Lion flag

Scottish Country Dance


In the dance, an art so intimately bound up with music, the French convention found ample expression. We have already seen in the old Cockelbie's Sow (15th cent.) how, among the old Scottish dance tunes, there peeps out such strangers as the Orliance (Orléanaise) and Naverne (Navernais), and in a work entitled The Boke Named the Governour (1546), the writer, enumerating the older English dances says, "In stede of these we have nowe Base daunces, bargenettes, pavyons, turgions," whose very labels bespeak their origin, just as do the Scottish paspay (passepied), sincopas (cinq pas), brawl (branle), and galyert (gaillarde). One recalls how the country folk in Christis Kirk on the Grene, throw aside the old tunes and cry to the minstrel to "blaw up a brawl of France." The craze for these tersichorean fancies lasted well beyond the end of this period, and so it is quite clear that in both the lighter forms of music and in the dance, Scotland owed a great deal to France. In the very nature of things, the debt could not be repaid in like for like, although Scotland did furnish Charles VII (1422-61) of France with a court minstrel in John Fary, and Henry IV (1589-1610) with two favourite lutars in James and Charles Hedington, whilst we learn from Tabouret's Orchésographie (1589) that the branles d'Escosse were "the rage" of the day, and they already had a place in the Danseries (1564) of Jean d'Etrée.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 70



France, as we have seen already, was the determining factor in polite society in Scotland, and her trippings with "the light fantastic toe" were in Gallic measures. The Skene and Straloch MSS. are replete with music for the pavan, gaillard, brawl, buffon, courant, cinque pas, saraband, alman, bergomask, pantalon, and canary. Many of these bear the names of royal, noble, or other eminent patrons, e.g. the Queen's Almone, Horreis [Herries] Galyiard, and My Lord Hay's Currand. Not all of this music could have been of exotic origin since it is most likely that many were of Scottish facture, especially those that carry the names of patrons from the "Three Estates," just as those reels and strathspeys of the fiddlers of the 18th and 19th centuries were dedicated by hundreds to the same classes. It is all quite rhythmic and melodious stuff, most of it not traceable elsewhere which, in itself, rather favours the above conclusion of its indigenous production.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 233



Towards the close of the century, social pressure compelled the authorities to give nodding approval to dancing, and dancing masters soon made their appearance. Even sanctimonious Glasgow was one of the first to appoint an official dancing master but, he was "to teach at seasonable hours, keep not balls, and ... shall so order his teaching that there will be no promiscuous dancing of young men and young women together." This was in 1699. Even when private dancing masters appeared they had to be approved by the licensing authority. In Edinburgh we read of a Master of Revels who claimed to have authority in 1694 over all kinds of music making, and even games and sports, to see that "nothing immoral or indecent" was allowed. A judgment in this year however, went against him, when his jurisdiction was interpreted to cover only music in theatres. The dancing master, with kit or fiddle in hand, now became part and parcel of social life and, what is more, was often looked upon as the town's entrepreneur when instrumental music was required, and he was also the main support when concerts first showed their timourous heads in Scotland.

Even from the beginning of the century the dance was persisted in notwithstanding the attitude of the church. The country folk and the artisan class indulged in the hornpipe, jig, reel, lilt and spring to their heart's content, whilst the middle and upper class had in addition their more sedate pavan, courant, brawl, alman and other exotic dances, the music of which has been preserved for us from the time of the Rowallan lute MS. (1612-18) to that of the Leyden MS. (ca. 1692).

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 191-192




Dancing was disliked by the Church of Scotland. In 1649 the General Assembly passed an act prohibiting so-called 'promiscuous dancing' (i.e. in which men danced with women), and this act was reaffirmed in 1701. As a result there was almost no public dancing of any kind in Scotland in the seventeenth century; it had to be done surreptitiously, if at all. [Note 1]

Celtic ornament Towards the end of the seventeenth century, however, dancing came out into the open again in Edinburgh as an upper-class recreation, stimulated by the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York in 1680. New dances came into vogue at this time: these were the Country-dance, an English type not hitherto known in Scotland, and the Minuet (pronounced 'minaway' in the French manner). The church objected, predictably; pulpit-thumping sermons equating dancing with sexual permissiveness were frequently to be heard in Edinburgh churches during the first ten years of the eighteenth century. But times had changed, and the ladies of Edinburgh defied the church and danced on: a popular dance tune at the time was called 'The de'il stick the minister'. In 1723 an Assembly, or aristocratic dancing-club, was opened in Edinburgh which was to continue until nearly the end of the century.

The Edinburgh Assembly ws in theory open to the general public, in practice confined to 'Persons of Quality, and others of Note'. But assemblies also opened in provincial Scottish towns, and dancing-masters set up teaching practices in areas remote from the capital. Topham remarked in 1775 how dancing-masters earned a good living by teaching large classes of pupils at small individual fees: it is probable that dancing lessons became chaeper as the eighteenth century progressed, so encouraging the spread of dancing downwards socially into the lower middle classes. Certainly there was a vast increase in the amount of dancing done in Scotland, until by the 1770s it had become a major national pastime.

The Penny Wedding The Country-dances which had been imported from England soon became acclimatized. New dances of this type, designed to go with Scots folk-tunes, were invented, and experimented with at aristocratic country-house parties; indeed, it is likely that many of the great houses had their individual dancing traditions between 1730 and 1780. Instructions for forty-eight new, native country-dances are preserved in a manuscript written by David Young in Edinburgh in 1740, which is entitled 'A Collection of the newest Countrey Danced Perform'd in Scotland'.

