The Sword Dance
The Sword Dance, or Ghillie Callum, has war as its basic theme. Today it is both picturesque and popular at Highland Games; legend has it that in older times it was danced on the eve of battle, and that for the soldier to touch or displace the sword portended evil in the coming battle. There are many other theories regarding the origin of the Sword Dance, and one of the most attractive of these is that which tells how the Great Malcolm Canmore, after having his own to form a cross, over which he danced triumphantly to the wild music of the pipes.
The Highland Fling
The Highland Fling originated as a wild dance of triumph following victory in a battle. It is said to be inspired by the capers of the stag, the dancer’s upraised arms representing the animal’s antlers. Danced vigorously and exultantly, it is now highly stylized and calls for the greatest skill in technique and exactness of timing. Despite the variety of steps, it should, for example be danced throughout the same position on the board. Perhaps because originally the Highland Fling was said to have been done on the shield of the clansman, called a targe. One can understand the quick footwork and dexterity of the dance when it is pointed out that most targes carried a pinpoint sharp spike of steel projecting some 5-6 inches from the center.
The Seann Triubhas
Pronounced “Shawn Trews” in Gaelic, in English it translates to ‘Old Trousers’. Origins are obscure; it definitely depicts a person in the act of shedding his trousers. It’s said by some that the dance came about in 1783 when the British Disarming Act of 1747 was finally repealed and Scots were allowed to wear their tartans and kilts once again. The dance mimics a Scot shedding his britches (during the slow, first part of the dance) and returning to his tradition of Highland dress and custom (during the final, up-tempo, fling-like steps).
The Strathspey and Highland Reel
Of all the Highland dancing events in which the competitors vie, the reels are the closest approach to social dancing. Even these, however are individual competitions. While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually. Legend has it the Reel originated with well wishers waiting for the minister to arrive at the church for a wedding on a cold day. The chilly group danced as a means of keeping warm.
Scottish Lilt and Flora Mac Donald’s Fancy
These two dances (and others) are known as Scottish National Dances. They are of a more modern origin and have been collected from old dance masters. The attire worn by female dancers is called the Aboyne dress, named after the Aboyne Highland Games of Scotland, where up to this day the wearing of the kilt is strictly forbidden to women. The National dances are very similar to Highland dances, but the style is more flowing and balletic. They require a lot of skill to execute correctly, and spectators will note that often the rhythms are more complicated than in conventional Highland dancing. The Flora Mac Donald’s Fancy is danced in honor of Flora Mac Donald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to the Isle of Skye.
The Sailor’s Hornpipe
This dance is common to many parts of the British Isles. It derived its name from the fact that usually the musical accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than bagpipes. Hornpipes were common instruments in those days; they were comparable to our present-day tin whistle. In time, the dance became popular among seafaring men and is now associated with sailors. The modern hornpipe imitates many shipyard activities common in the days of wooden ships and iron men. The outfit worn during this dance imitates a sailor’s uniform.
Blue Bonnets Over The Border
This is a dance that depicts a young woman trying to flirt and catch the attention of a ‘blue bonnet’. ‘Blue Bonnets’ is slang for a Scotsman, so named because of the blue hats they wore.
Wilt Thou Go To The Barracks, Johnny?
This is a recruiting dance. A recruiting officer would go into a village with a dancer as entertainment, or to attract people to his temporary recruiting station. Some say that each regiment had its own dance but this is the only one widely practiced.
The Highland Laddie
This dance was choreographed by soldiers in World War I.