Traditionally, Highland Dancing and Scottish National Dancing competitions are done to bagpipes. The version pipers play today dates back to the 16th Century, when the MacCrimmon family, pipers for McLeod of Harris, worked out not only the form of the bagpipes, but also the intricate fingering on the chanter. The music itself consists of the melody, which is played on the chanter, backed up by continuous and unvarying tones from the three drone pipes.
The Highland Fling
A dance of victory in battle. Traditionally, the ancient warriors and clansmen performed this dance on the small round shield (called a targ) which they carried into battle. One can understand the quick footwork and dexterity of the dancer when it is pointed out that most targs carried a pinpoint sharp spike of steel projecting some 5-6 inches from its center. A false or careless step could be more than a little painful.
The Sword Dance (Ghillie Callum)
The ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael. It is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore. There is no Highland Dance older or better known than the Ghillie Callum. Tradition says the original Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince who was a hero of mortal combat against one of MacBeth’s chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1504. He is said to have taken the chief ’s sword, crossed over it with his own on the ground before him, and danced over them both in exultation.
The Sheann Triubhas
Pronounced ‘shawn trews’ in Gaelic, in English it translates to ‘old trousers. Origins are obscure: it definitely depicts a person in the act of shedding his trousers. It’s said by some the dance came about in 1783 when the British Disarming Act of 1747 was finally repealed and Scots were allowed to wear their tartans and kilts once again. The dance mimics a Scot shedding his britches (during the slow, first part of the dance) and returning to his tradition of Highland dress and custom (during the final, up-tempo fling-like step).
The Strathspey & Highland Reel
Of all the Highland Dancing events in which the competitors vie, the reels are the closest approach to social dancing. Even these, however, are individual competitions. While the teams consist of four dancers, the judges mark each competitor individually. Legend has it the reel originated with well-wishers waiting for the minister to arrive at the church for a wedding on a cold day. The chilly group danced as a means of keeping warm.
The Irish Jig
This dance may seem to be out of place at Scottish Games, but the dance is not only an Irish tradition. The Scottish version, however, is meant to be a parody of an Irish washerwoman in an agitated frame of mind. While the steps are traditional, the arm movements are not. Arm movements are an intrinsic part of Scottish dance, and so the Scots added them to the Irish Jig as a humorous salute to their Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea.
Scottish Lilt, Flora Macdonald's Fancy, Scotch Measure, Earl or Errol
These four dances (and others) are known as Scottish National dances. They’re of a more modern origin and have been collected from old dance masters. In America, National dances were not danced in competition until the 1960s. The attire worn by female dancers is called the Aboyne dress, named after the Aboyne Highland Games of Scotland where up to this day, the wearing of the kilt is strictly forbidden to women. The National dances are very similar to Highland dances, but the style is more flowing and ballet-like. They require a lot of skill to execute correctly, and spectators will note that often the rhythms are more complicated than in conventional Highland dancing.
The Sailor's Hornpipe
This dance is common to many parts of the British Isles. It derived its name from the fact that usually the musical accompaniment was played on a hornpipe rather than on bagpipes. Hornpipes were common instruments in those days; they were comparable to our present-day tin whistle. In time the dance became popular among seafaring men and is now associated with sailors. The modern Hornpipe imitates many shipyard activities common in the days of wooden ships and iron men.