What is Scottish Country Dancing?
The dances of Scotland are not folk dances but rather traditional dances. Folklore and tradition are two different notions and the terminology is important.
Folklore is the expression of a popular identity (customs, legends, attire, etc.) that does not change with time and is often looked down upon by the social elite, hence the rather pejorative nuance for the word ‘folklore’ in French.
Tradition, the first meaning of which is transmission, implies something living, an evolution, a link with the present. No regional or historical costume is worn for Scottish Country Dancing. If the men wear kilts for balls and other grand occasions this is certainly not folklore as the kilt is still worn in Scotland for weddings, ceremonies and as military uniform.
There are three types of Scottish dancing:
- Contredanses - Scottish Country Dances
- Ceilidh (kay-leigh) dances – easy dances for everyone where no special knowledge is needed
- Solo dances – these require a high level of technique. There are dances for ladies: Step Dances for Ladies, close to ballet dancing, and dances for men: Highland Dances, such as The Sword Dance with complex steps and very physically demanding.
In Monaco we practice the dances of the first group, the Country Dances.
These dances have evolved over the centuries but two influences have contributed to their originality and specificity.
Firstly, there is a strong Celtic influence. In the first centuries of our time Scotland, or Caledonia as it was then called, was inhabited by Celts (Picts and Scots). It was only in the 9th century that Scotland was united by Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots, hence the name Scotland. We know little about the dances of those ancient times but certainly they were not just for entertaining the people. Dances were part of the ritual and symbolism of pagan culture. Two figures come from that distant past: the circle (or round) of course, and the reel with all its variants. The reel is essentially a figure of eight, an interlacing figure, as often found on Celtic tombstones, crosses and jewelry. It symbolizes continuous movement with no beginning or end. The reel is the oldest figure in Scottish Dancing. As well as these two figures there is the St. Andrew’s Cross. According to the legend, it was also in the 9th century that St. Andrew was recognized as the patron saint of Scotland thanks to his intercession resulting in the victory of the Picts and the Scots over the Angles and the Saxons. It was in 832, before the battle of Athelstaneford, that white clouds seemed to form a Saint Andrew’s Cross against the blue sky, forecasting their victory. The Saltire, this X-shaped cross, with its numerous variants, can be found in many, many country dances.
Secondly, in the 16th century, the main structure of the dances that we have today was influenced, without any doubt, by the contredanses of the French Court. They were brought to Scotland when Mary Stuart, Queen of France and Scotland, returned to her native kingdom after the death of her husband, François II. It is interesting that French terminology is used for many of the figures, even today: allemande, poussette, promenade, rondel… . This connection with French contredanses explains the confusion between ‘country dances’ and ‘contredanses.’ There was almost certainly a degree of linguistic assimilation between the two terms. Scottish dances are not folk dances but dances from the court. Yet another particularity of these Scottish dances is that they were danced not only at aristocratic and bourgeois balls but also in local barns.
These country dances gradually evolved in Scotland throughout the 17th century and became truly Scottish by integrating Celtic symbols, favouring jig reel and strathpey rhythms and being accompanied by typically Scottish melodies or tunes.
The golden age of Scottish Dancing and Scottish Dance Music was the 18th century. The traditional violin played by very talented fiddlers, who were also composers, accompanied the dances. Some of them, for example Niel and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall and Robert Mackintosh, just to mention the most well-known, composed magnificent tunes that we are able to hear played by our fiddlers today.
But, in the 19th century in Scotland, country dances fell into decline in favour of dances for couples (the waltz, polka, etc.) and quadrilles which became the rage. By the beginning of the 20th century Scottish Country Dances had practically disappeared.
Two factors, however, greatly contributed to their revival. Firstly, the consequences of the First World War and, secondly, the determination and enthusiasm of three people. In 1923, Miss Jean Milligan, Mrs Stewart of Fasnacloich and the Duke of Atholl founded the Scottish Country Dance Society in Glasgow. The aim of this association was to revive the traditional dances, with their elegance and technique to encourage women who were on their own after the ravages of WWI to enjoy a social life thanks to Scottish Country Dancing, which allows everyone to dance. Hence, in 1927, at a grand ball in Glasgow, there were 300 women and 3 men!
In 1951, George VI granted the title ‘Royal’ to the Scottish Country Dance Society which then became the R.S.C.D.S., the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society under the patronage of the sovereign.
The wish of the founders was to get Scottish dances danced again in Scotland. It was a daring challenge but one which succeeded beyond all expectations.
These Country Dances are now not only danced in Scotland but in almost every country of the world where branches and affiliated groups have been formed. What is absolutely extraordinary and unique, is that these dances are taught and practiced in exactly the same way, absolutely everywhere. This is thanks to the practical intelligence of Jean Milligan who realized that the strict and methodical teaching of the dances was essential. She immediately decided to train teachers and to create an examination so that these dances would be handed down with rigour and authenticity. At the beginning the repertoire was very small, limited to the dances found in old books or collected from people who had practiced them in their youth. However, this repertoire has grown constantly ever since. New figures and new dances have been and are still being devised to celebrate special people, places and events but these creations have always been faithful to the tradition, whether in their choreography or the accompanying music.
How can one explain why these Scottish Country Dances have conquered the world?
No doubt that the multiplicity of such varied dances and the irresistible music that accompanies them is a factor but, also, is the conviviality that is engendered. One can rightly say that Scottish dancers form a great family. Wherever there are groups of Scottish Country Dancing all over the world, dancers from elsewhere are welcomed as friends. These dances don’t take heed of social barriers and open the frontiers between peoples. Scottish dancers are dancers with no boundaries, sharing the same pleasure of dancing jigs, reels and strathspeys, these beautiful dances that Scotland so generously shares with us.
And hence, in 1992 in Monaco, a group of enthusiastic persons decided to meet and practice the Scottish Country Dance.
Some time later, a non-profit association has been formally recognized in the Principality and the Statuts been approved by the Government on 20th February 1995 by "Arrêté Ministériel n° 95-38".