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Scottish Traditional Dance | Celtic Cultural Minute

Scottish country dancing at the 2005 Skagit Valley Highland Games in Mount Vernon, Washington.
James F. Perry
CC BY 3.0, Via Wikimedia Commons
Scottish country dancing at the 2005 Skagit Valley Highland Games in Mount Vernon, Washington.

It’s September, and that means that Bethlehem’s Celtic Classic is only a few weeks away. We’ll spend September learning a wee bit more about some of what you’ll find at the Festival.

Naturally, there’ll be lots of glorious music… but there’ll be dancing, as well, much of it Scottish traditional dance, in all its many forms.

If you’re ready to put some Scots in your steps, Ceilidh dancing is a great start. Ceilidh dances happen anywhere people get together and celebrate, from kitchens to halls, from weddings to festivals, on bridges and at the crossroads. Ceilidh is an enjoyable social dance style, and the Ceilidh band and your fellow dancers will quickly teach you the simple steps to popular dances like Gay Gordons, Strip the Willow or the Dashing White Sergeant.

Scottish Country Dancing is social dancing as well, but a bit more complex and formal than Ceilidh. In the 1700s, Country Dances were held in grand, elegant halls, attended by prosperous members of society. The steps were influenced by dance styles of the day, from traditional Scottish reels to French Quaddrilles. Dancers step lightly in sets to jigs and reels, polkas, waltzes and hornpipes. Several couples start, either in two lines or a square. The dancers move through a set of intricate patterns enough times to bring them back to their opening positions.

Highland Dancing is a high-energy, highly athletic and disciplined solo dance style, offered in performance and in competition. Its roots go back to the 11th century, to early Highland Games where warriors competed before kings and clans. Highland Dancing is said to be one of the ways that the men showcased their strength, stamina, and agility.

The competitive Highland Dancing that dazzles us today developed during the re-discovery and romanticizing of the Highland culture by Victorian Britain in the 1800s. As time passed, the style became more refined, almost ballet-like. Accompanied by traditional bagpiping, it requires strength and stamina to perform the jumps, high leaps, and intricate arm and foot work with both balance and grace

Some of the better-known dances are the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, and Seann Triubhas. The Highland Fling is an exuberant dance of victory in battle, once danced on the warrior’s upturned shield with its sharp spike in the center.

The Sword Dance, or Gillie Callum, has many stories. One has it that King of the Scots, Malcolm Canmore celebrated a great victory by crossing his opponent’s sword with his own, and danced over them both, unscathed. Another tale is that warriors would dance the Sword Dance before going into battle. If the warrior’s foot touched the swords, woe was he, as he was sure to be injured or die in the coming battle.

The lovely and difficult dance called Seann Triubhas, or Old Trousers, harks back to the 1745 uprising in Scotland, when the Highlander clans supported Bonnie Prince Charlie’s bid to become ruler of both England and Scotland. Despite early victories, the clans were brutally defeated at the Battle of Culloden, and terrible punishments meted out by Britain, which forbade the wearing of the kilt, playing of the bagpipe and other Highland traditions for nigh on 40 years. The slow, graceful steps that start Seann Triubhas give way to a lively, quick end as the dancer shows their joy at discarding the detested foreign trousers and once again dancing freely in their Highlands kilt.

For Celtic Cultural Alliance, this is Kate Scuffle. Slainte.

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.
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