Origins of Dance in the Scottish Highlands

Step-dancing has become strongly associated with Gaelic tradition in Nova Scotia, but where did it come from? Is it really an old and conservative tradition that preserves how Gaels were dancing when they emigrated from Scotland (or even earlier), or was it borrowed from the Irish in North America? Where did the dance forms now performed by Scottish Gaels come from, given that there are no descriptions of anything resembling dance in medieval sources (a point strongly made by Dr Fergus Kelly in this recent video and summary paper).

People who have seen step-dance in the Canadian Maritimes and been unable to relate it to anything in Scotland with which they are familiar have come up with all sorts of wild theories about its origins. There are certainly numerous mentions of step-dancers, refined in their dancing skills, that appear in Gaelic song-poetry composed in Nova Scotia, such as this excerpt about a female dancer, probably composed in the 1890s (from Mac-Talla 7.46 (16 June 1899)):

Air an ùrlar réidh
Tha a ceum ro ullamh,
Freagart do'n cheòl
Bhios na meòir a' cluich dhi.
On the level wooden floor,
Her step is adroit,
Answering to the music
That the fingers play for her.

In a newly published article in the International Review of Scottish Studies, I have demonstrated how Gaelic literature from the late 17th century through the mid-19th century clearly reflects consciousness that the dance traditions created in the fashionable French court(s) that penetrated contemporary European society thoroughly also transformed the dance of the Gaels of Scotland.

I think the article is one of many examples of how important it is to employ Gaelic primary sources when investigating the history – cultural or otherwise – of the Highlands. The Gaelic sources I have used reveal the French associations of dance, explicitly and implicitly, even though there has been little evidence of French origins in modern oral tradition in either Scotland or Nova Scotia.

There were once other forms of dance in the Highlands (which I have explored in Warriors of the Word) that preceded the French forms of dance that have since become dominant, but these all ceased being active traditions by the early 20th century. Between the lack of social functions for the old forms of dance and the dominance of the social dance music played on the fiddle and pipes, the French dance forms have prevailed.

Does it really matter that these dances originally came from France, given that they were Gaelicized within communities and musical traditions? In a sense, no, because Gaels were able to incorporate the dances and accompanying music according to their own cultural aesthetics, resources and needs and ultimately forgot about the origins because they were no longer relevant in their functions.

However, it does matter in two important ways. First of all, the true story of the dissemination of French dance, first in élite forms through courtly circles and then in more popular forms through dancing masters, explains the origins of and resemblences to other similar dance forms, such as clogging, buck dancing, Highland dancing, Irish sean-nós dance, Quebecois dance, etc. In other words, these are all derived in various ways (and to various degrees) from essentially French forms rather than anything “Celtic.”

Second of all, the adaptability of tradition and its constant ability to be transformed should be seen, I believe, as an ultimately optimistic message about the resilience and creativity of communities. If 18th-century Gaels were able to take French dance and transform it according to their own vernacular folkways into something Gàidhealach within a few short generations, shouldn’t the same processes of adoption and adaptation be possible for other art forms today (so long as they are truly acclimatized within Gaelic norms)?

In other words, why shouldn’t Gaels today exercise the same privilege to transform contemporary art forms according to their own needs that their ancestors exercised not very long ago, whether those art forms be hip-hop or guerilla theatre? If we allow Gaelic tradition to be “frozen” in the year 1920 or 1930 or any other arbitrary date, aren’t we conspiring to mummify it and keep it dead?  Instead, I think the goal should be to enable young people to understand the roots and principles of the culture well enough that it will be resilient to allow new art forms to develop and encourage young people to express their own reality with all of the tools available to them – just as their ancestors did.

Select Bibliography

Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on An Sionnach Fionn and commented:
    Michael Newton examines how a proper understanding of history, free of popular modern myths, can teach us the value of continuous cultural development and innovation.

  2. Mats Melin says:

    Good points Michael!
    I would like to add that when the Gaelic sources refer to a French origin for certain layers of their dance traditions one must remember that the French court in turn actively assimilated and transformed dance trends from other European countries and cultures further afield. The French court was greatly influenced by Italian and Spanish court and rural dancing for example, and as a specific example incorporated movements from the Basque regions (entrechat and Pas de Basque) into their courtly dancing (both of which occur in Highland (both) and Scottish Country Dancing (latter). The ‘Pas de Basque’ is however a common motif in many dance forms and a version does occur in strathspey time in Cape Breton step dancing for example but does not bear a name in that tradition).
    Many of the French dancing masters were originally from other countries, for example, Catherine de Medici, who is attributed to have brought the taste for dancing to the French court when she married Henry of Anjou in the 1500s, commissioned one of her compatriots Baldassarino da Belgiojoso (who took the French name Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx (c.1555-87)), to compose dances for the French Court. Later the Italian born Jean Baptiste Lully did similarly greatly influence the French court under Louis XIV reign in the latter half of the 1600s. So the incorporation of foreign elements to elite dancing contexts is an ongoing process that is happening in the Scottish Highlands just as well as in most other parts of Europe. That these elite practices are filtering down to other levels of society where it is over time assimilated, or perhaps better put transformed, with other local strands of music and dance knowledge is only a natural process.
    I often wonder if the term French is perhaps used by the Gaels in a more general sense to indicate foreign, rather than a specific one? Someone once pointed out that the Gaelic word for French – Frangach, sometimes means foreign, as in the word for turkey – cearcan Frangach – ‘foreign hens.’ But this is just speculation on my part.
    I do agree with your points in your last paragraph Michael, where you highlight the important aspect of understanding the ‘real’ processes of origin and transformation (rather than popular myth) and that this should form the basis for contemporary transformations and expressions in an informed manner. I feel that this ethos formed the fundamental basis of the work of the dance performance group ‘Dannsa” in Scotland that I once was part of.

    1. Thank you, Mats, for your comments.

      The suggestion of not reading “French” too literally, but as a signifier of a site where new traditions were taking shape from various sources is good. The author of a key text I used in my article, Margaret McGowan, called the French court a “crucible”, which is apt.

      You could make a similar argument about the creation of modern popular music — rock ‘n roll and other — forms in N America. The US in particular has been a kind of crucible for the transformation and fusing of traditions from various sources — Africa, Spain, France, England, etc — into new(ish) forms which are then cycled in various flows around the world but which tend to retain the label “American”. In my blog entry about the origins of the Strathspey, I made an analogy about Jamaican music which is apt in this context as well.

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