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Royal Scottish Country Dance Society Sacramento Branch




Royal Scottish Country Dance Society

Sacramento Branch

Scottish Country Dancing

In the beginning....

When the question is asked, “what is Scottish Country Dancing,” the most

common answer is, the traditional ballroom dancing of Scotland.” This is a

very simple answer to a question that spans 300 years of Scottish history.

Scottish Country Dancing did not just appear one day in the ballrooms of

Scotland (actually called Assembly Rooms). The dance evolved over the


English Country Dances were known to the English Royal Court by the

1600’s. The royalty and nobility of Scotland were introduced to the

tradition when they were invited to these private occasions.

There is little recorded information of country dances being taught in

Glasgow or Edinburgh dance schools of the time. Not until after 1710 did

regular dance assembly rooms appear in any Scottish town. The

appearance to the assembly rooms is the first evidence that country

dancing had started in Scotland.

Many of the early dances were English Country Dances done to Scottish

music. The English Country Dances had unusual body movements that the

Scots did not favor. George S. Emmerson states in his book, A Social

History of Scottish Dance, “Another feature of the country dance in

Scotland is the absence of game dances or dances introducing the

frivolous nonsense familiar to English dances of the period. The Scots had

evidently a greater respect of dancing.”

A sample of the strange movements comes from G. Waylett’s Country

Dance Collection (1749-1751). “clap hands - strike hands across - snap

fingers - beckon your partner - stamp four times - give three jumps - hold

up finger - pull your partner - peer three times - peer down and up - hit

your right elbows together and then the left - act the cobbler.”

The country dancing in Scotland did incorporate many traditions from the

English Country Dancing, but they used their own steps and formations

The dances at this time were known more by the tunes played than by the

steps and formations used. The same formations and steps may not have

been used every time the dance was done. The name of the dance was

usually the name of the tune that the musicians played. Today we know a

dance by the steps and formations that make up the dance.

One formation that is of true Scottish origin is "set to and turn corners".

This formation does not appear in any English Country Dance, so it is

probably a product of a variation to turning corners.

The introduction of the Strathspey rhythm from the Highland Dancing

added a new variation to Scottish Country Dancing. The Strathspey

traveling steps and setting steps come from this highland tradition. The

Strathspey rhythm is uniquely Scottish, giving country dancing in Scotland

a whole new repertoire of dances.

The English and Scottish Country Dance techniques were quite different,

but so was their music. With the fiddle being the preferred instrument, the

music of the reel had an electrifying effect on the Scots. This response

caused the Scottish Country Dance to take on strength and grace in

contrast to the “frivolous nonsense movements” of the English Country


Country dancing in Scotland was also influenced by the long relationship

with France through the Auld Alliance. Dance teachers brought back steps

and rules of etiquette from the French Court dances. This influence is noted

by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in its Scottish Country

Dance Manual, Chapter 1: “The rules of ballroom etiquette, still observed

by the Scottish country dancers, can probably be directly linked to the

example set by French dancers and teachers, especially those at the Court.”

Scottish Country Dancing evolved and grew through the 1700’s and

1800’s to closely resemble the form that we dance today. Its popularity

was very wide spread in Scotland. From royalty and nobility, to the

ordinary people of the land, it was enthusiastically embraced and

incorporated into the social fabric of Scotland.

Two new forms of dancing spread throughout Europe by 1815, the waltz

and the quadrille. Scottish Country Dancing absorbed elements of each of

these dances. The Waltz Country Dance and the square set of the quadrille

are examples.

By the late 1800’s the cotillion, quadrille, waltz, polka, lancers, and their

relatives started to replace country dancing in Europe and the British Isles,

but not in Scotland. Country dancing survived there into the 1900’s, but

the traditions suffered.

Country dancing had deteriorated to what resemble a brawl by the 1920’s.

Women were said to remove their jewelry for safe keeping before they

went out on the dance floor. The beautiful and elegant social dancing of

Scotland was disappearing and would soon be forgotten. Fortunately for

Scotland and the rest of the world, two Scottish ladies in the 1920’s

decided they would not let this happen. Mrs. Ysobel Stewart of Fasnicloish

and Miss Jean Milligan combined forces to form the Scottish Country

Dance Society.

The Meeting.....

Mrs. Ysobel Stewart was Commissioner of the Girl Guides for Argyll in

1923. The Girl Guides (the female equivalent of the Boy Scouts in Britain)

were being taught English Country Dances from books published by the

English Country Dance Society. Mrs. Stewart thought it would be more

appropriate for the Scottish Girl Guides to be taught Scottish Country


There was no society in Scotland to collect and publish these dances. Mrs.

Stewart took it upon herself to put together a notebook of Scottish

Country Dances that she had danced all her life. She took this notebook to

Mr. Michael Diack of Pattersons, the Glasgow publishers. Mrs. Stewart

wanted to have them published so they could be distributed to the Girl

Guides, and Mr. Diack agreed to her idea if the dances were verified. He

knew of a lecturer in Physical Education who used Scottish Country

Dancing in her work with student teachers, a Miss Jean Milligan.

Mr. Diack arranged a meeting between Mrs. Stewart and Miss Milligan in

the autumn of 1923. They decided to publish a book of 12 dances after

verifying their correctness and to form a society to give support to the new


The Scottish Country Dance Society (SCDS) was founded on the 26th of

November 1923 at a meeting in Glasgow. The 27 interested people who

attended the meeting became the core of the new society.

Mrs. Stewart and Miss Milligan both brought their talents, energy, and,

most important of all, their love of Scottish Country Dancing to the

forming of the SCDS. Before covering some of the history and

accomplishments of the SCDS, let’s take a closer look at the lives of these

two remarkable Scottish ladies.

Mrs. Ysobel Stewart, born in 1882, and Miss Jean Milligan born in 1886,

grew up in Scotland during the Victorian era. They were products of two

different parts of this society where Scottish Country Dancing was still

very popular.

Mrs. Stewart of Fasnicloish.....

Mrs. Stewart was born a Campbell. Her father was Duncan Campbell of

Inverneill, a branch of the Argyll Campbells. She married Captain Ian

Stewart of Fasnicloish. This was a cadet family of the Royal Stuart line.

The music and dancing of the Gaelic Highland society in which she grew

up instilled a deep love for their traditions. Mrs. Stewart was involved with

many project and organizations during her life that were concerned with

these traditions.

One of these organization, An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Gaelic Society)

gave her contact with Scottish nobility that would provide invaluable help

with the formation of the Scottish Country Dance Society. Alastair

MacFadyen describes her involvement in An Album for Mrs. Stewart: “As

representative of her local branch in the National Executive of An Comunn,

Mrs. Ysobel Campbell would have had the opportunity to meet the other

leading supporter of the Gaelic movement in Scotland, amongst them the

family of the seventh Duke of Atholl. Strong in their support of An

Comunn were the Marquis of Tullibardine, the eighth Duke of Atholl from

1917, who was President of An Comunn from 1898 to 1904, his sister

Lady Helen Stewart Murray and his brother, Lord James Stewart Murray,

the ninth Duke of Atholl from 1942 and President of the Scottish Country

Dance Society from 1924.”

When Mrs. Stewart met Miss Milligan in 1923, she had the experience

necessary to help form and guide the SCDS. Her contributions to the

society’s success are still evident today.

Miss Jean Milligan.....

Miss Jean Milligan was born near Glasgow to a middle class academia

family. Her father, James Milligan, and his sister Margaret, were teachers.

Growing up in this family of educators influenced Jean and her sisters,

Margaret and Gertrude, to enter the teaching profession. Her three

brothers also received good education’s and had very successful careers.

When Jean Milligan was 23, she received an appointment to Dundas Vale

College as a teacher for Physical Education student teachers. She was not

much older than many of her students at the time. This appointment started

her long career as a teacher in which she used Scottish Country Dancing as

a physical education method in her classes.

