Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 14: The Reel of the Fifty-First

The wedding reception at the Mansfield Traquair Centre lasted until eight o’clock that night. By that time, the dancing had been going on for three hours more or less without interruption, the ceilidh band gamely working its way through its repertoire, and the guests fortifying themselves against exhaustion with draughts of chilled lager, drams of whisky, or cups of tea. Jackets were removed, sporrans transferred to the sides of waists, and heeled shoes abandoned on the floor. It seemed to Domenica, who, with Angus, sat out two dances in three, that some sort of mass catharsis was taking place – that reserves of pent-up energy, long suppressed in the sedate climate of Edinburgh, were being released with sudden and profound abandon. So might dervishes whirl to induce a state of heightened spiritual awareness – finding, as did these dancers, a sense of communion with something just beyond their immediate surroundings.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

At eight, Big Lou caught the eye of the leader of the band, and nodded. She had discussed with him the point at which the party might end, and he was certainly ready. Fat Bob, though, was keen for a final dance – just one more Gay Gordons, he said, and then the curtain could come down. The band leader smiled, and agreed. He announced the dance. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Bob and Lou have given us all a wonderful party, but every party has to come to an end. So take your partners, please, for a final Gay Gordons.”

The guests paired off, willingly, or stoically, according to the extent of their enthusiasm for Scottish country dancing. Angus rose to his feet with a sigh that he quickly suppressed under Domenica’s look of disapproval; Matthew, who liked dancing and who, as a teenager, had undergone long hours of lessons in Scottish country dance, needed no encouragement to lead Elspeth to the floor; Bertie, who looked about for an escape route but found none, was dragged onto the floor by Olive, while Ranald Braveheart Macpherson was similarly press-ganged by Pansy.

“You just pay attention to me, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson,” warned Pansy. “I’ll show you the steps – all you have to do is follow them. I’ll lead. You just do what I say.”

Ranald glared at her. “That’s not the way it works, Pansy,” he said. “I’m seven, remember – I’m not stupid. I was watching the Gay Gordons earlier on. The man takes the lady’s hand and twirls it round before they do that sort of round and round dance. I saw it.”

Pansy shook her head, almost in pity. “Oh, you are so yesterday, Ranald. That’s not how it works these days. Men do what women say in dances. That’s what happens these days – sorry, but that’s where we are.”

Ranald looked about him. He could refuse to dance. He could just sit down. Pansy thought she could tell him what to do, but she could not force him to dance the Gay Gordons.

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“You can’t force me,” he muttered. “I don’t have to dance the Gay Gordons if I don’t want to.”

Pansy glared at him. “You’d better be very, very careful, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson,” she said.

Ranald swallowed hard. It was difficult to stand up to Pansy, who was almost as bad as Olive; but you had to do it, he decided, because otherwise life in Edinburgh would become unbearable.

“No,” said Ranald. “I’d prefer not to dance, Pansy.”

Pansy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m giving you one last warning, Ranald,” she said.

Ranald hesitated. Bertie was already on the floor with Olive, and Pansy was a formidable foe. He sighed. There would be other opportunities to take a stand.

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On the other side of the room, seated around one of the smaller tables, two middle-aged couples had decided to sit the final dance out. They had danced some of the earlier dances, including a demanding Duke of Perth and a Reel of the Fifty-First, but now they gave the appearance of being somewhat dispirited.

They had been invited because they were regular customers of Big Lou’s in her coffee bar, and when she had found that she had a few spare places at the wedding, she had decided to include them on the list. The men were her customers – their wives had been in the coffee bar once or twice, but she barely knew them. The men were, of course, Mackie McIntyre and his old friend, Iain McDonald, the Chairman and Secretary respectively of the Association of Scottish Nudists, a national organisation with its headquarters in nearby Moray Place, one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious addresses. The Association occupied two floors on the north side of the elegant Georgian crescent, and enjoyed sweeping views over the gorge of the Water of Leith below and, in the distance, beyond the Firth, the blue hills of Fife.

Mackie was married to Jane, a cookery writer, and Iain was married to Catriona, a veterinary surgeon who specialized in skin diseases in West Highland Terriers. All four of them were prominent naturists, having met in the movement, Mackie and Jane at a meeting of the International Nudist Federation in Geneva, and Iain and Catriona at the Scottish and Irish Nudist Games in County Wexford.

Now Mackie watched the couples assembling for the final Gay Gordons. “It’s not quite the same,” he remarked, a tinge of sadness in his voice.

“The band’s been good,” said Iain.

Catriona agreed. “Really good,” she said. “That fiddler is wonderful.”

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“Yes,” said Mackie. “But what I mean is that the dancing hasn’t been as much fun as it was in Largs. Remember when we all went down to Largs, to that campground, and we had that dance on the last day? Remember that? We did an eightsome together with the Sinclairs and . . .” he searched his memory, “that couple from Melrose. Remember? They’d never been to a naturist gathering before. He wanted to wear a sporran, but was persuaded otherwise.”

“Everyone has his or her way of coping with initial awkwardness,” said Catriona.

Catriona nodded. “And the weather was glorious. And we danced outside on the grass.”

“Such happiness,” mused Mackie. “Those days seemed to glow, didn’t they?”

“The past has that aura,” Iain said. He paused before continuing, “Do you think Scotland has changed? Have we lost the innocence we once had?”

“Was it innocence?” asked Jane.

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“I’m not sure,” said Mackie. “Maybe it was. But the point is that we have always been a country where people have felt happy within themselves. They may not have had much, but they felt love for their country and that made them happy. It’s very curious.”

“Not curious,” said Iain. “Clothing is the metaphor here. Clothing obscures the spirit underneath. Closing is an addition. Take your clothes off, and how do you feel? Liberated. If only more people in Scotland would take their clothes off.”

“Oh, we all know that,” said Mackie.

They looked at one another, and for a few moments a current of sympathy flowed between them. It was sympathy that meant so much, thought Mackie. David Hume and Adam Smith had explained that in their system of moral philosophy. Sympathy. And if you were naked, sympathy was so much easier to feel, because sympathy needed no clothing, no artifice, no disguise.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99