Period References to Scottish Dancing

[ This article appeared in volume 4 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Scott MacTíere

This article is an attempt to inspire interest and research into Scottish dancing, with an eventual goal of reconstructing some of these dances. This article mainly covers the 16th century, but there are a few references from the late 15th and early 17th centuries.

Types of dances

In the sixteenth century there was a distinction between courtly and non-courtly dances. For example, in Colkelbie Sow (1568) [8], we see that some of the Scottish people, presumably peasants, couldn't dance court dances: "Could nacht the fete of any dansis,/Bot such thing as affeiris/To hirdis and their maneiris." The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549) [11] gives a long list of dances which appear to be country dances:

in the fyrst, thai dancit al cristyn mennis dance, the northt of scotland, huntis vp, the comount entray, lang plat fut of garian, Robene hude, thom of lyn, freris al, ennyrness, the loch of slene, the gosseps dance, leuis grene, makky, the speyde, the flail, the lammes vynde, soutra, cum kyttil me neykyt vantounly, schayke leg, fut befor gossep, Rank at the rute, baglap and al, ihonne ermistrangis dance, the alman haye, the bace of voragon, dangeir, the beye, the dede dance, the dance of kylrynne, the vod and the val, schaik a trot.

From the same source is a listing of more recognizable courtly dances:

it vas ane celest recreation to behold ther lycht lopene, galmanding, stendling backuart & forduart, dansand base dansis, pauuans, galyardis, turdions, braulis and branglis, buffons, vitht mony vthir lycht dancis, the quhilk ar ouer prolixt to be rehersit.

This source also mentions dancing in a ring: "Than eftir this sueit celest armonye, tha began to dance in ane ryng. euyrie ald scheiphyrd led his vyfe be the hand, and euyrie yong scheiphird led hyr quhome he luffit best." Courtly dances were also danced as Mary Tudor progressed from England to Edinburgh to be married to James IV. John Young, Somerset Herald, wrote in 1503 [6, p. 3]: "After som wordes rehersed betwyx them, the mynstrells begonne to play a basse daunce, the wich was daunced by the said qwene and the Countess of Surrey. After thys doon, they playde a rownde, the wich was daunced by the Lorde Gray ledynge the said qwene, acompayned of many lordes, ladyes, and gentylwoemen." From here, I will go to the period texts to see what can be learned about Scottish dancing.


Reels are a natural starting point for considering Scottish dance because they are at the core of what is considered "traditional" Scottish dancing.(1) Modernly, the term "reel" refers to both a figure and a dance. The figure "reel" is a figure-of-eight or hay for three or four people. The reel as a dance is an alternation of setting steps (dancing in place) with the reel figure.

Therefore, it is important to look for period usages of the word "reel". A natural starting point is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which supports both usages of the word in late period. In Newes from Scotland (1591) [OED 14], reel is used as a type of dance (though not necessarily with the modern sense): "They...tooke handes...and daunced this reill or short daunce." It is used with the sense of a figure in Flyting with Polwart (1585) [OED 14]: "Litill tent to their time the toone leit them take, Bot ay rammeist redwood, and raveled in their reeles". It is also used as a figure in Gavin Douglas' Virgil (1525) [Traditional dancing in Scotland 4]: "Dansys and rowndis traysing mony gatis/Athir throu other reland, on thar gys:"

The use of reel as a type of dance refers to a different dance than a modern reel. In Newes from Scotland (1590) [Scotland's Music 13, p. 123], the dance is described as being danced to "Cummer Gae Ye Afore", which is a song which goes as follows:

Cummer gae ye afore, cummer gae ye,
Gin ye winna gae, cummer let me,
Linkin lithely widdershins,
Cummers carlin cron and queyn
Roun gae we.

This indicates some kind of ring dance, if the song actually describes the dance that was done.

Reels are also mentioned in a Gaelic song, Rinn Mi Macheirigh, (c.1539) [Scotland's Music 13 p.126]: "I would accompany you where there was dancing--many a reel going to the little graceful-sounding pipes; to the great pipes with the deep drone; and the sweet well-tuned clarsach." The original Gaelic is not given, only the English translation.

Ring dances

Ring dances are mentioned in several sources, though without details. In How the good wife taught her daughter (1487) [1]: "Or yeit till danss into the ryng.". In Queen Dida rides out hunting (1475-1522): "Renewand ryngis and dansys, many a rowt". And there is a reference which may refer to a carol-dance. A carol-dance involves singing and dancing combined. The quote is from Colkelbie Sow (1568) [8]: "Than all arrayit in a ring/Dansit `My deir darling'". There is an English carol which begins "My darlyng dere". The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549) [11] also mentions ring dancing: "tha began to dance in ane ring".