Isabella Milligan, Jean’s mother, had been a life long country dancer and

had passed on the love of dancing to her family. She involved her family in

dancing whenever there was an opportunity. During summer holiday visits

with her cousin, Isabella Barnes, in the Midlothian village of Cousland,

Mrs. Milligan would organize dances in the kitchen of the Cousland school

house. An evening of dancing is described in Dance with Your Soul, a

biography of Jean Callander Milligan by Alastair MacFadyen: “Under Mrs.

Milligan’s direction, the neighbours were invited to join in an evening of

dancing. They danced ‘Scottish dances’ and accompanied themselves by

‘diddling (keeping time with the feet).’ In view of Mrs. Milligan’s life long

devotion to dancing, it is not surprising that her daughter, Jean, should

have been equally enthusiastic.”

Miss Milligan was called upon many times in her life to use her skills as a

teacher and dancer. She was involved with many events and organizations

through the years. This invaluable experience was put to good use in the

part she played in founding and guiding the Scottish Country Dance


Mrs. Stewart and Miss Milligan grew up and lived in different parts of the

Victorian Scottish society, but their lives prepared them for their leadership

roles. An Album for Mrs. Stewart states that “whilst Miss Milligan’s

professional experience of teaching and teacher training, and also her

association with Musical Festivals, were undoubtedly of great help to the

newly formed Scottish Country Dance Society, it is possible to detect,

amongst those people who gave their support to the Society in its early

days, the influence of Mrs. Stewart’s other interests, especially An Comunn

Gaidhealach and the Girl Guides.”

The Scottish Country Dance Society is formed.....

Mrs. Stewart and Miss Milligan had put an advertisement in the Glasgow

Herald on Monday, 26th November 1923, inviting all interested in “Scots

Country Dances” to attend a meeting. They worried that no one would

come. Their worries were unfounded because 27 did attend. From this

small beginning, the Scottish Country Dance Society began to grow.

An interim Executive Committee was appointed at the meeting. The

members included Miss Milligan, Miss Lilian Ross, Mr. Diack, Mr. Besset

and Mrs. Stewart as Honorary Secretary. The Society grew quickly and by

the end of January 1924 Book 1 was published. According to the first

Annual Report, 1,165 copies were sold.

Miss Milligan began teaching a class in Glasgow. This class was very

successful with over 60 members. During its first 60 years the class had

only 2 regular teachers, Miss Milligan and Miss Florence Adams. Glasgow

formed the first branch in 1923 and Edinburgh followed in 1924. New

branches were soon formed in other cities in Scotland and throughout

the United Kingdom.

The Society continued to grow through the 1930’s. World War II slowed

class activities because of blackout requirements. During these war

years the Scottish regiments overseas were taught Scottish Country Dances

by teachers who had been students of Miss Milligan.

The popularity of Scottish Country Dancing with the Forces was very

encouraging and gratifying to the Society. There were also reports of

troops in German POW camps who relieved the tedium of imprisonment

with country dancing.

One of the most popular Scottish Country Dances ever written came out of

this POW camp dancing. Most of the 51st Division was captured by the

Germans as they fought a holding battle to allow the British Army to be

evacuated from Dunkirk. Following is an account supplied by Alan

MacPherson, the Archivist for the RSCDS.

"Three people are generally credited with the devising of the dance. The original idea

was that of Lt. J. Atkinson of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, assisted by Lt. A.

Oliver of the 4th Seaforths (London Scottish) and Lt. Col. T. Harris, 51st Division,

RA.S.C., who were POWs in Oflag VIIC at Laufen in Bavaria in the winter 1940. They

were subsequently dispersed to other camps but rejoined each other about a year later at

Oflag VIIB at Warburg in Westphalia. It was here that the dance was first performed

before Major General Victor Fortune, the Commander of the 51st Division, who

approved the dance and its name 'The 51st Country Dance (Laufen Reel)'. The first tune

(now lost) was composed by a fellow prisoner, Hector Ross of the 4th Seaforths.

