Memories of the We Make History 2009 Highland Ball From the Journal of Christopher the Highland Nobleman
Photos by M. Cynecki
"We need eight brave volunteers to step to the centre," the Bonnie Prince commands.
At once, at least ten lads and lasses step to the center of the room.
"The two favourite dances of the Scots were the jig and the reel," our host explains. The reel shall come in good time, but for now, we shall commence with the jig. And how does one dance a proper jig? The method, the Bonnie Prince explains, is as individual as the person.
Three of the other lads fix their falcon eyes on me, revealing a tinge of anxiety.
"I know," I say. "I know. I know."
"Sir Christopher," our brave leader calls out. "We will not have any immodest high kicks. We are not the French!"
I have waited for this moment for nearly a year. I pined for it from the moment I sat in the back of an ambulance, weeping over a broken arm and a broken heart. It is time to make the last stitch in the mending process, complete the weave, finish the task. I had requested a second chance with every good reason to be denied, and here was the Prince bestowing upon me this gift.
The music begins, and I raise one hand into the air as I attempt another Highland Fling -- with study ghillies this time, and sounder sense of footing.
I labour no acrobatics, no showing off in some sort of dance-off with my Jacobite brethren.
The gathered around me watch and clap, and perhaps a few hold their breaths. I wonder if Clan Tucson, in their brown tartans evoking the desert sand, will flank and surround me as they begin their war dance.
I change from foot to foot, raised arm to raised arm. The ghillies are lighter than my infamous buckled shoes, but I can feel something holding them down, some weight that keeps this a low-impact jig. I could be top heavy, wearing a red weskit and a lace jabot in addition to my Royal Stewart tartan and plaids. Those diced red-and-white hose could be the chains upon my feet. Or perhaps it is something else acting as a counterweight as I swing one foot back and forth behind the other and step with uncharacteristic grace for a Highland warrior.
Lads and lads cut in, and I am tapped out to the sidelines, but not for long. I weave my way back into the centre and tap another Highland warrior to continue my fling. Other Highlanders join us and fill the floor, raising their hands high in Flings of their own. If they are following my lead, I am grateful. I wouldn't expect anybody to follow me down, but I remain on my feet, without even a hint of a slip.
"HUZZAH!" we cry upon the conclusion. "HUZZAH!"
"You survived it!"
"Redemption," I say, between breaths.
I arrived to meet my beloved Scottish brethren the same way I left.
"HUZZAH!" they cheered back, welcoming me with smiles. I tarry not in my bows, many bows, as the clans gather on the lawn outside the hall. The Highland Ladies emerge from the bottom of the hill, and they keep arriving. The beauty and colour of their gowns leaves me with nothing to do except smile. I greet a large gathering of lasses, and a lady graciously introduces me to her daughters and their friends. I bow all around to them, one at a time, as she names them. Their smiles are warm and heart-piercing. They surround in a half-circle. Twenty years roll off my age in sixty seconds.
Among the lasses, however, is a lady dear to me, in a bright red tartan gown. She has prayed for me through my tribulations, and now I have invited her to join me here. She is my cheerleader as well as dancing companion, and she is mesmerized by the architecture and the beauty of the building before us as the sun sets and a cool Highland breeze takes over from a cloudless sky.
We pose for pictures, many pictures. Like Brigadoon emerging from the mist, we find ourselves in this spot only once a year.
The grand march to begin the dance is a march indeed.
"What are we fighting for?"
"FREEDOM!" I shout.
As we weave around the hall in a circle led by the Bonnie Prince and Flora MacDonald, I feel the inspiration to add a few stomps in the spirit of the Jacobites march through the Highlands, through Edinburgh and then south to London. And to my delight, I hear more stomps, building from a soft thumping to a pronounced and precise boom, enough to put fear into a British regiment. This is our drill. Now come the maneuvers.
"All gentlemen to the centre!" the Bonnie Prince calls out.
