Scottish country dance

Scottish country dancing or "SCD", as distinct from Old Tyme dancing, is very loosely governed throughout the world by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS). As the word "governed" implies, Scottish country dancing (though often considered a type of folk dancing) is still continuing to evolve, and the majority of dances currently in favour have been written more recently than in most folk traditions. As a pursuit Scottish country dancing is no longer confined to Scotland, but active communities can be found throughout the world - in the rest of Britain, continental Europe, Canada and the US as well as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, with occasional groups in places as diverse as Russia, South Africa, Argentina, Hong Kong and so on.

Scottish country dances are categorised as reels, jigs, hornpipes or strathspeys according to the type of music to which they will be danced. The first three types feature fast tempos, quick movements, and a lively feel. The fourth type (strathspey) has a much slower tempo, more precisely controlled movements and a more formal, stately feel. Strathspey is unique to Scottish country dancing.

Scottish country dancing is generally done in an organized formation refered to as "the set". Sets are usually restricted to three or four couples, even though there are dances choreographed for five couples or more. Couples are always two people, often one man and one woman. Frequently, however, two women will dance together, one of whom dances as the "man", in the not unusual event that there are more women dancers present then men. And occasionally two men will dance together, one of whom dances as the "woman", when there are more men present then women. The usual set shape is "longwise"---couples stand side by side with all the men in a line facing a similar line of woman (each man being opposite his partner). The leftmost man and his partner are called the "first" or "top" couple, and sets are generally formed such that first couple is closest to the stage with the band, CD player, or other source of music. Other, much less common types of sets include triangular sets (three couples on the sides of a triangle), square sets (four couples on the sides of a square) or square sets with extra couples in the centre; there are also "round-the-room" dances for couples facing couples, groups of three dancers facing each other, and so on.

Scottish country dances themselves are made up of figures of varying length, to suit the phrasing of Scottish country dance tunes. For the most part, figures are 2, 4, or 8 bars; there has been some experimentation going on with unusually phrased music (e.g., 6-bar or 10-bar phrases) but the custom has not caught on. There are various kinds of figures ranging from the very simple (like a couple changing places across the set giving right hands) to fairly intricate evolutions involving three or four couples at the same time. These figures are combined to form a sequence of (normally) 32 bars---there are dances which are as short as 16 bars or as long as 128 bars. This sequence is then repeated several (often 8) times to form the complete dance.

Most Scottish country dances are "progressive", i.e., after one repetition of the figure sequence the couples end up in a different place in the set. This serves to let every couple have a go as "top couple" (most active), and the number of repetitions is adjusted accordingly. For example, in a four-couple dance the order of couples at the beginning of each turn could be 1234, 2341, 3412, 4123, 1234 (at which point the dance would stop). The most common arrangements are dances involving two and three couples being done in four-couple sets for eight repetitions---this means that on some turns couples may be "standing out" to watch and have a breather. For example, the order of couples in a two-couple dance would be 1234 (top two couples dancing), 2134 (middle two couples dancing), 2314 (all couples dancing), 3241, 3421, 4312, 4132, 1423, 1243 (at which point the dance would stop, couples 3 and 4 having missed out the first turn). There are also "set dances" which go through only once (e.g., Round Reel of Eight, Bonnie Anne, MacDonald of Sleat), but many of these are mostly used for displays rather than socially.

In fact, the figures and arrangement of modern Scottish country dances, while derived from a 300-year tradition, make it difficult to generalize because many dances feature unusual ideas such as partner changes (you get a new partner on every new turn of the dance, as in "Nighean Donn" (The Brown-Haired Girl), by Peter Hastings, or "Caddam Wood" by John Mitchell), palindromic structure (the sequence of figures is similar seen from the end to the beginning as it is seen from the beginning to the end), fugues (the sequence of figures for each couple is intricately intertwined to resemble the structure of a musical fugue) and others. It is very entertaining for dance devisers to "play" with the tradition and to try new ideas, although the results do not always seem to catch on!

The current SCD repertoire consists of dances from old sources, going back to Playford's manuals from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as well as modern material. When country dancing was en vogue during the 18th century, large numbers of dances were written, most of which fell into disuse during the 19th century when more "modern" dances such as the quadrille, waltz, etc. became popular. Only a few dances remained part of the active repertoire in Scotland until the RSCDS was founded in 1923. The RSCDS began to collect and publish these dances as well as reconstruct (or reinterpret) dances from old sources that were no longer being danced. Soon after the inception of the RSCDS people started inventing new dances in the spirit of the older ones, but also introducing new figures not part of the "traditional" canon. Today there are over 11.000 dances catalogued, of which less than 1.000 can be considered "traditional". Basically anybody can come up with a new dance, but many dances are of local importance only; the RSCDS does publish collections of new dances every so often but does not try to control the invention of new material. Neither does it dictate how dances are danced and who may teach them, but they do hold significant influence since they teach the majority of Scottish country dance teachers, and their canon of dances make up a very large proportion of the "global" repertoire that one can expect to meet wherever Scottish country dancing takes place.

It is important to note that Scottish country dancing, while rooted in a tradition going back more than three centuries, is very much an ongoing concern. Modern SCD has evolved considerably from the early 1700s, and there has been no particular urge to "recreate" country dancing as it was during some mythical "golden age". In fact, with the constant devising of new dances, new variations are appearing all the time and some informal variations as well as entirely new ideas find their way into new dances. The ongoing evolution has also given Scottish country dancing a lot of "life" and people feel much less guilt or hesitation about altering a dance for the purposes of demonstrations, and also borrowing ideas for their own dances.

See also: English Country Dance

External links

The Strathspey Server -- a web site about SCD and SCD music (

The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (

Take the Floor -- a radio programme devoted to Scottish country dance music ( Country Dance


  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools