Dance Histories

Highland Fling | Sword Dance | Seann Triubhas

Scottish Lilt | Flora MacDonald’s Fancy | Blue Bonnets Over the Border | Wilt Thou Go to the Barracks, Johnny? | Earl of ErrolHighland Laddie | Village Maid | Strathspey & Reels

Sailor’s Hornpipe | Scottish Jig  | Cake Walk

Highland Dances

The Highland Fling 

This is one of the oldest of the traditional Highland dances of Scotland. Returning from a victorious battle, male warriors would perform the dance in celebration of their success. It was performed on a small round shield, called a targe. Most targes had a sharp spike of steel projecting from the center, so the dancers learned to move with skill and dexterity to avoid injuring themselves.

This dance is now performed at dance competitions and events around the world. It is no longer danced on a shield, but it is still the goal of the dancer to stay in the same spot throughout the dance. The Highland Fling is danced at almost all competition levels, from Primary to Premier. It is also performed for most Highland and Theory examinations. Dancers wear the standard Kilt outfit to perform this dance.

Some people believe the Fling may have originated from a different source. There is a story about a young boy who saw a stag. When his father asked him to describe it, the boy could not find the words, so he danced on the spot, shaping his arms and hands into the animal he saw.

Sword Dance

There is no Highland Dance older or better known than the Sword Dance, or Ghillie Callum. The Sword Dance is the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore (Shakespeare’s MacBeth). Tradition says the original Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero of mortal combat against one of MacBeth’s Chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1504. He is said to have crossed his own bloody claymore (the two-handed broadsword of Scotland) and crossed it over the bloodier sword of the defeated Chief and danced over them both in exultation.

This dance of exultation became a tradition among the highland warriors, and in subsequent battles, clansman would cross their swords and dance around them in the same way. In addition to being a test of skill and agility, it was believed that if they could complete the dance without touching the swords, it was a good omen that they would be victorious in the coming battle.

In the first step the dancer performs the steps outside the sword or ‘addresses’ the sword. Subsequent steps are danced over the crossed blades, but notice that once inside the blades, the dancer never dances with his back turned to the swords – only a fool would turn his back on a weapon. It requires tremendous dexterity not to displace the swords. To prove his agility and strength, the dancer will clap his hands together near the end of the dance, indicating the transition to a faster tempo with the feet much closer to the swords, increasing the difficulty significantly.

The Seann Triubhas

This Highland Dance is believed to have originated from the rebellion of 1745, when England banned the Highlanders from wearing kilts. During this rebellion, Bonnie Prince Charlie challenged the might of England at Culloden. He lost the battle, and as a consequence the Highlanders were banned from wearing kilts. Kilts, along with bagpipes, were considered by the English as instruments of war. Without their kilts, they had to turn to wearing trousers. About thirty years later, the laws were repealed because of the tartan fabric fashion craze in London and the Highlanders were allowed to return to their original dress. The Seann Triubhas was created as a dance of celebration. The first part of this dance depicts the legs defiantly shaking and shedding the hated trousers. The dancer will then clap, which this tells the bagpiper to speed up the music. The last steps look similar to the Highland Fling, and symbolize the joy of returning to the kilt. Some of these steps are believed to have originated from hard shoe dancing. ‘Seann Triubhas’ is a Gaelic phrase which means ‘Old, Ugly or Unwanted Trousers’. It is pronounced ‘shawn troos’.

Considering that tartan trews were part of the Highland wardrobe for chieftains and gentlemen whilst on horseback (the large Highland ponies) from the early 1600s onward, it is most likely that the ‘Triubhas’ in the dance represent English-style plain trousers (breeches), adopted under duress by Highlanders following the ban on their native Highland kilted dress effective from 1st August 1746 to its repeal on 1st July 1782.

Strathspey & Reels

Of all the Highland Dancing events in which the competitors vie, the reels are the closest approach to social dancing. While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually.

Legend has it that the reel originated outside locked church in the Highland village of Tulloch, where it was danced by chilly parishioners as a method of keeping warm while waiting for a tardy clergyman.

There are a number of different reels used in Highland Dancing. The Hullachan, The Reel of Tulloch, The Strathspey & Highland Reel and The Strathspey & Half Tulloch are all reels seem in competition.

National Dances

 The Scottish Lilt

There are some times when you do not need an excuse, such as a battle, to dance. You are just so pleased to be a Scot that you have to dance! The Scottish Lilt is one of those dances; it is a very graceful, ballet-like dance that celebrates our life and heritage.

Flora MacDonald’s Fancy

This is a contemporary dance choreographed in honor of Scotland’s heroine, Flora MacDonald.

In 1745, many of the Highland clans, led by Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie), rose against the British Government in a last desperate attempt to wrest the British Crown back from the Hanovarian dynasty. The attempt ended in disaster. Flora MacDonald helped the prince escape English forces after his final defeat at the Battle of Culloden Moor.

