The origins of Highland Dancing are shrouded in antiquity, legend--and even the mists of the mountains.
Little academic research has been undertaken into this beautiful and important art form—in part, because very little was recorded, as Highland culture was largely an oral culture, with song and traditions passed down by word of mouth, and part because dance masters passed their steps down to young protégées. As a result, numerous stories abound regarding the source of the dances. Many of the legends are beautiful and inspiring to young dancers.
Here are some generally accepted descriptions.
The Fling is the most famous and oldest of the traditional dances. It is considered by most to be the basic dance of all Highland dancing, demanding excellent poise and control on the part of the dancer. It is said that the dance mimics the antics of a stag on a mountainside. The stag played a major role in the Scotsman's life, providing food, and materials for making weapons. The elevation of the dancer's arms and positioning of the fingers represents the stag's antlers, and the steps, his antics.
Another legend tells of how this dance was done by ancient clansmen and warriors in celebration of victory in battle. When on the battlefield, these men would carry a targe, a small shield for protection from the enemy. Projecting from the center of the targe, there was a five or six inch sharp spike, so when the battle was won, the men would throw the targe down and dance on it in celebration of their victory. One had to be very fleet of foot to carry out this event safely due to the spike, hence the reason why dancers attempt to stay on one spot using close and nimble footwork.
The Sword Dance is also known as the Ghillie Callum. This martial dance has been performed for centuries in Scotland. It is thought by some to represent the triumph of good over evil, with the sword of the victor, held in the right hand, placed over the sword of the vanquished, held in the left. It is regarded as the ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael and is said to date back to 1057 A.D. when King Malcolm Canmore killed MacBeth, (of Shakespearian fame) to reclaim his family’s throne.
One legend relates that the king danced over his bloody claymore (a great two handed sword) and the even bloodier head of his defeated enemy, while other versions say that no head was involved but the King did dance over his own claymore crossed over that of his enemy. In the years that followed, it became common practice for warriors to perform the sword dance prior to a battle. Warriors could expect a victory in an upcoming battle if the dancer completed the dance without touching the crossed swords, so the dance became a predictor of the outcome of battle. Some say that it was noted that if the dancer touched the sword during the dance, this would indicate that he was most likely to be wounded or killed during the next battle.
Following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746, British Parliament passed the Acts of Proscription, which forbade, among other things, Scotsmen from wearing their beloved kilts, and other Scottish Traditions. This humiliation was enforced for forty years until the repeal of the legislation. ‘Seann Triubhas’ means ‘old trousers’ in Scots Gaelic. This dance represents the celebration of the repeal of the Act of Proscription. Highlanders detested the trousers that they were forced to wear and so the dance depicts the shedding of the "trews” during the slower music when the dancer is brushing and shaking in the attempt to kick them off. The final quick steps celebrate joy and the real and symbolic freedom of the kilt. This is not the aggressive dance of the hunter or a warrior, but the deliberate dance of an ecstatic Scot!
This is the Scottish version, and a parody of the Irish Jig. Some say that this is a spoof of the Irish washer-woman and the dancer is portraying how this woman felt when she discovered that some mischievous young boys had dragged her washed clothes off the line and threw everything in the mud. She, of course, had to face redoing all that hard work. She may also have been having a bad day due to the fact that her husband had stopped by the pub to drink and have fun with his friends while she had to stay home to cook and do household chores. He did not show up for dinner - enough to make any wife furious! Having both of those circumstances occur on the same day certainly would call for some very emotional activity in the dance.
As the name suggests, this dance portrays the life and duties of a sailor. Performed in a special ‘sailor’s suit,’ this dance is extremely vigorous and impressive to watch. The dance employs the same basic positions and many of the same movements found in other dances.
As the name suggests, this dance portrays the life and duties of a sailor. This is an ancient dance, common to many parts of the British Isles and was originally accompanied by the music of a "hornpipe", an instrument something like a tin flute. The dance became so popular with seafaring men that it became known as the "sailor's" hornpipe. The costume is based on those worn by Her Majesty's Royal Navy. This is a very old dance and you will see that the dancer is depicting chores that sailors had to do on those ancient sailing ships. To name a few - pulling ropes, climbing the rigging, skipping across the slippery deck, splicing the mainbrace and serving as lookout.
