They can die at will you know.
Out on the islands.
Well some of them can. The trouble is they don’t know if they have the gift until they try.
You might be thinking lots of folk do that. Lose the will to live. Decline. Fade away. But I am not talking about over months, like a widow after her man’s funeral. I mean dropping down dead, on the spot. They can shut their eyes and just decide.
Legend says dolphin folk can step out of the sea and pass as human – live as humans, marry humans, have children with humans. So the Islanders say they have dolphin blood.
Dolphins don’t breathe automatically like people do. Breathing’s a decision for them, not a reflex. If a dolphin loses consciousness it suffocates, so only one side of their brain sleeps at a time.
And if they want to, if things get bad enough, they just stop breathing and die.
Dolphins have greasy tears to protect their eyes from the sting of the water, so the islanders believe you can tell one of the dolphin folk when they cry.
Tattie McKinstry was eight when she was wakened in the middle of the night by a noise outside.
But getting louder.
Running to her parents’ room she shook her mother awake.
“Don’t be frightened darlin’. It’ll jist be The Ceilidh comin’,” said Mrs McKinstry, rolling back to sleep.
Partly placated, Tattie pressed her nose to her bedroom window and waited for whatever was approaching. She didn’t fully understand her mother’s words; only that she needn’t be frightened.
So she wouldn’t be.
Soon the noise became recognisable as The Bluebell Polka.
Deedly up aye deedle aydle dee dye dum…
The wide-eyed wee girl saw a tight huddle approaching, for it was windy and The Ceilidh was pressing together for warmth. Fiddlers could be seen on the edge of the pack. Some, caught on the wrong flank, walked backwards so their bowing arms had room to saw away on the outside. She could hear an accordion. As the musicians drew level it left off the melody and began vamping a backing. The slide of a trombone rose and fell in and out of view above the throng, as some unseen embouchure puckered up and took over the tune with a jaunty parp.
The wind whipped the music and hurled it at Tattie’s young ears in big blurts, or held it tantalisingly back. But the whole affair faded again anyway as The Ceilidh moved off, trailing a stray tin whistler in its wake. Tattie opened her window despite the wind, to relish the last few lingering notes. Shutting her eyes she struggled to pick out the music that wee bit longer through the gale. Opening them again once she was sure it was gone, she made a decision.
Whatever she had just witnessed was what she was going to do with her life.
Nobody knows exactly when The Ceilidh began. Some say St Senga herself started it by singing a ballad of such power and sadness that the best musicians of the islands had to be called on to dispel the gloom. Senga’s song was so grim it’ll take centuries of cavorting to make up for it. So they’ve been playing ever since.
The Ceilidh is kept running smoothly by Peter Ruadh, whose father Seumas was “Ceilidh-herd” before him. When Peter goes home to sleep from time to time, The Longest Continuous gets away from him and he has to track it down the next day and knock it into some sort of order again. He’s the only non-performer involved, arranging who is going to play what with whom and when so that as one tune finishes another one will start straight away. There is never any applause. There is never time. But the crowd will nod vigorous approval at the perpetrators of a good tune once the next number is underway: Especially if the next number isn’t so great.
Other folk play music on the islands, but its just decoration for them. Wallpaper. For those in thrall to the Longest Continuous Permanent Floating Ceilidh in Radgenish, the music is everything.
Wee Tattie decided the tin whistle would be her passport to the perpetual party, as that was the last thing she had heard trailing The Bluebell Polka off into the night.
Dye dye deedle dum. Deedle eedle deedle dum…
She practiced for years, every spare minute she could find. Then one day she felt ready for The Ceilidh. She had to find it first of course. You always have to find it first.
The Longest Continuous wanders all over the islands but it is associated most with Radgenish, and regarded as a wee bit shameful by the more upstanding members of the community. Typical of Radgenish, they say with a tut in Tichitibui. Not something decent folk would concern themselves with, they think in Gallusdubh. Most Radgenishers don’t get that involved either, but have a sneaking pride that it is associated with their town. It makes them feel slightly racy by association, and perhaps a bit more interesting than they really are.
