According to Charlie Hill, in his piece on the history of Highland dancing in 2002, many of the steps connected with it came originally from the French courts. This was possibly through the influence of Mary, Queen of Scots and the gentlemen of Scotland, who served in the bodyguard of the King of France (Garde Écossaise).
Until quite recently, Highland Dancing was a key part of the physical training programmes for many of the Scottish Highland Regiments, in place of much of the callisthenics, obstacle courses, etc., that are so much a part of modern army life. The Scots would daily participate in a sustained series of Reels, Flings, and Sword Dances to the accompaniment of their own pipers, a test of endurance for any man.
Outwith the Highland regiments, Highland Dancing has been kept alive by the teaching of our youngsters. There is a vibrant population, mainly female, to carry on the tradition throughout the United Kingdom, the New World and also in the Commonwealth countries in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Rachel Carruthers: a champion in the making
Every now and then we get notice of a rising star from the clan itself. In this case it is 8-year-old Rachel Carruthers from Lanarkshire, in Scotland. She was brought to our attention by her father Scott, a Society member, who filmed her dancing. She was accompanied by her mother, and danced as a thank-you to the front-line staff of the National Health Service, here in the UK.
Her poise and skill immediately impressed for one so young and the video was shared on the Clan Carruthers Facebook page, which went down a storm. With this in mind, we thought it would be nice to do a wee piece on this lovely young lass, in support of all her efforts.
Click play for the Video that caught the Society’s attention; Rachel with her Mum Angela.
The ‘NHS” dance is reproduced above with the permission of Rachel and her family, for your viewing pleasure. It shows Rachel, dancing with her Mum on the left, who hadn’t danced since she was 16, due to a foot problem.
Rachel is currently in the novice dance category, moving up to intermediates at the end of April. The red-coloured kilt is her Highland dance kilt and her purple kilt is for national dances. Rachel is seen here holding a large gold trophy from when she competed at the prestigious Loch Lomond Highland games, taking overall winner in her category, for the second year running.
Inspired by the success of her mother Angela, who danced for 13 years, and accumulated many medals and trophies in her own right, Rachel has been attending Move Dance School in Carluke since the age of 3. She started competing at 4 in the primary section. The School is run by Jane Masters and Carol Dick and it is Carol who has been sharing her expertise and teaching skills with Rachel.
Carol has a great deal of expertise in the area as she is herself is both a former champion and is currently a judge on the Royal Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. Although it is obvious that Rachel has a natural talent passed down from her mother, the excellent tuition she is receiving is reflected in the high standard to which she performs.
Over the last 4 years she has competed throughout Scotland and with the support of her parents has attended events in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dumfries and Ayrshire. Rachel has been an overall competition winner in her category on over 25 occasions, in the last year.
Rachel loves her dancing and her ambition is to to be Scottish National Champion someday. But her sights are also set a little higher. She would like to have the opportunity to compete in the World Championships and hopefully dance at the Edinburgh Tattoo, age permitting.
The World Championships and the Scottish Nationals are both held at the Cowal Highland Gathering, in Dunoon, Argyll and Bute, Scotland.
Beginning in 1894, the name comes from the peninsula upon which Dunoon sits on the western shore of the Firth of Clyde. It is situated an hour and a half north of Glasgow and the Games themselves are reputedly the largest and most spectacular Highland Games in the world.
Rachel’s favourite dance is the sword dance (Gille Challum) in which she has won most of her gold medals. Her tartan is Longniddry Dress Maroon, picked to reflect the football team the family supports; ‘Hearts’ (Heart of Midlothian Football Club). The club itself is from the Gorgie area of Edinburgh. They play at Tynecastle Park. Rachel’s National kilt is Cunningham Dress Purple, which Rachel picked herself and the family had made for her.
Angela and Scott, Rachel’s proud parents, enjoy travelling around Scotland, along with their youngest Dean. Weekends are an adventure and they have allowed them to share quality family time in different parts of the country, whilst at the same time, supporting Rachel in her competitions. Scott says: ‘The family feel that it is totally worth the effort, and the look of joy on her wee face when she wins is a picture to behold”.
Well, we here at the Clan Carruthers Society, along with our Chief, are very proud that she carries our name. Well done Rachel, you will go far.
Rachel, aged 7, dancing the Sword Dance (Gille Challum). Posted with kind permission of Rachel’s parents. Her wee brother Dean is the one proudly shouting his support. (plays correctly)
Much of the information below is from the Highland Dance expert Charlie Mill, former Highland Dance Champion and world-renowned Highland Dance Judge.
Highland dance is a competitive and technical dance form requiring technique, stamina, and strength. The dance pieces are split into 4 dance sections to include:
a) The Highland Fling: the origin of which associates it as a warrior’s dance of triumph following a battle. It was supposedly danced over a small round shield known as a Targe, with a spike projecting from the centre. Yet another legend and the most popular, links the dance to a young boy imitating the antics of a stag rearing and wheeling on a hillside that he had seen with his grandfather; the curved arms and hands representing the stag’s antlers.
b) The Sword Dance (Gille Challum – Gaelic for “the servant of Calum”): the oldest of the dances. One story said to originate from the times of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, recalls King Malcolm III (Canmore) of Scotland, son of King Duncan killed Macbeth, in battle at Lamphanan, Aberdeenshire. He allegedly celebrated by dancing over his own bloody claymore crossed with the sword of his enemy.
