What is Scottish Dancing?

There are several forms of Scottish Dancing around today, requiring differing levels of ability and appealing to different sections of the population. Some have been exported all around the world, some are social, some are competetive, some have been lost in Scotland, and are now making their reappearance from the colonies to where they where taken by emigrees. For a quick history of dancing in Scotland, see here. They are all danced to Scotland's wonderful music - reels, jigs and the quintessentially Scottish strathspey - and are all great exercise - they beat a trip to the gym any day!

Most people in Scotland will have been to a ceilidh at some point in their lives. These are taught in schools, danced at weddings and Burns suppers, and if you know where to look, you can generally find one to go to most weeks, at least in the central belt. These dances are fairly simple, a mixture of round the room dances and set dances, and danced purely sociably. The repertoire is limited, there is no formal technique or central authority controlling the dance form, and (a big plus for many people) you can do them when drunk. Indeed, one of the popular regular ceilidhs in Edinburgh, for a very long time, the Caley ceilidh, was run by the Caledonian Brewery until its takeover in 1994. I am told Callum's Ceilidhs at the Wanderer's Rugby Club have now replaced the Caley ceilidh.

Scottish Country Dancing is another matter. This is again mostly sociable, although it is often performed, and there are even occasional competitions (which have a mixed response). Scottish Country Dancing is done in sets, typically of 3, 4 or 5 couples, arranged either in two lines (men facing ladies) or in a square, and involves the dancers dancing a sequence of set formations enough times to bring them back to their starting positions. New dances are being written all the time (Alan Paterson's DanceData database puts the current count at nearly 9500), and the technique is being honed continuously so that at its highest levels it is now an extremely athletic, balletic dance form (not that the majority of social dancers take it as seriously as that...). The level of complexity in the dances has risen greatly from the reels of the 19th century, and even friends who would otherwise drink like fishes keep off the alcohol when dancing - they need their wits about them. SCD is very sociable, and thanks to the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society is sufficiently popular and uniform that an SCD dancer can pack their dance shoes and be welcomed by a local group almost anywhere in the world. I discovered SCD at university, and have been hooked ever since. The extra complexity and technique makes it far more interesting than ceilidh dancing to my mind.

Highland dancing is equally wide-spread, but far more competitive. These dances, such as the Highland Fling, and the Sword Dance, are generally solo performance dances, and are mostly danced competitively (although there are a minority, such as myself, who just learn and dance them for interest and during performances). With the constant pressure of competition, standards are extremely high, and they also enjoy a standardisation through the SOBHD, the SOHDA and the NZAHD (among others) which has allowed their spread throughout the world. As well as the Highland dances, the National dances, such as the Lilt, the Flora and the Blue Bonnets are similar and danced by the same dancers. I'm not enough of an expert to say what the difference is - they all seem to be in a similar vein to me. There are a few dances done by more than one dancer, the Foursome Reel, the Twasome and the Broadswords being three examples.

Cape Breton step dancing is also (I believe) mainly solo dancing. This dance form was lost in Scotland, but preserved in Nova Scotia by the Scottish emigrants, and has recently started making a comeback in Scotland. It is a form of percussive hardshoe dance, similar in sound to the hardshoe Irish dances made popular by Riverdance (though afficianados will probably tell me that's all wrong and the two are nothing like each other). I think it is mainly danced for performance and in sessions like (or with) Scottish music. But I'm not an expert, so I may have got that all wrong.

The final form of dancing, Reeling, is probably the closest form of Scottish dancing to how dances were done 100-150 years ago. It is most popular among the aristocracy and the military, travelling the world with them (but at least until recently, not really spreading much outside those communities). The dancing style is more rolling and less balletic than Scottish Country Dancing, although more defined than ceilidh dancing, and the etiquette of reeling is very different to that of SCD. The reeling repertoire is a subset of the dances enjoyed by Scottish Country dancers.

So there you go - a quick tour of Scottish Dancing today. For more information on any particular dance form, check out the appropriate link:

Or go to the Grand Chain web site, highlights from which include:

Return to the Scottish Dancing in Edinburgh home page.

Last updated 6-08-04 .