Boys' Highland Dance Costumes

Figure 1.--Higland dancers were at first allmmen. Most of the dancers at modern Highland Gatherings, however, are girls. There are, howe=ver, also some enthusiadtic boys. Notice how the boy here wears his cap with more of a flourish than the American boys doing Highland dancing on this page.

Higland dancing along with the kilt are two beloved symbols of Scotland. Its origins lie in the art of the ancient Celtic Scots. Modern Higland dancing is usually performed solo and is characterized by its typically sharp movements and the accompanying music. It's typically dance to the tune of the bagpipes. The dances are made up of different parts, called steps. There are usually four or six steps to a dance. Traditional Highland Dancing generally refers to a relatively few dances, especially the Highland Fling, Sword Dance, Seann Truibhas, and the Strathspey and Highland Reel or Reel of Tulloch. The basic movements in Higland dance are both strong and graceful. The hands are used expresively, quite different from the traditional dance of the neigboring Celtic people, the Irish. Higland dance was traditionally performed by Scottish men. Highland dancing is now performed by both men and women. In fact most competitors at Highland dance competitions are the lasses. Highland dancing is one of the few arenas where men and women compete equally. The dancers perform in elaborate costumes, however, the kilt and other costume garments appear to be relatively recent in origin. A dancer usually wears a kilt, Argyle socks and jacket/vest. Girls women wear vests or jackets of velvet and men wear a formal jacket such as a Price Charlie along with a cap and sporran.

Figure 2.--Boy Higland dancers wear jackets, white shirts, bowties, kilts, and kneesocks. These American boys wear Balmoral caps with colored poms.

Types of Scottish Dance

There are several types of Scottish dance two of the most important are step dancing and Highland dancing. There are many misunderstandings and distortions about Scottish step dancing--all that nonsense about Queen Victoria's "infatuation with the Highlands" which had a "lasting effect upon the style of music and dance". Perhaps it is an attempt at retroactive "Royal bashing" for it has no bearing whatsoever on reality. Queen Victoria appears to have taken a sincere and supportive interest in Scotland's culture and languages and would urge others to read her journals before making such sweeping statements. There are also accounts from oral tradition, such as one which was re-told to me by my colleague, Dr. John MacInnes, of Queen Victoria advising the Duke of Atholl to employ a Gaelic-speaking nursemaid so that the language would not be lost. If only 20th century mothers had applied her clear-thinking principle, Gaelic and Celtic culture in general would be in a much healthier state.


The best dancers are considered those who are the neatest and keep their steps small - "close to the floor" is the expression most often used. Lightness on one's feet and a relaxed naturalness is also looked for, as is the ability to dance on one spot. He could "dance on a dime" is considered high praise. Perhaps the most important attribute though, is keeping good time with the fiddler and not only in terms of the main beats of the bar, but in actually matching the rhythms of one's steps with the notes of the particular tune being played. Many of the great dancers are also musicians, and most of the musicians can dance. It is hard to over-emphasise just how closely the music and the dancing is linked. The coming together of a good dancer and a good fiddler produces something greater than the sum of the two parts.

The Music

For fiddlers and step-dancers alike, their favourite tunes are nearly all from the old Scottish piping repertoire. Well-known tunes like 'Calum Crubach' and 'The High Road to Linton' are played alongside tunes that are rarely heard in Scotland today, like 'Moulin Dubh' and 'Put Me in the Big Chest'; and tunes which in Cape Breton are still being played in their original simple two-parted state, like 'Pretty Marion' and 'Caberfeidh,' have in Scotland been turned into complex competition tunes by the addition of a further 2, 4 or even 6 parts. But why pipe tunes, when the instrumentation today is almost always fiddle and piano? The answer is, of course, that both in Scotland and Cape Breton, it was pipers who traditionally played for dancing. Indeed the last of the old-style pipers, 84-year-old Alex Currie, was still playing for step-dancing as late as the 1970s. It is not only the repertoire, however, which has remained largely unchanged but also the style of playing the old tunes. The rhythms and tempo required for step-dancing are very well defined - 8 even beats of the par in strathspey time and 2 on-beats and 2 off-beats in the bar for reel time, with the strathspeys being played at 40 bars per minute and the reels at between 52 and 54 bars per minute. It is this speed and unremitting rhythm in strathspey time which produces the excitement and there is almost tangible relief when the musician breaks into reel time. I'm sure there will be many who doubt that strathspeys were ever played this way in Scotland but there is much evidence for believing that this is indeed the case. Margaret Bennet of the School of Scottish Studies made many visits to the Codroy Valley in Newfoundland, an isolated valley with a strong community of Scottish descendants. In her book, The Last Stronghold, she describes finding Gaelic singing and story-telling, old style piping, fiddling and step-dancing still being practiced in the original intimate setting of the ceilidh or house-party. The strathspeys and reels were played exactly like the Cape Bretoners play them today and Allan MacArthur (1884-1971) confirmed that he learnt them from his mother Jenny who was born in Moidart in Scotland.