Lt. Col. Harris Hunter sent the dance instructions home to his wife in Perth. Perth

branch printed it and sold copies to raise funds for the Red Cross. Miss Milligan is

believed to raised over 160 (pounds

sterling) herself from selling copies. It seems that about this time the name was changed

to 'The St. Valery Reel' but little detail is recorded.

The dance as originally written was for five couples and first four bars consisted of set

and cast off three places. The Society published in Book 13 (The Victory Book), changing

the first four bars to set and cast off two in order to make it suitable for four couple sets.

It was at this time that the present title was adopted after consultation with Lt. Col.

Harris Hunter. The title "Reel of the 51st Division" was perceived to be more fitting than

one having overtones of a military defeat. It was at this time also that the present tune,

‘The Drunken Piper' was adopted as the original".

The ending of World War II saw the Scottish Country Dance Society

activities renewed. HRH Princess Elizabeth became the Patron of the

Society in 1947. She graciously remained Patron on her succession to the


The Society expanded overseas in 1951 with Boston and Cape Town

forming Branches. This same year King George VI bestowed the title

“Royal” on the Society. Membership by then had grown to 11,500.

The office holders of Secretary had been conducting business from their

homes since 1923. By the 1950’s the duties had grown to the point where a

permanent office was required. 12 Coates Cresent, Edinburgh, was

purchased in 1955. Now the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society had a


The Society continued to grow and expand. Scottish Country Dancing

became popular all over Europe and as far away as Japan. Branches were

also being formed throughout the British Commonwealth and North


Mrs. Stewart moved to South Africa in 1955 where she had cousins and a

niece. Her move was prompted by problems with rheumatism aggravated

by the climate of Scotland’s west coast. She died in South Africa in 1963.

Miss Milligan continued her close association with the Society as a teacher,

teacher certification examiner and 3 times Society Chairman. She also

directed the annual summer school at St. Andrews. This was the love of

her life from the first summer school in 1927 until her death in 1978.

The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society celebrated its 50th year with a

Golden Jubilee in 1973. A Jubilee Ball was held in the Assembly Rooms,

Edinburgh, on Thursday, 12 July. The Ball was attended by HM The

Queen, with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Princess Ann.

The Society celebrated 75 years of dedication to Scottish Country Dancing

in 1998. By 1999 the Society membership had grown to over 25,000 world

wide with 170 Branches and 500 affiliated groups.


This has been a very brief historical summary of Scottish Country Dancing

and the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society. The centuries leading up to

the emergence of English and Scottish Country Dancing are very

interesting, but also very involved. Keeping this article to a reasonable

length allows mentioning only the highlights. Several books have been

written covering the history of country dancing and the Society in detail.

Listed below are the references used for this article. They are available

through the Branch Book Store or from book vendors at Highland Games.

The Sacramento Branch was formed in 1981 from an Affiliated Group

started by Jean Patrick. A history of the Branch entitled, Sowing The Seeds

of The Sacramento Branch 1957 to 1991, written by Dorothy Carr and

edited by Susan McHale covers the years from the start of the Affiliated

Group until 1991. This book is also available through the Brach Book



The Manual of Scottish Country Dancing by the Royal Scottish Country

Dance Society.

A Social History of Scottish Dance by George S. Emmerson

Traditional Dancing in Scotland by J. F. and T. M. Flett

Balls and Village Halls by G. W. Lockhart

Scotland’s Dances by Hugh Thurston

An Album for Mrs. Stewart by Alastair MacFadyen

Dance With Your Soul by Alastair MacFadyen & Florence H. Adams.

1923 - 1998 75th Anniversary Booklet by the Royal Scottish Country

Dance Society

Sowing The Seeds of The Sacramento Branch 1957 to 1991 by Dorothy

Carr and edited by Susan MacHale.

A more detailed account of Scottish Country dance history can be read by

going to the Stirling Branch web site. This site is maintained by Alan

MacPherson, the RSCDS Archivist. The URL is