One of the loveliest assignments I was sent on while I was in London was being sent to cover the Caledonian Ball at Grosvenor House.
Gill Faulkner rummaged around and found me a simple long black dress and you could hardly see the moth-holes.
I caught the tube from Buckhurst Hill feeling rather foolish. If you are wearing an evening dress surely you should be in a limo?
It was well past the midnight hour. The ballroom was sparkling with patriotic rocks. Debutantes delightfully dishabille, twirled like tartan striped barber’s poles in a forest of kilts.
Historic homes were deserted. Family seats grew cold.
From the Highlands and the islands, from remote shooting lodges and grouse moors, lochs and glens they had come. This was the annual London Gathering of the Clans: the Royal Caledonian Ball.
Scotland is part of the ritual glamour of the London Season when the rich, the royal and the fashionable take off to spend the months of August and September in cavernous, damp mansions where the wind howls through the stag’s antlers. The days are spent stalking and fishing and the nights are spent dressing up in tartan.
It was Victoria and Albert who built Balmoral Castle in 1855 and who really got things going. ‘Every year my heart becomes more and more fixed in this dear Paradise,’ she wrote.
The Sporran wasn’t always such a swinging thing. After the Jacobite defeat at Culloden Moor in 1746, the Scots were disarmed and defrocked. None could quarrel with the right of any government to take away the weapon that is lifted against it. But it was heard that the clans who had defended the king should now be forbidden to defend themselves, as Dr Johnson put it.
The Clothing Act, which banned the wearing of any part of the Highland dress, was enforced by the army. All offenders would be hauled in front of a magistrate. Penalty for the first offense was six months imprisonment, for a second offence, deportation for seven years.
Tartan, to the English, was like a rag to a bull. It had become a symbol of the Scots’ clanship and habit of war.
Habits of war? There can be no denying it. The Scots were cheeky little buggers. During their struggle against English domination, a chronicler of the time noted the characteristics of the ‘wyld wykkey helandmen.” (Highlanders).
‘Savage and untamed, exceedingly cruel, rude and independent, hostile to the English.” Grudgingly, it was also admitted, they were ‘faithful and obedient to their king and country.’
Later, of course, these ‘wyld wykked helandmen’ played no small part in building the British Empire. Then the adjectives changed to ‘Hardy, intrepid, accustomed to rough country and not great mischief if they fall.’
It is estimated that 12,000 Highlanders were enlisted in the Seven Years War. Of one regiment, originally 1200 strong, only 76 were said to have returned to Scotland.
Were not Highlanders put upon every hazardous enterprise where nothing was to be got but broken bones?
But all that is history and history has a useful way of teaching us that men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other alternatives.
Thus it is that since 1849 the Caledonia Ball is an unashamed celebration of Scottish pageantry.
Tickets are costly and as difficult to come by as rocking horse droppings. You have to know someone who knows someone who is a Scottish landowner. Then you have to be vetted by Buckingham Palace.
It’s the cachet that counts, not the cash.
Lady Cecil Cameron of Lochiel. The Honorable Peregrine Moncreiffe, (son of Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that ilk) and the Honorable Mrs Peregrine Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe, the Drummonds of Megginch….reading aloud from the guest list one tends to sound like a moose with ear, nose and throat difficulties.
Scotland has more dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, barons and baronets, knights and obscure landed titles per square acre than virtually any other country in Europe.
Long before the official starting time of ten, the gallery and grand staircase billowed with the gowned daughters of Country Life.
Annigoni-cool blondes, soft-focus brunettes with lips like bruised satsumas, apricot jam red heads… unfettered by stringent diets of artful make-up they were to soignee what haggis is to haute cuisine.
Argyll velvet jackets, lace jabots. Black Prince Charlie coatees (the latter worn with a black bow-tie unless you are a resident of Perthshire, in which case you may wear white), clan Tartan sashes worn over the left shoulder unless you are the wife of either a clan chief or a serving officer), orders and decorations – clandestine encounters of this kind made for a visual feast.
The preferred look was anachronistic, rather than recherché, like the Ball itself. More Flora MacDonald than the Emmanuels.
Voluminous skirts concealed thighs to sink a thousand diets. Sleeves puffed importantly. Generous bows bobbed buoyantly on ample sterns.
Like blossoms atremble, the debs alternated between trying to catch a glimpse of the Princess Royal and burning tunnels of adoration into the air across the dance floor where knots of indecently good-looking young men stood about attempting to look nonchalant. The Royal Scots, the Atholl Highlanders, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst…
The debs fingered their dance cards, while ambitious mothers prayed for a splendid alliance. Then it was time for the “Reel’ thing.
Stately as a galleon, the Pipes and Drums of the 1st Battalion, the 51st Highland Volunteers led the processional march into the ballroom. Their kilts lilted sweetly and their bagpipes preened like small leather clouds.
Even the chandeliers quivered.
The Princess Royal, petite as a dwarf’s glove, plunged into the first set reel, The Dashing White Sergeant.
Cantering, clapping, whooping and wheeling while the band did various impressions of a musical spinning wheel. This tribal choreography owed more to enthusiastic improvisation than rehearsed skill.
Reels such as The Machine without Horses, tends to render an eight-some as unwieldy as a bag of wet oatmeal.
Frequent collisions and gear-changing took place, serving only to heighten the hilarity of an already hilarious occasion.
The Scots were having a Ball.
Lord Biddulph’s party, flushed with happiness, pounded up the stairs for a glass of lemonade.
‘It’s very important to be a Scot,’ he told me.
‘We don’t hate the English. We tolerate them,’ Felicity-Ann Croft put in.
“Selling my moors!’ shouted Biddulph. “Eight thousand acres. In Country Life this week. It’s a sad day for us. One of the best grouse moors in Scotland. Just south of Edinburgh.
‘But we’ve got to keep the rest of the estate going. We’re hoping to get an absolute fortune! Must dash!”
As I trudged to the Central Line tube station I had an epiphany.
The Caledonian Ball is a kind of poetry; thick, dense, intense, complicated and joyful, the stuff of mystery.
And like all real poetry, the stuff that makes our lives worthwhile and worth enduring, requires sweat.
I will never look at a tartan thermos without getting a lump in my throat.
This column originally appeared in The Sunday Times (London).