Figure 3.--This Scottish boy wears a classic highlands dancing costume complete with Balmoral bonet and feather, jacket, jabot, lace cuffs, kilt, sporan, and Argyle kneesocks. He wars soft, balet-like dancing shoes.


Scotland was and is famous for its dancing, and the variety of dance styles is testimony to the richness of the Scottish dance heritage. Higland dancers have many different choices as to what to perform. The Highland Fling is perhaps the best known Highland dance. It originated as wild dance of triumph following victory in battle. It is said to be inspired by the capers of the stag, the dancer's upraised arms representing the animals antlers. The hornpipe is a special dance requiring a special sailor costume. Reels are dances performed by four dancers to a lively tempo. The dancers intertwine to indicate the graceful movements of the deer in the valley. Seann Truibhas is Gaelic for "old trousers." After the unsuccessful rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, the British forbade the wearing of the kilt. The shaking movements of the leg indicate the shaking off of the hated trousers. Like the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, or Ghillie Chalium has war as its basic scheme. Today it is both picturesque and popular at Highland Games.

Boys in Highland Dancing

The children now involved in Highland dancing are primarily girls. This did not always use to be the case. As with Irish dancing, the boys used to predominate. In recent years, however, Higland dancing competitins have come to be more and more dominated by the girls. At a typical competition, the boys usually are less than 10 percent of the cmpetitors. It is not clear why this change has taken place, but seems to be primarily that dancing has come to be seen in Scotland and many other countries as a girlish activity, despite the considerable aleticism and strength required. Often it is not what the intereted potential dancer himself thinks, but what he thinks his mates (froends) might think about him dancing and wearing a kilt. In this regard, boys interested in Higland dancing are often encouraged by their parents or at least supported by them. In other forms of dance, such as ballet, this is not always the case.

Figure 4.--The boys in this group of Higland dancers wear sailor suits which are thev costume for the hornpipe, named for the accompaning instrument.

Dance Costumes

Scottish dance costumes are a little more complicated than one might expect. Boys and girls wear different costumes, although this has varied over time. There are many different garments involved. The kilt is central, but ionly one garment. And the girls wear Aboyne dress instead of a kilt for some dances. Girls costumes are oarticulrly important as girls are much more involved with Highlnd dancing than the girls. Older photographs show many girls wearing boys's costimes including jackets and sporans. As far as we can tell, the managers of dance competition is striucter now than in earlier periods. The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) is the governing body of Highland dancing (1950). They have worked to standardised dance steps in competitions and established rules for both competitions and attire. This has taken some time, but explains why these events and the costumes are now more standardized then in earlier periods. The SOBHD stndards are widekly acceoted in Scotland and around the woirld. Age is another factor. The full costume for skilled dancers can be expensive. So basic costumes for beginners are allowed meaning essentially a white shirt or blouse and kilt. And there is also an option of a kiltie, essentually a pleated skirt that is less expenive than a proper kilt. Coistumes also varied depending on the dance. The Hornpipe is the most obvious example here, but there are special costume requirements for the national dances that are different from Highland dances.


