The year is 2017 and, for me, the sand glass of life has little enough content in the upper chamber. So I present this incomplete history of modern "Highland Dance" in the hope that someone will pick up the pieces and develop the thinking. Today it would seem to many that “Highland Dance” started with the formation of the SOBHD, but that is not the case, it was alive and well long before. Come with me on this visual “Trip” and excuse me if I have a little fun on the way.

Many moons ago I requested membership of the then newly formed Highland Dance Teachers Association (England) only to be told by the Chairman, Patricia Reid, that I did not teach “Highland Dance”, the interpretation of that comment being that I did not teach “Highland Dance” as proscribed by the SOBHD. Why would I, having been given a far superior system of “Highland Dance” by P/M Peter Quinn?

Little did the Chairman or I realise just how true that rebuff was.

Mark Twain, American author and humorist, was passionate about Scotland and must have known more than most about “Highland Dance” when he coined the phrase –

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

There is so much rubbish about the origins of

“Highland Dance”

littered all over the internet from individuals and“official” organisations

which needs taking down and swept into

The Trash Can.                                

“Facts” presented about

shaking trousers off


                   Dancing on a spiked targe

Warriors dancing over the sword of the vanquished


Recruiting Soldiers                        

Fingers extended to represent a stag’s head and antlers

All of which is modern day clap–trap glibly repeated without substantiation or citation by “Official” organisations, qualified historians, individual Teachers and Highland Dancers.

All the “Highland Dances” have a story behind them – is this a made–up stamp of authenticity? I think so.

Myth perpetuated through the years by those who should and probably do know better?

My mission over the past years has been to locate the truth.




Joanne MacIntyre
dancing at the Highland Village, Iona (Cape Breton).
Picture courtesy of Lori Henry

     We know for a fact, during the Highland Clearances, which lasted from 1773 through till 1840, that the “folk” form of dance brought over by Scottish Highlanders to “The New World” was of a percussive nature. With the poverty, dirt floors and inherent lack of footwear, the Steps must have been performed in bare feet initialy as demonstrated by Joanne MacIntyre in the picture on the left hand side. This style of dance – To Travel and then Set – in solo and group dances, was the true form of dance brought from the Highlands of Scotland to Cape Breton vis.

Highland Dance

     Dance Masters established their teaching areas on Cape Breton Island and continued teaching the Sword Dance, Fling and Seann Triubhas along with other Step Dances just as they had in the Highlands of Scotland. Frank Rhodes collected what remained of this old style of Step Dance in 1957 and published the results in 1996 in an Appendix to Traditional Step-Dancing In Scotland by JF and TM Flett. Unfortunately it seems that Frank is the only person to have collected the dances in detail which makes his work invaluable.
    To Travel and then Set, has been shown to be the ubiquitous style of Scottish Highland Dance and can be found in the Strathspey, Highland Reel, Reel of Tulloch, the Cape Breton Fling, Seann Triubhas, Flowers of Edinburgh and Over the Hills and Far Away, but is completely missing in the “Highland Dances“.

     A dance interpretation of Rhodes' written instruction for “Dannsa nan Flurs” or ”The Flowers of Edinburgh” can be seen here as danced by one of the few dancers preserving the old Highland Dances – from Boston MA, USA

Step Dancer / Highland Dancer / Teacher & Choreographer –
Jennifer Schoonover

     Today leather soled shoes ( regrettably sometimes with “taps” ) are the footwear for the dance style now referred to as Cape Breton Step–Dance. The “old style” step–dances are now forgotten and a less structured free style prevails, still with the old style footwork.
     The following is a facebook clip showing some classic examples of Cape Breton Step-Dance as performed today. Left Click on the picture, but please come back –

Jennifer Schoonover
performing ten Steps of “Dannsa nan Flurs”
Video courtesy of Jason Beals

In St. Ann's, Cape Breton Island. the Gaelic College, founded in 1938, had to import modern style “Highland Dancers” from Antigonish, mainland Nova Scotia for their first Highland Festival on Cape Breton in 1939

Which brings me to the question –

Since the percussive style of dance is the indigenous form of dance from the Scottish Highlands,

where did modern “Highland Dance” come from?"

