Folklore and Flings: What is the History of the Highland Dances?

What is the History of the Highland Dances?

Folklore and Flings

Highland dance has been a vehicle of Scottish history since its inception sometime in the 11th or 12th century. Beginning as a military tradition to built soldiers agile and disciplined, Highland has evolved over the centuries into a highly competitive and technical style of dance.

Even as Highland dance continues to grow more and more athletic and modernised, the traditional Highland dances carry Scottish folklore into the 21st century. 

This post details the stories behind some of the dances still used at Highland dance competitions today. To read more about the history of Highland dance itself, check out our What is Highland Dance post!

Image Via ScotDance USA
Image Via Manitoba Highland Dancers' Association

Stories behind dances have been lost and found several times. As Highland dancers, we carry the stories through generations from their ritualistic origins into the future. 

Many of the dances have several possible stories associated with them – these are some of the more commonly-known ones. 

The Highland Fling

The Highland Fling generally has two stories associated with it. The first links the dance to a deer hunt, as the arms and hands may mimic a stag as it jumps along the Scottish countryside. 

The alternative origin story describes the Fling as a dance of triumph after a battle to be danced over a small shield known as a Targe. 

The "Grouping of the Flingers" as You Can See Here, Resemble the Antlers of a Stag

The Sword Dance (Ghillie Callum)

The Sword Dance is the quintessential dance that many who are vaguely familiar with Highland dance would recognise and associate with Highland. 

The Sword Dance is danced over two swords crossed in a “+” formation. Like the Highland Fling, the Sword has two common possible origin stories. The first story relates to when King Malcolm III (Canmore) of Scotland killed another Scottish chieftain in battle, he celebrated by dancing with his bloody sword crossed over the sword of his fallen foe.

The other possible origin of the Sword dance lies in the tradition among Scottish soldiers to dance the Sword the night before battle. If the soldier dancing were to hit the sword, it would serve as an ill omen for the fight ahead of them. Some say that to tap the sword with the foot would predict an injury, while kicking the sword could predict their death. 

The Seann Triubhas

The Seann Truibhas (pronounced “Shawn Troose”, and often shortened to “ST”) is often attributed to the 1745 Scottish rebellion against English rule. 

The English rulers imposed a ban on traditional Scottish kilts, so the Scots were forced to wear trousers. In the first part of the dance, the movements are more flowing and graceful than the traditional Highland movements we are used to. This is supposed to represent the English influence over Scotland.

Seann Truibhas translates to “old trousers” in Gaelic, as the first part of the dance has movements mimicking the Scots trying to shed the pants. Then, toward the end of the dance, the dancers clap, the music speeds up, and the movements revert to a more traditionally Scottish style. This represents the Scottish escaping the kilt ban, as they did in 1782. 

The Reel of Tulloch

The origin of this Reel lies in Tulloch, a village in North-East Scotland, where supposedly on one cold morning before church, congregants began stomping their feet and clapping to keep warm. Eventually, someone began whistling a tune, and the people began to dance. 

Today, the Tulloch and other Reels, the Strathspey and the Highland Reels, are danced by four dancers at a time. 

Historical Evolution

Highland Dance has evolved immensely over the centuries, but the tradition of carrying stories through dance remains a core part of this culturally rich style of dance.

Are you looking to try Highland dance?

At Saorsa Studio, we’re proud to offer a free class to anyone who wishes to try Highland dance. We can’t wait to welcome you into our dance family – start your journey today!

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