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A short history of Scottish Country Dancing and the RSCDS

Today the term ‘Scottish country dance’ embraces the social dances of Scotland which have evolved from many traditions and are danced throughout the world by Scots and non-Scots alike.

The RSCDS has always stressed the importance of the social nature of the dance form but it is equally concerned with upholding the standards of correct dancing technique.  It is this unique blend of wonderful music, disciplined dancing, intricate floor patterns and sociability that appeals to so many people throughout the world.

Figure dances of the countryside called ‘country dances’ can be traced back to the English Court of Elizabeth I.  Often set to Scottish or Irish tunes, these dances became very popular.  The constant influence of various European Courts meant that dancers were always absorbing new ideas of style and content. The greatest flowering of this form of dance was in the assembly rooms of the 18th century.  During this period of enlightenment, Edinburgh emulated the European capitals, and dance assemblies flourished.  Other cities and towns soon followed and dancing became an accepted part of social interaction.

Scotland, of course, had other traditions of dance and here the country dances incorporated features from older strathspeys, reels, rants and jigs. The result was a style of dance with which the whole of Scottish society could feel comfortable; the elegance and courtesy of the ‘country dance’ and the energy and step precision of the old ‘reels’. 
While country dances died out in England, they continued to flourish in Scotland. The dancing masters, who travelled extensively throughout Europe were often skilled musicians and helped to widen the repertoire to include newer, fashionable dances such as quadrilles and polkas.

By the beginning of the 20th century however the number of country dances appearing on programmes had started to dwindle.  The Great War of 1914-18 changed the world for ever; a generation had lost its men folk, syncopated rhythms of jazz and ragtime were sweeping the country and the Scottish country dance had all but disappeared.

After the war, Mrs Ysobel Stewart of Fasnacloich (a distinguished family from Appin, Argyll) and Miss Jean Milligan (a teacher of physical education at Jordanhill Teachers’ Training College) wanted to restore the old social dances of Scotland and their music.  These two committed and energetic ladies researched and collected the dances from friends and family and, assisted by Patersons Publications, published their first book.  After placing an advertisement in a Glasgow newspaper, a meeting was held on 26th November 1923 and the Scottish Country Dance Society was formed.  The title ‘Royal’ was conferred upon the Society in 1951 and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became its Patron in 1952. 

Mrs Stewart, Miss Milligan and their associates were keen to see the country dances restored to their dignified and sociable best and to that end, they encouraged classes and taught a new generation of dancing teachers.  They adopted a measure of standardisation, but were well aware of the regional variations in many of the popular dances.

Today the purposes of the RSCDS are stated as follows (extract from Constitution):

  1. To preserve and further the practice of traditional Scottish country dancing

  2. To provide, or assist in providing, special education or instruction in the practice of Scottish country dancing

  3. To promote and publish, by all available means, information and music relating to Scottish Country Dancing, and in particular, to publish or cause to be published descriptions of Scottish Country Dances with music and diagrams in simple form and at moderate price To collect books, manuscripts, illustrations and other memorabilia relating to Scottish country dancing and to the Society.

Generally to do such other things as are, or may be considered by the Society, to be incidental or conducive to the attainment of the purposes above stated or any of them.

Since its early beginnings, the RSCDS has evolved into a worldwide organisation, with approximately 15,000 members.  It is a network of 170 Branches and around 400 affiliated groups, and its administrative office is in Edinburgh. The RSCDS is an unincorporated association, officially registered since 1969 as a Scottish Charity (SC016085).

Page last updated 29 Aug 2018