More Period References to Scottish Dancing

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

By Scott MacTíere

This is an addition to the article "Period References to Scottish Dancing," which appeared in the 27th issue of The Letter of Dance, February 1997. In this article, I cover more material from the late 15th and 16th centuries. Readers are invited to contact me at

Types of dances

In period there was a distinction drawn between courtly and non-courtly dancing. Thus, I will start by examining the period sources for mention of courtly dancing.

Two dances are mentioned in The Fader, foundar of faith and felicite (1550) [2].

Lat sum go drink, and sum ga dance,
Menstrallis blaw vp ane brawll of France:
Lat see quha hobbillis best.
We sall leir thow to dance,
Within ane bony littill spaice,
Ane new paven of France.

These quotes indicate that both brawls and pavans were danced in Scotland at this time. France is the source of both dances. This is understandable, given the long-standing relationship between Scotland and France.

Another courtly dance is the trece. This is a measure or dance in file. It is referred to in William Dunbar's Ane Dreme (1570/1622) [3, p. 147], "Thane come the ladyis dancing in ane trece."

Another form of courtly entertainment was the guise, or masked dance. This was mentioned in Robert Henryson's poem The lion and the mouse (1450-1505) [1, p. 151] "Richt tait and trig, all dansand in ane gyis."

Morris dancing was another popular form of entertainment. Two period sources refer to it. Christs kirk on the green, (1568) [2, p. 280], has "And vp tuk moreiss danss full lowd." William Dunbar's poem Agains the Solistaris in Court (1570) [3, p. 71] also mentions morris dancing, "Sum lait at evin bringis in the moryis."


Alexander Montgomerie's poem Answer to Polwart (1580) [1, p. 289] mentions reels:

Sik a mirthlesse musick thir menstrallis did make,
Whill ky kest caprels behind with their heeles.
But ay rammeist redwood, and ravel'd in their reels.

The reference here is to reel as a figure. This is also interesting because this is a reference to witches dancing a reel. Newes from Scotland (1590) [5 Scotland's Music, p. 123] also refers to witches dancing a reel, although in that instance, "reel" is used as a type of dance, rather than as a figure. The quote from Polwart also juxtaposes cows capering with the witches dancing their reels. This could indicate that a reel is a lively figure.

Highland dancers

Highland dancers appear in William Dunbar's poem Devorit with dreme, devysing in my slumber (1568) [2, p. 247], "Sic heland schekkaris quhilk at Cowkelbyis gryce". Colkelbie Sow (1568) [4] says that some people could not dance courtly dances. These two poems together suggest that Highlanders could not dance courtly dances, or that they routinely danced non-courtly dances.

William Dunbar's poem, Schir ye have mony servitouris, (1570) [3, p. 128-9], has a reference which may refer to Highlanders:

Schir, ye have mony servitouris
And officiaris of dyvers curis:
Chevalouris, cawandaris, and flingaris,

The Highland Fling is a (modernly) well-known dance. The word "flingaris" could refer to people dancing the Fling.

Ring dances

I have found two more references to ring dances. The first reference also mentions carols, and defines them as dancing and singing combined. This quote is from Richard Holland's poem The Buke of the Howlat (1482) [1, p. 76]

Fair ladyis in ryngis,
Knychits in caralyngis,
Boith dansis and syngis

Another poem mentions both dancing in a ring and dancing with tambourines. This is Alexander Scott's poem Of May (1568) [2, p. 311]

And now in May to madynnis fawis
With tymmer wechtis to trip in ringis

"tymmer wechtis" means tambourines.


William Dunbar's poem Ane Dance in the Quenis Chalmer (1570) [3, p. 100] provides several interesting facts. There is dancing happening in the queen's chamber. Seven people are dancing, including the dog. Also, one of the dancers dances a lively dance: "And thair he dancet the dirrye dantoun;" Dirrye dantoun refers to a lively dance.

Lively dancing is also mentioned in Robert Henryson's poem The fox, the wolf, and the cadger (1450-1505) [1, p. 163],

He lap full lichtlie about him quhair he lay,
And all the trace he trippit on his tais;
As he had hard ane pyper play he gais.

Here we have a dancer leaping lightly and dancing on this toes. We also see mention of dancing to a piper.

In addition to dancing in the queen's chamber, there is a reference to dancing at feasts and weddings. William Dunbar's poem Schir Thomas Norny (1570) [3, p. 99]

At feastis and brydallis up aland
He wan the gre and the garland --
Dansit non so on deis;

This also mentions competition for dancing.

Allegorical dance

Two poems use allegorical dance. An anonymous poem Off Februar the fyiftene nycht (1568) [2, p. 301], is an allegory -- it is a dance of the seven deadly sins in Hell. William Dunbar's poem Ane Dreme (1570/1622) [3, p. 146] is an allegorical dance written to encourage the king to make Dunbar a lord of session for his service.

Additional Bibliography

  1. ed. Bawcutt, Priscilla and Riddy, Felicity, Longer Scottish Poems, Volume One, 1375-1650, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1987.
  2. Huges, Joan, and RAmson, W.S., Poetry of the Stewart Court, Australian National University Press, Canberra, London, and Miami, 1982.
  3. ed. Kinsley, James, The Poems of William Dunbar, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979.
  4. ed. Kratzmann, Gregory, Colkelbie Sow and the Talis of the Fyve Bestes, Garland Publishing, Inc., New Your and Londong, 1983.
  5. Purser, John, Scotland's Music, Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh and London, 1992.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (