Highland Dancing




Highland Dancing is one of the most sophisticated forms of national dancing known throughout the world. Dance origins could be social dances, war dances, or strictly for exhibition purposes. Highland Dancing has ancient origins. When the Romans came to Britain during Agricola's reign (circa 77 A.D.), the renowned historian Tacitus wrote of the inhabitants in the far north doing strange dances with swords and spears. The Norsemen (Vikings) and Mary Queen of Scots' French court also influenced some of the dances. The greatest influence; however, may be by John Knox and John Calvin, who negatively impacted Highland Dancing and probably caused the loss of many of the traditional Scottish dances. Their sermons preached against music and dancing and all but terminated these activities. Highland Dancing is often compared to ballet, but is considered to be more strenuous during the duration of the dance because the dancer is not allowed to put their heels on the floor (except during a Jig or the Sailor's Hornpipe).

Types of Dances:

Traditional Dances: Are those where the kilt is worn and are known for their aggressive and meticulous movements. These dances were originally done by male dancers. These dances usually commemorated battles and were believed to be used as an exercise to keep warriors fit.

National Dances: Are more graceful and are generally performed by women. The women often wear Aboyne dress for these dances. Aboyne dress gets its origins from the committee of the Aboyne Games who were opposed to women competing in kilts (the kilt is a male garment). In 1953, they approved a costume for female dancers which became known as the Aboyne dress.


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Authentic Scottish Traditional Highland and National Dance

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Type: National Dance

Origins: The Barracks Johnny - is a National dance, but military in nature, so the kilt is worn here. This dance is known as the recruiters dance since legend tells us that in olden days in the north of Scotland, the method of recruiting soldiers to fight in the many wars the Scots were involved in, the preferred method was to have a gathering outside the barracks. There would be fun, frivolity, food, singing, dancing, and of course, the local brew which was a key ingredient. A great time was had by all, but then there were always those who would over indulge in the local brew and those were the ones who, when they woke up in the morning found themselves recruited. This dance seemed to have played a role in the scheme as well.


Type: National Dance

Origins: Designed for ladies and are more flowing and graceful in nature than the strong and vigorous Highland dances. The Aboyne costume is worn for this dance. The Blue Bonnets is danced in honor of a particular Highland Regiment (soldiers) who were very successful at "taking on" the English when they would cross over the border into Scotland and wreak havoc with the Scottish Lowlanders. The "Blue Bonnets" were held in very high regard.


Type: National Dance

Origins: In the 1700's the House of Stuart lost the British throne to the Hanovarians (Germans). This angered the Scots who wanted to have their own king on the throne. They wanted Prince Charles Stuart who was in exile in France, so they gathered the clans and brought Charles to Scotland to reclaim the throne. Unfortunately, he was defeated by the English at Culloden in 1746 and had he been captured by the English, would have been hung, drawn and quartered. Flora MacDonald hid the young sovereign and engineered his escape. The bouncy steps and turns of this dance commemorate that valiant lass dancing for her king. Ladies wear the Aboyne costume for this dance.


Type: Traditional Dance

Origins: The Fling is the most famous and oldest of the traditional dances and is said to mimic the antics of a stag on a mountainside. It is considered by most to be the basic dance of all Highland dancing, demanding excellent poise and control on the part of the dancer. As the stag played a major role in the Scotsman's life, providing food, raiment and materials for making weapons, it is little wonder that one of the legends relating to the Highland Fling states that it was an inspiration for this dance. The elevation of the dancer's arms and positioning of the fingers represents the stag's antlers, and the steps, his antics. Another legend tells of how this dance was done by ancient clansmen and warriors in celebration of victory in battle. When on the battlefield, these men would carry a targe, a small shield for protection from the enemy. Projecting from the center of the targe, there was a five or six inch sharp spike, so when the battle was won, the men would throw the targe down and dance on it in celebration of their victory. One had to be very fleet of foot to carry out this event safely due to the spike, hence the reason why Highland Fling dancers have to dance on the spot using close and nimble footwork.


Type: National Dance

Origins: The Highland Laddie is said to be another recruiting dance done by soldiers so the kilt is worn here. It is also a dance honoring Bonnie Prince Charlie as he was most lovingly referred to. He was a very handsome young man and the Scots dearly wanted him as their king but that was not to be as he was defeated in battle with the English and spent most of his life in exile.


Type: National Dance

Origins: This is the Scottish version, and a parody of the Irish Jig. Eliminating the stiff torso of the Irish dance, the very emotional Scots dance more energetically using arms and hands and shaking of fists to express anger. The stamping of the foot expresses impatience. Some say that this is a spoof of the Irish washer-woman and the dancer is portraying how this woman felt when she discovered that some mischievous young boys had dragged her washed clothes off the line and and threw everything in the mud. She, of course, had to face redoing all that hard work. She may also have been having a bad day due to the fact that her husband had stopped by the pub to drink and have fun with his friends while she had to stay home to cook and do household chores. He did not show up for dinner - enough to make any wife furious! Having both of those circumstances occur on the same day certainly would call for some very emotional activity in the dance.


