History of some Scottish Highland Dances

August 1, 2015

The Highland Fling
This is the oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland.According to tradition, the old kings and chiefs of Scotland used the Highland Dances as a way of choosing the best men for their men at arms. These dances tested a warrior’s strength, stamina, accuracy, and agility.
The ancient warriors and clansmen performed this dance on the small round shield (called a targe), which they carried into battle. Most shields (Targes) had a sharp 5 to 6 inche steel spike projecting from the centre, so dancers learned early to move with great skill and dexterity – a false or careless step could be more than a little painful.

It is said the dance was inspired by the capers of the stag – the dancers upraised arms representing the animal’s antlers. Danced vigorously with great exuberance , it is now highly stylised and calls for the great skill in technique and exactness of timing.

It has become the classic solo dance at modern competitive dancing events, and competitions to decide who will be judged the best Highland dancer of the day.

Sailor’s Hornpipe Originally a Celtic dance, is one of the traditional solo dances of the British Isles. The costume worn is based on a British seaman’s uniform. The name originally comes from a crude English folk wind instrument made from either wood or ox horn and was common through out Great Britain in the 1700’s. . With the limited space aboard ships, it became popular with sailors.

If you watch the dancer’s steps you can clearly see that the steps relate to naval activities, such as climbing the ropes, hauling in the anchor, searching for land, saluting the captain, etc

The Seann Triubhas, the literal translation from Gaelic means “old trousers”.

This dance is said to date from the rebellion of 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie challenged the might of England at Culloden, and lost. As a penalty, Highlanders were forbidden to wear the kilt.

Seann Triubhas is a dance of celebration developed in response to the repealing by the English of the Act of Proscription in 1747, which restored to the Scots the right to wear their kilts and play the bagpipes once more.

The first part of the dance comprising of graceful, flowing movements, is supposed to mock the restrictions imposed by the foreign trousers, while the movement of the second part clearly depict the legs defiantly shaking and shedding the hated trousers and returning to the freedom of the kilt. The dance then progresses from slow time to quick time as the final celebration of the rediscovered freedom.

The Sword Dance There is no Highland Dance older or better known than the Sword Dance, or Ghillie Callum.

The Sword Dance is the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore (Shakespear’s MacBeth).

Tradition says the original Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero of mortal combat against one of MacBeth’s Chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054.

He is said to have crossed his own bloody claymore (the two-handed broadsword of Scotland) and crossed it over the bloodier sword of the defeated Chief and danced over them both in exultation.

This dance became a tradition among the highland warriors, and so in subsequent battles, clansman would cross their swords and dance around them in the same way.

In addition to being a test of skill and agility, it was believed that if they could complete the dance without touching the swords, it was a good omen that they would be victorious in the coming battle. However to touch or displace the swords was a bad omen – an indication of losses or even defeat.

There are many variations of the sword dance around today but they do have common features

· The dance is performed over or around 2 crossed swords (although 3, 4 or even 8 swords are sometimes used )
· The dance normally starts with a slow strathspey followed by quick time reel
· The dancer normally travels anticlockwise round the sword

The dance performed at the Highland Games today typically comprises 1 dancer performing over 2 crossed swords and includes 2 or 3 slow steps followed by 1 or 2 quick steps and focuses on technical accuracy and the precise placing of the feet.

Whereas the dance seen in exhibitions tends to be performed at a much faster pace and where completion of the dance without inflicting self injury necessitates appropriate placing of the feet and rapid body turns and as a result is an extremely exciting visually display.

In the first step the dancer performs the steps outside the sword or “addresses” the sword. Subsequent steps are danced over the crossed blades, but notice that once inside the blades, the dancer never dances with his back turned to the swords – only a fool would turn his back on a weapon. It requires tremendous dexterity not to displace the swords.

It is worthy of note that the Sword Dance is unique in Scottish Dance in that it is comprise almost entirely of only one movement – the pas de basque. All other movements provide a supporting role.


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