Dancing at the Auld Cale:

A history of highland dancing in Dunedin, New Zealand, between 1863 and 1900.

By Miss S O’Donnell, BA(hons), MAHND

My full dissertation is divided into five chapters and is approximately 20,000 words. This essay is a summary of chapter three which was an examination into the nature of highland dancing at the Dunedin Caledonian games. The first Dunedin Caledonian games were held in 1862 but it was only in 1863 that the local newspapers recorded the various events and placings. No other extensive records have survived so the importance of those newspaper reports to this study can not be stressed enough.

Prior to 1908 there were no other competitive platforms available to Dunedin highland dancers other than the various Caledonian games around the region. In Dunedin itself the annual Caledonian games were popular events that could attracted up to 14,000 spectators, a reasonable percentage of Dunedin’s total population at any given time. Spectators attending the Caledonian games came from various backgrounds, not just Scottish. No doubt some of these new comers would have had little knowledge or appreciation of the Scottish arts. It seems fortunate therefore that the highland dancing was able to occupy a ‘prominent position’ and excited ‘considerable interest’.[1] Newspaper reporters treated the dancing as a highly skilled activity often praising the dancers for their skill and agility. Highland dancing however, was still no match for the extremely popular athletics and wrestling and often felt the sting of marginalisation with in it’s own games. This sting presented itself often in the form of prize money which was always less than that won by athletes, wrestlers and pipers. Newspaper reports frequently reminded readers that it was the track and field events that pulled in the crowds but evidence does suggest that the dancing was at least more popular than the piping which was staged away from the main stand as not to offend those ‘who had a liking for more civilised music than that of the bagpipe’.[2]

There is very little evidence about what music accompanied the dances. The only comment in the newspapers about musical accompaniment suggested that the individual dancers could choose there preferred instrument and that it was not unusual for a dancer to pick something other than the bagpipes. Only one reference to an actual tune can be found and that in itself is confusing. The tune was ‘Drops of Brandy’ and the time signature was 9/8 yet the dance was a hornpipe. Perhaps the dance was a ‘hornpipe jig’ rather than a sailors hornpipe which was the more common hornpipe danced at the Caledonian games. A strong connection between the dancing and the piping existed and most dancers were also pipers. Frequently a dancers name would drop out of the highland dancing prize lists only to resurface under the piping events. A common attitude amongst many competitive pipers and dancers of the time was that highland dancing was subordinate to bagpiping and that ‘to be a good dancer was almost as good as being a piper’.[3] It was therefore common to see many young and promising dancers move on to piping with relative ease and one would suspect little regret.

The dances that were performed at the Caledonian games between 1863 and 1900 were very consistent. The core dances that appear regularly in the newspaper reports from 1863 onwards were the Highland Reel, Highland Fling, Sword Dance, and Seann Triubhas. By the later 1860’s the Sailor’s Hornpipe and Irish Jig also became regular features. The Reel O’Tulloch also made consistent appearances, although there was the occasional year where it was not recorded in the newspapers. The Highland Reel was also referred to as the Grand Highland Reel in some newspaper records but it was the only dance that was accorded this privilege. Whether this was just an addition to the name by the reporter or a more official title is hard to ascertain. Other names used to describe dances include the use of Ghille Callum to describe the Sword Dance. There is no doubt that both terms refer to the same dance, but the term Sword Dance is more frequent than Ghille Callum in the newspaper reports. The Seann Triubhas is on one occasion called “auld breeks” no doubt referring to its association with the banning of the kilt after Culloden.[4]. In the newspaper report for 1869 the name of the dance is described thus:

For the mysterious Seanntreus (a word that no Englishman, nor, for the matter of that, very few Scotchmen, understand, but which is, nevertheless, is the name of a Gaelic dance) there were 3 entries….[5]

The Highland Fling keeps its name consistently through out the period and is even once referred to as a ‘world-renowned Scottish national dance’.[6]

In 1867 another dance, the Clog Hornpipe, makes an appearance at the games. A Hornpipe section was held that year in which three dancers competed. Two chose to dance the Sailor’s Hornpipe and were placed first and second respectively. The third, and unplaced, competitor danced a Clog Hornpipe. There is no description of this dance, so what the dance looked like is a mystery. Clog dancing styles, to which the Clog Hornpipe belonged, were products of the 18th century stage. This form of clog dancing involved ‘set sequences of movements…usually repeated in the same order by a dancer each time they danced’ and were popular throughout England and the Lowlands of Scotland.[7] However each dance could vary from one dancer to another and local variations often arose.[8] What style of ‘Clog Hornpipe’ was performed in 1867 at the Caledonian games is therefore almost impossible to tell. Neither was it the only time a clog dance was performed because a dance simply titled ‘Clog Dance’ also appeared in the 1884 Dunedin Caledonian games in an open section where the dancers could chose their own dance[1]. In England and Lowland Scotland it was not unusual for dance masters to have a repertoire of highland dances and clog dances. Formal competitions for clog dancing were just as common has highland competitions in the late 19th century. [9] Like the solo highland dances, the clog dances of the 19th century also made the journey to New Zealand, where eventually a couple of examples were danced at the Caledonian games. Unfortunately they never became regular features of the competition. The 1867 Hornpipe section is the only dance section that Mr Palmer, the gentleman who performed the Clog Hornpipe, danced in and there are no reports of him competing in subsequent years, perhaps explaining why the Clog Hornpipe as a dance was only ever mentioned once. The ‘Clog Dance’, performed in 1884, was also only recorded as occurring that one time The clog dancing tradition, however, has not been lost at New Zealand highland dancing competitions. Two possible descendants of the clog dancing tradition exist today and are performed by highland dancers around New Zealand. One Clog dance that is included in the Medal test syllabus of the New Zealand Academy of Highland and National dancing is the Melbourne Clog. In the syllabus we are told that:

The Melbourne Clog is one of the popular step dances from the clog dancing group…It has been a popular concert and festival dance and is performed to its own music, “The Melbourne Clog”.[10]

Another clog dance, performed by highland dancers, although not a dance with a strict technique or covered by the Piping and Dancing Association rules, is the Waltz Clog. This dance is usually performed by girls, although some boys do learn it too.

In the early newspaper reports judges were often mentioned by name, in connection with the various dancing events. Although this had stopped by 1871, a general impression can be gained. All of the judges, with the exception of an Irish Jig judge, Mr J. Copeland, in 1863, were listed as Caledonian games committee members.[11] The qualifications needed to be a judge are unclear, but there are many indications that they were knowledgeable about the dances and clear on what they were looking for. For instance in 1867 one judge, a Mr Bain, danced ‘not as a competitor, but with a skilfulness which might have entitled him to a first prize’ in a demonstration after the Hornpipe section.[12] Clearly this judge had a good knowledge of what it meant to be a dancer. The judges also had comments recorded by the newspaper reporters which indicate the presence of guidelines when judging dances. The Sword dance is a dance that often required comment. For instance we know that touching the swords would disqualify a dancer no matter how well he was dancing.[13] We also know that the judges could insist on a dance being performed in a particular way. An example of this can be found in 1869 during a Sword Dance.

It had been arranged that this dance should be performed in its purity on this occasion, and that simply dancing round the swords, instead of over them and inside their angles, should not be allowed.[14]

Judging was also done in panels, usually of three or four, although the method for deciding on the winner was never explained. It would appear that it was based on consensus rather than a point system, because such a system did not come into being until 1899 and then only in relation to the piping.[15]

Some interesting highland dancing events that became more popular over the 1863 to 1900 period deserve comment. Firstly, there was the appearance of the Challenge Dance 16 and under, which was performed from 1872 to 1875[16]. In 1872 the first boys’ event was held as well. These are notable for two reasons. They indicate the first time an event was restricted to a particular age group and they lead on to other more general categories for Adults and Youth alike. In 1878, on the third day of the games, an event open to all, where the dancers chose their own dance, was held.[17] This idea was repeated again in 1880, 1884, and 1894.[18] The newspaper reports even tell us what dances were chosen, so that for 1894 we know that the first and second place-getters danced a Seann, but the third place-getter chose the Highland Fling. As the Caledonian games matured more general sections were added such as All-round Excellent or General Excellence sections in Dance. However, what is more interesting is the development of age categories in many events so that adults, teenagers and children were slowly separated out. At first this started off with general sections for children, 16 and under, and youths. Although ‘youth’ is not defined in the newspaper reports, one has the impression that the term, first used in 1882, replaced that of 16 and under.[19] In 1891 a General Excellence section for boys specifically labelled 10 years and under was first held and in 1892 an Under 12 Best All-round section was also held, expanding the age groups even more. [20] The first specific dance to have an age requirement was in 1889 when a Highland Fling for Adults was held.[21] This did not occur again until 1892 when Highland Reels for boys 10 years and under started to be held.[22] The term adult is most likely to mean 17 years and over, if youth means 16 years and under. A logical explanation for the increasing diversity of age groups towards the end of the 19th century was the increasing number of dancers learning and competing as children. By this stage many of the new competing dancers would have been young children born in New Zealand, rather than adults immigrating from Scotland. This no doubt brought an increase in the number of children competing and required changes in the structure to accommodate them. This also indicates that, once here, the Scots were teaching their dance forms to children of young ages, perpetuating the traditions of their homeland.

