High­land danc­ing

The Glengarry News - Glengarry Supplement - - News -

To the unini­ti­ated, all High­land dances might seem sim­i­lar. New­com­ers may think that High­land danc­ing is noth­ing more than rais­ing your hands, kick­ing your feet, and hopping in a cir­cle, all while a bag­piper plays nearby.

Ac­tu­ally, there are many dif­fer­ent kinds of High­land danc­ing and all of them are heav­ily steeped in his­tory. Here’s some back­ground on some of the danc­ing you’ll see at the High­land Games.

High­land fling

If a dancer makes a mis­take do­ing the fling to­day, the worst things that could hap­pen is they’ll lose points with the judges.

Things weren’t al­ways so safe.

The High­land fling is a vic­tory dance that was tra­di­tion­ally done by clans­men. It was danced on a targe – a small round shield that had a sharp steel spike near the mid­dle.

As such, it’s un­der­stand­able why such quick foot­work and agility is nec­es­sary. One mis­step could re­sult in a lot of pain and a lot of blood­shed too.


The Seann Truib­has

Pro­nounced shawn-trooz, this is a Gaelic term that loosely trans­lates to “old pants.” It is one of the most dif­fi­cult dances to per­form and usu­ally takes years of prac­tice.

There’s some con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion about the dance’s his­tory, but some say that its ori­gin comes af­ter the com­plete rout of the High­landers at Cul­lo­den Moor, when ter­ri­ble pun­ish­ments were meted out to the Scot­tish peo­ple, in­clud­ing the ban­ning of wearing the kilt. The clans­men re­sented hav­ing to wear trousers – also known as trews. As such, the Seann Truib­has is a dance that’s meant to show dis­re­spect to said trousers. The dance’s var­i­ous move­ments are said to mime at­tempts of the High­lander to kick them off.

As the dance pro­gresses, it gets faster and faster. The end mood is sup­posed to be one of ju­bi­la­tion as the Scot­tish dancer is fi­nally eman­ci­pated from the English’s im­pos­ing choice of clothes.

Sword dance

No High­land dance is older or bet­ter known than the Ghillie Calum, or Sword Dance. Like the Seann Truib­has, its his­tory is some­what spotty.

One the­ory is that it’s the brain­child of Mal­colm Can­more, who ruled Scot­land in the lat­ter part of the 11th cen­tury. Af­ter emerg­ing vic­to­ri­ous at the bloody bat­tle of Dun­si­nane in July of 1054, Mal­colm is be­lieved to have placed his own sword on top of that of his en­emy in the form of a cross and danced tri­umphant over them.

There’s an­other the­ory – a bit more su­per­sti­tious than his­tor­i­cal – that the dance was used as a sort of pre-bat­tle for­tune telling de­vice. On the night be­fore a bat­tle, war­riors would dance their dance. If they touched their sword while do­ing do, it meant they would be wounded the next day. If they kicked the sword, that meant they would be killed.

Sailor’s Horn­pipe

You’ll see this in com­pe­ti­tion and you’ll likely see it as part of the MacCul­loch Dancers’ reper­toire dur­ing the Fri­day night Tat­too.

Orig­i­nally an an­cient dance com­mon in much of Bri­tain, its name de­rives from the “horn pipe,” a tin flute-like which ac­com­pa­nied the dance. The melody will likely be fa­mil­iar to most (for those of a more pop cul­ture bent, it was also the theme mu­sic for the Pop­eye car­toons). In time, the dance be­came so pop­u­lar among sea­far­ing men that it be­came known as the “sailor's horn­pipe.” It is usu­ally per­formed in nautical cos­tume and the moves mimic the chores a sailor may be ex­pected to do while on a ship.

Scot­tish Na­tional Dances

Blue Bon­nets, Scot­tish Lilt, High­land Lad­die, The Earl of Errol, Flora MacDon­ald's Fancy and Vil­lage Maid are known as the Scot­tish Na­tional Dances. They usu­ally in­volve Aboyne Dress – a white dress with tar­tan or full tar­tan skirt with white blouse and vest. That tra­di­tion was born at the Aboyne High­land Games in Scot­land where women were for­bid­den to wear kilts while danc­ing.

Women in danc­ing

Al­though men are al­lowed to com­pete in High­land danc­ing, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of com­peti­tors at the Games – and MacCul­loch Dancers, for that mat­ter – are fe­male. How­ever, women danc­ing is only a re­cent de­vel­op­ment.

The orig­i­nally dancers were ath­letic men and their dances were de­signed to show a com­plex range of emo­tion. Com­pet­i­tive High­land danc­ing be­gan af­ter in the 19th cen­tury when High­land cul­ture be­gan to grow in pop­u­lar­ity. It was only around the turn of the 20th cen­tury when women first be­gan com­pet­ing.


In com­pe­ti­tion, dancers are judged on three el­e­ments: tim­ing, tech­nique and gen­eral de­port­ment. Tim­ing is how the dancers fol­low the rhythm, tech­nique is how they co­or­di­nate feet, hands, arms and head, and gen­eral de­port­ment is how they cap­ture the spirit of the dance. Up­right pos­ture and a joy­ful coun­te­nance are es­sen­tial to this lat­ter cri­te­ria.


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