A Brief History of Scottish Dancing

In the beginning was the reel. Why was it called a reel? I don't know. Maybe to distinguish it from all the fakes which came later. The Scots did other dances as well, but they did love their reels. These dances, such as the Foursome Reel and Axum Reel, alternated between dancing along a looping track within the set (a figure of eight with an extra loop for the Foursome, a sort of 'H' shape for the Axum) and setting, showing off to your partner with fancy footwork. The Foursome Reel is preserved in highland dance competitions, and the Axum Reel occasionally shows up in performances, but the reels leave their most lasting influence in the figure "set and turn corners, followed by reels of three on the sides". These weren't the only dances danced. The "dancies", travelling dance teachers, brought the latest dances from the ballrooms of Edinburgh and Paris, and taught them to the farming communities along with the reels.

Probably the closest dance form to this nowadays is the reeling tradition, as enjoyed mainly by the aristocracy and the military. They dance a smallish selection of dances with a rolling style suited to their brogues and court shoes.

Around the turn of the century, a new set of dances became popular. These dances, such as the Gay Gordons, Pride of Erin Waltz and Brittania Twostep, were done in twos and threes around the room (probably showing the influence of ballroom dancing). These dances joined some of the old reels in the ceilidh dance explosion which started in the 1970s and continues to this day. The dances are taught in Scottish schools and danced at parties, weddings and Burns suppers.

In 1911, Cecil Shapre formed the English Folk Song and Dance Society to preserve the folk dances of England. The Guiding movement adopted these, recommending them as an activity for the girls in the movement. Mrs Ysobel Stewart, Guide Commissioner for Argyll decided it would be more appropriate for Scottish guides to learn the Scottish Country Dances. She wrote down some of the dances she remembered, and contacted a Glasgow publisher, who put her in touch with Miss Jean Milligan, a PE lecturer at Jordanhill College in Glasgow, for verification. The collaboration between the two led to the formation in November, 1923, of the Scottish Country Dance society, to practise and preserve Country Dances as danced in Scotland. In 1951, King George V conferred the title "Royal" on the Society. Scottish Country Dancing as promoted and taught by the RSCDS, has evolved from these beginnings, becoming more elegant, athletic and balletic, spreading all the way round the world, and inspiring many new dances to be written.

The fancy steps used in the Reels developed into competition show dances, the Highland dances. These include the world-renowned "Highland Fling", the aforementioned Foursome Reel, and the Sword Dance, as well as other dances such as The Flora, The Sailor's Hornpipe and the Seann Truibhas (not strictly speaking Highland dances, but very similar in style). These now exist almost solely in competitions and performances, but again, perhaps because they have been standardised by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing, the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association, and the New Zealand Academy of Highland Dancing (among other associations) have also found wide-spread popularity around the world.

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Last updated 8-10-02 .

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This page is maintained by Ian Brockbank
Edinburgh, Scotland