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War Dance
The 51st Country Dance


The short, active service life of Lieutenant J.E.M. ‘Jimmy’ Atkinson of the 7th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders came to an abrupt end at 3pm on June 5, 1940.

Surrounded by enemy soldiers near the French town of Saigneville on the River Somme with a life expectancy measured in minutes, the 26-year-old scrambled to his feet, hands in the air and surrendered to five years of captivity as a prisoner of war in Germany.

Mr Atkinson, who died in 1997, would always remember the exact time of his capture - it was just after his Army issue wristwatch was shot off.

Had the German marksman been fractionally more accurate, the world would have been deprived of one of the most popular Scottish country dances ever devised.

The robust but graceful Reel of the 51st Highland Division, worked out in the grim confines of German PoW camps, is still danced around the world wherever half a dozen itchy-footed Scots gather.

For Mr Atkinson, of Alloa, Clackmannanshire, and his contemporaries in pre-war Scotland, country dancing was part of everyday life. Later, as he and thousands of his fellow Highlanders were being marched 1,000 miles through Holland and into Germany in June 1940, his thoughts often strayed back to the dances he had attended. The tramp of the marching feet took on the rhythms of the Strathspeys, reels and jigs to which he had whirled his fiancée around the floor.

Years later he was to remember: ‘I started thinking about dance tunes to keep my mind clear of grizzly thoughts, and I began to get this idea for a dance.’

At the core of the dance was the cross of St Andrew and the flash, or badge, of the Highland division to which his regiment belonged.

At Oflag V11C, Laufen castle near Salzburg, he joined a reel club formed by Lieutenant APJ ‘Peter’ Oliver of the 4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders. The two men discussed the dance forming in Mr Atkinson’s mind, and, with the help of Lt Col Tom Harris Hunter, of the Royal Army Service Corps, a former chairman of the Perth branch of the Scottish Country Dance Society, worked out the dance that is essentially the same reel today.

On Hallowe’en 1941, in Oflag V11B at Warburg, Westphalia, Major General (later Sir) Victor Fortune, officer commanding the 51st, approved the name The 51st Country Dance (Laufen Reel).

A recreation of the reel as danced on Halloween 1942 at Oflag 7b Warburg to Maj. Gen. Fortune - Whangarei & Country Pipe Band Concert "Pipes of War" 2010.

The Germans had paid little attention to the whistling, stomping Scots PoWs — until Col Harris Hunter decided to send the dance instructions to his wife in Scotland. To the uninitiated guards, the written steps — ‘Cast off three places, five to eight lead to top corners nine to 12’ looked suspiciously like code.

An NCO was given a demonstration. Mr Atkinson noted: ‘I think they thought we were completely mad, but the steps got through to Harris Hunter’s wife in Scotland.’

The reel became an immediate success in wartime Britain. The then Queen, persuaded the Scottish (later Royal) Country Dance Society to include it in its book of dances, even though it did not conform to its standards.

In peacetime, Mr Atkinson married Heather Young, went back to his prewar work in an Alloa paper mill, and raised four children.

A charming man with a twinkling sense of humour, he was always mildly amused and bemused by the worldwide success of the dance.

‘I just hope I brought a little happiness to people,’ he said.