A very short history of Scottish country dancing & Ceilidhing

Scottish country dancing in roughly the form that we know it has been around since at least the 1700s.


Nowadays the version for non experts and those who want to have a really fun evening is referred to by its Celtic name of Ceilidh. This sticks to the kinds of dance that non experts can learn on the night and enjoy dancing, going as wild as they like! The Scottish Country Dance, or Reeling Event, is reserved for dances for experienced dancers do the more complex dances. People have to have been to dancing classes or been brought up in the Scottish dance tradition to be able to do this. Our Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band can play for either kind of dance. (Someitmes we do Ceilidh dances for the everyone, experienced or not, to enjoy then do a few Strathspeys and othe difficult dances just for the experts. If it is purely a Scottish Ceilidh that is wanted, our Ringerike Ceilidh Band can play a Scottish repertoire and include the easy to do dances.


The very term country dancing is thought not necessarily to come from the concept of “country”. Some people say that the term originates from contrapassi which was a type of Italian dance of the 17th century. An alternative view is that the term originates from contra dance meaning, not surprisingly, to dance opposite someone. Whatever the origin of the term, it is reasonably clear that what we now call “set dances” were taking place in Scotland in the 1700s.

However times were different then and many people took a different view of dancing. In particular, the Church of Scotland promoted laws in the 1600s and again early in the 1700s prohibiting what they considered to be so-called “promiscuous dancing”, in other words the outrageous idea of ladies dancing with men.


Nevertheless eventually the dancing prevailed over the religious restrictions - in fact it is said that one of the popular dance tunes at that time was a reel called “De’il Stick Da Minister”, which clearly says something about how the church’s views might have been seen by the populace. By the 1720s dancing was becoming more common again, both in in the society of the upper classes and in the lives of working people in the lower echelons of society. Dances used traditional folk music from Scotland, usually using fiddles as musical accompaniment, and although the most common form of dance originally was the reel, many other forms were gradually introduced from other countries. The gradual evolution of dances across a country where in those days communications and travel were not as easy as they are today led to the development of significant variation in tunes and dance steps. For example a common dance such as Strip the Willow has many different manifestations these days, depending on which part of Scotland they come from.

In 1923 the Scottish country dance society was founded in Glasgow and aimed to preserve the traditions of Scottish country dance. The society collected and published dances which had been popular in previous centuries and began to bring together dances that had fallen into this use. This led to a substantial degree of standardisation of the dances used. Scottish country dancing has extended a long way beyond Scotland and active societies can now be found elsewhere in Britain and all over the world including Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.


Scottish country dancing should not be confused with Highland dancing which is a different discipline dating back at least to the sixteenth century. Highland dancing normally involves solo performances - some have described it as more like a sport than a social activity - and well-known examples are sword dancing and the Highland Fling. However it is not unknown for some of the steps to be common between the two disciplines.


In the music for Scottish country dances, phrases have varied lengths to fit with the dancers but mostly figures are 2, 4 or 8 bars long. The figures being danced vary from very simple things such as partners changing places across the set and changing back again to much more complicated movements which might involve more than one couple at the same time. The figures are combined together to give a sequence of a given number of bars in the music - usually 32 to but occasionally 16, 48, 64 or another number. The whole sequence is then repeated a number of times which usually means that each couple gets a turn to dance in each position in the formation. Quite often dances can be described by their music type and the number of bars in each sequence, for example a 32-bar reel or a 48-bar strathspey.


In Scottish country dancing the participants are organised in sets, often with three, four or five couples arranged either into lines with men facing women or in a square or circle shape. The dancers carry out a sequence of moves which move the couples around into new positions and usually the dance is repeated sufficient times for everybody to return to their starting position. 

There are thousands of documented and well-known Scottish country dances and new ones are being added all the time. However, some of the best known which are regularly danced at Burns Nights and New Year ceilidhs include these:


The Dashing White Sergeant: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


The De’il Among The Tailors: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


The Duke of Perth: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band only

The Eightsome Reel: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band only


Flowers Of Edinburgh: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band only


The Gay Gordons: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


The Haymakers: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


The Irish Rover: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


Jack’s the Lad: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


Mairi’s Wedding: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band only


Petronella: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band only


The Reel of The 51st: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band only


St Bernard’s Waltz: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


Strip The Willow: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


The Virginia Reel: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


Wee Willie: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


Wild Geese: with  Ceilidh Idealach Scottish Ceilidh Band or Ringerike Ceilidh Band


Reels are considered to be traditional Scottish dances dating back centuries and there is also a dance called the Strathspey which is very distinctly and uniquely Scottish. However Scottish ceilidhs will also frequently include other dances such as polkas, hornpipes and jigs. An understandable mistake is to think that the partner dance called the “Schottishe” is “Scottish” but in fact this type of dance originated in Bohemia and became popular in Victorian times, when Bohemian dances were very fashionable. There is actually a Scottish version of the Schottische, the Highland Schottische, which combines the common schottische with the more traditional reel.


During the 20th century traditional music and dancing seemed to have been in decline somewhat as jazz and pop music took more of a leading role. However, a considerable revival has taken place in recent decades, not only in Scotland but also elsewhere in Britain and around the world.