The Village Maid is a flirtatious dance allegedly first performed on a table by a young serving woman in a pub. Designed for ladies, the steps in this dance are more flowing and graceful in nature than the strong and vigorous Highland dances.
It is unusual in that it involves very little hopping, and requires the dancer to step on the flat foot - most other National and Highland dances employ a significant amount of hopping and are done on the ball of the foot.
Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border
The traditional hat of Scotland is often said to the Tam O’Shanter or Bonnet. Traditionally, all Scottish bonnets were blue, based on the natural dyes that were available. As the blue bonnets were often worn by Highlanders riding off to war, they soon became associated with traditional military dress, especially during the Jacobite rebellions. The Blue Bonnets, as they became known, were amongst the most successful of Jacobite Regiments, especially when it came to "taking on" the English when they would cross over the border into Scotland and wreak havoc, during the rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie. This is a dance that depicts a young woman trying to flirt and catch the attention of a ‘blue bonnet’.
It has been suggested that the Scottish Lilt is a courting dance that was performed by Scottish gentlewomen to show how graceful they could be. It is a combination of the Highland and Ballet forms of dance. For this dance, the ladies wear the more feminine Aboyne outfit. This dress originates from the Aboyne Highland Games in Scotland where, to this day, the wearing of the kilt is strictly forbidden for women. Only men are allowed to wear the kilt.
Flora MacDonald’s Fancy
In the 1700's the House of Stuart lost the British throne to the House of Hanover. This angered many Scots who wanted to have their own king on the throne. They wanted Prince Charles Stuart who was in exile in France, so they gathered the clans and brought Charles to Scotland to reclaim the throne. Unfortunately, he was defeated by the English at Culloden in 1746 and had he been captured by the English, would have been hung, drawn and quartered. This dance is performed in honour of Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye following the massacre at Culloden in 1746. Disguising him as her maid, Flora was able to see to it that the Prince escaped safely to France. Legend has it that Flora fell in love with Prince Charlie, and she danced this dance for him high on a hill as his boat set off for France.
Soldiers are thought to have created the dance during the First World War. The dance is performed to the famous tune of the same name. In 1881, Highland Regiments throughout the British Army adopted ‘Highland Laddie’ as their Regimental March (‘theme song of the Regiment’) ‘in compliance with official decree’. Highland Laddie is the most common of the Regimental Marches—being used by such Regiments as The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and the 48th Highlanders of Canada.
Scotch Measure can either be danced as a solo dance or as a partner dance, in which case it is called the ‘Twa Some’. The male dancer would wear his kilt, and the female dancer the Aboyne or white dress. The steps of the Scotch Measure are supposed to depict Scottish courtship rituals.
Wilt Thou Go to the Barracks Johnnie?
The ‘Barracks’ is thought to have been a recruiting dance for the army. A recruiting officer would use a dancer to attract people to his recruiting station or use the dancer for entertainment while in a village. The steps and movements represent the strength, agility, and determination a soldier would gain while going through basic training. Another legend says that the Johnny was a test for new soldiers. If he could complete this physically demanding dance without tiring, then he was fit enough to fight in battle. The dance is performed to such pipe tunes as Braes o’ Mar or The Barren Rocks of Aden.
Earl of Errol
The Earl of Errol is almost certainly based on an 18th-century Irish-style hard shoe dance, although Highland dancers today perform it in the usual soft-soled ghillies. The steps were choreographed for the Earl of Errol, a small town in Aberdeenshire.
There are several types of ‘group’ dances performed by Highland Dancers. They include:
Strathspey and Half Tulloch;
Strathspey and Highland Reel;
Strathspey and Highland Reel and Half Tulloch.
A Strathspey is performed by four dancers, initially beginning in a line, and dancing a ‘figure of eight’—although the formation actually uses three loops--to a suitable strathspey tune, such as The Marquis of Huntly’s Highland Fling. A quicker Highland Reel (using the same formation) or Tulloch (with dancers taking turns doing steps and turning with linked arms) follows the Strathspey.
The Reel of Tulloch or Hullachan (performed to the tune of the same name) refers to a dance performed outside a cottage. This Reel is thought to have originated in the Churchyard, where on a cold winter's Sunday a Minister was late for his service-- parishioners tried to keep warm by clapping their hands and stamping their feet.