Mary Sutton’s Ceilidh Surprise

storyMary Sutton knows her tartans.

“The kilt I’m wearing right now is an Ancient Scott tartan,” she says over the phone from her Regina, Saskatchewan home. “In my family, a lot of them wear their kilts, the boys especially. I give them each a kilt when they graduate from high school. They pretty well all wear the Elliot tartan—that was their dad’s, my first husband’s, name. My youngest daughter wears the Dunlop tartan—that was my maiden name.”

Owner of the Ceilidh Surprise in Regina, Sutton’s shop has access to over 5,000 tartans, the majority of kilts coming from certified kilt makers in Scotland. Sutton and her team enjoy helping a range of clientele select a plaid that reflects their heritage or sense of style.

In the last year, for example, Ceilidh Surprise outfitted a group of Grey Cup fans in Highland garb.

“They wear the Hamilton Tartan, which is as close to the Saskatchewan Tartan as we could get, and has green, the colour of the Saskatchewan Roughriders,” says Sutton, who also played clarinet in the Roughriders’ pep band for 20 years.

Originally from Stratford, Ontario, with Scottish and Irish roots, Sutton lived in Nova Scotia for 16 years before moving her family to Western Canada.

“When we moved to Regina, my daughter was highland dancing,” she says. “So we decided we would open up a store to provide highland dance equipment.”

In its 15 years, the Ceilidh Surprise has grown into a larger location and also sells its merchandise online now. It continues to retail all the equipment and dress the needs of highland dancers, and is Canada’s only distributor for Dancer’s Dream Duffel. Sutton’s daughter Leah runs a highland dance studio behind the shop.

Additionally, Ceilidh Surprise sells products for pipe bands, as well as Celtic jewellery and gifts, and a range of specialty and clan items, from confectionary, glasses and flasks to baby clothes and hats, imported from Scotland, Ireland and England. The shop helps set up traditional Scottish and Irish weddings too, providing dress and décor.

A highlight for Sutton is helping people learn more about their Scottish or Irish history when they come into the shop.

“What is most rewarding is when somebody finds out what their actual background is,” she describes. “They may have listened to stories, and when we check it out, the stories are not accurate. They’re quite excited when they can find out what their actual heritage is.”

Sutton has also been heavily involved with the Scottish community outside her shop. She’s the Chief of the Sons of Scotland for Camp Balmoral, and Ceilidh Surprise sets up a booth in the Scottish pavilion at the Mosaic Festival in Regina and Saskatoon where 20 or more cultures are represented each year.

“Saskatchewan is a melting pot for many ethnic origins,” says Sutton. “The aboriginal community here is a large one too, and some of them have Celtic roots, so they come into the store and pick things up.”

Sutton has travelled extensively across Western Canada and Scotland for the business and with Leah’s highland dance troupe.

“There’s a sense of belonging and I’ve never not felt that each time I’ve gone to Scotland,” reflects Sutton.

In Saskatchewan, Sutton feels that same sense of kinship.

“The Scottish community in Saskatchewan is alive and well and I think probably larger than most people realize,” she notes. “We have Highland dance groups, country dance groups, pipe bands…it’s quite lively here!”

Now 76, Sutton has passed the tradition of running Ceilidh Surprise onto Leah. But she continues to help out at the shop a couple times a week.

“It’s a busy little store and we have some awfully good employees,” beams Sutton. “It’s been a wonderful experience and we’ve met many, many wonderful people. The Scottish community has given us a very good life. I think belonging to a group, especially a group that represents your heritage, you create a bond, and the bond is very important.”