There are many legends about the origins of particular dances and their associated music. One of them suggests that when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Moidart in 1745, eight local men who were working at the time heard of his arrival and to welcome him danced a reel. This is said to have inspired the tune that is called the Eight Men of Moidart and the dance which corresponds to it. Another legend says that in the town of Tulloch many years ago the minister was late to church one morning in the winter so someone struck up a tune and the congregation danced a reel to keep warm - which became the basis for the well-known Scottish dance the Reel of Tulloch. (An alternative and rather more gruesome, but perhaps less likely, story is that the tune and dance was something to do with a game of football played by men from Tulloch who used the head of an enemy instead of a football.)


Many dances were absorbed from England in the early 1700s and gradually new Scottish dances evolved as variations upon these. Other types of dance also came to Scotland from the Continent, such as square dances from France in the 1800s and waltzes and polkas also coming from Europe. American barn dance styles also gradually found their way into the traditional ceilidh dancing.


Music for Scottish dancing has evolved gradually alongside the dances themselves. Traditionally the fiddle has been the most dominant instrument with a small band, maybe in a village hall, consisting of more than one fiddle and perhaps an accompanying instrument such as a piano or accordion.

A number of characters have been highly influential in the development of Scottish country dancing and the associated music. One of these is the fiddle player and composer Niel Gow (1727-1807), whose family were a major influence on Scottish dancing and music. Niel, the son of a weaver, is believed to have been virtually self-taught along with his brother Donald who played the cello. He had four sons, of which at least one, Nathaniel, the youngest, was also a prolific composer. Other famous Scottish fiddle players include Robert McIntosh (“Red Rob”) who was born in 1745 and was a composer as well as an instrumentalist. Another prominent figure in the development of Scottish traditional music was William Marshall, born 3 years later, who was known in particular as a composer of Strathspeys.


However, the composer widely considered to be the “King of Strathspeys” was a man named James Scott Skinner, who has many famous Strathspey tunes attributed to him. Skinner was born in 1843 in the town of Banchory near Aberdeen on the North-East coast of Scotland, and he studied music in Manchester, becoming a violinist and composer. He is considered to be one of the greatest composers for the Scottish fiddle and he also taught dancing, especially in the north of Scotland. He is believed to have danced at the royal home of Balmoral in the time of Queen Victoria but his is fame as a performer on the violin became so great that eventually he gave up dancing so that he could concentrate on performing and composing dance tunes. He is often known as “the Strathspey King” because his output of that particular type of dance tune was so prolific. He died in 1927, sufficiently into the era of recordings that he was able to become one of the first recording artists in Scotland. His career was at its peak around and after the turn of the century. His early musical recordings, which were made in Edwardian times, brought him significant income as well as fame. He toured frequently and was very famous in the early part of the 20th century. Even into his 80s he went on a tour of America and in 1925 played at the Royal Albert Hall. He died in his home in Aberdeen in 1927.

Skinner had a profound effect on the development of Scottish music and is thought to have written more than 600 compositions. Although his training was as a classical violinist his main contribution to music is that he was devoted to preserving and developing the folk traditions of his native Scotland. His collections of music included The Miller O'Him Collection (1881), Beauties of the Ballroom (1882), the Elgin Collection (1884), the Logie Collection (1888), and Harp and Claymore (1904). His most popular collection, entitled The Scottish Violinist, was published in 1900 and comprised a compilation of tunes from collections he had previously published.


Another famous name in the history of Scottish traditional music is Jimmy Shand, a famous accordion player of the 20th century. He was able to pursue his career at a time when recording was starting to become available and he made his first record in 1933. He became a significant influence on Scottish dance music and made very many recordings during his long career. He started playing the mouth organ at the age of eight and then began to play the melodeon which was a popular instrument at the time in the early 20th century. As a young man he visited a music shop in Dundee where he is said to have been given a job straight away as a salesman and debt collector. His experience of travelling around in this job gave him opportunities to listen to other people playing Scottish music. His first record was made in 1933 and he steadily became more famous which included radio broadcasts. After the end of the Second World War he formed the Jimmy Shand band which became well-known not only within Scotland but also internationally. He became famous as a player of the accordion and was instrumental in the design and promotion of the Shand Morino accordion which was produced by the German manufacturer, Hohner. During the middle years of the 20th century Shand’s name was uniquely associated with a particular style of Scottish music and with a nostalgic image of his home country. He made a huge contribution to the popularisation of Scottish music, although his contribution did tend to encourage public perception of a particular style which would not be shared by all as fully representative of Scottish music. Shand was knighted in 1999 and died in 2000.

These days a wider variety of instrumentation is often seen and heard in the music that accompanies Scottish country dancing. in addition it is very common for Scottish ceilidh bands to operate in conjunction with a caller, someone who will be able to introduce the dances to people who are present at an event, give them confidence, and tell them what they need to do. This is an important factor in helping people who are not familiar with the dances to get involved and enjoy their evening.


Scottish country dancing, and indeed any other form of folk dancing, has recently been recognised as a useful way for older people to sustain good health and fitness. Research carried out at Strathclyde University in 2010 studied women between the ages of 60 and 85 and discovered that those who carried out Scottish country dance compared favourably with women who participated only in other physical activities like walking and swimming and were able to show, on average, greater flexibility, strength and balance.


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