It scrapes away in pubs. On summer evenings it can often be found on a beach. It’ll then retire to somebody’s house and kick out the jigs until breakfast before moving off again leaving its hosts bleary and useless the rest of the day.
You cannot book it. More than one cheapskate has sought to divert it to their wedding or birthday party, but The Ceilidh never cooperates because The Ceilidh is cussed, contrary and thrawn.
One wedding party went searching for it immediately on leaving the kirk, but when they caught up with The Ceilidh all the players downed instruments and a succession of balladeers took it in turns to sing a single dirge lasting three whole days and nights. Even when the bride and groom tried to leave, The Ceilidh followed them until the piece was finished. Their subsequent life together was always tinged with the melancholy of that song.
But Tattie was looking to play when she tracked The Ceilidh down to a croft just outside Radgenish, so she should be fine – provided she was good enough.
Only the best musicians get to join in. If the other players don’t think you are up to scratch, you get “The Nudge”. The players push you away. If some think you are up to staying then they will get behind you and nudge you back in. It can get very uncomfortable when that happens, and candidates are expected to keep playing all the while.
But when the nudge happens its usually unanimous. And that’s what happened to poor wee Tattie, just 14 but with years of hard practice behind her. She could overblow three octaves, play in any key, and stroke her fingers over the holes to slur, slide and bend the sound to her will, all the time letting loose grace notes and birls to make even the fussiest piobaireachd purist jealous.
She had the technique but she didn’t have the restraint to unleash it with taste.
“Faur owwer funcy quine. Yer faur owwer funcy,” confided Fearty MacFraoir apologetically as he put his shoulder to her and began to push her towards the door. Others soon joined in, and before long Tattie was out in the cold, sitting on her sorry rump, looking down as her big greasy tears spattered in the dust.
Aye, greasy tears.
She was one of them.
She could check out at any time.
But Tattie wasn’t done yet.
She decided to learn a new instrument – the nine-stringed and difficult to keep in tune Hardanger fiddle – begging lessons wherever she could. And she practiced a few years again until she thought she was ready once more to play at The Longest Continuous.
Peter Ruadh gave her the nod as a spirited rendition of Bonnie Lass of Fyvie drew to a close. All eyes were on her as she lifted her bow to the strings and began to play The Bluebell Polka.
It was horrible.
Right from the first pass of the bow, the strings refused to behave and a great hellish skreeching burst out from the fiddle.
She hadn’t got seven bars in before she was once more shoved out the door and left crying in the dirt; the cursed fiddle dropped by her side.
In abject despair the poor young woman decided she could go on no more. A life outside of The Ceilidh was a life she could not thole. Without even getting up from where the crowd had dumped her, she shut her eyes, set her jaw and decided to die.
She felt a strange churning rising up her gullet. Her ears popped and it felt like all the airways and fissures in her body were suddenly clearer.
There was a hammering in her chest and a thunder in her ears.
Then a taste of salt in her mouth.
After a minute she opened one eye.
Finding herself not dead, but feeling remarkably serene, she opened the other eye, got up scratching an itch at the back of her head and went over and picked up the fiddle.
Well it’s a strange thing. There is no doubt at all that she had The Gift, with her greasy tears. But Tattie McKinstry did not die at will that day, nor any other.
Instead, she went back to her music. She retuned the fiddle to what in Norway they call “troll tuning” and began to learn the fanitullen melodies many believe can only be taught by the devil.
And she began to sing as she played. A strange high, eerie singing. Not unpleasant but not altogether natural either.
The wifie at the hairdressers gossiped that once when she was washing Tattie’s hair, she felt a strange hollow at the back of her head, under her tresses. The hairdresser let her thumb linger for a moment in the depression, and was startled to feel a warm draft of air coming out.
Tattie is the Queen of The Ceilidh now. She’s the only person who has ever been known to bend it to her will. She doesn’t need to go looking for it. Wherever she is on the islands, if she sits down and starts playing her fiddle, stamping her feet and singing her high plaintive song, then The Ceilidh will come to her.
And if she happens to be by the sea at the time, the dolphins and porpoises come to her too.