Certainly not the Scottish Highlands.

Please consider the following which may, to commence with, seem to be irrelevant –

is recognised as having originated in 15th century Italy, as a male–only dance form interpretation of fencing movements. By the 17th century, ballet had spread to France via the court of Louis XIV where, in 1661, women were professionally introduced. Ballet spread to Denmark and Russia, and all the time style, costume and choreography, continued to develop and ultimately influence other forms of dance, not least of all “Highland Dance” .

The above is an example of a martial art being converted to a visual art form developed over several hundreds of years. But what has the above got to do with anything Scottish? Please read through to the end of this article and then judge the entire contents. Perhaps the truth is just out there and every bit as interesting as the myth.

Tai Chi , originally practiced by monks, dates back to legendary times BC, but the modern version has a certain history of at least 400 years. Most people have seen a group of people executing the slow, majestic, artistic movements of Tia Chi in a Park or open space. This is the “soft” form of Tai Chi considered to be of spiritual as well as physical good. The origin of this art is in the form of a fighting skill today referred to as “hard” form Tai Chi and once again a male pursuit, originally.

Indian Club swinging was popular in the Victorian era and adopted by British forces serving in India, in particular the Navy. The Clubs used today for basic exercise are approximately 7– 8lb, but their origin comes from the exercise Clubs used by Iranian/Persian warriors which weighed some 35lb each.

The use of Indian Clubs is still popular with the British Navy and any display of their use is very graceful and flowing and once again originally a male pursuit.

Interestingly the shape of the modern Indian Club has been absorbed in to the shape of the 10 Pin Skittle and the Juggling Club.

Finally, one further example of a martial application being converted to a more artistic presentation –
Morris Dance, often thought of as an English pastime prevailed in Scotland prior to the Reformation, but after 1560, the penalty for such activity could result in hanging and the activity understandably disappeared. The first mention of Morris Dance in Scotland comes from the era of James l (1394 – 1437) of Scotland. One aspect of Morris Dance shown here by the Victory Morris team is the vigorous and well depicted stick dance

generally recognised as being a dance presentation of stick or cudgel fighting also referred to in the Scottish tune title “I’ll break your head” which reflects the fun time activity of trying to draw blood from an opponent's head!!

So, how closely connected to the martial arts of ancient Scotland is “Highland Dance“?

Not very connected at all, that is not until the end of the 19th Century, but more of that later.

Going back in time, a Clan Chieftain would have been able to call together his own army from the Clansmen. In 1725, by order of the English Government, six Independent Highland Companies, each known as a “Watch”, were raised from Highland Clans supportive of the Hanoverian cause as an irregular militia. These Independent Companies were intended to keep law and order between Clans, collect taxes and generally keep the peace as and when required. In 1739 their number was increased to a total of ten, but it was not until 1740 that the 43rd Highland Regiment was raised – the Black Watch. They later became the 42nd Regiment and it may be that “Highland Dance” became a part of Army life at some time through the Black Watch, more research is needed in this area.

As an aside the only extant example of a Clan Army is the Duke of Atholl ‘s “Atholl Highlanders”, to this day the only private army in the UK.

The evidence of connections with the ancient Scottish Clan martial arts is very Spartan. “I'll break your head”,is a song hinting that a dance / exercise may have existed related to cudgel fighting. It is recorded that circa 1743 King George ll bore witness to both the Broadsword and Lochaber Axe Exercise as demonstrated by two privates from the 42nd Regiment.

The demonstartion of old style flourishes on the right is given by SoCal and comes from the style of the Thomas Page Broadsword method.

