Highland Dance: Chronology

Figure 1.--This is a poor quality image, but it is useful because it shows two Scottish children competing, presumably at a Highlang Gathering in Scotland during the early-20th century. It is thus useful chronological information. Source: Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection.

Traditional Highland dances have a long and give the the time period involved reasonbly detailed history, althoughsome of it is a kind of blend of histoty and legend. We have awell estanlished history of the major dances. They have entered innto Scottish cultureal life through the tastes and tradition of the Higland from crofters and townsfolk. They have passed down by tradition and word of mouth over the centuries and affected by major historical events, including developments in rance and England. As a result, we re ot entirely sure just how close the modern dances are to the early versions from which they have developed. The oldest and mist famous of the traditional Higland dances those dances is of course the Sword Dance or Gillie Callum which according to legend dates back to the medieval era (1054). This surely is the oldest dance in the world still performed. It reportedly originated with a deadly between Malcolm Canmore, the Celtic Prince, and one of Macbeth’s chiefs. Malcomb took the claymore of his dead opponent and crossing it with his own, forming the Sign of the Cross. Malcolm than danced over and around the naked blades with the entusiasm and ecstasy of his victory. Legend has it that the Sword Dance came to be danced before a battle and, if the dancer managed to finish the dance without touching the swords with his feet, the omens were auspicious for victory. The goal of modern dancers in adiition to exhibity the dexterity of Highland dancing is to avoid touching the crossed swords. and we have written acounts of war dancing (15th century). Other imprtant dances (Shean Truibhais, the Highland Fling, Reel of Tulloch,the Horn Pipe, and others) all have their own traditions. Many of the steps involved with Highland Dancing originated in the sophisticate French court. Scotland has a long history of turning to France for help in fighting off the English. Along with support came cultural transfers. Mary, Queen of Scots my have been an importnt agent here. The gentlemen of Scotland who served in the bodyguard of the King of France may have also been agents of the cultural transfer. we are not sure just how Highlan dancing was performed as we enter the modern age. It maay have been learned at home and danced at small gatherings and at fairs. When competituins began we are not sure. It does not seem to have been social dancing because until recently once the men performed. One reason we do not know a lot of Highland dancing in historical periods is the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden (1745). This resulted in the English supression of Highland culture often brutally. The the Act of Proscription even forbade the wearing of kilts by civilian males as well as other expression of Higland culture (1747). This was part of forces leading Scotts to America. (The resulting Scotts-Irish population would play a ole in the Revolution.) Parliament repealed the Act during the Revolutionary War, in part because of the role the Scotts Irish were playing (1782), but had an impact on Scottish cultural life. This was followed by theCottish Revival which romanticicized Highland culture, but because of the English effort to supress Higland culture, some of it had to be reimagined. The Scotish Revival fond great support in a very romantic young queen--Victoria (1837). Having read all sir Walter Scott's novels and Robert Burn's poems she enthusiatically embraced all things Scottish. It is at this time that the modern Highland games began. And Highland dancing was an integral part of the Games from the onset of the Revival. It is at thistime that number of dances performed was narrowed, basically for the convenience of the judges. The result was that while the tradition of Highland games fostered and preserved Highland dancing it also led to loss of many traditional dances because they were not selected. And the nature of these displays and competitions affected the style of dancing. The Highland dances were initially danced only by the men. Women participated in the social dances, but not in the Higland dancing. Girls did learn solo dances as part of their dance classes. Dancing masters ommonly encouraged promising students of both genders to perform solo dances at the end-of-term 'assemblies'. As a result, a competitive young woman, Lorna Mitchell, defying tradition entered a Highland dance competition (late-19th century). Women dancers were not explicitlt prohibited, it was just a matter of tradition. Thus she was permitted to participate. Beginning with Mitchell's provacative entry, the number of women dancers steadily increased. Today some 95 percent of the dancers are girls and women.


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Created: 4:12 AM 12/14/2015
Last updated: 4:12 AM 12/14/2015