The Reel also flourished during this period; and a new type of slow reel, the Strathspey, originating presumably from the Spey valley in Inverness-shire, appeared in the Lowlands during the 1760s and caught on very quickly.


David Johnson
Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century
Oxford University Press, 1972
pp. 120-121


One of the most successful dancing masters was Ayrshire-born David Strange; his pupils included the scientifically minded Mary Somerville, who described him in her memoirs:

He was exactly like a figure on the stage; tall and thin, he wore a powdered wig, with cannons at the ears, and a pigtail. Ruffles at the breast and wrists, white waistcoat, black or velvet shorts, white silk stockings, large silver buckles and a pale blue coat completed his costume. He had a little fiddle on which he played, called a kit. … Every Sunday afternoon all the scholars, both boys and girls, met to practise in the public assembly rooms … We used to always go in full evening dress. We learnt the minuet de la cour, reels and country dances.

Most dancing masters would have played the violin or kit, so that they could demonstrate the steps to the dances with the music.


That the national songs stood their ground so firmly during the century is not a circumstance at which we should wonder, as two factors assured their permanence—the name of Burns and the lure of the Doric. The national dance tunes had not these props. Still, in the early century, many collections had enormous sales, especially McFadyen's Collection of Highland Strathspey Reels (Glasg., c. 1802), Crosby's Caledonian Musical Repository (Edin., 1806, 1811), Nathaniel Gow's Complete Repository (1799-1822), and Davie's Caledonian Repository (Aberdeen, Edin., c.1829-30). Writing in 1852, Surenne said that fifty years earlier it was the minuet, cotillon, reel, strathspey, and country dance that were in season in Scotland. All of these, save the reel and strathspey, had disappeared by the latter date, but even these were to be pushed aside by the waltz, quadrille and mazurka. The latter, according to Grove's Dictionary of Music, did not reach England until "towards 1845," but Joseph Lowe (1797-1866), the famous Scottish dancing master, was certainly teaching the mazurka in Glasgow in the "Twenties" at the same time as the gallopade, "a new and much admired figure" as the Glasgow Herald of 1830 described it. It was in this wise that the music of the reel and strathspey, much of which was traditional, fell into desuetude. Yet in the "Forties" there was sufficient demand for the old dance tunes to urge Alexander Mackenzie to issue his National Dance Music of Scotland, which was re-edited by his son [Sir] Alexander C. Mackenzie in 1891. Joseph Lowe himself also catered for public tastes in his Collection of Reels and Strathspeys (Edin., 1844), as did Surenne when he produced his Dance Music of Scotland (Edin., 1851). Later, James Spiers Kerr (1841-83) of Glasgow, became the protector of the reel and strathspey tunes, but interest in them gradually faded with the neglect of the dances themselves. In the "Eighties" a revival of interest in the old dance and their music was shown in Edinburgh when the Highland Reel and Strathspey Society was formed (1881), which was due mainly to the lead given by James Stewart Robertson (b. 1823), who edited the Athole Collection of the Dance Music of Scotland (Edin., 1884), the largest collection of its kind.

Henry George Farmer
A History of Music in Scotland
London, 1947
p. 191-192



The new dancing fashions, quadrilles, polkas, waltzes and galops, spreading to Scotland from continental Europe and England, are first noticed in the high society functions and public dances of the towns and villages. These were patronized predominantly by the young. The traditional occasions associated with the kirn, hiring fairs or weddings in which members of the older generation participated, retained the Reels and Country Dances. While the Quadrille began its conquest of the Lowland assemblies, the Country Dance became more familiar in the Hebrides. Hitherto, the favourite dances in the West Highlands and Isles had been the native reels, including the common Highland Reel for three or four. Towards the end of the [19th] century we find the following Country Dances being enjoyed there: Haymakers, Flowers of Edinburgh, Petronella, Triumph, Rory O'More, Cumberland Reel, The Queen's Welcome, Young Prince of Wales—supplemented by Strip the Willow, Glasgow Highlanders and the Eightsome Reel and even the Schottische and Polka, and very often to the music of the bagpipe. Dancing was still enjoyed upon the slightest excuse as of old, at weddings, fireside ceilidhs, Beltane, New Year, or simply on dry moonlight nights at some favourite part of the road or green.

Celtic ornament The Reel and Strathspey, otherwise known as the Foursome Reel; the Reel of Tulloch and the Eightsome Reel, held a dominant place on the programmes of the typical Scottish ball despite the intrusion of the Quadrille (particularly in its form of the Lancers) and of the Waltz and Polka in their several forms. Thus even in the nineteenth century, when lovers of the native dance music were reflecting nostalgically on the golden days of the recent past, there was still a large public and social place for the traditional music in the dance.

George Emmerson
Rantin' Pipe and Tremblin' String: A History of Scottish Dance Music
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971
p. 93



Note 1.


Of course this statement does not apply to the Highlands, which was still mainly Catholic at this period, and so not governed by the views of the Church of Scotland. Back



Ceolas Celtic dance page


Go to to the traditional dance index page.

BookGo to music encyclopedia directory


Hearth Go to The Standing Stones home page

Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)


Stonehenge border