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Highland Dancing History

By Charlie Mill 16/07/2002

For pure vitality and pleasure in movement there is nothing to compare with Highland Dancing. Originating in rituals of various kinds, preparations for battle and celebrating after victory, it is an observance and demonstration of male strength and physical fitness. What better sight lifts the heart of the Scot than the sound of the highland bagpipes accompanying a kilted dancer, swaying and pirouetting in motion to the strains of traditional airs.

The pictures conjured up in the minds of the many visitors to the various games are soon brought to life when the contestants take to the dancing platforms and a mass of colour is expressed in the many shades of the beautiful and varied clan tartans.

It is only through many years of hard work and constant practice that the dancer can execute to perfection the many Highland Dances known throughout the world, as soon as Scottish dancing is mentioned – the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Reel O’ Tulloch, etc.

The traditional dances you will see performed today have been passed, by action and word of mouth, down through the centuries with the aid of the many dancing masters who have made the interpretation of today’s steps a reality. Most of today’s dances were born of legend and all owe their conception to the many tales supposed to have been derived from the crofters and townsfolk of yester-year.

History informs us that the oldest of the dances is the Gillie Callum or Sword Dance, which dates from as far back as 1054 and owes its origin to a bloody duel during which Malcolm Canmore, the Celtic Prince, slew one of Macbeth’s chiefs. Taking his victim’s claymore and crossing it with his own on the ground, so making the Sign of the Cross, Malcolm Canmore danced over and around the naked blades with the ecstasy of victory. It was also supposed to have been danced before a battle and, if the dancer completed the dance without touching the swords with his feet, the omens were auspicious! This explanation is more plausible, as the chief art of today’s exponents consists in the dexterity with which the dancer escapes touching one or more of the crossed swords.

The Seann Truibhas (Gaelic for torn trousers) originated after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising when, as part of a campaign to repress Scottish Nationalism, the wearing of the kilt was forbidden. The Seann Truibhas was performed in trews, which were so unpopular throughout the Highlands that many of the movements and steps in this most elegant dance illustrate the dancers’ disapproval at having to wear “trousers” instead of their beloved kilt and his subsequent attempts to kick them off. The quick steps are a display of pleasure in their abolition some years later.

Prominent among the other Highland Dances is the Highland Fling. Although no definite date has been established for its inception it is considered to emanate from around the late 18th century. Legend claims that the dance derived from an old shepherd who was sitting on the side of a hill giving his grandson bagpipe lessons on the chanter. Witnessing a stag pirouetting a short distance away the old man asked the youngster if he could attempt to imitate the noble animal. The lad tried and succeeded – hence the steps and the graceful curve of the arms and hands, depicting the stag’s antlers combined in the human body. Another tale states that it was originally danced on a Targe or Shield – this presumably accounts for the precise stepping on the one spot!

The Reel of Tulloch originated within the four walls of a church in the wee village of Tullich near Ballater in Aberdeenshire in quite a different manner. On a cold and wintry Sunday morning the congregation awaited the arrival of the minister who, through no fault of his own, was late for the service. In order to keep themselves warm, the kirk members began to dance with each other and swing themselves by the arms. Little did they realise that they were laying down the foundation movements for the popular dance we know today as the Reel of Tulloch, whose version today shows the same character and spirit of that bygone age.

Many of the steps connected with Highland Dancing came originally from the French courts, possibly through the influence of Mary, Queen of Scots and the gentlemen of Scotland who served in the bodyguard of the King of France.

Until quite recently Highland Dancing was a key part of the physical training programmes for many of the Highland Regiments. In place of much of the callisthenics, obstacle courses, etc., that are so much a part of modern army life, the Scots would daily participate in a sustained series of Reels, Flings, and Sword Dances to the accompaniment of their own pipers, a test of endurance for any man.

Highland Dancing has been kept alive by the teaching of youngsters to carry on the tradition throughout the United Kingdom, the New World and the Commonwealth countries in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. There have been no better ambassadors of Highland Dancing than the soldiers of her Majesty’s Scottish regiments who have been excellent ambassadors in the field and have assisted greatly in “spreading the word” to most of the earth’s countries, making it the best-known form of national dancing in the world!

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