A Brief 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.

Scottish Country Dancing is a distinctively Scottish form of country dance and shows markedly the influence of the French court, its technique being closely allied to that of Ballet. This lead to the adoption of French names for some country dance figures and steps such as allemande, poussette and pas-de-basque.

Scotland, of course, had other traditions of music and 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 and consequently it was danced and enjoyed, by both laird and tenant or crofter, in the ballroom and in the barn as part of the ordinary social life of the community.

The greatest flowering of this form of dance was in the assembly rooms of the 18th century. During this period of enlightenment, Edinburgh emulated other European capitals and, dance assemblies flourished.

As the 19th century progressed, newer social dances largely displaced the country dance from the ballrooms of Europe and America. The exception to this decline was in Scotland where country dances continued to flourish. The main reason for this was the system of dancing classes and schools which permeated Scottish society. 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):

  • To preserve and further the practice of traditional Scottish Country Dances
  • To assist in providing, special education or instruction in the practice of Scottish country dancing.
  • 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 12,000 members.  It is a network of 160 Branches and around 300 affiliated groups, and its administrative office is in Edinburgh. The RSCDS is an unincorporated association, officially registered since 1969 as a Scottish Charity (SC016085).