"All wearing plaid!"
"All those from Tucson!"
"All those from Phoenix!" (Where is Clan Phoenix?)
"All those from Flagstaff!"
"All those below 6 feet tall!"
"All those above 5-6!"
"All those below 200 pounds!"
No clan is left out here.
"HUZZAH! HUZZAH! HUZZAH!" echoes through the gathering.
The Scots are known for their economy, although some would substitute another word. So it is quite fitting that our Royal Leader chooses those lively dances with the simplest moves. My lady companion and I head a set for the first dance, "Sterling Castle," and find it quite unencumbering. A do-si-do, a left-hand turn, a see-saw, a right-hand turn. We arch our hands over the lines, as we run past the lads and lasses before sashaying down to the foot of the set. When we dance "Race To Edinburgh," the lads and lasses chase each other about along the lines before sashaying and swinging and starting all over again.
"Who here is wearing a white cockade?" asks the Bonnie Prince.
"Aye, do ye know the story of the white cockade?"
"In the final rebellion," I begin in my brogue.
"Rebellion?" His Rightful Majesty exclaims.
"Fight for freedom," I rephrase. "When th' Bonnie Prince returned to Scotland and got offa th' boat, he picked a white rose from the ground and put it inna 'is hat. So all th' supporters of th' Bonnie Prince wore a white cockade in their hats!"
They wore Royal Stewart tartans as well, hand-made in a process we honour with a dance called "Weaving The Tartan." Start with three couples in a circle, maneuver them into a star, let each lad pull a different lass from the spindle of hands and promenade them around the hall into another circle of three couples like the thread working through the cloth. Three couple stars grow to four.
"Congratulations! You just weaved a four-layer tartan!"
Five layers follow, and then six and seven. That thread is having a tough time working its way through the cloth. I would love to see the Highlander brave enough to wear seven layers in the notorious Arizona dry heat. Maybe Clan Tucson is up to the challenge.
Now we come to the Reel, "Flora MacDonald's Reel," that dance where the lads march around the lasses and the lasses do the same before the top couple reels the set. A young lass gifted with fine footwork joins me, having sought me out before I could even begin to find a lady to ask. Per the rules of decorum, the ladies may tousle the hair of the gents as they parade behind the lines. Our set adds a modern touch, letting the ladies and gents high-five each other as they pass.
When the clans gather, we are all one family, one growing and changing and moving forward in life. Children grow up and leave the Highlands for their next mission. So three young lads stand before us now to mark a bittersweet milestone: heading off to college.
"We expect the best from you," our host observes, "not because you know it's the right thing to do, but because it's who you are."
News of engagements -- two of them among the clans -- reaches us next. Two young couples from among the Highland family are making the commitment. One of the lasses who will be taking the vows urges perseverance among those who have not yet found their true love.
Instead of dwelling on finding the right person, concentrate on "being the right person," our host adds.
A piper from the lowlands of Litchfield Park honours them with a short tune before the honoured lead off a waltz. They are accomplished dancers, gliding on their feet in beautiful choreography, just as they have learned. They twirl and step exactly in unison to the melodies of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Angels: fiddles, mandolins, dulcimers and piano with a concertina and bass to round things out.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, my lady and I are determined to make the most of it. When the opportunity comes, we begin our waltz by circling round each other, right hands joined, left hands in the air as we radiate our joy to all within reach like a lighthouse upon the banks of the coast. We choreograph on the fly, my lady following my lead through small hand motions indiscernible to the rest of the crowd as we set to each other and turn round in place before stepping back together and joining hands. This is like no other dance we know, inspired by the past but not shackled to a rigid reprise. All we desire is something unique and beautiful beyond a two-step.
We are blessed to have among us a fine Scottish balladeer, a young gentleman who has rehearsed for this moment a traditional tune of the Highlands. His baritone envelops the entire hall, drawing us into his tale which ends in a cliffhanger.
