Scottish country dancing is a dance form with roots stretching back for centuries. Participants are grouped into sets, typically of 3, 4 or 5 couples arranged either in two lines (men facing women) or in a square, and work together to dance a sequence of formations.
Figure dances of the Scottish countryside called ‘country dances’ can be traced back to the English Court of Elizabeth I. Often set to Scottish or Irish tunes, these dances became very popular. The constant influence of various European Courts meant that dancers were always absorbing new ideas of style and content. The greatest flowering of this form of dance was in the assembly rooms of the 18th century. During this period of enlightenment, Edinburgh emulated the European capitals, and dance assemblies flourished. Other cities and towns soon followed and dancing became an accepted part of social interaction.
Scotland, of course, had other traditions of dance and here the country dances incorporated features from older strathspeys, reels, rants and jigs. The result was a style of dance with which the whole of Scottish society could feel comfortable; the elegance and courtesy of the ‘country dance’ and the energy and step precision of the old ‘reels’.
While country dances died out in England, they continued to flourish in Scotland. The dancing masters, who travelled extensively throughout Europe were often skilled musicians and helped to widen the repertoire to include newer, fashionable dances such as quadrilles and polkas.
New dances are being written all the time, and dances vary considerably in complexity and ease of dancing – thus careful selection of dances for a program can cater for beginners with a couple of months’ experience, or challenge and interest the most experienced dancers, or, as more usually happens, provide a range over the evening to suit most tastes.
Scottish country dancing is very sociable – it is common practice to dance with different partners during a night of dancing – and thanks to the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, is sufficiently popular and uniform that any Scottish country dancer can pack their dance shoes and be welcomed by a local group almost anywhere in the world.
Scottish country dance is mainly danced for pleasure and enjoyment, but many groups also perform; there are even occasional competitions. Although the basic steps and formations are easy to pick up, the technique is being honed continuously so that at its highest levels it can now be an extremely athletic, balletic dance form (although the majority of social dancers don't take it as seriously as that).
There can be no dancing without music, and Scottish country dancing has attracted some of the most talented musicians to play for it. From the first chord to the final bow or curtsey, dancers are inspired by the driving reels, jaunty jigs, smooth strathspeys or lilting slow airs – leading to the popular expression “the music will tell you” (now also immortalized in the name of a dance).
Today the term ‘Scottish country dance’ embraces the social dances of Scotland which have evolved from many traditions. The unique blend of wonderful music, disciplined dancing, intricate floor patterns and sociability that appeals to so many people, resulting in it being danced throughout the world by Scots and non-Scots alike.
An excerpt from "The Firey Cross", part of the Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon