Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

A Fathers View

Having a name like Glen McGregor it is very difficult to deny my heritage and my ancestry. Yet like many of my generation that grew up in the sixties and seventies in the west central belt of Scotland I was blissfully unaware of what it meant to be Scottish. At the age of forty-three I still find myself often musing on that issue - "What does it mean to be Scottish?"

Lying seven miles southwest from the major conurbation of Glasgow is my home town of Paisley. Famous in more modern times for crime and drug problems, Paisley's past is steeped in the manufacture of cotton thread and other manufacturing industries. Once the centre for thread production in the world nothing now remains except a few architectural relics of that bygone age. Little or no manufacturing now takes place in the town with most people working in service industries either in Paisley itself or the nearby City of Glasgow.

I count myself fortunate to have undertaken my formative education at the John Neilson Institution, which, contrary to the suggestion of the name "Institution", was, until the mid-1960s, a fee-paying school. Latterly the school became the John Neilson High School until its eventual closure in 1987. During the thirteen years I attended school very little time was spent by our educators in matters such as local history or even Scottish history. By the time I left school in 1976 I knew more about Josef Stalin, Mao, Henry VIII and so on than about the '45, Culloden or other periods of Scottish History. Now twenty-five years on I am witnessing my own two daughters growing up and still, in my view, little enough time is spent in educating our young people about the country of their birth.

Eleven years ago I was charged with clearing the house of two elderly, spinster, great aunts that had passed away within a matter of four weeks of one another. They were both over ninety years of age and such was their symbiotic dependency on each other, one could not survive without the other. During this clearance I came across many old family documents, such as birth, marriage and death certificates - some dating back to the start of such registration in Scotland around 1850. There was the family bible dating back to 1812; old plate photographs of some of my ancestors; business documents; sketch drawings of woodcarvings for ships; and samples of hand made wallpapers. Buried deep down within one cupboard was a small tin which contained medals - highland dance medals to be exact - dating from the sterling hallmark to be about 1902. To my amazement they turned out to belong to my aunts who by all accounts were more than regular and able competitors on the highland games circuit of the early 1900's.

Since then I have spent more than just a few hours researching my own heritage and ancestry. I have been able to trace my McGregor line back over three hundred and fifty years to the ancestral lands of Loch Lomond and beyond. I have found at least three lines of the family that emigrated to North America. I have also documented Louise's (my wife) family one part of which were lighthouse keepers for four generations in places such as Flannan, Skerryvore, Noup Head, Douglas Head and Chicken Rock, to name but a few. In fact my mother-in-law was born in Noup Head Lighthouse on Westry in the Orkneys. With all this in mind I took a conscious decision that if the education system failed to educate my children in Scottish history, then I would have to do something about it. Since 1995 we have, as a family, spent some of our vacation time each year in Scotland. We have been to places such as Onich, Ardnamurchan, Kirkwall, Arran, Mull, St Andrews, Aviemore, Fort William, Mallaig and many more. We have seen Glen Finnan, Culloden, Banockburn and many more of Scotland's historical places. We have seen the beauty of the Cuillans and the Cairngorms, marvelled at the Loch Garten Ospreys, and wondered at Skarra Brae. We've also suffered the Scottish midges!

At about the same time a lifelong friend of my family, Christine Aitken, a well known and respected teacher of dance, in particular Highland dance, started to teach my oldest, Gail, in this art. By 1999 we were doing the rounds of competitions and number two daughter Lorna, had also started to learn. Now over two years later, numerous outfits, many miles, and a few tears, both are competing regularly at competitions registered by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dance (SOBHD). As a person that is an avid reader of almost anything and a burning desire to learn completely anything that I am party to, I started to take a greater interest in Highland Dance. I had watched highland dancers for many years; at ceilidhs; at highland games, and at shows. But at these competitions something was missing from the performances of the dancers - passion. Very few of them were dancing with passion. Yes they were technically very good but very few had a spark that set them apart.

I was lucky enough to attend the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon this year. It was a glorious two days. Cowal has for many years been the traditional home of The World Highland Dance Championships and as always the competition was fierce and the standard wondrous. The event attracts dancers from all over the world, in particular from those countries where our fellow Scots have settled over the past few hundred years. I have two lasting memories. The first was the Champions Highland Fling performed by the newly crowned World Champions with precision and passion that is to be envied by many. The second was the massing of the pipe bands at the end of the games, when all the pipers played the Barren Rocks of Aden. It quite literally made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

When I arrived home that evening I started to reflect on the previous two days over a dram or two of pure malt. In particular I found myself considering on how it appeared that those dancers from Canada, South Africa and so on seemed to exude a greater passion than that of our own. Could it be, I thought, that we that were born in this land have forgotten what it means to be Scottish? I looked at both Gail and Lorna and thought about my own education and upbringing and the answer was sadly, yes.

The SOBHD has done much to bring about fairness in competition through the standardisation of dances and steps in a uniform curriculum. Yet in doing so they are in danger of allowing our heritage and traditions to fall into obscurity.

The SOBHD proclaims to be the "World Governing Body" in Highland Dance, yet through their own constitution and rules, they remain exclusive by nature. Dancers wishing to take part at such Competitions as Cowal must be registered with the SOBHD. By so registering dancers are precluded from belonging to any other organisation and from taking part in non-SOBHD competitions, except in certain circumstances. Conversely non-registered SOBHD dancers belonging to other organisations such as the Piping and Dancing Association of New Zealand, or the Victoria Scottish Union, to name but two, are not allowed to take part at such marvellous events as Cowal. Which cannot be morally right.

You see too often today heritage and traditions are sacrificed for standardisation of approach and method. It makes things simpler if we are all the same. This it seems is true in business, sports and the arts. Don't get me wrong, there are still some among us that defy the path of the majority and retain their individuality. In some societies these non-conformists are persecuted and punished.

All of us that proclaim to be Scottish, especially those that run our institutions and organisations, have a duty to ensure that our young people are taught about our heritage and traditions, whether that is local or national history in schools or colleges or Highland Dance at dance classes. Failure to do so is not an option.

Me. Well I'll continue to take holidays in Scotland as well as venturing abroad on occasions. I'll take Gail and Lorna to ceilidhs, competitions and highland games - indeed anywhere I believe will help them develop an understanding of what it means to be Scottish.

As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at

Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.




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