Scottish Highland dancing is one of the oldest forms of folk dance, and both modern ballet and square dancing can trace their roots back to the Highlands. Dating back to the 11th or 12th century, the Highland Dances of Scotland tended to be highly athletic male celebratory dances of triumph or joy, or warrior dances performed over swords and spiked shield. According to tradition, the old kings and chiefs of Scotland used the Highland Games as a way of choosing the best men for their retinue and men at arms. Highland dancing was one of the various ways men were tested for strength, stamina, accuracy, and agility. The Scottish military regiments used to use Highland dancing as a form of training to develop stamina and agility, but this has become less common these days. Competitive Highland dancing started during the Highland revival of Victorian Britain, and was for men only. Ladies began competing only at the turn of the century. Over the centuries the dancing style has become more refined and now shares many elements from classical ballet. Although historically Highland dancing was restricted to men, today it is mostly performed by females. No matter who dances them, Highland dances require both athletic and artistic skill.
The Highland dances
The Highland Fling
This is the oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland and is a dance of joy performed at the end of a victorious battle. It was danced by male warriors over a small round shield, called a Targe, that the warriors carried into battle. Most Targes had a sharp spike of steel projecting from the centre, so dancers learned early to move with great skill and dexterity. The Highland Fling is danced on the spot, and is said to be based on the antics of a stag on a hillside; the grouped fingers and upheld arms representing the antlers.
I would be interested to see anybody do a Highland Fling on a targe with a spike without impaling himself. Presumably the toe-and-heel step would be very interesting to watch. Hopefully there will be a doctor at hand.
The Sword Dance (Gillie Challum)
It is probable that the tune, _Gillie_Callum_, dates back to the days of Malcolm Canmore (Shakespeare’s MacBeth). The earliest references to the *dance* are from the 19th century, and it is unlikely that it is very much older.
One story is that this was a dance of victory, as the King danced over his bloody claymore (the two-handed broadsword of Scotland) and the even bloodier head of his enemy. Some say that no severed head was used and that the King danced over his own sword crossed over the sword of his enemy. Another story is that the Sword Dance was danced prior to a battle. To kick the swords was considered a bad omen for the impending battle, and the soldier would expect to be wounded. If many of the soldiers kicked their swords the chieftain of the clan would expect to lose the battle.
The Seann Triubhas
Pronounced “shawn trews”, this Gaelic phrase means “old trousers”. This dance is reputed to date from the rebellion of 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie challenged the might of England at Culloden, and lost. As a penalty, Highlanders were forbidden to wear the kilt. Seann Triubhas is a dance of celebration developed in response to the Proscription Repeal which restored to the Scots the right to wear their kilts and play the bagpipes once more. The movements of this dance clearly depict the legs defiantly shaking and shedding the hated trousers and returning to the freedom of the kilt. Some of the steps originate from hard shoe dancing.
It is likely that the kicking-off-of-the-trousers bit was retro-fitted to the dance much like the bloody-swords-and-head thing with the Sword Dance. The Seann Triubhas arrived at its present form in the early 20th century, and an itinerant dance teacher from the 1890s is on record as having invented the first step of the Seann Triubhas. See Flett & Flett. — It does not come as a big surprise that some of the steps in the Seann Triubhas ‘come from hard shoe dancing’, since that is what people would have worn for dancing in the old days, anyway (if they wore anything). Before the RSCDS, the modern ghillie pumps were only used by competing Highland dancers at Games, and even now there is a certain renaissance of the hard shoe; only a few years ago even the RSCDS put out a newsletter urging teachers to teach the steps in a way so that they can be danced in hard shoes. (Personally, I do prefer the ghillies for SCD, having tried both — there is much better control.)
Strathspey and Highland Reel and Strathspey and Half Tulloch The Strathspey and Reel and the Strathspey and Half Tulloch are performed by four dancers. The Strathspey is never danced on its own in competition but must be followed by the Reel. These dances illustrate the “set” and “travel” steps which are common in Scottish social dancing.
In Highland dancing competitions, female dancers wear a velvet jacket with gold or silver braid edging and gold or silver buttons, over a white shirt with lace ruffles at the neck. They wear a kilt and tartan hose, and black laced gillies, or dancing shoes. Men wear the kilt and sporran, with a jacket and bonnet, with tartan hose with a sgian dhubh. For the National dances either a national costume is worn, or the costume appropriate to the dance such as the hornpipe costume, or the Irish Jig costume, which is worn with jig shoes. The national costume consists of a tartan style gathered skirt, a velvet jacket of a different style, laced up the front with silver laces and decorated with silver buttons. There is a plaid which is attached at the waistband at the back, and then comes up and over the right shoulder and is fastened with a brooch onto the shoulder of the jacket. Men wear the kilt and sporran, with a jacket and bonnet, with tartan hose with a sgian dhubh. They can wear tartan trews or Highland dress for national dances, and the hornpipe outfit, and a male version of the Irish Jig costume.
The National Dances
The Flora McDonald’s Fancy
This is said to be the last dance Flora McDonald danced for Bonnie Prince Charlie before he fled overseas, but is more likely to be a dance named in her honour. Flora McDonald helped the prince escape from North Uist to Skye disguised as her maid. She emigrated to America but returned home to Skye later in life.