"I forget the next line," he admits to us, sheepishly yet honestly. But we Highlanders are a supportive and encouraging bunch.
"HUZZAH! HUZZAH!" we shout and applaud. The Bonnie Prince offers some words of encouragement.
Fortunately, his ballad does not end. As I find my redemption, so too does he find his with a second chance to entertain us all. He begins a second ballad, a jaunty and lively tune which draws out our clapping. He forgets not a word, propelled by our rhythmic approval.
"HUZZAH! HUZZAH!" we cheer for him.
Though we enjoy the singing, we long for the dancing. Couples sashay down the room for the beloved Pineapple Dance. Our musicians play a spirited tune, then an encore.
"We need six brave volunteers," our host announces.
Another jig. I get to partake of another? I briskly walk to the centre of the hall and assume my Highland Fling stance. The music begins and I am capering once again, from foot to foot, right hand to left hand raised, then both hands in the air like the great Highland Stag. No one tries to tap me out. All my energy flows into my hands and feet. The tips of my ghillies latch onto the hardwood.
Clan Tucson assumes their war dance again. One member dances a Fling with folded arms.
"That's not from Scotland!" I observe. "That's a Ukrainian Fling!"
Undaunted, they circle up and I join them, turning the fling and jig into a round. A few lasses rush towards us. "May we join your circle?" they politely ask before we politely crowd them in.
On the outside, the other lasses are forming similar ideas, forming their own circle around our circle and prancing about before we separate again into our respective jigs to each other -- or flings.
The Angels play on and on. Wind escapes my lungs, but I caper forth. Those Jacobites marched through Edinburgh, to Derby and then back to the Highlands to Culloden. A Fling before battle should whip us into shape for victory. Exhaustion, however, weighs on my feet and drains my breath.
Do I fight or surrender? Neither. I fall back to the line and regroup, replenishing my life force before advancing back to the centre of the hall. When the music ceases, I am depleted in air once again, but filled with joy and Thanksgiving to GOD for the opportunity -- and a second one at that.
Hugh Mercer knew well of second opportunities. After fleeing Scotland after the disastrous Battle of Culloden, he came to America where he found fellow Scots in Virginia and friendship with General George Washington, who made him a commander. Though he lost his life after the battle of Princeton, New Jersey, he ended up on the winning side of another fight for freedom. To honour the second half of his life, we will dance the Virginia Reel. But to honour his Scottish heritage, the lads will determine their lasses with a Highland Charge.
The Bonnie Prince orders the ladies to remove one shoe in the centre of the floor while calling the lads to the front. "Line up by height!"
"Dress the line!" I call out in the absence of a sergeant.
"Count off by twos!" our commander orders.
"One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "Two!" "One!" "One!"
Always a lass to my side that doesn't quite know the drill. His Rightful Highness straightens them out and we complete the task.
"When I say, 'Right Face,' the ones will stay in place and the twos will step forward! Right face!"
With nary any training, they execute the command nearly perfectly to the applause of the hall.
"Present arms! Raise Claymores! CHARGE!"
I let my compatriots fall all over themselves diving for their Cinderella slippers. I walk around them nonchalantly in a flanking maneuver and gently pluck a shoe from the pile without any hint of injury. Some lads never learn. But we Highlanders know our reels, and this one is no challenge. The Bonnie Prince barely has to lead us through the steps.
We have time for a final waltz before the evening comes to an end, always too soon.
"Did you ever wish life had a pause button?" our host asks.
One lass also suggests another button. "Just erase last year from your mind," she says.
I cannot -- not all of it. I cannot blot out the love or the prayers of my friends. I refuse to. My gratitude to them feels inadequate, shallow in comparison to all they have done for me, all of their encouragement. I won't forget that.
Enjoy more photos from this wonderful evening here.
Thank you again to everyone who prayed for me and my arm over this past year!