Old Style Highland Broadsword Flourish Exercise   


The only other example of a dance / martial art connection is the Dirk Dance, collected by Mary Isdale MacNab from P/M D C Mather some time between 1907 and 1914 and passed on to Tom Flett and, in the chain, John Wesencraft, on to Jane Flett and now made open to the public by Joan Flett in Traditional Step–Dancing in Scotland by J F and T M Flett. The Dirk Dance is a solo as collected, but would seem to be one half of an exhibition duet, which contains elements of pagan death/life pantomime and aspects of Callieach an Dudain, all of which have a very heavy veneer of modern “Highland Dance”, Fencing and Ballet.

THE SWORD DANCE (gille-Caluim)

Danced to the old tune gille-Caluim one would expect the Sword Dance to be a candidate for a long martial history and indeed King Malcolm III is quoted profusely as being the originator of the Sword Dance; If anyone can provide me with authentic historical confirmation of this I would be most grateful – –, as far as I can tell this is yet another story of pseudo–authentication. Further reference to gille-Caluim comes later, but for now let us consider dance demonstrations of foot agility and skill by dancing around eggs, candle flames, brooms and specifically over and around two crossed objects, all without making contact. Such dances are not uncommon traditionally in the British Isles and Eire.


Clay Churchwarden pipes were popular from the beginning of the 17th century and often called the “Yard of Clay” due to the extended length of the stem. Originally danced in boots, the challenge of dancing over two fragile crossed Churchwarden pipes is obvious and excellently demonstrated here by Robert and Andrew Care from Traditional Bampton Morris.


Collected by Tom Flett, but not published, this particular solo sword dance differs from the Scottish dance in that the dancer uses the spaces between the crossed swords which are laid diagonally

X rather than directly at the hilt or point +

The step using the jumping movement is reminiscent of the “Salute to MacNab” sword dance. Danced here by a pupil from the Allenover School, taught by Jennifer Millest, at the Reading Cloggies 21st Clog and Step Dance Festival of Dance 1999 and recorded by Wizard Video Productions Ltd.

N.B. For the Cumberland Sword Dance only jump to 10.25 – 12.21

AN GABHARÍN BUÍ (The Yellow Haired Goat)

Known today as the Irish Stick Dance, but was originally a Sword Dance according to Breandan Breathnach (Folk Music and Dances of Ireland Paperback – December 31, 1996). This old and very rare find in Traditional Irish Dance was collected and recorded by Chris Brady Brady from the dance as taught by County Clare dancing masters James Keane and Dan Furey, and raises some intriguing questions. There are close resemblances of the steps in this dance and the Scottish Sword dance – which came first? Is there an hint of "Highland Fling" showing here? The tune – an early early version of Highland Laddie? I will return to the Irish connection later.


The Cape Breton Sword Dance with only one complete step and some partial steps recorded by Frank Rhodes and published in an Appendix to the Fletts' Traditional Step–Dancing in Scotland leaves us with too many questions and not enough answers to make up a complete dance and an uncertanty as to which way round the swords – clockwise or anti–clockwise.

Just as an example of a Cape Breton Sword Dance I include the video from the Ukraine?!? I doubt it to be authentic Cape Breton!!


So many sword dances, so little history –

The Jacobite Sword Dance           Argyll Broadswords
Lochaber Broadswords           Perth Assembly
                             Salute To MacNab            Ghillie Callum 1 & 2 dancers  
              Broad Swords Of Lochiel

Most of the above sword dances have been collected by Mary Isdale MacNab, arguably one of the best choreographers Scottish Dance has ever seen, but her historical records are not as good as one would wish. The Perth Assembly is claimed to be centuries old, but if a dance was done on the occasion claimed it would / could not have been executed in the manner published. A Salute To Mac Nab has no claim to antiquity so one is inclined to think it to be a creation of Mrs MacNab. The Jacobite Sword Dance is claimed to have originated in France and gone from thence to Scotland. Unfortunately there is no evidence of anything other than Hilt–and–Point–Linked style of sword dance in France.
The only Sword Dance with any reliable history is The Argyll Broadswords which is known to have been created by William McLennan in 1888 and taken up, with variation such as Lochaber Broadswords, by various Highland Regiments later.

