By Loraine Ritchey
Highland Highlights November 1999
“Remember, remember the 5th of November, of Gun Powder, Treason and Plot. There is no reason why the Gunpowder Treason to ever be forgot!” No! This particular holiday is not Scottish but it is one of the “dreaded English” holidays. Celebrated by burning the infamous “Guy Fawkes” (organizer of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Parliament) in effigy every November 5th. This holiday, complete with bonfires and fireworks, goes back three centuries.
Tradition! Highland dancing and its accompanying music is steeped in tradition and through the centuries the legends and stories abound. Some may have more fantasy than fact about them but they are all wonderfully interesting. All over the world the dancing and the piping continues to flourish. Recently, I received videotape from the Victorian Scottish Union, Australia. It took a little time to get the tape made over to our system and it was with delight that I watched the “dancing from down under”!
Frequent readers of this column will remember that the dancers of the VSU still wear the “bonnet” and the plaid. I must admit watching the tape, the young male dancers use of the Glengarry (hat) in the Sword Dance added a great deal of interest as well as another element of skill and timing to deal with. Maybe it was the tape but it seemed to me the dancers do not elevate as much as the dancers here (USA). The music also seems much quicker, but the steps are much more intricate and a lot more of them.
One thing that has always bothered me personally is the Strathspeys and Reels. Four dancers all perform “together” their steps. The different elevation between the dancers, dancers landing at the beginning of the beat others at the end, some in the middle and various ability in “lift” causes some concern. Quite frankly watching these dances performed both on the competitive circuit and in performance it has always reminded me of pistons in an engine. Dancers all up and down at different levels at different times.
This was not the case with the Australians everything was beautifully even and flowing. Yes there were some differences in dress and bowing, but basically each dance could be recognized for what it was i.e. Fling, Trews etc. Tradition was rich in each performer and their dances.
The “national dances” were also very graceful and flowing, not so much “jumping” that has been seen lately (at least by this audience member). Hands and the grouping of fingers were also very different. Whereas our dancers hold the finger grouping “pronged” (like the antlers of the deer, so I am informed) The dancers of the VSU keep the fingers down and grouped.
Traditions and legends: The legend of a young woman and dance. Flora MacDonald. Flora was born on the island of South Uist in 1722. However, it was her meeting with Bonnie Prince Charlie that gave her claim to fame. After the battle of Culloden in 1745 Bonnie prince Charlie was a wanted man by the English. After a series of adventures escaping the militia, he found himself in South Uist. Hiding in a shepherds hut used by the locals, here the prince met Flora.
A plan was devised to help the Prince escape by dressing him as “Betty Burke” a maidservant (note here I always have wondered if that is where the expression in England “a right burke” came from) The he would be sent to the Isle of Skye by boat to take refuge with Flora’s mother and stepfather. Through a series of adventures and misadventures “Betty Burke aka “Bonnie Prince Charlie” arrived at the inn in Portree. Here he changed out of his frills and flounces for the traditional Highland Dress. After a meal and good-byes were exchanged it was reputed the Prince in thanking Flora said, “We shall meet again in St. James (palace)”
Charlie eventually escaped to France. Flora however, was found out and taken prisoner. She was taken to London and “confined” for two years. Because of her romantic reputation she was feted as a brave and noble heroine and her “stay” eventually turned into a procession of visits and tours of the local aristocratic houses, who thought it wildly exciting to entertain the Scottish adventuress.
After her release, Flora marries and emigrated to North Carolina in America. However, once again Flora was on the wrong side (or losing side) Her husband was a Brigadier-General on the Royalist side against the American Revolutionists. She was once again confined for a while and was then sent home to Scotland. Flora passed away in 1790 at the age of 63. Today of course her dance “Flora MacDonald’s Fancy” is competed all over the world. Truly a lady heaped in tradition, dance and music, just like Scotland herself.
As Scotland’s sons and daughters emigrated they took their traditions with them and of course their tartans; new countries but still they incorporated their traditions. A country thousand of miles from Scottish shores, New Zealand’s South Island in the district of Otago, the city of Dunedin has it’s own district tartan. The descriptions given on the six colors, which are incorporated into the final design, reflect the new and the old.
White- is for the first two ships, John Wickliffe and Philip Laing, which brought the first Scottish settlers
Blue- for the vast oceans the settlers had to cross.
Green – for the new pastures of Otago
Gold- for the prosperity of the new settlement
Red- for the blood ties of the old country.
Black- for mourning for the friends, relatives and ancestral land left behind.
The tartan is the brainchild of Vilma Nelson
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.