Highland Dancing, which
requires the endurance and strength of an athlete and the artistry of a
dancer, is the traditional solo dancing of Scotland, and should not be
confused with Scottish country dancing—the social dance of the country. The
latter shares elements with ballroom and formation dance (i.e. dance, in
which an important element is the pattern of movement across the dance
floor, such as in square dancing).
Unfortunately, the origins of
Highland Dancing are shrouded in antiquity, legend--and even the mists of
the mountains. Little academic research has been undertaken into this
beautiful and important art form—in part, because very little was recorded,
as Highland culture was largely an oral culture, with song and traditions
passed down by word of mouth, and part because dance masters passed their
steps down to young protégées. Consequently, steps and dances took on the
regional character of the diverse and magnificent regions.
As a result, numerous stories
abound regarding the source of the dances, and many are in conflict with
each other. I will therefore give both the ‘history’, which is commonly
accepted among teachers and judges, as well as some of the legends and
stories with which I grew up—in order that more information is not lost.
Many of the legends are beautiful and inspiring to young dancers, and should
be recorded for the future. It is therefore my hope that dancers and
teachers will contribute to the history in order that we develop a more
complete database of the rich past.
In previous centuries,
Scottish regiments used Highland Dancing as exercise to keep the troops in
shape, and ready for battle. The dances are indeed excellent exercise; for
example, in a typical six-step Highland Fling, a dancer will jump vertically
192 times, while performing complicated and intricate footwork, and using
the muscles from head to toe. Highland dancing is therefore akin to
sprinting, with dancers using fast-twitch muscle, which is also required by
Today, Highland Dancing is
one of the premiere events at Highland Games throughout the world; for
example, in Canada, Japan, Scotland, South Africa, and the United States of
America. Until the early 1900's, only men entered Highland Dancing
competitions. However, the tradition changed during the World Wars, as women
wanted to preserve their rich culture and history, while the men were
defending their homeland.
Competitive female dancers
now outnumber male dancers by about one hundred to one, although the dancing
community is always eager to welcome more men, for their strength is very
much celebrated. This year at the 2006 World of Highland Dancing Conference
in Las Vegas, a special luncheon was held to honour the ‘Men of Highland
In order to be a successful
competitive dancer, students require many hours of practice and training
over a period of numerous years, as Highland dancing has much in common with
ballet in terms of its technique. Students also require mastery of the four
basic Highland dances, namely, the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, Seann
Truibhas (pronounced ‘shawn trewes’), and the reel—all of which are
performed in the traditional kilt.
The Highland Fling
The most commonly recounted
history of the ‘Fling’ is that it is a dance of celebration, performed after
victory in battle. Clansmen performed the dance on a small round targe, a
circular shield of wood with the front covered in tough hide, and the back
in deer or sheepskin. The targe weighed approximately five pounds, and was
strong enough to withstand the thrust of a bayonet. The front of the shield
was decorated with brass studs and plates, and often had a long spike in the
Agility, nimble footwork, and
strength allowed the dancer to avoid the sharp spike, which often projected
five to six inches upwards.
Another explanation of the
origin of the dance is as follows: the Fling may extend back to the first
centuries AD, and may in fact have been an ancient fertility dance. The
supporting evidence is the raised hands, representing a ‘stag’, an ancient
sign of virility.
Other experts, however,
suggest that a deer leaping across the moors may have motivated the creation
of the dance, as the arms held like antlers, the body turning around, the
feet dancing from side to side, are all reminiscent of a stag at play. A
similar interpretation suggests the dance celebrates a successful stag hunt.
Traditionally, the dance
would have been performed in hard shoes or brogues, and would not have
allowed for the tight around-the-leg movement so characteristic of the dance
today. In fact, the working foot was likely ‘flung’ around the other leg.
Today, the dance is performed
to stirring pipe music such as Monymusk, Orange and Blue, or any other
suitable strathspey, a tune in 4/4 time. The strathspey is said to be unique
to Scotland, and is thought to derive from the Gaelic waulking songs—tunes
to which Highland women beat urine-soaked tartan cloth to make it airtight
against the wind.