Type: National Dance

Origins: It has been suggested that the Scottish Lilt is a courting dance that was performed by Scottish gentlewomen to show how graceful they could be. For this genteel and flowing dance, the ladies wear the more feminine Aboyne outfit. This dress originates from the Aboyne Highland Games in Scotland where, to this day, the wearing of the kilt is strictly forbidden for women. Only men are allowed to wear the kilt.


Type: National Dance

Origins: An ancestor of modern tap dance, a character dance, commemorates the nimble footwork of the men who worked the mighty sailing ships. This is an ancient dance, common to many parts of the British Isles and was originally accompanied by the music of a "hornpipe", an instrument something like our tin flute. The dance became so popular with seafaring men that it became known as the "sailor's" hornpipe. The costume is based on those worn by Her Majesty's Royal Navy. Remember that this is a very old dance so if you look closely, you will see that the dancer is depicting chores that sailors had to do on those ancient sailing ships. To name a few - pulling ropes, climbing the rigging, skipping across the slippery deck, splicing the mainbrace and serving as lookout. It is a very busy and entertaining dance.


Type: National Dance

Origins: Designed for ladies and the steps are more flowing and graceful in nature than the strong and vigorous Highland dances. The Aboyne costume is worn for this dance.


Type: Traditional Dance

Origins: Pronounced "shawn trews" in Gaelic and translating into English as "old trousers". The origin of this dance may be a little on the obscure side, but the movements and motions of the dance definitely depict a person in the act of shedding his breeks (britches). Some traditionalists state that it is an impatient Highlander trying to rid himself of the unfamiliar garment to get back to the freedom of his native Highland kilt. One has to reflect upon the history of the time to come up with an answer as to why a Highlander would find himself in this situation.

In 1746, after the English defeated the rebelling Scottish clans at the Battle of Culloden, the Proscription Act was put into effect and the wearing of the beloved kilt was forbidden as were many other Scottish traditions. This humiliation was enforced for forty years until the repeal of the act. Highlanders detested the trousers that they were forced to wear and so the dance does depict the shedding of the "trews” during the slower music when the dancer is brushing and shaking in the attempt to kick them off. The final quick steps celebrate joy and the real and symbolic freedom of the kilt. This is not the aggressive dance of the hunter or a warrior, but the deliberate dance of an ecstatic Scot!


Type: Traditional Dance

Origins: Strathspey is a type of music and in this case is attached to a reel which is a faster type of music. There is a full Tulloch or Hullachan reel but here only half of that reel is attached to the strathspey. The strathspey part always consists of 2 "figure of eights" and 2 setting steps. The reel music is livelier and has a more distinctive beat demanding a different kind of step. Legend has it that this Scottish reel began when parishioners in the village of Tulloch danced to keep warm while waiting for the minister to let them get in to church. One version of the old tale relates that the parishioners were soundly rebuked for their act of sacrilege and not a single one who took part survived the year.

Obviously, if this were true, it is doubtful anyone would have continued to perform the dance. The weaving around, in and out, became what we now call the "figure of eight" even although it is not exactly a true eight. The arms and fingers are again held to resemble the antlers of deer frolicking in the glen. It has been said that these patterns represent eternal life and is an incorporation of the Celtic pattern of dance form and may have originated in memory of the entwined serpent of Moses' Rod of life. The reels are always danced in a group of 4 and each dancer must rely on the other three to maintain proper placements and patterns.


Type: Traditional Dance

Origins: A martial dance performed for centuries in Scotland. It is thought by some to represent the triumph of good over evil, with the sword of the victor, held in the right hand, placed over the sword of the vanquished, held in the left. It is regarded as the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and is said to date back to the eleventh century (1054 A.D.) when King Malcolm Canmore was on the throne.

One legend relates that the king danced over his bloody claymore (a great two handed sword) and the even bloodier head of his defeated enemy captain. Others say that no head was involved but the King did dance over his own claymore crossed over that of his enemy, one of MacBeth's chiefs at Dunsinane. Still another version of the story is that warriors could expect a victory in an upcoming battle if the dancer completed the dance without touching the crossed swords, so the dance became a predictor of the outcome of battle. Some say that it was noted that if the dancer touched the sword during the dance, this would indicate that he was most likely to be wounded during the next battle.

Displacing the sword could possibly mean that he might be killed. So when today's dancers perform the sword dance , they execute the steps with strength and conviction, as did those warriors of old.


Type: National Dance

Origins: Designed for ladies and the steps are more flowing and graceful in nature than the strong and vigorous Highland dances. The Aboyne costume is worn for this dance.


Sandra Brown B.A.T.D. certified instructor from Dance Caledonia

"Scottish Highland Games" by David Webster (available from Amazon.com)

"The Scottish Highland Games in America" by Emily Ann Donaldson (available from Amazon.com)

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