There are many stories of how Scottish Highland Dancing got its start; however, Highland culture was mainly oral with most stories and traditions passed on by word of mouth. It is thought that many Scottish regiments used dancing as a way to keep their troops in good physical condition for fighting battles. Highland dancing requires traits of an athlete such as endurance and stamina and the skills and grace of a dancer. It differs from Scottish Country Dancing, which is the social dance of the country and more similar to ballroom dancing and requires a partner.
Since it was started as a form of military training, only men were allowed to perform Highland dancing when it originated. In the early 19th century, there was a resurgence in Highland culture and the Highland games were developed. Dance competition was a huge part in these early games. In the late 19th century, a woman by the name of Lorna Mitchell entered a competition since it wasn’t expressly forbidden. After the ending of the world wars, many women in the country wanted to perform these dances to help preserve their Scottish culture and heritage. Currently, women outnumber men by about a hundred to one.
Two of the more famous or popular dances in Scottish culture are the Highland Fling and the Sword dance. Since the Scottish recordings of history were mainly oral there are many theories on how each dance got its origin.
Highland Fling: One theory is that the it is said to be a victory or celebration dance performed after a battle. Another is that it was performed on a battle shield with a spike in the middle and that the nimble footwork allowed the dance to avoid death. Still another interpretation is that it is meant to resemble stags at play with the hand and arm movements representing the stag’s antlers. Some stories also say it was a fertility dance with the stag being a symbol of fertility. No matter what the history is, it is a physically demanding dance. In a typical six step competition dance a dancer will leap 192 times which is equivalent to running a mile, all the while with the arms overhead and wearing wool.
Sword Dance: The sword dance is also thought to have come from a battle background. One story states that Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland, after a successful battle in 1054 c.e. placed his sword on top of the enemies and performed a victory dance. Another story suggested that men going to war would perform the sword dance the night before a battle; if the dancer touched a sword they would be injured the next day during the battle, while if they kicked the sword they would be killed in battle. Luckily, kicking the sword today doesn’t foretell death.