by Mats Melin and Jennifer Schoonover
This book will be published through Routledge Publishers in early 2021.
Glen Orchy, Argyllshire, 1786
“They were dancing a country-dance when we entered. The company consisted of about fourteen couple, who all danced the true Glen Orgue kick. I have observed that every district of the Highlands has some peculiar cut; and they all shuffle in such a manner as to make the noise of their feet keep exact time.”—description by Colonel Thomas Thornton, 1804
“…you have it in your power to change, divide, add to, or invert, the different steps described, in whatever way you think best adapted to the tune, or most pleasing to yourself”—advice regarding individuality in step combinations by Francis Peacock, dancing master
Characteristics highlighted in these opening passages are no longer hallmarks of dance as practiced in Scotland today. These quotations describe a dance form that stands in stark contrast to today’s Scottish dance standards, which includes lists of allowable step sequences and admonishment to keep sounds made by dancers’ feet to a minimum. Descriptions from the early nineteenth century depict an interactive and expressive dance form that made sound and made up steps. Research in these pages attempts to bring attention to changes in aesthetic preferences in Scottish dancing over the course of two hundred and fifty years or so. We wish to show that the history of Scottish dancing, when carefully researched, includes a percussive dance modality that has largely, to this date, been either ignored or dismissed.
This compilation of historical references to dance in regions across Scotland focuses specifically on descriptions of and interpretations of what could be percussive step dancing. The existence of a percussive dance tradition in Scotland has been a contested issue over the years. A prevailing mode of thought in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has categorised Scottish dance as a soft-shoe tradition, more expressive in shape than in sound. However, observations predating the twenty-first century clearly describe footwork that is heard beating out rhythms, sometimes complementing or mirroring accompanying music. A lack of awareness of these historical references becomes problematic, when, for example, the origin of Cape Breton-style step dancing in Canada is discussed in relation to Scottish dance traditions. Dance scholar Frank Rhodes notated percussive versions of iconic Highland dances surviving in Cape Breton Island, including the Fling, Seann Triubhas, and the Flowers of Edinburgh, during his 1957 visit there (1996: 199–203). Rhodes found limited evidence of memories of hard-shoe styles in use in Scotland in the 1950s, even though it was clear from the structures of the different versions of the dances that they were connected and shared some movement motifs.
Thomas M. (Tom) and Joan F. Flett stated, in their seminal publication Traditional Dancing in Scotland (1985 ), that
the art of ‘treepling’ in social dances—the art of beating out the rhythm of the music with the feet—is one of the lesser-known features of Scottish dancing that has now almost entirely disappeared. So far as we know, treepling steps were performed by men only, and were usually confined to Country Dances, though they were also occasionally used in Reels (Flett 1985: 260).
This statement was based on testimony from living memory of the Fletts’ 1950s interviews, indicating that percussive footwork was once commonplace. This assertion is being taken as a natural conclusion. Treepling is a movement motif occurring in a number of solo dances, such as the Earl of Erroll and the Flowers of Edinburgh as recorded in Aberdeenshire in the 1840s, the First of August as danced in the Hebrides, and the Flowers of Edinburgh and Over the Hills and Far Away preserved by the Gillis family in Cape Breton.
Recent books on Gaelic piping by John G. Gibson (1998, 2005) suggest that the Step Dancing accompanying piping and fiddling musical traditions in Cape Breton came from of an established vernacular tradition of percussive dance in Scotland. In Gibson’s latest book, Gaelic Cape Breton Step-dancing (2017), he explores step dance references in depth in English and Gaelic sources on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of these sources also appear in this volume, although different angles and perspectives on interpreting and analysing the same material are taken. Both Gibson and Newton (2013) have led the way in looking at Gaelic source material for dance, which we follow up on by adding our own analyses to the mix of a growing body of historical source material from Gaelic oral and written sources.
This investigation asks questions about the occurrence of percussive footwork on a pan-European level and how percussive footwork as practiced in Scotland fits in to that bigger picture. It partly explores why step dancing has become virtually extinct in the current mindscape among the Scottish population and among practitioners of ‘Scottish’ dance. It further questions source material referring to step dancing in Scotland. This investigation also asks questions about the biases and backgrounds of some of the observers who have depicted and researched step dance in Scotland.