History of Highland Dance


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 the 12th century, the Highland Dances of Scotland tended to be highly athletic male celebratory dances or triumph or joy, or warrior dances performed over swords and spiked shields. According to tradition, the old kings and chiefs of Scotland used the Highland Games as a way of choosing their 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. 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 most performed by females. No matter who dances them, Highland dances require both athletic and artistic skill.



In competition, dancers are judged on three elements:

Timing: timing is the dancers ability to follow the rhythm of the music.
Technique: technique concerns the dancers footwork and the coordination of head, arms and hands. Good positioning of the feet is most important.
General Deportment: General deportment concerns the dancers interpretation and ability to capture the spirit and motif of the dance and includes balance, overall appearance, bearing and carriage of the head, arms, body and hands. Upright posture is essential, and the dancers must exhibit a happy demeanor. Although the dances are very athletic, they must be danced with seeming ease, with no signs of strain and free of elaborate showiness.

For competitive purposes, each dancer is ranked according to one of five groups:

1. Primary: Under 7 years of age.

2. Beginner: Until obtaining 6 different stamps at competitions.

3. Novice: Until obtaining 6 different stamps at competitions.

4. Intermediate: For one year from the date of the last Novice competition.

5. Premier: There are age classifications in each group.

Competitive Dancing:

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 stabilize 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.

Types of Dances:

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 the hillside; the grouped fingers and upheld arms representing the antlers.

The Sword Dance (Mary Dundas Trophy):

 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).

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 and must be followed by the Reel. These dances illustrate the “set” and “travel” steps which are common in Scottish social dancing.

National Dances:

The Flora McDonald’s Fancy ( Florence MacMillan Trophy): 

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 thetraditional 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.

Scottish Lilt:

The Scottish Lilt is said to be a courting dance performed by the Scottish gentlewomen to show how graceful they could be.

There are a number of other National dances, which include The Earl of Errol and the Highland Laddie (Hielan Laddie). 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. 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 Scotland. Some of them are really quite balletic but do retain their Scottish favour.

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