"Do you take this man?"
( Autumn 1997 )
(I've been given so many pictures of Clan Alba that I have lost track of who took what. If you took one of the pictures on this page, let me know and I'll give you a credit. I took some of them.)
He leaned across the table and said, obviously deadly serious, "Gaughan, ye bollix, you and I have something in common."
"Ruaraidh, a'mhic," says I, "you and I have a lot in common. Which particular area of commonality have you in mind?"
The remarkable Tønder Festival in Denmark is always a gathering point for Scots and Irish musicians but 1993 broke all the records, with a total of 68 of us assembled. I think they were trying for the Guinness Book of Records for how many Gaels could be crammed onto one stage at the same time and the Sunday afternoon ceilidhs were a triumph of chaotic brilliance.
It was also one of the few live appearances Clan Alba ever made.
Put that number of Gael musicians under one roof so to speak and two things will inevitably happen : a) a certain modest amount of alcohol will be consumed and b) there will be a session start as soon as the first gets there which will go on until the last leaves.
This particular gathering involved the Premier Leagues of both countries so, naturally, all hell broke loose. The rarest commodity was sleep and the commonest was music. Wherever there was a corner to sit within reach of drink, there was a session, each involving the most noted musicians in their field.
As always, the Monday night was party night. It's a splendid idea. There are something like 800 volunteer workers involved in the festival and most of them are working so hard they don't get to hear much of the music so Tønder has a "thank you" night for the volunteers. It involves a huge amount of curry (a ritual started by Hamish Imlach) and those performers who don't have to rush off to another gig somewhere else stay over and do a spot at the party. The party was in full swing, huge quantities of intoxicating beverages flying round the place, music blasting from the stage as all kinds of impromptu lineups were created and reformed and everyone was generally starting to have a Good Time.
I found myself sitting across a table from Ron Kavana, who made the above-quoted comment about us having something in common.
"Well," says he in response to my request for expansion, "we both trained as apprentice priests, didn't we?"
It's not something I make any secret of but there's usually no reason for mentioning it. When I was 14, I spent 10 months in a seminary due to a series of quite hilarious misunderstandings. When I left, I decided atheism was a better option and have been such ever since.
"Do you still remember any of it?" he enquires, conversationally.
"I suppose I can still remember how to baptise you, marry you and bury you," says I, in what I thought was a flippant manner.
"Right, so," he says, suddenly serious, leaning over the table at me.
"Miriam and I have decided we want to get married. And we don't recognise the authority of any f---ing Church and we don't recognise the authority of any f---ing State. So I had a thought - where better to get married than here, with all our friends around us?"
I see now, too late, where this is heading and, as I've already swallowed the hook, I have no choice but to go along with it.
"So, you could do the formalities bit and we could get married here tonight!" he says triumphantly.
"Deadly," he replies. I laugh and shake hands with him. I like Ron and I like Miriam and I wouldn't refuse them anything within reason which I had the power to give, so I agree.
I pass the word to Festival Director Carsten Panduro, who moves into organising mode.
For some reason, Tønder Festival seems to own a large Victorian era fire engine and, in a miracle of organisation, the cobwebs are blown off it and it's brought into service for the night. Across the noise filling the marquee cuts the sound of Highland pipes and jaws begin to drop all over the place as into the tent draws the huge red fire engine with all its lights flashing and Clan Alba's Gary West and Wolfestone's Iain MacDonald standing on top of it piping it in. Also up on it are Ron and Miriam and best man Davy Steel and bridesmaid, Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. I've seen a lot of sights in my life but that one takes some beating.
I'm up on the stage by this time and greet Ron and Miriam and party, welcoming them onto the stage. Then I call for silence. There are 1000 people in that tent and you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Most haven't a clue what's happening but they want to know.
"Friends, we are here to witness and take part in the marriage of our great friends and colleagues, Ron and Miriam."
There is a sustained roar of excited applause. I wait till it quietens down again. Given that the tent is full of Gaels and Danes and that there has been drink taken, as they say, there is potential for people not quite taking this seriously so I've opted for keeping it as simple and dignified as possible. I adjust my body language to indicate that what is happening is absolutely serious.
"In essence, a marriage is simply a declaration of commitment between two people made before witnesses. Therefore all that I need to do is to ask, Ron - are you prepared to make this commitment to Miriam here before all your friends?"
He replies in traditional manner, "I do."
"And, Miriam - do you make this commitment to Ron here before all your friends?"
"Yes, I do," she replies.
There is the usual exchange of rings and Mairéad hands Miriam a small bouquet she's managed to get from somewhere.
I complete the formalities. "Ron, Miriam, in the eyes of all here present you are now formally and legally married". I make another few comments about wishing them love and happiness then the place goes wild. There is the wildest session of music I've ever heard.
That was some party.
At some point later that night, someone, I can't recall who but it was probably Danny Kyle, said to me, "I was waiting for Miriam to say, 'I do, Ron, Ron, Ron, I do, Ron, Ron'."
There's not many guitar players who can say they conducted a wedding at a Folk Festival.