There is not much to go on for footwork. There is the previous reference from Colkelbie Sow that some people could not do court-dance footwork. There are two references to springing or leaping. In Chirst's Kirk on the Green (1513-1542) [10], there is a reference to a dance named "Flatfoot" which involved bobbing up with leaps: "Flatfut he bobbit up with bendis". The poem also praises springing and light footing: "O Lord, gif he culd lance! ... All auld lycht futtis he did forleyt / And counterfutit France". Light leaping, gambolling, and leaping with long strides were found praiseworthy in The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549) [11]: "it vas ane celest recreation to behold ther lycht lapene, galmanding, stendling backuart and forduart". The Complaynt of Scotlande also mentions the dance "Flatfoot", but calls it "lang plat fut of gariau". In The Northern Discovery (1641) [13 p. 147], footwork is mentioned: "The fiddler hee flings out his heeles And dances and sings". This could be a reference to the Scottish setting step, which modernly has a kick out to the side. Arbeau, in Orchesographie (1588) [2 p.128-9], has the figures in the Scottish Bransle ending with one foot crossed by the opposite knee, similar to a modern Scottish setting step.

Some people felt that dancing precisely in nice geometric figures was important. From The Complaynt of Scotlande [11]: "none of them kepit moir geomatrial mesure nor thir scheiphyrdis did in their dansing."

Some dancing began with bows and kisses. From The Complaynt of Scotlande [11]: "for fyrst thai begin vitht tua bekkis and vitht a kysse." The Complaynt of Schir David Lindesay (1529) [9 p. 17] mentions bowing in dancing: "Dansand with mony bend and bek."

Dancing in groups of three was also known in period. (One type of Scottish reel is the Threesome reel, for 3 people.) In Thomas of Erceldoune (two manuscripts: 1430-1440 and mid-15th century) [12 p. 14-15]: "Knyghtis dawnesede by three and three". Another manuscript (c. 1450) mentions dancing by twos [12 p. 14-15]: "Knyytes dansyd by two & thre". In a fourth manuscript of Thomas of Erceldoune (1524-1530) [12 p. 14-15]: "Knyytis dawnsyng be thre & thre, / Ther was revel, both game & play; / Ther were ladys, fayre and fre, / Dawnsyng [one ric]he aray." And in Colkelbie Sow (1568) [8]: "In thrang and dansit in thrawis".

Dancing to instruments

Dancing to bagpipes was known in period. In Colkelbie Sow [8 p. 65], there is dancing to a piper:

He blew on a pype he
Maid of a borit bourtre.
Waytscath him by
Dansit ane dandy

In Maggie Lauder (1616-1685) [5]: "I'll shake my foot wi' right goodwill, / If you'll blow up your chanter."

Other instruments used for dancing, from The Complaynt of Scotlande [11], were bag pipes, pipes made out of horns, pipes made out of a reed and a bladder, trumpets, corn pipes, recorders, fiddles, and whistles.

Dancing at feasts/churchyards

Dancing was known at feasts and in the churchyards. It was also prohibited at various times. Christ's Kirk on the Green mentions dancing in the churchyard: "Sic dansing nor deray, ... At Chrystis Kirk on ane day", and dancing at feasts: "Flatfut he bobbit up with bendis ... In honour of the feist". In The Bruce (1375) [1 p. 242], the English soldiers are dancing on the eve of a feast:

The folk that tym wes halely
In-to the hall at thair dansyng,
Synging, and othir wayis playing,
As apon fastryn evyn is
The custom, to mak Ioy and blis

On the other side, a statute in the Diocese of Aberdeen forbade "choree" (song and dance combined) in the church and churchyard in the 13th century [3]. Satire on the age (1496-1586) [7] mentions that religious types had curtailed merriment such as dancing. In 1623, 5 men were fined for dancing a masked sword dance in the churchyard [3]. And in 1625, 6 men were brought before the church for dancing around a May pole [3].


1. Barbour, John, The Bruce, edited by Walter Skeat, Vol. 1 and 2, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.

2. ed: Beaumont, Cyril W., written by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesography. Dance Horizons Inc., Brooklyn, New York.

3. Emmerson, George S., A Social History of Scottish Dance - Ane Celestial Recreation, McGill-Queen's University Press, Canada, 1972.

4. Flett, J. F. and T.M., Traditional Dancing in Scotland, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and Boston, 1964.

5. ed: Fraser, Antonia, Scottish Love Poems, Penguin Books, Burgey, Suffolk, 1976.

6. Huges, Joan and Ramson, W. S., Poetry of the Stewart Court, Australian National University Press, Canberra, London, and Miami, 1982.

7. ed. Jack, R.D.S., A Choice of Scottish Verse 1560-1660, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1978.

8. ed. Kratzmann, Gregory, Colkelbie Sow and the Talis of the Fyve Bestes, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London, 1983.

9. ed. Lindsay, Maurice, Poems by Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, Oliver and Boyd Ltd., Edinburgh, 1948.

10. ed. MacQueen, John and Scott, Tom, The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1989.

11. ed. Murray, James, The Complaynt of Scotlande, Kraus Reprint, Millwood, New York, 1981.

12. ed. Murray, James, The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, 1991.

13. Purser, John, Scotland's Music, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 1992.

14. Simpson, J.A., and Weiner, E.S.C., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.


1 The other common Scottish dance is the strathspey. The earliest mention of the strathspey I was able to find is in Flowers of Zion, (1653) [13 p. 152]: "To please the King the Morris dance I will; stravetspy, and after, last of all, The Drunken Dance I ll Dance within that hall."

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (