The Scottish Dance Tradition

Scotland is alive with traditional dancing. Thousands of people participate and watch traditional dance in Scotland and throughout the world.

Written material on Scottish dance dates back to the 1700s. Over time, particular styles evolved, and many geographical areas of Scotland have their own unique dance variations.

Reels were commonly danced. This is a dance for three of more people where steps are danced on the spot, alternating with travelling figures in a circle or figure of eight. Shetland, in particular, has invested in keeping its reels alive and many are danced today.

Start tapping your toe to the sound of the pipes or fiddle and you are on you’re way to Scottish dancing.

Scottish dance can broadly be described as four different styles, with certain techniques, moves, footwork and patterns common to all. Dances of the same name, for example, the Reel of Tulloch, can be performed in a different style, changing the feel and look of the dance. Whether it’s ceilidh dancing, Highland dancing, Scottish country dancing, or step-dancing, Scottish music on the pipes, fiddle, accordion and Gaelic song unite and celebrate it all.

Gay Gordons, Strip the Willow & Dashing White Sergeant

Ceilidh Dancing

Fun, enjoyment and bringing people together with well-known dances defines ceilidh dancing. It is popular at weddings and festivals, and many communities have a ceilidh dance calendar.

Most dances are done in couples or in sets of three, four, six, or eight. They are easy to learn and often a dance-caller explains what to do as you learn on the move. Sometimes ceilidh dances with the same name are danced with variations depending on the geographical area. A Canadian Barn dance or Schottische is danced a little differently in South Uist than it is in Braemar.

Ceilidh dancing has happened and still does, anywhere people want to get together and dance, from a kitchen to a large hall, and there has been a tradition of dancing on bridges and roads.

A great Ceilidh is not without a great ceilidh band, as the music plays a fundamental part to the dancing with the right tempo and tunes suited to the dances.

Old Time Dancing in Scotland is another social form of dance including dances like the Eva 3 Step, Waltzes, Swing and Ballroom.

Dancing steps neat and close to the floor

Step Dancing

Step-dancing is a form of percussive dance, danced in hard-soled shoes to music played at a particular tempo on pipes, whistle, fiddle or puirt-a-beul (mouth music). That is, beating ones’ heels, toes and feet in as many ways as possible and imaginable, keeping time with the rhythms of the music in strathspey, reel and jig time.

Until around 1992 step-dancing was rarely seen or danced in Scotland and few people knew about it. It’s discovery partly occurred through the visits and teachings of Cape Breton step dancers, including Harvey Beaton and Mary Janet Macdonald. This style of dancing was kept very much alive in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada by Scottish immigrants who settled there in the late 1700’s.

There are many steps that can be learned passed on through family generations. The style has never been prescribed, except dancing steps neat and close to the floor. Many dancers have their own individual style and steps they like to do to particular tunes.

Step-dancing seen in Scotland today has been learned from Cape Breton step dancers. Some of the beats of the feet from step-dancing can be seen in many of Scotland’s other traditional dances, for example in Highland (Flowers of Edinburgh), Hebridean (Till A-Rithist/Aberdonian Lassie), Ceilidh (Jacky Tar).

Possibly best known of Scotland’s dance traditions

Highland Dancing

Almost everyone has an image of a kilted dancer performing the Highland Fling or the Gille Callum/Sword Dance to the sound of the pipes. Highland dancing was historically part of training in the Highland regiments. The dancing requires strength to perform with continuous jumps, high leaps, intricate arm and footwork, balance and poise. There are many beautiful dances, some of which are almost balletic, including the National dances, Blue Bonnets and the Scottish Lilt.

Highland dancing plays an important part of Highland Games and at many games there are competitions. Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon has been host to the Scottish and World Highland Dancing Championships since 1934.

The ‘Hebridean Dances’ can be seen danced by Highland dancers and step-dancers. The style is more relaxed than Highland, with the arms held lower, the knees more bent and some of the steps are similar to the footwork in step-dancing. They were taught in the Western Isles in the mid 1800s by the dance master Ewen MacLachlan.

Slightly more formal than ceilidh dancing

Scottish Country Dancing

In the 1700s, many country dances were held in grand, elegant halls and attended by prosperous members of society. Techniques were influenced by the dance styles of the period and the traditions of the reels danced in the Scottish countryside. Today, care is taken to preserve the technique of the dances whilst still enjoying the social aspect of the dance.

Scottish country dances are still held in castles and stately homes and in city, town and village halls with dances like the Reel of the 51st, or the Duke of Perth/Broun’s Reel. The dances are made up of four or five couples facing each other to form sets and are characterised by the top couple in a set progressing to the bottom with the dance repeated for everyone to come back to their starting positions.

There are numerous intricate formations in Scottish country dances and the setting and travelling steps, use of hands, and patterns are danced with a respect for the fine details of the dances.

There are also dances in the formation of a square set danced by four couples, the Quadrilles, with four, five or six figures. The Quadrilles danced in South Uist are greatly enjoyed today. There are thousands of Scottish country dances and new dances are being created all the time. The music of strathspeys, jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, and hornpipes all play a significant part in Scottish country dancing.