The Sword Dance
Perhaps the most renowned
Highland Dance is the Sword Dance, which has its roots in Scotland’s
Some suggest that Malcolm
Canmore, King of Scotland, who ruled the country between 1054 and 1096,
created the dance. In 1054 Malcolm Canmore began the military campaign that
Macbeth made famous. Malcolm, supported by the Earl of Northumbria, was able
to force territorial concessions from Macbeth at the bloody battle of
Dunsinane on 24 July, 1054.
After the success, Malcolm is
believed to have placed his own sword on top of that of his enemy in the
form of a cross and danced triumphant over them.
Others suggest that warriors
danced the Sword Dance the night before battle. If the dancer touched the
sword, the dancer would be wounded the next day, but if a dancer kicked the
sword, he would be killed.
The dance is performed today
to the pipe tune Ghillie Calum with two or more slow steps followed by one
or two quick steps. If a dancer touches a sword (but not displaces it in
competition), the dancer loses five marks. However, if the dancer displaces
the sword, s/he is disqualified.
Seann Truibhas, pronounced
‘Shawn Trewes’, is Gaelic for ‘Old Trousers’. It is largely believed that
the dance developed after the 1745 Jacobite Rising, when Charles Edward
Stuart (more affectionately known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) came to Scotland
(from France) to win back the crown.
Initially the uprising was a
staggering success; the Jacobite army rapidly broke out of the Highlands,
captured Edinburgh, and advanced as far south as Derby in England.
Unfortunately, the army lacked the necessary French support, and so
retreated back to their stronghold in the Highlands, where it was finally
defeated at Culloden Moor near Inverness in 1746.
Afterwards, the government
decided to end once and for all the Jacobite military threat. Jacobites were
rounded up, imprisoned or executed. Estates were snatched, the clan system
dismantled, and their kilt and plaids, pipes, and weaponry outlawed.
Some therefore suggest that
the dance was created when the above Act of Proscription was repealed in
1783, and Highlanders were once again allowed to wear their kilts. The first
part of the dance—the balletic, graceful slow time (as Bonnie Prince Charlie
came from France) with brushing movements--are thought by some to mimic a
clansman shedding his ‘hated’ trewes; and the quick-time is thought to
reflect the Highlander’s returning to his tradition of Highland dress and
custom (as the quick steps are similar in style to that of the Highland
suggests that the dance is, in fact, the Highlander ‘showing-off’ his new
tartan trewes to the English King.
The dance is performed to the
pipe tune, ‘Whistle o’er the Lave o’t’ for both the slow and quick time.
Reel of Tulloch
There are several types of
‘group’ dances performed by Highland Dancers. They include:
2. Strathspey and Half Tulloch
3. Strathspey and Highland Reel
4. Strathspey and Highland Reel and Half Tulloch.
A Strathspey is performed by
four dancers, initially beginning in a line, and dancing a ‘figure of
eight’—although the formation actually uses three loops--to a suitable
strathspey tune, such as The Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling. A quicker
Highland Reel (using the same formation) or Tulloch (with dancers taking
turns doing steps and turning with linked arms) follows the Strathspey.
Common pipe tunes for the Highland Reel are Kate Dalrymple, Mrs. Macleod of
Raasay, the Fairy Dance, the High Road to Linton, or any other suitable reel
The Reel of Tulloch or
Hullachan (performed to the tune of the same name) refers to a dance
performed outside a cottage. This Reel is thought to have originated in the
Churchyard, where on a cold winter's Sunday a Minister was late for his
service-- parishioners tried to keep warm by clapping their hands and
stamping their feet.
This finishes the section on
the traditional Highland Dances. The next section introduces the Irish Jig
and the Sailor’s Hornpipe, which borrow from Irish and English traditions.
Both dances are performed at Highland Games.
Irish Jig and
The Irish Jig is a parody of
Irish dancing—borrowing many similar foot and leg movements, and even using
hard shoes--and ‘temper’.