Costume for highland dancing competitors was usually the kilt, but it would seem that its wearing was not always compulsory. Before 1872 only the Highland Fling was listed as requiring the wearing of highland costume. By 1872 four different dances included the words ‘in highland costume’ in the title.[23] From that year on, these words were selectively added to the names of some of the highland events, although it was not until 1896 that the first Irish Jig in costume was held.[24] It seems that the wearing of the kilt was a source of concern for some at the Dunedin Caledonian games, because in some years ‘kilts were conspicuous by their absence’.[25] The compulsory wearing of the Scottish garb in some events was perhaps an attempt to remedy this. Certainly the wearing of the kilt was seen as a significant and special thing.

How novel it is today to see the descendants of the heroes of history standing hob-nobbing at the bar of a grand stand booth, each with his bosom swelling with patriotism and each possibly imbued with ideas peculiar to his country and his creed, - but the one showing his love of country and of kin in his garb, the other dressed soberly and methodically in the fashion of the period.[26]

The Scottish garb was clearly a point of pride and added to the spectacle of the highland dances. It was important enough to warrant its own competition event, ‘best dressed in Highland Costume’, at the Caledonian games. The Otago Daily Times recorded such an event as early as 1863, at the second Caledonian games held.[27] From that point on the event became, not so much a regular, but a consistent part of the programme at the games. The first Sailor’s Hornpipe in highland costume is recorded in 1874, only two years after the first highland event was listed ‘in costume’.[28] In contrast, the first Irish Jig in costume did not occur until 1895.

Finally, what type of rules, if any, can we make out from the newspaper reports concerning highland dancing at the Dunedin Caledonian games? One that we have already encountered is the disqualification rule if the swords are touched when dancing. Another interesting one is what appears to be rules on Highland Reels and Reel O’Tulloch’s where dancers are needed to ‘make up’. As Reels need four people, when the number of dancers entered do not divide neatly into four, dancers must be found to ‘make up’ the numbers, although they are not judged while doing so. Today a system of drawing lots is used to decide if any dancers need to dance twice, once as a competitor and once as a make up. However, it appears that at the Caledonian games a system of asking non-competing dancers to volunteer to ‘make up’ was used. The Reel events were also held, even when the entries numbered less than four, unlike today were the dance is changed to become a solo highland dance. An example of this rule in effect can be found in the newspaper report of 1878 when in the Grand Highland Reel for boys in costume ‘J. Caldwell was the only competitor, three adults joining to make up the event’. The judges had the right to not award Caldwell first although that day they recommended that he ‘should be awarded the prize’.[29] This again varies with judging practices of today where all prizes must be awarded, as stated in the programme, except in particular cases, such as the novice Fling, where a judge has the right not to award a first. Judges also had the right to recall dancers if they could not come to a decision. This practice is still common at New Zealand highland dancing competitions today. This occurred in 1869 when in an Irish jig the dancers were asked by the judges to dance twice as they ‘found them too close to make a decision first time round’. [30]

This summary is a brief look at some of the data that I collected on 19th century highland dancing in a competitive environment. What it hasn’t covered is the origins of highland dancing in New Zealand, the development of technique, non-competitive highland dancing, the issue of gender and the issue of invented traditions. If anyone wants to know more about these issues then you can privately E-mail me. If anyone wishes to comment on any aspect of the data then they are welcome to but remember be nice to me I’ve had a hard day!



[1] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1874

[2] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1880

[3] E. Entwistle, History of the Gaelic Society, 1881 - 1981, Dunedin, 1981, p. 79

[4] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1878

[5] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1869

[6] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1869

[7] J.F. and T.M. Flett, Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland, Edinburgh, 1996, p.40

[8] Ibid., p.43

[9] Ibid., pp.41-42

[10] New Zealand Academy of Highland and National Dancing, Medal Tests, Junior Gold and Gold Star, Edition 1, 1988, p. 3

[11] Otago Daily Times, 6 January 1863

[12] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1867

[13] Otago Daily Times, 7 January 1868

[14] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1869

[15] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1899

[16] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1872, 1873, 1874, 4 January 1875

[17] Otago Daily Times, 7 January 1878

[18] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1880, 1884, 1894

[19] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1882

[20] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1891, 2 January 1892

[21] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1889

[22] Otago Daily Times, 2 January 1892

[23] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1872

[24] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1895

[25] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1874

[26] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1869

[27] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1863

[28] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1874

[29] Otago Daily Times, 3 January 1878

[30] Otago Daily Times, 4 January 1869


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