Every national dance exerts a certain influence over the minds and spirits of the people, Beyond all others, the history of dancing in Scotland coincides with that of the country. It illustrates the marked influence of their French connections over the Scots, from the time of Perival, when the Scots Guards - as in the days of Louis XI. - played a conspicuous part in the joint histories of the nations. The Scotch, as a nation, are lovers of dancing, and readily learned anything they could from their French relations when the two Courts were established in Scotland - as in the regency of Mary of Guise, and the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Fig. 1. The "Cutting-up" step. This step is common to most feels and to the schottische. The knee of the foot when raised should point sideways, not forwards, and the opposite hand should be also raised Photos, Martin Jacolette
King James was a great lover of dancing, and in his " Book of Sports "included dancing as a lawful recreation. At that time the Calvinists esteemed dancing a sin, but the Scottish natural aptitude for it was unconquerable. A century later, in 1728, the Town Council of Glasgow appointed a salaried dancing-master to " familiarise the inhabitants with the Art." This gentleman received the magnificent remuneration of £20 a year ! Dancing was soon regarded as a very necessary article of education. Bagpipe and Highland fling competitions became features of national gatherings and holidays. Reels were first favourites, and had the graver significance of religious exercise at wakes and weddings, when sacred hymn tunes were used to accompany them. This provides a further illustration of the nation's propensity for relieving its feelings by dancing.
At fairs people gave themselves up to the national pastime. A favourite measure for competition - rivalry has always played a large part in Scotch dancing - was the Salmon dance. In this peculiar measure the dancers simulated the leapings of the fish. Vigour, in an unusual degree, characterises all the antique dance measures of Scotland. Highland flings, such as the Marquis of Huntly's Fling, and reels like the Reel of Tulloch, or Tulloch Gorum, are complicated evolutions of a classical and studied order. The national dances of Scotland, while calling for a whole-hearted use of limbs, energies, and muscles, also demand thought and brain power - wherein lies their almost unrivalled excellence.
Fig. 2. The first Fling step. The foot is extended sideways with a spring, then raised below the knee. It is placed behind, in front, and again behind. The other foot is then used. The original fool repeats the step and the dancer turns round once, using the opposite foot
The Reel - the genuine national dance of Scotland - is presumably of Celtic origin. It is the Danish national dance as well as the Scotch; though to which nation it first belonged history does not relate. The Sword dance, common to all warlike nations, is a survival of the military dances of the Greeks and Romans, in honour of the god of war. This warlike dance, with terror-striking accompaniments, has long been practised by Highlanders under the name of Killie Kallum, or Ghillie Culum.
An interesting feature of this Pyrrhic leaping dance and its cousin the Ghillie Galium (the dirk dance) was an imposing warlike ballet, vigorously illustrating the evolutions of attack and defence. This was a far more melodramatic exhibition than the modern feat of gracefully "flinging" and "reeling" over and around a brace of claymores crossed on the ground, without touching or displacing them. The Sword dance is the most exciting of all Highland measures. And in olden days it contained an element of real danger, for if the dancers touched the blades of the sharp weapons over which they were leaping, a wound inevitably resulted - to say nothing of instant disqualification in competitions. Loud exclamations, warlike howls, waving of arms, and cracking of fingers are characteristic accompaniments of this dance, by which the performer stimulates his own exertions, amid the fierce skirling of the pipes.
The Strathspey, a common variety of Scotch dance, is another form of the reel. It was christened after the place of its adoption, the valley of the Spey. In a strathspey the rhythm is slower and more grandiose than that of the reel, alternating with quick motions demanding spirited execution. The affinity between this measure and the Ossianic heroic metre is so marked that Burns compared the stately metre of heroic poetry to the old strathspeys.
Scotch dances stand in a category of their own, to which ordinary canons do not apply. They are sometimes very effective, and capable of considerable artistic development. But their style is peculiarly their own, and cannot be treated with full justice unless it has been thoroughly mastered. Even then, it takes a Scot to perform his national dances with anything like style and conviction. The strange springs, leaps, "cuts," and "shivers" of these dances, also their quaint rhythm and frequent changes of tempo, are beyond the powers of other nationalities. The rugged northern races possess national dances brimful of national spirit, and therefore a sealed book to other countries.