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By Charlie Mill

Have you ever wondered where the idea of holding competitions in Highland Dance started?

Where were the first competitions held and where?

Historians believe that the first professional Highland piping and dancing competitions were held in Scotland in 1781, nearly 225 years ago. In these very early competitions the dancing was introduced as entertainment between the piping events and the dancers, themselves, were pipers.

It wasn’t until 1787 that dancers who were not pipers began to dance in earnest. There was no prize money for the dancers at that time even though the audience often enjoyed the dancing more than the piping.

It took until 1795 for the dancers to be given prize money and even then it was a lot less than the pipers. All dancers were men! Women wouldn’t compete until the early 20th century!

The competitions were organised very differently to today. Dancers would perform a day or two before the piping competitions to a panel of judges who would vote for the dancers they liked best.

Those dancers, the prize winners, then got to dance at the piping competitions and very good dancers danced more than once. Old judging sheets that have survived have some interesting comments on them such as, “takes too big a reel” or “dances too high”. A very good dancer would be described as “capital”.

Dancers wore kilts although some people worried that the exposed limbs of a dancer in a kilt might be “highly offensive to every lady of correct taste and feeling”. In other words, the ladies might not like seeing the dancers’ legs! Instead of pumps, dancers wore hard shoes!

In the beginning there was no Seann Truibhas, Sword Dance or Highland Fling. At these very first competitions the only type of dance performed was the Highland Reel. It must be remembered, however, that even though we think of the Highland Reel as being a foursome dance, these early competitions also included threesome reels. Sometimes other dances were “tried out” but if they proved unpopular they did not survive as competition dances.

These included Mc an Fhorsair (a sword dance), the Dirk Dance, and the Twasome Strathspey. Just think, if these dances had proved more popular you might have been dancing them at competitions today! Some new dances did prove to be popular – can you guess what they were?

The Reel of Tulloch was a more popular dance. It was first performed at a competition in 1829 and later became a regular event. The Gillie Callum or Sword Dance, akin to the dance that is performed today, was first danced in 1832. The dance proved so popular that only the best pipers were allowed to play for it!

The Highland Fling was introduced in the early 1840s and was probably a dance made up of various steps used in the Highland Reel. It is even possible that the Highland Fling was not a “Highland” dance in origin but was put together by a teacher of Scottish dancing from London. It must have been popular though because like the Reel of Tulloch and the Sword Dance the Fling is still danced today!


  • Only adult men danced at the early competitions. Junior competitors only started to appear in the middle of the 19th century (1850's).

  • Unlike today, dancers were not required to dance the first step of the Sword Dance – around the outside and the remainder inside the swords. This once caused an overseas competition society to ask, in 1869, for dancers to refrain from just dancing all their steps around the outside of the swords!

  • The bagpipes were not always the instrument of choice for dancers to perform to. Often an instrumental band provided the music.

  • To touch or move the sword meant instant disqualification!

  • If a Foursome Reel did not have four competitors, audience members who could dance would “make up” the numbers!

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