Arm movements reflect the
history behind the dance—namely, an angry fishwife ‘mopping up the floor
with her husband’ (or perhaps a wife angry because her husband has been in
the pub ‘til the wee hours of the morning). The dancer chases her husband,
flounces her skirt, and shakes her fists. Female dancers wear green/red
dresses/skirts, complete with apron, and hard shoes for ‘stomping out the
Some believe the male version
of the dance mimics the ‘happy-go-lucky’ Irishman facing his wife's tirade.
Male dancers wear green/red tails, breeches, hat, and twirl a shillelagh.
The dance is typically
performed to Paddy’s Leather Breeches, The Irish Washerwoman, or the Rakes
Hornpipe dancing was fairly
widespread throughout the British Isles during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Hornpipe likely developed as a means of exercise for sailors (much like
the Highland Dances for soldiers) who were aboard ships for long periods of
time, and as a means to relieve boredom and discontent. It is in fact
believed that the Royal Navy Captain James Cook (1728-1779) thought dancing
was most useful to keep his men in good health during a voyage.
Today’s Scottish Hornpipe
borrows from the English Hornpipe, and is a very energetic dance, which
recreates the many chores of a sailor on board his ship including, hauling,
hoisting, looking out to sea, waving the farewell flag etc..
Dancers perform in navy blue
or white sailor's uniform with hat to hornpipe pipe tunes, such as Crossing
the Minch, Jackie Tar, or My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet.
The National Dances include
Blue Bonnets, Flora MacDonald's Fancy, Hielan' Laddie, Scotch Measure,
Scottish Lilt, The Earl of Errol, The Village Maid, and Wilt Thou go to the
These dances varies
considerably in character. Only two of the above dances are performed in a
kilt, namely ‘Barracks’ and ‘Laddie’. The remainder of the dances were
created by dancing masters in the 19th century to be danced by women, as
females were not originally allowed to dance the strong Highland Dances, or
even wear the kilt.
The National Dances are more
balletic, ‘lady-like’, and softer—although they require tremendous skill to
execute correctly, as the rhythms and technique are often more complicated
than in the conventional Highland Dances. The costume is called ‘Aboyne’,
and includes a full tartan skirt, a white blouse, a velvet vest laced up the
front, and a plaid (pronounced ‘played’); women may also wear a white dress
with a plaid.
National Dances were
generally not performed in competition until the 1960s in North America.
Today, females and males dance both Highland and National Dances. Males have
the option of wearing tartan ‘trewes’ or a kilt for the National Dances.
Blue Bonnets is a balletic
dance, which is thought to depict a graceful lady trying to attract the
attention of the passing ‘Bluebonnets’--the name given to soldiers who wore
a broad blue woolen cap with a plume, and who were often the first to face
The dance is performed to the
tune of the same name. Words were set to the tune by Scotland’s Sir Walter
Scott (1771-1832), Scottish historic novelist, poet, and writer.
Flora Macdonald’s Fancy
The ‘Flora’ is a pretty dance
choreographed in honour of famed Flora MacDonald. After the massacre at
Culloden in 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie had a high price on his head, and
Flora helped him escape to Skye by disguising him as her maid, Betty Burke.
The crossing was short but
dangerous, as the small boat weathered both bullets from the shore, and
storms. Both survived, and the Prince escaped to France, never to return.
Flora was later arrested when
her part in the escape became known. However, her courage, ingenuity, and
popular appeal meant that she was well treated, and was later released from
When I was a child, I was
told the legend that Flora loved Bonnie Prince Charlie, and that she
performed the dance high on a hill, as he sailed for France.
Flora Macdonald’s Fancy is
often danced to The Atholl Highlanders, The Cock of the North, The
Piobaireachd (pronounced Pibroch) of Donald Dhu, or any suitable 6/8 March.
Soldiers are thought to have
created the dance during the First World War. The dance is performed to the
famous tune of the same name. In 1881, Highland Regiments throughout the
British Army adopted ‘Highland Laddie’ as their Regimental March (‘theme
song of the Regiment’) ‘in compliance with official decree’.