THE SWORD DANCE (Gillie Caluim)

Returning to the Scottish Sword Dance; having reviewed a few of the "crossed object" dances it seems that there was quite a following for this style of dance and I see no reason to remove the Scottish Sword Dance from the collection and hold it up as a dance performed by a Scottish warrior. The “myths” of the dance being performed before or after battle with good or bad omens are, to say the least, far fetched and fanciful. After all, who in their right mind would want to go into battle knowing they were going to come in second because they had touched the swords? Or, for that matter, drag themselves back to camp, bloodied and exhausted from wielding a Broadswod, Claymore or Axe, along with the sword of the vanquished, only to announce they were going to have a quick 3 & 1 over the swords before turning in for the night? I am inclined to consider the Scottish Sword Dance as another exhibition test of skill rather than anything to do with Scottish warriors going to battle.

THE ARMY and "Highland Dance"

My first teacher, Alexander (Sandy) Hughes Blyth learnt “Highland Dance” as a member of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, where the option offered was 2 hours P.T. or 1 hour “Highland Dancing“, a good way to promote “Highland Dance” and for good reason to be presented later.

Whilst on the subject of Army connection, Wilt Thou Go To The Baracks Johnny? is always cited as being an Army recruiting dance, but the only written description of the dance comes from “The Hill Manuscript 1841“where it is titled “Wilt Thou go to the Barricks Johnnie” and there is no mention of any recruiting or Army connection. According to Bobby Watson, and I only have verbal account from him, he was requested by the B.A.T.D. to make an interpretation of the dance from the Hill manuscript. So what we have today is his interpretation and the myth connected with it. Perhaps more on this subject will be available when his papers have been catalogued and indexed at Aberdeen University. In fact, the original music and dance are in 3/2 time, not 2/4 and nothing to do with any army recruitment.


The Highland Fling takes its name from a much earlier dance of the percussive style – FLING. The term also refers to a movement or short sequence of movements of the foot. The “Highland Fling” is often cited as the oldest of all the competition dances and perhaps it is, but the origin of The “Highland Fling” has more than a few problems. If indeed it is an Highland Dance why does it have an English title? The genesis of the “Highland Fling” can be sourced back to “The Marquis of Huntley’s Highland Fling”, a dance performed to a tune of the same title. The tune is the first ever to have the words “Highland Fling” in the title and was composed by George Jenkins (c.1760–1806) whose origins may be English West country, is known to have corresponded with the Gow’s of Perthshire at some time, possibly through the auspieces of their London publishing company. Besides being a musician Jenkins is recorded, around 1794, as being a teacher of “Scotch Dancing” in London. The tune was first published by Jenkins in 1793. The dance and tune are intrinsically connected and the dance cannot have existed any time prior to the tune vis. 1790s. In summary the origins of the modern Highland Fling can be traced back to London, 1793.


Once again the poaching of the title of an earlier dance (of the percussive style) which existed well before the Act of Proscription and was related to a pair of trews which were rather tatty and belonged to a man with first name of William. The modern day version can not have existed before 1746 if we are to believe the dance is performed as an objection to having to wear trews. In actual fact, the 1st step, often quoted as an example of trying to rid the body of trews was invented by D G MacLennan and the equally “obvious” action of “shake–shake–down” was originally a ronde de jambe with a bent knee and no shake, or, later, passage of the foot through a linear arc, again without a shake – trews or not. So, with this dance we have the addition of a “traditional story” being attached to a modern dance, which did not appear until around 1790 and was not originally considered to be an “Highland Dance“.


Cape Breton Dance has no arm/hand movements, save to be kept down at the sides, and no arm positions or movements are suggested in The Extraordinary Dance Book T B. of 1826 or the Hill Manuscript of 1841. Arms seem to have started as an aid to balance as is seen in fencing /high wire walking. Later, with the influence of Ballet, arms became raised slightly and later completly as in Ballet. Fingers were initially open, then grouped as per Ballet. So, we have a strong Ballet influence in which arms ultimately finished fully raised with the modern invention of the “Stag's Head and Antlers” myth.