Traditional Highland dances have a long and give the the time period involved reasonbly detailed history, althoughsome of it is a kind of blend of histoty and legend. We have awell estanlished history of the major dances. They have entered innto Scottish cultureal life through the tastes and tradition of the Higland from crofters and townsfolk. They have passed down by tradition and word of mouth over the centuries and affected by major historical events, including developments in rance and England. As a result, we re ot entirely sure just how close the modern dances are to the early versions from which they have developed. The oldest and mist famous of the traditional Higland dances those dances is of course the Sword Dance or Gillie Callum which according to legend dates back to the medieval era (1054). This surely is the oldest dance in the world still performed. It reportedly originated with a deadly between Malcolm Canmore, the Celtic Prince, and one of Macbeth’s chiefs. Malcomb took the claymore of his dead opponent and crossing it with his own, forming the Sign of the Cross. Malcolm than danced over and around the naked blades with the entusiasm and ecstasy of his victory. Legend has it that the Sword Dance came to be danced before a battle and, if the dancer managed to finish the dance without touching the swords with his feet, the omens were auspicious for victory. The goal of modern dancers in adiition to exhibity the dexterity of Highland dancing is to avoid touching the crossed swords. and we have written acounts of war dancing (15th century). Other imprtant dances (Shean Truibhais, the Highland Fling, Reel of Tulloch,the Horn Pipe, and others) all have their own traditions. Many of the steps involved with Highland Dancing originated in the sophisticate French court. Scotland has a long history of turning to France for help in fighting off the English. Along with support came cultural transfers. Mary, Queen of Scots my have been an importnt agent here. The gentlemen of Scotland who served in the bodyguard of the King of France may have also been agents of the cultural transfer. we are not sure just how Highlan dancing was performed as we enter the modern age. It maay have been learned at home and danced at small gatherings and at fairs. When competituins began we are not sure. It does not seem to have been social dancing because until recently once the men performed. One reason we do not know a lot of Highland dancing in historical periods is the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden (1745). This resulted in the English supression of Highland culture often brutally. The the Act of Proscription even forbade the wearing of kilts by civilian males as well as other expression of Higland culture (1747). This was part of forces leading Scotts to America. (The resulting Scotts-Irish population would play a ole in the Revolution.) Parliament repealed the Act during the Revolutionary War, in part because of the role the Scotts Irish were playing (1782), but had an impact on Scottish cultural life. This was followed by theCottish Revival which romanticicized Highland culture, but because of the English effort to supress Higland culture, some of it had to be reimagined. The Scotish Revival fond great support in a very romantic young queen--Victoria (1837). Having read all sir Walter Scott's novels and Robert Burn's poems she enthusiatically embraced all things Scottish. It is at this time that the modern Highland games began. And Highland dancing was an integral part of the Games from the onset of the Revival. It is at thistime that number of dances performed was narrowed, basically for the convenience of the judges. The result was that while the tradition of Highland games fostered and preserved Highland dancing it also led to loss of many traditional dances because they were not selected. And the nature of these displays and competitions affected the style of dancing. The Highland dances were initially danced only by the men. Women participated in the social dances, but not in the Higland dancing. Girls did learn solo dances as part of their dance classes. Dancing masters ommonly encouraged promising students of both genders to perform solo dances at the end-of-term 'assemblies'. As a result, a competitive young woman, Lorna Mitchell, defying tradition entered a Highland dance competition (late-19th century). Women dancers were not explicitlt prohibited, it was just a matter of tradition. Thus she was permitted to participate. Beginning with Mitchell's provacative entry, the number of women dancers steadily increased. Today some 95 percent of the dancers are girls and women.

Figure 5.--This Scottish boy is dancing the Highland Fling at a Higland Gathering. Note his Balmoral cap which is rather lke a Tam O'Shanter cap. He emerged with a couple of prizes.


Dancing competitions are often held at Highland Gatherings and are a popular event. There are also dance compdetitions held seapartely. There are also closed and open competitions. Competitions can vary greatly in size and the audience attracted. There are also differences between countries. Many dancers enter several events. Often the competitions last throughout the day so competitors moften have long waits between events. There are great differences in how the participants react to the competitions. The younger dancers in particular can lose enthusiasm in the long waits between performances. HBC has noted some details about these competitions including practical suggestions for the parents of the younger competitors.

Other Countries

Scottish dancing originated in Scotland, but that does not mean that it is limited to Scotland. Scottish has since the 18th century not been limited to Scotland. The English and Lowland suppression of the Higland clans and the clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries have resulted in the spread of Scots and Scottish culture all over the world. The largest Scottish community outside Scotland is found in the United States. Scotts played a major in the settlement of Apalachia and in fact the Cotts-Irish played a key role in the American Revolution. Scotts can be found in many other countries as well. Australia began to be settled by europeans in in 1788, and Queensland became a state in 1859. There was Scottish stock in convicts, free settlers and senior managers (the first governor of the country came from Islay). We see pipe bands as well as Highland dancing throughout Australia. Several Australian schools have pipe bands or active Highland dncing troops. A good example is Scotch College in Adelaide. Scotts appeared in Canaada soon after the British victory over the French (1759). Canada in fact has a province nammed after Scotland--Nova Scotia. Shiobhan O'Donnell has prepared a fascinating study on Scottish Highland dancing in New Zealand, Dancing at the Auld Cale: A history of highland dancing in Dunedin, New Zealand, between 1863 and 1900.


We notice the Scouts engaged in Highland dancing. This seems to be an informal activity, although we have almost no information at this time. We are not sure how common Highland dancing was or is at Scottish Scout activities. Nor do we know if dancing was introduced as part of the Cubbing program. The Scouts here are practising to put on a "traditional Scottish" entertainment at a major Summer camp attended by Scouts from abroad too. Many Scottish Scouts are unfamiliar with Highland dancing. At camps there are often some basic lessons given to allow them to do simple steps. A Scottish reader tells us, "Here we see dress rehearshals for an evening show at camp. Not all Scouts know the dances. They are organised by someone who does and have been practising out of uniform. They are only simple routines - to show an idea of "Scotland" to visitors. Mainly the unique dress.

Personal Experience

Some personal accounts are available from the dancers.
Irish boy in Scotland: The 1960s

Interesting Links

U.S. Scottish festivals


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Created: January 1, 1999
Last updated: 1:46 AM 12/14/2015