Yet another story tells that a soldier would dance around and over crossed swords prior to battle; should his feet touch the blade during the dance however, then this was considered an ill omen for the following day. This is a battle dance and all foot movements must be precise and strong.
Another more practical explanation is that the dance was simply an exercise used to develop and hone the nimble footwork required to stay alive in sword-play.
c) The Seann Triubhas ( Gaelic for “old trousers” – Pronounced “shawn trewus) is described as the classic and most beautiful of all Highland dances, being the most difficult to perform. This is romantically associated with the highlander’s disgust at having the wear the hated Sassenach trousers that they were forced to wear when the kilt was banned following the 1745 rebellion. The initial slow dance steps involve lots of leg shaking; symbolising attempts to shed the hated garments; the final faster steps demonstrating the joy of returning to the kilt when the ban ended in 1782.
d) The Reel O’ Tulloch originated within the four walls of a church in the wee village of Tullich near Ballater in Aberdeenshire in quite a different manner. On a cold and wintry Sunday morning the congregation awaited the arrival of the minister who, through no fault of his own, was late for the service. In order to keep themselves warm, the kirk members began to dance with each other and swing themselves by the arms. Little did they realise that they were laying down the foundation movements for the popular dance we know today as the Reel of Tulloch, which today shows the same character and spirit of that bygone age.
The dances, although remaining basically the same, progressively increase in difficulty, reflecting further skills in agility, dexterity and stamina as the dancer moves up through the categories. The Scheme run by the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association incorporates 5 levels for; Primary (under 7 years only), Beginner, Novice, Intermediate and Premier grades and permits dancers to monitor their own progress through the different competition categories by a system of achievement stamps, when prizes are won.
The History of the Highland dance.
It seems that the old kings and clan chiefs used the Highland Games as a means to select their best men at arms, and the discipline required to perform the Highland dances allowed men to demonstrate their strength, stamina and agility.
Although likely to date back to a much earlier period, the first documented evidence of intricate war-dances being performed to “the wailing music of bagpipes” was at the second marriage of Alexander III to his French bride Yolande de Dreux at Jedburgh in 1285.
It is also said that Scottish mercenaries performed a sword dance before the Swedish King John III at a banquet held at Stockholm Castle in 1573. The dance was apparently part of a plot to assassinate the king, the weapons necessary to complete the dastardly deed ‘just happened’ to be a natural prop for the festivities. Luckily for the king the signal was never given to implement the plan.
A reception given in honour of Anne of Denmark at Edinburgh in 1589 included a “Sword dance and Hieland Danses”, and in 1617 a sword dance was performed before James VI. Still later in 1633, the Incorporation of Skinners and Glovers of Perth performed their version of the sword dance for Charles I whilst floating on a raft in the middle of the River Tay.
It was after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 that the government in London attempted to purge the Highlands of all unlawful elements by seeking to crush the rebellious clan system. An Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of weapons and the wearing of kilts a penal offence. The Act was rigorously enforced. So much so, it seems, that by the time the Act was repealed in 1785, Highlanders had lost all enthusiasm for their tartan garb and lacked the main prop required to perform their sword dances.
Primarily to make judging easier, however, the selection of dances being performed were gradually narrowed down over the decades that followed. The result of this was that many traditional dances simply got lost, as they were no longer required for competition purposes. In addition, over the years, Highland dancing has moved from being an exclusively male pursuit, to one that today includes more than 95% of female dancers.
As far as competitive Highland dancing is concerned, until 1986 only four standard dances remained – The Sword Dance (Gille Chaluim), The Seann Triubhas, The Highland Fling, and The Reel of Tulloch. Like many other dance traditions, Highland dancing has changed and evolved over the years, integrating elements that may have their roots set in centuries-old tradition with elements that are much more modern.
Royal Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing
The Royal Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (RSOBHD) was formed in 1950 through a wish by the major Highland Dance Examining Bodies, plus other teachers and leading dancers in the UK at that time, to have a supervisory Board, comprising delegates from the many different organisations involved in Highland Dance, which could lay down quality standards for all areas of Highland Dancing.
Since its earliest days the Board has maintained a World-Wide Judges Panel to which entry is by examination. Those examinations are held periodically in different cities and countries with an annual exam in Scotland. A World-Wide Registration Scheme for dancers is also operated. Competitive dancers register with the local RSOBHD Registration Agents within their own country, i.e. ABHDI (Australia), OBHDA(SA) (South Africa), Scotdance Canada (Canada), Scotdance New Zealand (New Zealand) and FUSTA (USA). Dancers carry an RSOBHD Registration Card which shows their current performance category or level and it entitles them to compete at all competitions within that category anywhere in the world.