when I am feeling better and have got over the hurt this individual has caused me, I hope to once again organise an online gathering. For auld lang syne.

Joanne Watson BA (Hons), MA, MLitt (Dist)

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