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What is Scottish Country Dancing?

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Contributed by Anselm Lingnau

Scottish Country Dancing is a modern form of the 'country dancing' popular in England and Scotland in the 18th century. It involves groups of six to ten people (most of the time) of mixed sex (most of the time) -- a 'set' -- dancing to the driving strains of reels, jigs and strathspeys played on the fiddle, accordion, flute, piano, drums, etc. (no bagpipes, mostly!). The dance often combines solo figures for the 'first couple' in the set with movements for all the dancers, although there is considerable variation -- there are over 7000 different dances catalogued, of which maybe 1000 or so are of lasting and non-local importance. Many of these dances derive from traditional sources such as old manuscripts and printed dance collections, but a lot have been devised in the fairly recent past, say the last fifty years or so. This fusion of the traditional and the modern as well as its ongoing evolution are part of the attraction of Scottish Country Dancing.

Think of SCD as a cross between square or contra dance (although there is no caller) and ballet; there are about a dozen basic figures which will get you through quite a number of dances, although many dances have their own quirks and specialities which make them unique and fun to dance. There is also more emphasis on 'steps' than in, say, Ceilidh dancing, but the basic technique can be learned at a week-end workshop or through a couple of months' worth of practice evenings once a week. Even though there are so many dances, you don't have to learn any of them by heart if you don't want to -- the programmes for balls and social evenings are usually published well before the event, so everybody can check their crib sheets. Also, at the event itself dances are often recapitulated or even sometimes walked through slowly before the music starts (although local custom may vary).

SCD is a very social form of dancing, not only because you get to dance with seven or so people at once instead of just with one partner (smiles and eye contact are almost mandatory, and if you want there is a lot of opportunity for relaxed 'flirting') but also because there are workshops, balls and social dances being held in places all over the world. It is nice to be able to travel and join a SCD group for a night nearly everywhere you go.

When country dancing came to Scotland in the 18th century, it was at first popular among the townspeople in places like Edinburgh, but spread throughout Scotland (at varying pace) and thrived there even when, during the 19th and early 20th century, more modern dances like the Waltz, One-step etc. became fashionable in other places. Country dancing in Scotland was also influenced by other Scottish dances such as Highland Reels and so acquired a particular 'Scottish' flavour.

In 1923, the Scottish Country Dance Society (SCDS, later 'Royal' Scottish Country Dance Society or RSCDS) was founded in order to preserve traditional Scottish country dancing. Its patrons went out to watch people dance and collect the dances for publication. In the process, they also tried to reconstruct and publish dances from old manuscripts that were no longer actually danced, and standardised technical points like steps and footwork (which the common folk rarely bothered a lot about). It is debatable whether this standardisation was actually a good thing as far as preserving the tradition of Scottish country dancing was concerned, but it has certainly done a lot for making SCD into something that can be enjoyed internationally. In fact, Scottish Country Dancing is probably more alive today than it ever was in the past, and this is to a large extent due to the efforts of the RSCDS.

Today the RSCDS numbers about 25.000 members and has 'branches' in various countries all over the world. Lots of SCD groups are affiliated with the RSCDS even though they aren't actually branches of the Society, and even more people enjoy SCD without being members of the RSCDS (or any group) at all.

The RSCDS is at

12 Coates Crescent telephone: 0131 225 3854
Edinburgh EH3 7AF fax: 0131 225 7783

There is an Internet mailing list (not affiliated with or endorsed by the RSCDS) for discussing Scottish Country dancing and music, which goes by the name of 'Strathspey'; send a message containing a 'Subject: help' to mailto:

There is also a Web server containing an archive of the mailing list as well as lots of other interesting items connected with SCD at

(Yes, that's in Germany. So much for the international character of SCD!)

The books I would recommend on the topic are _Traditional Dancing in Scotland_ by Joan and Thomas M. Flett (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985) -- this is a seminal work detailing much of the recent (pre-RSCDS) history of Scottish dancing according to living memory, and it forms the research basis of a lot of what is said by Emmerson -- and _Scotland's Dances_ by Hugh Thurston (reprint edition; Kitchener, Ontario: Teacher's Association (Canada), 1984), which is a small and easy-to-read book giving an introduction to the various genres of Scottish dancing, including Highland dances, solo dances, Reels and country dances. This book was originally published some time ago and so reflects the research done until, I think, the late 50s, but it has a lot to say about things like recreating dances from ancient manuscripts which aren't in any other book.

The following review is by Jim Healy (of Perth)
mailto: and originally appeared in
'The Highland Gateway', the Perth & Perthshire RSCDS Branch newsletter.

The Collins Pocket Reference *Scottish Country Dancing, Compiled in association with The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society,* edited by Peter Knight, published by HarperCollins.
The ISBN is 0 00 470987 X. I picked up my copy in Scotland this summer for 5.99.

This little book has been compiled in association with the RSCDS. It gives a brief history of dancing and some instructions on the steps and various formations. The bulk of the book, however, is given over to descriptions of various popular dances, both RSCDS and others. It is perhaps unfortunate that the publishers have picked up the illustrations used for the Miscellanies showing the ladies in long white dresses and sashes - not exactly typical of SCD in the 1990s.

The dance instructions include about 50 popular RSCDS dances; 30 others such as The Bees and Mairi's Wedding and some fun ballroom type dances like The Palais Glide, not normally on an SCD programme and some of which I havent seen done for many a year - but none the worse for that. I was very interested to see both the RSCDS and the "County" versions of the Foursome Reel are given in some considerable detail: time for a revival? Less fortunate in my view is that the only Strip the Willow is the 40 bar Society version which is not the one actually danced. Any criticisms are minor though: overall this is a very useful book and an excellent buy for any inexperienced dancer.

It has just been announced that the book is one of those chosen for the Scottish Book Fortnight and various promotional activities for the book (and by association for SCD) will be taking place around the country at the end of October. Keep an eye on the local press for details.

The book is available in book stores for GBP 5.99. RSCDS members can get a reduction to 5 pounds 9p through HQ.

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