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 or spiked shield. 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 dance require both athletic and artistic skill.
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 center, 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. It is said to be a dance of victory and celebration.
Sword Dance (Gillie Challum)
One story is that this is 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 and the sword of his enemy.
Another story, one more widely used and accepted, says 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 they displaced their sword, they were to be killed in the battle. If many of the soldiers kicked their swords, the
chieftain of the clan would expect to the lose the battle. Today, if a dancer touches or displaces there sword they are
disqualified from the dance and receive no points.
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, the Highlanders
were forbidden to wear their kilts. Seann Truibhas 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 shaking and shedding
the hated trousers off and returning to the freedom of the kilt.
There are various different versions of the reels, including the Strathspey and Highland Reels, Strathspey and Half
Tulloch and the Full Tulloch. All are performed by four dancers interweaving in patterns. Although they dance together,
they are judged in competition individually. The Strathspey is never danced on its own in competition - it must be
followed by a Reel or Tulloch. These dances illustrate the "set" and "travel" steps which are common in Scottish
Flora McDonald's Fancy
This is danced in honor of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye. In 1746,
this intrepid young Scotswoman helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France after his defeat at the Battle of
Culloden. Flora then came to the American Colonies where she raised a family in North Carolina. She backed the
Tories during the American Revolution and ended up back in Scotland. She died penniless in the Hebrides. The
dance has only six steps and is the oldest of the National dances.
The Lilt exemplifies National dances, as it is very graceful and heavily influenced by ballet. It is an unusual dance
se it has only six beats per measure rather than the standard eight. In competition, this dance is usually done with
only four steps, and is rarely danced by the most advanced dancers. The Scottish Lilt has several recognized steps
that can be used in competition and exhibition.
The Scottish version of the Irish Jig is another caricature dance depicting an Irish washerwoman. One version of the story is that she is angry at her husband for staying out to late and drinking too much. The other blames her anger on having to work too hard for too little pay. In the male version, he is angry at his wife and wears a paddy hat and carries a shillelagh.
The Sailor's Hornpipe is a caricature dance developed from the traditional English version. It has become more popular in Scotland then in England and is regularly featured in Highland Games. The movements in this dance portray actions used in the daily routines of a sailor's life, such as pulling ropes, climbing the rigging and lookingout to sea.
There are other National dances which include the "Earl of Errol," "Blue Bonnets," "Village Maid," "Hielan' Laddie,"
and "Wilt thou go to the Barracks, Johnny?". They reflect the difficulty of trying to elucidate the history of the dances.
Many of the National Dances, for example, "Blue Bonnets" and "Hielan Laddie" were actually devised in the late
19th century by Ewan MacLachlan, who studied ballet in France. Some of them are quite balletic in nature but do
retain their Scottish flavor.
Also offered to Premier level dancers is the choreography competition. Dancers select their own music and costume,
and create dance steps with a Scottish flavor. These all can vary from balletic to quick paced foot work or even with a
jazz flair. Choreography can be done in solos, duets or groups.