The Edinburgh Sessions at Sandy Bell’s

Leaving that famous royal mile, the narrow ridge that defines the tourist heart of Edinburgh, with its wall to wall tartan and cashmere shops and sinister themed tours, we descend the steps in search of the real Edinburgh. Down the stairs of Castle Wynd which hug the old rampart walls to the first terrace, then further on to another level or two until we find Forrest Road. Looking back up at the narrow terraces as they climb that ancient mound gives one a better appreciation of Edinburgh’s architecture. We wander a little further along to the home of celtic music sessions, Sandy Bell’s pub. It’s a tiny single fronted place with a cluster of chairs here and there and a designated spot down the back for the musicians.

Waiting for the musicians. Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh

A session in a pub refers to the music played by those who arrive to play celtic music, that is, jigs and reels, at a set time. A good session will go for four hours or more, improving along the way as the participants get to know each other. It is assumed that the musicians are competent in their chosen instrument. There will usually be a leader, often an older player, who sets the tone and keeps the session running smoothly. A good leader will open the set, determine the pace, and show, through a series of hand gestures, when a shift in a set is about to take place. In the session we attended at Sandy Bell’s, an older gentlemen playing two mouth organs at once set a rigorous pace. Other players included a guitarist, three fiddles, then later a uilleann piper and a pianist.

Musicians gather for a session, Sandy Bell’s, Edinburgh

Singing is not usually a feature of a session, though a song or slow lament might be sung by a single musician between sets. This was certainly the case in the many sessions I had the pleasure of hearing in the pubs along the West coast of Ireland some years ago and it was also the case here in Edinburgh. The guitarist quietly sang a solo of ‘Ranting, Roving, Robin‘, a most unusual Robbie Burns tune, during the break.

Uilleann pipes in action, Sandy Bell’s

The aim of a session is to practice and share music; it is not a performance and so clapping is not usually appropriate. Posturing or grand standing by individuals is also frowned upon: personal musical virtuosity is less valued than the collective effort. Most participants in a session understand this etiquette.

Uelleann pipes, Sandy Bell’s

We stayed at the session at Sandy Bell’s for four hours and with each tune, the group became more cohesive and the music intensely enjoyable. It had nothing to do with the pints consumed, I swear.

Catering for a Celtic Birthday Party

I was tempted to call this post,”Let the Winds Blow High”, as most of the ‘lads’ were keen to get kilted up for the Celtic birthday party.  Prior to the event, there was much talk about free- balling it, always a wonderful tease for the ladies. Sadly these were vain threats, tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. There were no Bravehearts on the day.

Getting kilted up.
Getting kilted up. Promises, Promises!

The anticipation of a themed party is as much fun as the event itself. The opportunity shops ( charity shops) were thoroughly scoured in the weeks leading up to the party, in search of kilts, tartan cloth, scarves and rugs, green clothing, Celtic knotted jewellery, Scottish bonnets and hats, and anything quirkily Celtic. It’s amazing what you can find. I wanted to come as Grace O’Malley ( Gráinne Ní Mháille ),¹ my Irish heroine, or wear a T-shirt printed with the label, “If lost, return to Jamie Fraser”, but the latter, with its Outlander reference, would have been lost on all the other party goers.

Irish Yoga
Irish Yoga T- shirt.

Our Celtic party happily coincided with the weeks leading up to St Patrick’s Day so the local $2 shops provided green kitsch galore. Online shops are a great source for Scottish flags and hanging four leaf clover strings. And red wigs were popular too.

Lassie draped in Scottish flag

Decor and dress ups were the easy part of the theme. The finger food proved far more difficult, especially given the balmy afternoon, the lack of good cooking facilities, and the general preference for Celtic style drinking on the day. I had planned to cook up some local Mt Martha mussels and stuff them with spinach, cheese and crumbs as my token nod to Brittany, but the day just disappeared. The Cornish Celts were represented with some mini Cornish pasties that I made before the event, based on this recipe. Other finger foods came in the form of sausage rolls and filled pastries. My sister whipped up some potato pancakes topped with smoked salmon, a fitting cross -Celtic food. Green coloured cocktails were popular, say no more!

Picture file below can be opened separately for a costume and decor guide to a Celtic themed party.