Flora decided to smuggle Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye dressed as her Irish maid. She helped the prince escape from North Uist to Skye in a rowboat. Later she fled Scotland and settled in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina, but returned home to Skye later in life

Blue Bonnets over the Border

This is a very balletic dance which depicts a graceful lady trying to attract the attention of the passing “Blue Bonnets”. Blue Bonnets was a name for Scotsmen which arose due to the bonnets they used to wear, much like the British were called “Red Coats”.

Wilt thou go to the barracks, Johnny?

This was originally a recruitment dance for the Scottish Army. Unlike most national dances, which are usually danced in an Aboyne dress (if the dancer is female), “Barracks Johnny” is danced in the standard kilt-based outfit. This dance is supposed to represent the strength, agility, and determination the soldier received while going through training. It is commonly danced to the pipe march The Barren rocks of Aden.

The Earl of Errol

This was originally a dance performed in hard shoes which was choreographed for the Earl of Errol. Errol is a small town in Aberdeenshire. Although it looks quite easy, it is perhaps one of the hardest National dances to perform.

The Highland Laddie

Sometimes called the Hielan’ Laddie, it was created during World War I by soldiers. It is danced to the tune of the same name. Like the “Barracks Johnny”, the Highland Laddies is also danced in the standard kilt-based outfit.

The Village Maid

This is a very beautiful dance which is very heavily influenced by the Continental Ballet. This dance is unusual in that the dancer actually steps onto the flat foot, most of the other dances requiring the dancer to be on the ball of the supporting foot at all times. There is also very little hopping that is usually characteristic to other Highland Dances.

 Character Dances

 Sailor’s Hornpipe

The usual tune for this dance was first printed as the “College Hornpipe” in 1797 or 1798 by J. Dale of London. It was found in manuscript collections before then – for instance the fine syncopated version in William Vickers’ manuscript, written on Tyneside, dated 1770. The dance imitates the life of a sailor and their duties aboard ship. Sailors from the Royal Navy are believed to have invented the solo dance, as an exercise aboard ship. Due to the small space that the dance required, and no need for a partner, the dance was popular on-board ship.

It is likely that the Sailor’s Hornpipe was originally performed on the wet deck of a ship, in bare feet. Accompaniment may have been the music of a tin whistle or, from the 19th century, a squeezebox. Samuel Pepys referred to it in his diary as “The Jig of the Ship” and Captain Cook, who took a piper on at least one voyage, is noted to have ordered his men to dance the hornpipe in order to keep them in good health. The dance on-ship became less common when fiddlers ceased to be included in ships’ crew members.

In dramatic stage productions, from around the sixteenth century, a popular feature was a sea dance. But the nineteenth century saw the more familiar form of the “sailors’ hornpipe” introduced. Nautical duties (for example the hauling of ropes, rowing, climbing the rigging and saluting) provided the dance movements.

The Irish Jig

The Scottish version of the Irish Jig is another caricature dance depicting an Irish washerwoman who is angry with her erring husband. There are a number of stories regarding her anger with the husband, ranging from his drinking too much at the pub to his failure to help with the wash. The costume worn for this dance is either a red or emerald green skirt and bodice and a full white petticoat, with a white blouse, with a white apron. Red or green jig shoes are worn and there is much stamping, fist shaking and facial grimacing in this dance. In the male version, the dancer wears a red or green tailcoat with a waistcoat of the opposite colour, brown knee britches of corduroy, with a paddy hat and he carries a shillelagh, which is a club made from the forked branch of a tree.

The Cake Walk

This dance isn’t actually of Scottish origin. It traces its origins to the Deep South in the United States, where servants would gather in the evenings inventing dances that impersonated their masters. The dances were done in fun and the winner would receive a cake for their efforts, thus giving the name of the dance, the Cake Walk. This is one of the few dances done with a partner.

*Championship Dances – During a Highland Dance Championship, 4 dances are completed – The Fling, The Sword Dance, The Seann Triubhas and one of Reels. A panel of three judges watches and scores each dancer individually. The scores of the three judges are combined to determine the Champion and Runners Up. Only Premier level dancers compete in Championships, usually divided by age and there must be a minimum of six dancers in the class to qualify as a Championship.

*Premiership Dances – The Premiership is a new addition to competitive Highland Dance. It was created to showcase the National Dances on the same level of prestige and competition as a Championship. Each year, the SOBHD selects which 4 National dances are to be completed. They can include any of the National Dances, plus the Irish Jig or Sailor’s Hornpipe. Just like a Championship, a panel of three judges watches and scores each dancer individually. The scores of the three judges are combined to determine the Winner and Runners Up. Only Premier level dancers compete in Premierships, usually divided by age and there must be a minimum of six dancers in the class to qualify as a Premiership.