Don Herbison-Evans ,

Technical Report 336
December 1988, updated 28 May 2017
Basser Department of Computer Science, (now School of Information Technologies)
University of Sydney, Australia


A variety of dance styles have evolved in Scotland, including Reels, Square Sets, Circle Dances and Country Dances (Flett, 1964, 1).

The Reels have evolved into solo dances associated with the highlands of Scotland.
The Square Sets have evolved into the Quadrilles, Lancers, etc, performed socially.
The Circle Dances have come to include dances such as the Waltz and Polka: done by couples independently circling the room.
Country Dances are performed in Sets by couples in two parallel lines, one of ladies and one of men. As the dance progresses, each couple progresses through the various positions in the set.

Country Dances were introduced from England around 1700. Through the 18th and 19th Centuries, Scottish steps came to be included. In England, the popularity of Country Dancing declined over this period, virtually ceasing by the mid 19th Century. However, in Scotland it gained popularity. Country Dancing was done equally by the laird and the crofter (Milligan, 1976, 3). By 1900, most young people attended dance classes at some stage. In 1776, Edward Topham wrote, " I do not know any place in the world where dancing is made so necessary a part of polite education as in Edinburgh" (Flett, 1964, 27).

Many Scottish Country Dance Steps have French names, possibly dating back to the Scottish-French Auld Alliance in the 18th Century (Gwin, 1987, 3/781).

Scottish Country Dancing is currently propagated in a standardised form by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS). Hundreds of clubs around the world are affiliated to the RSCDS. In Sydney alone, there are 14 such clubs (McKie, 1988, 8). The RSCDS was formed in 1923, with aims including:

  • to practise and preserve Country Dance as danced in Scotland;
  • to collect old books and pictures illustrative of Scottish Dance;
  • to publish from time to time descriptions of Country Dances with diagrams and music in simple form at a moderate price.
  • The RSCDS standardised the style on the earliest that could be found (Milligan, 1976, 1), although some of the choices are controversial. The style is propagated at an annual Summer School held in St Andrews in Scotland. It is characterised by:

  • friendliness: well in evidence at Sydney clubs where a warm welcome was encountered uniformly by the author;
  • good manners: for example: every dance begins with a bow and a curtsy;
  • elegance: for example: the Queen is a herself patron of the RSCDS, and is a fine exponent of the style.

    In Scottish Country Dancing, the body is held erect, with the arms hanging loosely at the sides, unless extended to hold hands with another dancer (Milligan, 1976, 24). The legs perform a small selection of steps either on the spot (setting) or travelling, all done with 45 degree turnout (Flett, 1964, 91). The main form of expression is in the patterns weaved by the dancers on the floor. The main intellectual demand is generating parts of these patterns in various roles as the individual progresses down and up the set.

    Two different forms of steps are done depending on whether the dance is fast (Jigs, Reels) or slow (Strathspeys).

    Setting steps (on the spot) are normally done in pairs, first to the right, then to the left. In Reels and Jigs, they are based on the Pas de Basque. In 1818, this was described (to the right) as:

    Assemble' dessous to right,
    Glissade dessous to left.

    (Flett, 1964, 107).

    The RSCDS version is done to three beats of the music:

    &: extend right leg forward and swing it in an arc to the right,
    1: step onto the ball of the right foot (now in 2nd), bring left foot to 3rd cou de pied in front,
    2: transfer weight to ball of left foot,
    &: transfer weight to ball of right foot extending left foot to front,
    3: close left foot to 1st.

    In the Strathspey, the Setting step is a sideways Schottische step, as described by Francis Peacock in 1750 (Flett, 1964, 93), done to four beats:

    1: step to 2nd with right foot,
    2: close left foot to 3rd behind,
    3: step to 2nd again with right foot bringing left foot to cou de pied behind,
    4: hop on right foot (using ankle)

    These choices by the RSCDS are controversial. For example, there is evidence that prior to 1914, the Pas de Basque was done with the working foot beating (back, front) between `2' and `&' (Flett, 1964, 108).

    The main travelling step in Reels and Jigs is the `Skip change of step' :

    &: hop on left foot, with right foot extended in front,
    1: step onto right foot,
    &: close left foot in 3rd behind,
    2: step onto right foot, extending left foot forward.

    This choice of the RSCDS is also controversial, as evidence suggests that before 1914, a simple chasse was used (Flett, 1964, 105).

    In the Strathspey, the step is similar, but is done with the hop at the end rather than the beginning.

    A Slip Step is used in Reels and Jigs when circling facing the centre with hands joined. Circling in Strathspeys is done using the Strathspey travelling step done with the hips facing around the circle while the shoulders face the centre, the contra-body movement position of Ballroom Dancing ( CBMP ).

    Stepping Up or Down is a side step used for changing to a new position in the set. On the left, it consists of:

    1: step left foot to 2nd,
    2: cross right foot in front and to the left of the left foot, and step onto it,
    3: step left foot to 2nd again,
    4: close right foot to 1st.

    Various hand holds are used. These are normally at shoulder height (Milligan, 1976, 24). The man usually offers his hand palm up, and the lady places hers in it palm down. An exception is `Turning', where a couple take a number of steps around each other; then, a handshake hold is used. A `Kilt Grip' can be used if the man wears a jacket with sharp buttons on the sleeves that may damage a lady's dress. It consists of holding wrists (Milligan, 1976, 25).


    Steps are grouped together into Figures. The first step of a Figure is normally taken on the right.

    A Set consists of taking one Setting Step to the right, then one to the left. If adjacent dancers Set simultaneously, they hold hands.

