Today, the term ‘Scottish Country Dance’ embraces the social dances of Scotland that have evolved from many traditions and are danced throughout the world by Scots and non-Scots alike.

The RSCDS has always stressed the importance of the social nature of the dance form but it is equally concerned with upholding the standards of correct dancing technique.  It is this unique blend of wonderful music, disciplined dancing, intricate floor patterns and sociability that appeals to so many people throughout the world.

Scottish Country Dancing is the distinctively Scottish form of the country dance and it is derived mainly from the English style of the 17th Century.  The most notable work from this period is John Playford’s The Dancing Master, published in London in 1651. This was the first publication in the British Isles to provide detailed descriptions of country dances, including descriptions frequently described as ‘longways for as many as will’ and they often used Scottish tunes.

Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl by David Allan, 1780

Although Scotland shared many of the dances described in Playford, they diverged from the English dance form through the links of the Stuart Kings and Mary Queen of Scots to the French Court via the ‘Auld Alliance’. These French influences included steps like the Pas de Basque and formations such as the Poussette and Allemande.  During this time the Calvinists banned dancing as the work of the devil, but Mary, her court and most Scots continued to celebrate and enjoy the music and the dance. A further demonstration of its popularity occurred in 1580, when King James VI is said to have paid a huge sum of £100 for dance lessons!

By the 18th century, country dancing was still popular in the English court but the Scots had their own versions. One element exclusive to Scotland and a notable contribution to the tradition of country dancing is the Strathspey rhythm. With a slower and more elegant style of dancing, its emergence in the mid eighteenth century was uniquely Scottish. The Strathspey rhythm was developed and popularised by the tunes of the famous Niel Gow, who played for three Dukes of Atholl.

Portrait of Niel Gow by Sir Henry Raeburn, 1787

The country dance in Scotland in the early 18th Century continued to undergo changes and adopted some of the characteristics of other dance forms such as Scotch Reels, Quadrilles and Waltzes, but perhaps the most notable change from the English style was the importance attached to precise footwork, an emphasis which had not been seen in social dancing since the days of the Regency Quadrilles, and which is still upheld by the RSCDS.

Scotland, of course, had other traditions of dance and here the country dances incorporated features from older Strathspeys, reels, rants and jigs. The result was a style of dance with which the whole of Scottish society could feel comfortable; the elegance and courtesy of the country dance and the energy and step precision of the old reels.  

While country dances fell out of fashion in England, they continued to flourish in Scotland. The dancing masters, who travelled extensively throughout Europe, were often skilled musicians and helped to widen the repertoire to include newer, fashionable dances such as quadrilles and polkas.

In Scotland, country dancing also played a big part in military life as it provided discipline and the need for total mental and physical awareness. Queen Victoria, who loved her ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, also helped to sustain the acceptance of country dancing and during this time it continued to remain popular in Scotland.

After the First World War a new generation turned their back on tradition and Scottish country dancing was swept aside by the sensational Charleston.  In 1923 it took the foresight of two dedicated enthusiasts: Mrs Ysobel Stewart of Fasnacloich and Miss Jean Milligan to preserve Scotland’s heritage and save the dance form from obscurity. They formed the Scottish Country Dance Society in order to preserve, standardise and encourage the take-up of the tradition. In 1951 they gained royal patronage via King George VI, and the Queen, who has been its patron since she was Princess Elizabeth, still takes a real interest in the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. Now almost a hundred years old, the society has tens of thousands of members and branches throughout the world.

Scottish Country Dancing is still enjoyed today

Sociable, enjoyable and ever-evolving: Scottish Country Dancing may have its roots in the assemblies and balls of the 18th and 19th centuries, but its popularity has continued to increase to this day.  Scottish Country Dancers mainly dance for pleasure, finding the shared experience of dance both physically and mentally enjoyable. Whether they dance at a local club, in a town hall, a castle or at a one-off Ceilidh event, the result is the same – the joy of dancing to the world class traditional music of Scotland.

Author: Di Rooney