How Scottish dances got their names

Posted by | August 1, 2014

Please welcome guest author Jennifer Cox. Cox is an instructor for the West Virginia 4-H Dance Ambassadors. She is also an instructor for the state’s 4-H Music and Dance Weekend, where 400 West Virginia 4-Hers spend a weekend at Jackson’s Mill every March, and learn a variety of types of heritage dancing. Cox has been the coordinator for the heritage dancing at the Vandalia Gathering for the last 20 years.

 

Growing up in rural West Virginia has always been a benefit to me. At the age of nine I joined 4-H and had a 4-H extension agent who was what most would say an ‘eccentric hippy.’  Looking back on that time I consider myself very lucky, because it was through 4-H and the guidance of Jane George that I learned to expand my horizons.

Jennifer Cox leads her highland dancers at the 2014 Vandalia Gathering, Charleston, WV. Photo courtesy WV Division of Culture & History.

Jennifer Cox leads her highland dancers at the 2014 Vandalia Gathering, Charleston, WV. Photo courtesy WV Division of Culture & History.

Jane taught dance groups in several different counties as an extension agent. I was fortunate to be one of those whom she taught to do heritage dancing. Initially she taught me Scottish and Irish dancing, and later folk and square dancing. Along with learning the dances we also learned the heritage, traditions and stories behind them.

As an adult I have tried to keep these dances alive by working through 4-H to reach out and teach what I was taught.

The most interesting part of the dancing, for me, is the stories behind the dances. I would like to share some of that with you, focusing on Scottish dances.

Legends/folklore about Highland (Scottish) dancing

The Highland Fling- a solo dance that was said to be danced upon a shield with a spike in the middle (a Targe). The dance was performed on the ball of the foot due to the spike. For most of the dance the arms are up with the hands making the head and antlers of a stag by putting the thumb and middle finger together (the head) and the three remaining fingers up (the horns). The movement of the feet and turning is said to represent the stag playing. One legend for this dance is that it was a victory dance performed at the end of a battle.

Solo Sword Dance- This dance has different legends. The tune for this dance is Ghillie Callum. The dance dates back to King Malcolm Canmore (Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero against one of Macbeth’s chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054. After winning the battle it was said that he crossed his bloody sword with the sword of the defeated chief and danced.

Scottish postcard illustrating The Sword Dance Ghillie Callum. Collection of Edinburgh University / School of Literature / Language and Cultures / Celtic and Scottish Studies; special acknowledgement to Carol Stubbs of Edinburgh.

Scottish postcard illustrating The Sword Dance Ghillie Callum. Collection of Edinburgh University / School of Literature / Language and Cultures / Celtic and Scottish Studies; special acknowledgement to Carol Stubbs of Edinburgh.

Another legend is that the night before a clan would go into battle, they would pick their best dancer to perform the dance. The sword would be crossed over the sheath (or over another sword). The dancer would then dance the first step around the outside of the sword and sheath and the remainder of the dance would be performed inside the 4 quadrants created by crossing the sheath and sword. The dancer would frequently have their feet in two different quadrants at the same time. The goal of the dancer was to never touch the sword or sheath while dancing. The legend states that if the dancer did touch the sword/sheath that the clan would lose in battle the following day. (Another version of this legend states that the dancer would have an untimely end.)

Blue Bonnet’s Over the Border- This is traditionally a ladies dance. Blue Bonnet is slang for a Scotsman. The dance was said to be a flirting dance to catch the eye of and flirt with a “Blue Bonnet”.

Strathspey & Half Tulloch- One origin of the Reel of Tulloch was said to be: on a cold morning in a church yard while the congregation was waiting on the minister, they whistled a highland tune and began to dance to keep warm.

A more gruesome legend of the dance is that the inhabitants of Tulloch played a game similar to football with the severed head of an enemy and the words of a Gaelic tune tell this story.

Strathspey & Half Tulloch is often used as a party dance and is also a dance that is now done in competitions.

16 Pas de basques and Pas de basques and High Cuts- These are beginner dances that are used to teach the technique and foot placements for two of the most used dance movements.

Seann Triubhas- The title of this dance means old trousers in Gaelic. This dance is said to represent the repeal of the proscription of the kilt by the English. After the failure of the Jacobite uprisings of 1745 the clans were forbidden to wear kilts/tartan. One reason said to be behind this is because the clans could identify their clan/relatives by the design and colors of the tartan. The English wanted to strip them of their identity. The bagpipes were also forbidden because they were an instrument of war. During battles the bagpipes could be used as a means of communication to send signals. If you visit a Scottish Military Museum you will see bagpipes on display. The first part of the dance is mocking the restrictions of the trousers and the second part symbolizes the kicking off of the trousers and putting on of the kilt.

The first part of the Seann Triubhas dance is mocking the restrictions of the trousers and the second part symbolizes the kicking off of the trousers and putting on of the kilt. Image courtesy Stéphane Béguinot

The first part of the Seann Triubhas dance is mocking the restrictions of the trousers and the second part symbolizes the kicking off of the trousers and putting on of the kilt. Image courtesy Stéphane Béguinot

Highland Laddie- Hielan Laddie is the name of an ancient Scottish folk tune. There is also a poem by Robert Burns entitled “Highland Laddie, Highland Lassie”. The tune Highland Laddie was used by the Highland Regiments in the British Army as their regimental march. The dance originated between 1850-1860, and was said to be a tribute to Bonnie Prince Charlie, the “Highland Laddie”.

Argyll Broadswords- This dance is of Military origin and was commonly danced by the Scottish regiments of the army. The dance is usually performed by four dancers around swords that are placed to make a cross. One legend states that it was used as a form of calisthenics by the regiments.

The Sailor’s Hornpipe- This dance mimics a sailor in the Queen’s Navy doing work aboard a ship: hauling rope, sliding on the rollicking deck, and getting his paycheck. This dance is performed in a sailor’s uniform. The music for this dance was played on a hornpipe rather than bagpipes. Hornpipes were very common in those days and are similar to a tin whistle.

Scottish Lilt- National ladies’ dance that is very graceful. The timing of this dance is atypical because it has only six beats per measure. The tune used for this dance is ‘Battle of the Somme’- a World War I battle, fought July 1, 1916. Fifty eight thousand British troops died in this battle.

1749 portrait of Flora McDonald by Allan Ramsay. Courtesy Wikipedia.

1749 portrait of Flora McDonald by Allan Ramsay. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Flora McDonald’s Fancy- This dance is in honor of Flora McDonald who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye, Scotland, during the Jacobite uprising in 1746, so he could flee to France after his defeat in the battle of Culloden. Flora dressed Bonnie Prince Charlie up as her Irish spinning maid, Betty Burke. She was later arrested and for a short time imprisoned in the Tower of London. After the Act of Indemnity was passed in 1747 she was released. She was married in 1750 and then immigrated to North Carolina. She did later return to the Isle of Skye where she died in 1790. Dr. Samuel Johnson, an English essayist, said of her “Her name will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.” This dance is to honor her heroism.

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