Pure joy of dancing to that familiar wail

Dancers compete during the 2023 Inveraray Highland Games in Scotland. Jean Balchin well remembers...
Dancers compete during the 2023 Inveraray Highland Games in Scotland. Jean Balchin well remembers the itch of the heavy wool on her skin as she danced as a child.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
A few weeks ago, I found myself enmeshed within a glowing, sweaty crowd at the National Museum of Scotland, watching a troupe of young women dance and prance around the polished floorboards.

We were at a ceilidh for Burns Night (January 25), and the group dancing had been paused to make way for a performance by the Flings N Things dance troupe.

Their maroon unitards, glitter, curled hair and sequins were a far cry from the stiff wool and velvet outfits of the traditional Highland dancer, but the steps were the same. Watching on, I was propelled back to my childhood, back to a darkened prefab school building in Mosgiel, where I once learned the fling, the jig, and the sword dance.

I don’t recall how I got into Highland dancing. I’m sure there was an initial conversation; pleading and cajoling on my part, slow acquiescence on my parents’ part. On the other hand, perhaps it was something my Glaswegian father suggested himself.

After all, it was Dad who drove me from Signal Hill out to Mosgiel every Monday evening after school. He would park in the school carpark and read a novel by Charles Dickens while I sweated, fretted, and hopped around under the watchful eye of my teacher.

Twenty years later, I possess neither the agility nor the strength to tap, cavort, march or leap in such a regimented style, although I still possess unusually well-developed calf muscles and the ability to stand on my tip toes like a ballet dancer (it’s my party skill). I also still possess a profound admiration for the art form, and an interest in its history.

For those unacquainted with the dance form (of which I’m sure there are few, given the Scottish origins of our fair city), Highland dancing (Scottish Gaelic: dannsa Gaidhealach) is a type of dance developed in the Highlands of Scotland over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Usually accompanied by the wailing and droning of the bagpipes, Highland dancers wear specialised soft-soled black shoes called ghillies or pumps.

A tartan kilt and hose with a velvet jacket and white blouse make up the rest of the costume, or for men, there’s the option of a doublet and tartan trews. I well remember the itch of the heavy wool on my skin as I danced; the sweat that dampened my thick socks, the tightness of the velvet vest under my armpits. We couldn’t afford my own dancing outfit, so I borrowed one from my teacher for competitions and exams. The kilts were unpleasantly heavy to dance in, but were beautiful to look at. I traced the varying lines and colours of the tartans, and wondered what my own family tartans looked like. This was my first step in learning more about my family’s Scottish roots.

According to historian Michael Newton, Highland dancing was "created from the Gaelic folk dance repertoire, but formalised with the conventions of ballet". The history of Highland dancing is something murky and convoluted; like many dance forms, it has no clear origin or singular developmental thread. Sword dancing has deep roots in European history, with evidence of its practice dating back to prehistoric times and later during the mediaeval period. In the Scottish tradition, dances were performed to celebrate victories, commemorate important events, and foster a sense of community among the Highland clans. Accounts from 1573 tell of Scottish mercenaries performing a sword dance in Stockholm Castle, as part of an unfulfilled plot to assassinate the Swedish king; the weapons necessary to complete the proposed murder lying conveniently under the dancers’ hopping feet. Anne of Denmark’s reception in 1590 included a mix of sword and Highland dances, while in 1633, the Incorporation of Skinners and Glovers of Perth staged their version of the sword dance for Charles I.

However, government suppression during the Dress Act of 1746 aimed to eradicate Highland culture, including its dances, though the subsequent revival, notably boosted by Queen Victoria’s admiration for Scotland, sparked the modern Highland games, preserving Highland dancing albeit with a narrower selection of dances for competition.

Highland dancing wasn’t a particularly "cool" dance style when I was a child. In fact, it was downright embarrassing. Whilst my peers spent their lunch breaks vibing and grooving in their hip-hop classes, I read my books in the library and kept quiet about my own dancing endeavours. Today, however, it’s something I’m proud of, and something I wish I stuck with.

There are many different styles and steps involved in Highland dancing , including the Highland fling, sword dance, seann triubhas, and the reel. According to one legend, the Highland fling originated as a triumphant dance performed by warriors after battle, over a small round shield called a targe, equipped with a central spike. Another legend claims that the dance originated with a young boy mimicking the movements of a stag, leaping and wheeling on a hillside, with the dancer’s curved arms and hands symbolising the stag’s antlers. Then there’s my personal favourite, the sword dance. One tale traces its origins to the era of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, recounting how King Malcolm III (Canmore) of Scotland commemorated his victory over a rival chieftain by dancing over crossed claymores — his own and that of his foe. Yet another narrative suggests that soldiers would perform this dance ritual around crossed swords before battle, believing that if their feet touched the blades, it foretold misfortune in the upcoming conflict.

The most entertaining dance has to be the seann triubhas, meaning "old trousers" in Gaelic. Legend has it that Highlanders despised the Sassenach trousers they were compelled to wear after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion led to the banning of kilts. The dance begins with slow, methodical steps characterised by vigorous leg shaking, indicating the Highlander’s struggle to rid themselves of the detested garments. The dance progresses into faster, more joyous movements, telling of the wearer’s return to the beloved kilt with the lifting of the ban in 1782.

There’s something so rich, raw, and unearthly about this scene. It’s a world away from the stiff stage and regimented steps I recall from my Highland dancing days, but it embodies the same joy and energy I once felt, decked in the tartan that once was banned from the Highlands, dancing to the familiar wail of the bagpipes.

— Jean Balchin is an ODT columnist who has just started a new life in Edinburgh.