The Sailor’s Hornpipe
The Sailor’s Hornpipe is a caricature dance developed from the
traditional English version. It has become more popular in Scotland than in England and is regularly featured in Highland Games. The movements in this dance portray actions used in the daily work routines of a sailor’s life, such as pulling ropes, climbing the rigging, and looking out to sea. A costume like a sailor’s uniform is worn by both male and female dancers.
The Irish Jig
The Scottish Version of the Irish Jig is another caricature dance depicting an Irish washerwoman who is angry with her erring husband. The costume worn for this dance is either a red or emerald green skirt and bodice and a full white petticoat, with a white blouse, with a white apron. Red or green jig shoes are worn and there is much stamping and facial grimacing in this dance. In the male version, the dancer wears a red or green tailcoat with a waistcoat of the opposite colour, brown knee britches of corduroy, with a paddy hat and he carries a shillelagh, which is a club made from the forked branch of a tree.
The original tunes for the Lilt are ‘Drops of Brandy’ (if you happen to have danced the RSCDS version of the popular ceilidh dance, Strip the Willow, which is a 9/8 running step, you may have heard the tune; it is also sometimes played at sessions) and ‘Brose and Butter’ (for the folkies, this is the tune used for the song, ‘Tak it, Man, Tak it’, on the Dublin Lady album by Andy M. Stewart and Manus Lunny). I do the Scottish Lilt either to the Battle of the Somme (which is also a 9/8 tune) or to the original tunes — I have a very nice recording of them played on the clarsach and bodhran with duet singing which is suitable for 8 steps of the Lilt, but I don’t know where that tape originally came from :^( The difference in feeling isn’t very pronounced but I do prefer the originals.
There are a number of other National dances, which include “The Earl of Errol”, “Hielan’ Laddie”, and “Wilt thou go to the Barracks, Johnny?”. They reflect the difficulty of trying to elucidate the history of the dances. The Earl of Errol was originally a hard shoe dance, from the Aberdeenshire area, which was collected by Isobel Cramb, recorded on the Hill manuscript yet there are two different versions. The Scottish Lilt is claimed by both the Hebrides and Perthshire. It was probably very different when danced to its original 9/8 jig tune but nowadays it is danced to a tune called “The Battle of the Somme” which dates from the First World War. The tune is a retreat and has a completely different speed and rhythm. There are several different tunes called “Hielan’ Laddie”, and different dances to each tune so who knows which is the original? “Wilt thou go to the barracks, Johnny?” is a recruiting song and “the barracks” is probably a corruption of “Berwick”, although there was a barracks there.
Many of the National Dances, for example, ‘Blue Bonnets’ and ‘Hielan Laddie’ were actually devised in the late 19th century by a chap called Ewan MacLachlan, who studied the ballet in France before returning to his native, I think, Benbecula (at any rate, somewhere in the Outer Hebrides). Some of them are really quite balletic but do retain their Scottish flavour.
Incidentally, there are new Highland-style dances being devised all the time (similar to what happens in country dancing). To the SOBHD purists, the only Highland dances are the Fling, the Sword Dance, the Seann Triubhas and the Foursome, of course, but there are many dances that were danced in the Highlands which have become lost or which are very seldom danced if at all.
IMHO there is also a world of difference between competitive Highland dancing and the Highland dancing ‘for enjoyment’ that is done by folks like me who are too old, sloppy and lazy to compete. From watching dancers at games, I feel that all the standardisation that’s going on is taking the character of the individual dances away. I’ve seen ‘champions’ do the Lilt, which is a rather soft and relaxed dance, and they would try to jump twice their own height and do the kind of weapon-grade-steel high cuts one would tend to expect in, say, the Sword Dance. Sigh. Call it ‘sour grapes’.
Many Highland Games and Highland Dance Competitions are now run
according to the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) style of dance. The SOBHD was set up in 1950 and its aims were to stabilise the technique of Highland Dancing (which also includes the National dances of Scotland), to formulate laws and regulations covering every aspect of the art and to further the interests of Highland dancing. Prior to the advent of the SOBHD, dancers competing at the various games throughout Scotland had to vary their style and alter their steps according to the district they were competing in, or to suit the known stylistic preferences of the judges.
The address is:-
Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing,
32 Grange Loan,
EH9 2NR. Scotland
phone: 0131 668 3965
fax: 0131 662 0404
Dancers compete in one of five groups: Primary (under 7 years old), Beginners, Novice, Intermediate, and finally Premier. There are age classifications in each group, so each dancer will be competing not only in their age group but also against dancers of a similar standard. Dancers are judged on three basic areas: timing, technique and general deportment. Timing is the ability to follow the rhythm of the music in the dance. Technique is primarily the footwork, and co-ordination with head, arm and hand movements. The positioning of the feet is of great importance as however graceful or agile the dancer, it is the neatness and accuracy of the foot positions that give the dances their essential character.
The interpretation and the ability to capture the spirit of the dance are also important as are balance, general appearance and bearing, as well as carriage of the head, arms, body and hands. Although the dances are very strenuous, they must be danced gracefully with apparent ease. Music at competitions is usually played by a piper but may be played on the accordion.
There are many books, records, CDs and videos available, about Highland dancing and one supplier is the Scottish National Dance Co, whose address is
They have world wide contacts and if you want to find a teacher or group to learn with, the Scottish National Dance Co would be a good place to start.
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