Highland Laddie is the most
common of the Regimental Marches—being used by such Regiments as The Black
Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and the 48th Highlanders of
Canada. Canadian Forces Adminstrative Order 32-3 mentioned that the tune was
used during the Second World War in order to raise the morale of men after
battle, and played at the victory parade in Amsterdam, Holland.
Scotch Measure can either be
danced as a solo dance or as a partner dance, in which case it is called the
‘Twa Some’. The male dancer would wear his kilt, and the female dancer the
Aboyne or white dress; the dance is thought to show the Scottish dating
The ‘Lilt’ or ‘Scottish Jig’
is another pretty dance; it is unusual in that the counting is in sixes
rather than eights, which is the norm.
The dance is commonly
performed to Drops O Brandy or the Battle of the Somme, a spirited tune,
which belies the tragedy of the battle it commemorates. The forces of most
Commonwealth countries were present at this battle.
The Earl of Errol
The ‘Earl of Errol’ may be
based on an 18th-century Irish-style hard shoe dance (although today it is
performed in soft shoes), which was choreographed for the Earl of Errol.
The Village Maid
Of all the dances, this dance
is most heavily influenced by ballet. The dance is unusual in that there is
very little hopping, which is so characteristic of Highland Dancing, and the
dancer steps flat onto the foot-- most of the other dances require that the
dancer be on the ball of the supporting foot.
Wilt Thou Go to the
The ‘Barracks’ is thought to
have been a recruiting dance for the army. A recruiting officer would use a
dancer to attract people to his recruiting station or use the dancer for
entertainment while in a village. The dance is performed to such pipe tunes
as Braes o’ Mar or The Barren Rocks of Aden.
Other dances do exist, such
as the Broadsword, Cakewalk, and Tribute to James L. McKenzie, although they
are not generally danced in competitions—unless there is a special event.
performed by four dancers over four highland broadswords placed to make a
cross, was commonly taught to those in Scottish Regiments of the army. The
dance is performed to strathspey tunes, and then speeds up for reel tunes
for the last one or two steps of the dance.
The Cakewalk, unlike
the other dances, actually originates in the southern United States of
America, from which famed dancer, judge and examiner, James. L. McKenzie
(1905-1992), MBE, took back to Scotland, as he was so taken by the dance.
The Cakewalk imitates a
couple promenading in a dignified manner, high-stepping and kicking, and
mimicking ‘high society’. The dance has its roots in plantations and, sadly,
Plantation owners would bake
a special cake, invite the neighbors over, and have a dance contest among
the slaves. By the 1890's, the Cakewalk was a much-celebrated dance; in 1892
the first Cakewalk contest was held in New York.
Today, the dance is a
favourite special event at competitions, with the dancers developing themes
for their costumes such as the Wild West.
Miss Elspeth Strathern,
another well-known Highland dance teacher and examiner, choreographed the
dance, Tribute to J.L. McKenzie, for Mr. McKenzie’s contributions to
Highland Dancing. Some of his impressive wins include the Braemar Highland
Games Championship, which he won ten times, and the Cowal Highland Gathering
trophy, which he won in three successive years.
His favourite dance was the
Highland Fling. When he won the Coronation Medal at the Braemar
Gathering he was thrilled to perform the Highland Fling for newly crowned
Queen Elizabeth ll.
In recognition of his
dedication to the art of Highland dancing, Mr. McKenzie was later granted
the distinction of Member of the British Empire (MBE), an honour bestowed
upon him at Buckingham Palace by the Queen.
Finally, other dances, which
are not performed in competition, include Hebridean Laddie, Over the Water
to Charlie, and Tulloch Gorum.
For additional information
regarding Highland Dancing, the following represents a good starting
Scottish Official Board of
The British Association of Teachers of Dancing
The Scottish Dance Teachers’ Alliance
United Kingdom Alliance Ltd
Federation of United States Teachers and Adjudicators
Official Board of Highland Dancing (South Africa)
ScotDance New Zealand
Toe and Heel.com
A High Cut Above
Competing Highland Dancer
Dance to the Piper
Fling Time 1 & 2
Leap & Rock Volume 1 & 2
Piping for Highland Dancing
See some videos on Highland Dancing here!