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Back To The Future?

By Charlie Mill 25/11/2003

From the inception of what we now recognise as Highland Games, the energy-sapping art of Highland Dancing has been carried out by men and boys - and we are truly indebted to those Scottish games mainly in the north-east of the country for passionately maintaining that license right up to the 1960’s and 70’s - when it was all change - and the women took over!

On today’s dancing platforms the spectator will soon witness that nearly 98% of those taking part are of the female species, with the odd one or two boys perpetuating the age-old tradition.

But if we are to estimate the calibre of excellence that several boy dancers generate today, it augurs for an encouraging renaissance by men over the next decade or so.

So, it is vitally essential that all the stops are pulled out in fostering today’s boy competitors to keep alive the dancing traditions that for centuries have epitomised everything that is Scottish.


It was a shock for everyone when the first female Highland Dancer took to the platforms to do battle with the men. Her name was Jenny Douglas and she made so much of an impact on the scene, dressed exactly as the men, that shortly after other ladies took up the idea and the seed was sewn.

According to some vintage footnotes we have regarding Highland Games of yesteryear, the fairer sex are reported as executing the Shean Truibhais, which is a solo dance characteristically fashioned to suit their technique, elegance and nimbleness.

The graceful deportment of the arms that were so much appreciated when performed by men can further be augmented by the female dancer, especially in the side travel movement during the 2nd Step.

As a matter of interest, the outward brushing movement that takes up most of the opening step was taken from the Scottish ballet “La Sylphide” and was added to the dance by D. G. McLennan in 1908.

In those early years Highland Dancing adjudicators looked sceptically at this “foreign” movement, but little by little it was finally accepted and is now performed by all the many free-thinking organisations world-wide as the acknowledged 1st step!


During today’s packed summer season months of Highland Games the full repertoire of Highland Dancing is executed by women whom, more than often, end up taking the top prizes at each venue.

In those early days eyebrows were raised when women started dancing the Sword Dance, which for many years before was regarded as the ultimate in the prowess of the male in Highland Dancing, who had the power, poise and panache to perform the intricate footwork over the naked blades.

At the time there was concern among the males that women should never be permitted to dance the Sword Dance or even the Hullachan (Reel of Tulloch) on account of them “not being built” for them! But the ladies soon scotched the myth as they performed it brilliantly, and even their High-Cut movements were as full of the aerial gracefulness as the men’s were.

The concept that the females should refrain from dabbling in Highland Dancing evolved from approximately the middle of the 19th century when these dances became fashionable with the Highland regiments - and naturally there were no women in these regiments and none competing in the dancing events at the Highland Games.

When women were eventually allowed to enter these events they were expected to appear in the same cumbersome outfit as their male counterparts - kilt, doublet, plaid and sporran - a vast difference from today’s light-weight outfit that is designed with the dancer’s comfort and ease of movement in mind.


As the popularity of women dancers took hold it soon came about that dances were conceived especially for them - Highland Laddie was one and Scottish Lilt another.

A favourite on today’s dancing platforms is Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, a ladies solo dance in slow 6/8 Jig tempo which originally came from the Western Isles and was revived during the mid-1950’s by Aberdeen dance teacher Isobel “Tibbie” Cramb.

The aforementioned Highland Laddie and Scottish Lilt were fashionable ladies’ solos up until the end of the 19th century. Both were extensively demonstrated and taught by D. G. McLennan and his brother Willie, who themselves were instructed by John McNeil, the renowned Highland Dance teacher from Edinburgh.

Highland Dancing must never be mentioned in the same breath as Scottish Country Dancing. Highland requires a highly technical and exceedingly intricate schedule of practice, patience and perseverance for the student to have any chance of emulating the country’s top soloists.

To reach these heights the budding champions of tomorrow must take up the art about the same time they start primary school!

Even at that early age they will be asked to perform the traditional Highland Dances at the summer Highland Games and also at the many regional indoor competitions that are held on a monthly basis throughout the long winter months.


So it’s not uncommon nowadays to see a wee tot entering for the Highland Fling, Sword Dance, Shean Truibhais, Hullachan, Highland Reel and the Scottish version of a Sailors’ Hornpipe. Although the latter is a truly English dance it gained even more popularity on many games programmes in honour of navy-man the Duke of Edinburgh in the year he married the Queen.

Scottish Country Dancing is a rather simple, but none-the-less enjoyable arrangement of progressive and setting movements in a variety of tempos performed in various patterns by several couples to a social and exhibition level.

In this style of dancing, too, women have played a substantial part in the resurrection of many Scottish Country dances, and innumerable members of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) are ladies who have coached their dance teams to a high standard and taken them “tae a the airts” to demonstrate the grace and elegance of their natural country dances.

So, although we presently have a Highland Dancing world chock-a-block with excellent female entrants I’m sure you’d all agree that it would be oh so enjoyable to see not only a huge increase of boy dancers but that they should carry the art on into manhood and bring today’s scene full circle to recapture glimpses of the days when the men ruled the dancing platforms.

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