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Introduction to Highland Dancing
© Kirsty Duncan PhD FSAScot

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 soldiers.

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 Dancing’.

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.

Highland Dances

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 centre.

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.

Highland Fling At Halkirk Highland Games 2010

The Sword Dance

Perhaps the most renowned Highland Dance is the Sword Dance, which has its roots in Scotland’s embattled past.

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, she is disqualified.

David Wilton Cowal 2011

Sword Dance At Halkirk Highland Games 2013

Seann Truibhas

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 Fling).

Another interpretation 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.

Dancing the Sean Triubhas at the Great Lakes Closed Championship in Alma, Michigan, 2009.

Seann Triubhas at the Caledonian Ceilidh highland competition

Reel of Tulloch

There are several types of ‘group’ dances performed by Highland Dancers. They include:

1.      Hullachan
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 tune.

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.

Reel of Tulloch World Championships

Irish Jig and Sailor’s Hornpipe

Irish Jig

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 rhythm’.

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 of Kildare.

Highland Dancing / Irish Jig
Dancing at the ScotDance Championship Series 2011 held in Antigonish, Nova Scotia

Sailors’ Hornpipe

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.

Scottish Highland Dancing- Sailors Hornpipe

National Dances

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 Barracks Johnnie?

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

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 English.

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 the Tower.

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.

Scottish Highland Dancing—Scotch Measure

Hielan’ Laddie

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.

Dancing the Highland Laddie at the Harbor Springs, Michigan, competition

Scotch Measure

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 ritual.

Scottish Highland Dancing—Scotch Measure

Scottish Lilt

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.  

Scottish Lilt, Old Highland Steps
(Old) Scottish Lilt as published by the RSCDS in St. Andrew's Step Dance Collection contains 4 steps never to be seen at Highland dance competitions nowadays. Maria Zotko (Shady Glen, Moscow, Russia) performs all these steps, mostly in recognized Highland dance technique but preserving Scottish Step tendency to use low 3rd aerial positions.

Scottish Lilt - Internationals 2009

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.

Interprov 2009 - Toronto - Daniel Carr - 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.

Courtney Highland Dancing - The Village Maid

Wilt Thou Go to the Barracks Johnnie?

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.

Johnny wilt thou go to the Barracks - St. Andrew's Day Gala

Other Dances

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.

The Broadsword, 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.

Highland Dancing the Broadsword

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, slavery.

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.

Robert McOwen choreographed this version of The Cakewalk with Aileen and Gregor, who danced it at the Scotland, CT Highland Games in October 2006. Needless to say, they took first place, and have since performed it with Highland Dance Boston.

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.

Cakewalk Highland Dance

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 place:

Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing
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 Canada
ScotDance New Zealand
Toe and

Highland CDs:

A High Cut Above
Competing Highland Dancer
Dance to the Piper
Fling Time 1 & 2
Leap & Rock Volume 1 & 2
Piping for Highland Dancing
Pure Delight
Strictly Time  

See some videos on Highland Dancing here!

See a BBC Alba documentary on Highland Dancing

Cowal's Virtual Highland Gathering 2020

Return to Scottish and Highland Dance Page


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