The Post Cards circa 1900 – 1910 show the positioning of arms through that time span.



A Thought - Taking a "still" from the 8mm film from Ion Jameson we have a depiction of Dancie Reid teaching at the RSCDS Summer School at St. Andrews University in the early 1930s. Most Dance Masters played the violin or "kit" when teaching and it was not an uncommon practice for them to play and dance simultaneously. Removing the background and converting the image to a white silhouette for clarity and great similarities can be seen in his arm position and those displayed on the postcards.
The line drawing on the left hand side, by Eileen Mayo, is from SOME TRADITIONAL SCOTTISH DANCES by G. Douglas Taylor (1955) and is of 2nd Arm Position according to the author. So, is this how the use of arms came into Highland Dance - mimicking the teacher? Not as unlikely as it would seem.

From my own experience just such a case occurred in connection with Ted Duckett.
Ted *Darkie* Duckett was exceptionally talented as both a "bones" player (2 or 4 per hand) and a New Forest Step Dancer from Hampshire, England. Watching his performance, playing the bones and dancing, at the Reading Cloggies Festival was inspirational in spite of his poor health. So, what happens to the intricate rhythms of the bones combined with percussive Step Dancing when the pupil does not play the bones? As I have witnessed the foot work is there and all the wrist and arm movements are included, but no bones. In other words the pupil copied the teacher in every sense, but without the bones. There are other instances I have been confronted with - Monkey see, monkey do!

Finger “snapping” was a popular addition to the Arms, Hands, Fingers culture, not acceptable at more sophisticated society Assemblies, but very much enjoyed at Ceilidhs!


Ewan MacLachlan (c.1799–1879) is credited with the introduction of the solo step dances from the Hebrides although most of his background is cloaked in confusion. Where the dances came from, how or if he created them are all part of the confusion, but they are of the modern “Highland Dance” style which, allowing for his age, rules out the prospect of them having origins earlier than c.1825. One dance which stands out within the Hebridean collection is the First of August – an unusual combination of Hard Shoe and basic “Highland Dance” – which brings me to –


Dances containing elements of percussive dance and soft shoe dance are something of an anomaly within Scottish step dance. Where they fit exactly on the Time Line is difficult to pin–point, but since the original dances are traditionally performed to a Scotch Measure, a precursor to the modern Hornpipe, they can be placed somewhere between 1700, when the Scotch Measure first appears in print, and 1800 when the modern day Hornpipe was introduced.

         The Earl of Erroll      The East Fyfe Clog Hornpipe
The First of August      The Flowers of Edinburgh
The King of Sweden      The Liverpool Hornpipe     
Miss Gayton's Hornpipe      Trumpet Hornpipe                   
Dusty Miller           

Some of the dances above are of known to be relatively modern in origin, but I have placed Dusty Miller at the end of the list because it is obviously much older than any of the other dances. Just another area requiring further research!!


Today “Highland Dance” is registered as a “sport” by the self styled world governing body, The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance (SOBHD). This is on the basis that Highland chieftains would, through the competitions which have become known as "Games", find the most fleet–of–foot through “Highland Dance”. BUT the Clan system had been bloodily decimated by the “Butcher Cumberland” and his troops well before “Highland Dance” was invented and when it was invented, it was as an artistic, ballet influenced, art form – not a sport.

"It takes an athlete to dance, but an artist to be a dancer." — Shanna LaFleur

Today we seem to have some very good athletes, but almost no artists.


Early existence of the Highland Fling and Seann Triubhas and the apparent long history of the Sword Dance prove to be false statements. So, why the creation of “Highland Dance”? Follow me through a little history –

The Union of Scotland with England in 1707 was described by Robbie Burns in 1791 as the act of “a parcel of rogues”. In fact the union of the two nations, combined with the well–established education system in Scotland, produced an era now referred to as the “Scottish Enlightenment”, which gave Burns opportunities that would never have otherwise existed.

Great political, economic, social and moral progress was made during the years leading up to 1800 and on.

1750–1850– The Agricultural Revolution.
1760–1830 – The Industrial Revolution.
    1760s     – Britain became a major world power.
    1782       – Repeal of the Act of Proscription.
    1799       – Serfdom ended in Scotland.
    1807       – Abolition of the Slave Trade.

England was on a social, moral and economic roller coaster and was taking Scotland with it, or at least the Lowlands of Scotland. With all the reformation occurring the Highland Clearances which, in modern parlance, was the ethnic cleansing of the Scottish Highland area, was a bit of a problem. Whilst it was possible to end the inequality of serfdom and unfetter the slaves it was not so easy to reverse the Clearances and was economically undesirable. What to do? The answer being invent something which was going to make the situation look good – reinvent Scotland. “Highland Dance” was invented to fill the gap in “folk dance” and false history added to hide the facts and what better way to promote the illusion of antiquity than use the Scottish Regiments as a propaganda machine? The modern kilt or féileadh-beag, invented by Lancashire mill owner Thomas Rawlinson in the 1720s, was promoted and still is to the point that it is now considered the national dress of Scotland not just the Highlands. So began the “Heather and Shortbread Tin” or “Brigadoonary” imagery which perpetuated through Queen Victoria’s reign all the way through to the BBC Television production of The White Heather Club (1958–1968).


From what I have been able to gather “Highland Dance” was invented around 1800 plus or minus ten years which is roughly the same time period as lighter dances such as Miss Forbes and Flora MacDonald's Fancy were being devised and the only connection The Highland Fling, Sword Dance and Seann Triubhas have with the dances of any antiquity is with their titles.

I would be at pains to point out that whilst all the previous content of this page may seem, to some, that I am just trying to rubbish “Highland Dance”, that could not be further from the truth. None of the above is any reason not to enjoy the pleasure of watching or performing these well-constructed (with the exception of the modern day Highland Fling!) dances. In fact, if anyone reading this web page manages to gain more pleasure, experience and joy out of “Highland dance” than I have, they will have memories enough to last them, no matter how long they live. All I ask is just get rid of the rubbish and keep the facts, which are far more interesting. That is just as soon as Scotland is declared a Nordic nation and we re-invent all over again!

If you have read thus far, I thank you, and would invite you to take the time to read the content of the four, far more academic, dissertations on aspects of the subject.

As I stated at the beginning of this page, it is incomplete. If you have any comments – good, bad or otherwise – and you would like to share them please communicate – – with me.

Scottish Dance:
Towards A




Culture at the Core:
Invented Traditions
Imagined Communities


Percussive Roots
Cape Breton
Step Dancing



From the mists of time …………………………

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Jennifer Schoonover
For proofreading, suggestions and much more.

Lori Henry

Chris Brady

Jason Beals



Suggested Reading

The Extraordinary Dance Book T B. 1826 - An Anonymous Manuscript In Facsimile
General Editor - Wendy Hilton. Pendragon Press, Stuyvesant, New York.
ISBN 0-945193-32-7

Frederick Hill's Book of Quadrilles & Country Dances Etc Etc March 22, 1841
MacFadyen, Mackenzie and Macpherson - Stirling, Scotland - 2009

Highland and Traditional Scottish Dance
D G MacLennan - 1950

A Handbook of Traditional Scottish Dance
George S Emmerson - 1995
Galt House Publications, 2062 Oakmead Blvd, Oaksville, Ontario, Canada, L6H 5NB.
ISBN 0-9690653-6-1

Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland
J F and TM Flett - 1996
Scottish Cultural Press, Unit14, Leith Walk Business Centre, 130 Leith Walk, Edinburgh, EH6 5DT,
ISBN I 898218 45 5

The Argyll Broadswords
Bill Clement - 1994
The Black Watch Association, Balhousie Castle, Hay Street, Perth PH1 5HR

Scotland's Dances
H A Thurston - 1954
Reprint by The Teacher's Association (Canada), PO Box 501, Kitchener, Ontario, N2G 4A2, Canada.

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