Reflections on HSS Celebrants Conference

July 15th, 2015


Submitted by Ewan Main, Chair of the Ceremonies Board

If you haven’t been to the Dunblane Hydro hotel, I’d recommend it. All the more so if you’re an uneducated southerner crossing the border for an all-too-rare taste of Scotland. It’s the kind of old, floodlit building, set in the kind of rugged, beautiful grounds, that makes you secretly hope you’ll all get snowed in and have to wait out the winter. It’s perched on top of a hill with views for miles over snow-capped mountains, huge pine trees and, during lunch on the Sunday, thick falling snow. In fact, between the scenery, the haggis and tattie scones at breakfast, the tablet and shortbread in the breaks, and the chorus of Wild Mountain Thyme after dinner, it felt rather as though Scotland itself had been put on show for us. And, well, what a show.


© Dunblane Hydro Hotel,

It’s an interesting thing to arrive at an event like this, knowing almost nobody in an environment where old friends and colleagues are catching up with one another. But I can’t remember ever being so welcomed, or meeting so many interesting, friendly and generally good fun people, in such a short time. I suspect it may even beat even the BHA’s annual celebrant event on that score. But if word spreads south of the border that I said that, I’ll deny it.

The weekend covered a fascinating range of topics. Many were reassuringly familiar—issues like developing the CPD system, and the relationship between individual celebrants and HSS as an organisation—so it’s hugely valuable to get an insight into how others approach them. Other subjects were perhaps a glimpse of the kinds of thing we lowly BHAers will need to focus on if—no, when, Ewan, when—we get legalised weddings: the question of compulsory membership, the details of legal obligations, and the practicalities of dealing with the sheer quantity of bookings you folks seem to receive. And the “community café”, where people suggested topics in advance and thereby volunteered to host and report back on a small-group discussion on it, was an excellent idea. We have every intention of plundering that for the BHA celebrants’ conference in the future.

But it’s also always good to be reminded of some of the current issues important to humanism in general, and Sunday morning provided a good run-down. Incidentally, I did my bit to repay your hospitality by distributing a few “My Life, My Death, My Choice” flyers around Edinburgh Waverley station. (You’re welcome.)

Overall highlights are hard to choose, really. I enjoyed every workshop I attended. Cathie’s session on voice was a pleasure (galloping around the room on imaginary horses singing the William Tell Overture is something I’ll do more often from now on); Brenda’s triumphant return from leave to take us through the new CPD proposals provided a lot of food for thought, and the session on writing skills covered subtleties of style, grammar and punctuation with warmth and humour.

The film of the first Scottish same-sex marriage was emotional, funny and inspiring all at the same time, and greatly enhanced by Ross Wright’s taking us through the director’s commentary, with a blow-by-blow account of the pressures of getting the legalities to occur at exactly the right moment. Ross’s ability to adjust his speaking tempo on demand is something worth seeing. Should you ever lose interest in this celebrancy business, Ross, an alternative career either in rap music or in reading out the small print at the end of insurance advertisements is definitely within reach.

Of course, another high point was Saturday evening’s grand dinner. I’d like to pay tribute to those gracious individuals on my table who magnanimously forgave the scandalous incident of my absent-mindedly taking more than my fair share of custard. Not without an evening’s mockery, of course, about the interloper sent up from England just to pillage Scotland’s custard supplies. Had the recent referendum gone differently, Custard-gate may have proved to be our first international diplomatic incident.

A few people asked, through the weekend, how this compared to the BHA’s celebrant conferences. My answer, from Saturday night onwards, was “mostly similar, but about 10% more off-the-wall.”

There are those moments in life when we seem to break out of the natural flow of what we’re doing and suddenly, unavoidably, see the whole scenario from the point of view of an outside observer. The first wedding I conducted was like this, at the moment they said their vows: I realised, “This is really me, doing this, at an extraordinary moment.” I had a similar experience in the minutes that followed the excellent ’scratch choir’ performance after dinner when, looking around, I was hit by a single, stark, clear understanding: yes, I really was looking at our Chief Executive and Head of Ceremonies dancing while Belinda played *I Will Survive* on the ukulele.

But to summarise: a weekend of warmth and welcome; of strategy and silliness; of professionality and personability; of grappling with tough issues and tough dance moves. More importantly, though: a weekend spent among a crowd of absolute professionals, totally independent thinkers, and hardworking people dedicated not just to doing a job well, but to helping and encouraging one another to do the same.

My sincere thanks to those who extended the generous invitation to us, to those who organised such a splendid weekend, and to those who made us feel so welcome.