    A Circle is done to the left, or to the left and then the right. It has been suggested that this clockwise precedence may be an inheritance from Sun worship, circling in the same direction as the sun. Going to the right first is called `widdershins' meaning `the witches way' (Milligan, 1976, 11). A circle is done with Slip Steps for Reels or Jigs, or Travelling Steps in CBMP for Strathspeys.

    Casting off consists usually of the Top Couple (the couple at the end of the set nearer the source of music) turning out, and travelling down the outside of the Set to some designated position.

    A Wheel consists of three or more dancers performing travelling steps while facing around a circle, having extended their inner arm to hold hands in the centre.

    A Reel (from the Old English `hreol' : a device on which spun thread is wound (Little, 1967, 2/1684)) consists of a number of dancers passing each other alternately on the right and then the left.

    A Chain is similar to a Reel, but each pair holds a hand as they pass.

    A Right and Left is a Chain of two couples (four people), with odd numbered men and even numbered ladies travelling clockwise, the others anticlockwise.

    A Pousette (from the French `to push' (Little, 1967, 2/1558)) consists of two couples circling around each other to the right while doing Polka reverse turns (Flett, 1964, 234).

    A number of Figures are simple combinations of travelling steps, e.g., Advance and Retire, Back to Back, Cross Over, Lead Down the Middle, Balance in Line.

    There are a number of more complex Figures, done less often, e.g., Allemande, Tourne'e, Rondel, Double Triangles, Knot (Milligan, 1976, 47). They too are based on the same Steps and Footwork, and correspond to more complex floor patterns.


    Most dances have their own music, the music and the dance being known by the same name (Flett, 1964, 230).

    Only three rhythms are used: 6/8(Jig), 8/8 (Reel) and 2/4 (Strathspey). The Jig and the Reel are done at approximately 116 beats/minute, and the Strathspey at 84 (Milligan, 1976, 27). There is evidence that in the 18th Century, only one intermediate tempo was used, which was slow enough to accommodate the crinoline dresses worn by the ladies, but not as slow as the current Strathspey (Flett, 1964, 90).

    The rhythm of the Reel is simply:

    That of the Jig is:

    That of the Strathspey is characteristically (Flett, 1964,87):

    Note that the bar starts and ends with a short semiquaver. The origin of this Strathspey rhythm is unclear. The Spey is a river in Northern Scotland debouching into the North Sea, and `Strath' means a wide valley, so presumably the Spey valley had something to do with it. The origin may date back to the banning of the use of Bagpipes by the victorious English after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Thereafter, the Scots were obliged to perform their dances to the accompaniment of a fiddle (Milligan, 1976, 3). The `snap' of the Strathspey rhythm (the final semiquaver of the bar) is attributed to the fiddler Neil Gow (1727-1807) who used a sharp upstroke of the bow to match the hop of the dance (Sadie, 1980, 17/78).

    Various other instruments have traditionally been used to accompany Scottish Dancing besides the Bagpipes and Fiddle, notably the Flute and the Harp (Sadie, 1980, 17/78)). In Sydney, at a recent Scottish Country Dance party attended by the author, two accordions were used. At classes, an audio cassette player is commonly used, with tapes being sold by the RSCDS.


    Ladies wear white dresses, with a tartan scarf pinned on the left shoulder.

    Men wear a white shirt, tie, kilt, sporan, belt and long socks. The socks often have a coloured tag showing, attached to the (covered) garter. The sporan is large decorated purse hanging from the belt over the navel.

    The kilt is made of tartan cloth, being smooth in front, and extensively pleated behind. Men pin their kilts on the right. If a lady wears a kilt, she pins it on the left. This handedness corresponds to the differing buttonings of shirts and coats by men and ladies in Western society.

    Both men and ladies wear special lace up dancing pumps. The use of these is historically controversial. Accounts from before 1914 describe men as wearing patent leather dancing shoes, and ladies wearing slippers with an ankle strap and a one inch heel (Flett, 1964, 17). In 1824, MacTaggart wrote of a dancing class: "the young folk would doff their clogs and put on their kirkshoon, these being their dancing pumps" (Flett, 1964, 28). Kirkshoon were their Sunday best shoes (`kirk' means `Church'). The light pumps used today were only used in the 19th Century by exhibition Highland Dancers (Flett, 1964, 14).


    A repertoire of some 400 dances has been published by the RSCDS, in small pocket volumes each containing descriptions of 36 dances. The dances date mainly from the 18th Century, but dances are still being composed. The author's teacher, Olivia Roberts, composed one recently for the 50th birthday of a local prominent club member. She also won first prize in a competition sponsored by the RSCDS for a dance celebrating Australia's Bicentenary. This depicts people leaving Britain, sailing around the world, and forming a settlement in Australia.

    Thus Scottish Country Dancing combines the old and the new: a flourishing living dance style.


    Flett, J.F. and Flett T.M. (1964),
    "Traditional Dancing in Scotland", Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

    Gwin, R.P. (Chairman) (1987),
    "The New Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia", Britannica, Chicago

    Little, W., Fowler, H.W. and Coulson, J. (1967),
    "Shorter Oxford English Dictionary", Oxford University Press, 3rd Edition

    McKie, R. (1988),
    "Rant", Sydney Scottish Country Dance Club

    Milford, H. (Chairman) (1933),
    "Oxford English Dictionary", Oxford University Press

    Milligan, J.G. (1976),
    "Won't You Join the Dance", Paterson, London

    Sadie, S. (Ed.) (1980),
    "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians", Macmillan, London, 1980