Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

Conversations with Alex McGuire Part Two by Loraine Ritchey
Highland Dancing ,continues the conversation with Alex McGuire. Through the years Alex has earned the respect and friendship of many who promote “open” dancing. One of his dearest friends was the great Charlie Mill who passed away in 2004:

Alex states “ I lost a dear friend in Charlie - he was my mentor. He was kind, considerate, quiet, gentle and VERY knowledgeable. I will miss him greatly and, I know he is a tremendous loss to the SOHDA. Charlie, as Technical Convener, did an awful lot of work for and on behalf of the SOHDA in revising and putting down on paper many of the lesser-known dances of Scotland. These dances will continue! However, life does go on regardless and his loss will, I hope, not deter the SOHDA or its work and, furthermore, in due course the SOHDA technical committee will compose a dance in memory of Charlie.

The ABC of Highland Dancing & Games Directory – this was mostly Charlie’s work. I merely checked things over, wrote the foreword and arranged for the book to be published. It was Charlie’s ultimate dream that a complete compendium of Highland, Hebridean and Lesser-Known dances coupled with instructions for music be compiled and published into book form”
(note: ABC of Highland Dancing & Games Directory is available through the SOHDA)

Highland has given Alex an extended family worldwide but his own family tree includes those who have also made their mark in the Highland Dancing scene his sister Rosemary McGuire.

“ I competed fairly infrequently with Rosemary. We differ in age by six years – she was still dancing Juvenile while I was dancing in Adult for a time. I know I may sound biased but Rosemary had just about everything going for her. She had beautiful arched feet, danced high on the ball, perfect second position with heels well turned out, knees held well back, great elevation, her “spread” high cutting was something to be seen to be believed, tremendous leaps – you could go on!”

Note: Rosemary has total collection of 23 Cowal medals. Winning 6 World Championship was a first in the whole history of Cowal up to that particular date. (1971) "I never competed at Cowal after that, as I had achieved my ambition by then. The Committee (Cowal) did, however, graciously invite me back in 1972 to present all of the Championship winners, (“World In Her Hands”- Highland Gathering)

“My younger brother David (the youngest in the family) took up Highland dancing for a time and reached the Novice group (this was after Rosemary took up Highland). He was 10 or 11 years of age and I think would have been very good but, alas, he gave it up. As I recall he had really good feet and posture.

I believe we all took dancing from my mother. She wasn’t a Highland dancer but just loved to dance, as did all of my brothers and sisters. That’s, in fact, how my mum met my dad. My father couldn’t dance a step but was always a bit of an entrepreneur, running and organising the dancing in the local dance hall. Mum went along, dad fancied her, she got in without paying, and they fell in love, got married and had twelve children. Dad always went out on a Saturday, as he was a keen Greyhound betting man. When he had gone, mum rolled back the living room carpet turned on the radio and the younger ones of the family danced to Scottish country-dance music including yours truly.”

Alex’s father was no stranger to the Highland Dancing world he could be seen on the games circuit. Rosemary stated in her article in Highland Gathering Magazine “My father at this point wasn’t really interested in Highland dancing and one of the fathers in the dance class took me with his own child, along to lessons in Motherwell.” It wasn’t long before Rosemary started to compete. Her father used to give her half a crown (approx 50cents) when she won a medal but when the medal tally would come up to 6 or 8 first place medals in a day, father started to take an interest in the dancing. Matt McGuire, then took his little girl to competitions every Saturday, sometimes twice at weekends traveling around the Highland games during summer holidays.”

Matt McGuire like his son supported the concept of “open” dancing and when the SOBHD withdrew its dancers and support from the Cowal Gathering. “ The World Championships went ahead that year but "The SOBHD would not recognize Cowal as the foremost Highland Dancing center of the world" (Falkirk Herald Sept. 1971) Rosemary’s father Matt, decided to challenge that statement and laid down a challenge in the sum of two thousand pounds (approx, $5,000) A great deal of money in those days probably the equivalent of over $10,000 in todays money. So strongly did he feel that Rosemary’s title should not be questioned. Rosemary would compete against all dancers the only stipulation was that the judging be done by a panel of independent judges. There were no takers and the dispute between Cowal and SOBHD was "patched up". (World in Her Hands –Highland Gathering).

The situation of a SOBHD “World Championship” continues today and Alex continues to be a leader in the “open dancing “ concept. Although in recent years the SOHDA has taken the high road in requesting “talks” and finding a common ground the overtures have not met with any success.

Alex adds“ While, with the existing SOBHD hierarchy still in power, I fail to see, at this moment in time, any common ground existing between them and the SOHDA. I did note, however, that there was an unsuccessful attempt a couple of years ago to have the hierarchy of the SOBHD changed. This was a hopeful sign and the proposals put forward by the, would be, “new” incumbent sounded encouraging. (Note the unsuccessfully candidate himself a multi Cowal champion was Deryck Mitchelson)

The SOBHD must change their position from the ultra restrictive rules governing their organisation - rules, which I believe, are restricting the development of the SOBHD and, to my mind, are contrary and offensive to “freedom of association”. This is, in my view, a human rights issue! I can’t think of any other dance organization that embraces such restrictive rules and practices! As with most other organizations there are many good people in organizations affiliated to the SOBHD and, I’m not so sure that they are completely aware of what is being done in their name.

The SOHDA produced a “Position Statement” in 2002 prior to a meeting with the SOBHD and can be found at www.sohda.org.uk under “Resources”. This Position Statement was tabled at the meeting as a basis for further and fuller discussion. The SOHDA had a further meeting with the SOBHD in 2003 and it was felt that the Position Statement had been ignored completely.

The SOBHD must, once again, study the implications of the SOHDA Position Statement, get rid of its restrictive practices and embrace ALL styles and techniques worldwide before there can be any unity in the Highland dancing community – failing that, I personally cannot in conscience become a member of the SOBHD or its affiliates or encourage the SOHDA to do likewise.

SportsScotland and the Scottish Traditions of Dance Trust (STDT) say they are not particularly interested in the Constitution & Rules of any given organisation. This attitude of mind cannot go on forever. The SOHDA say that they MUST be interested on how an organisation is governed before they (the SOBHD) can be given carte blanche permission to run and organise events under the umbrella of, for example, these two organisations.

Take for example the STDT – they are a publicly funded body of which I am a member. A member of SOBHD approached the STDT and requested to organise a choreography competition in March 2004. This request was granted. The STDT published the rules of the competition, which, in effect, prohibited SOHDA, and other dancers from competing, as it was restricted to Premier SOBHD registered dancers. This competition should have been, in my view, completely “Open to all comers”. The SOHDA felt that this course of action was patently wrong bearing in mind that the STDT is a publicly funded body. The SOHDA suggested having a joint competition with a mixture of judges from both camps as a way of breaking down the barriers and of healing the perceived rift. Needless to say, the SOBHD hierarchy turned down the offer.

The Scottish and World Championships held at Cowal Highland Gathering was, at one time, considered to be the “Mecca” of Highland Dancing throughout the World, attracting as it did a truly Open-to-the-World, Scottish and World Championships. However, since wholly adopting the rules of the SOBHD in 1993 has had the effect of prohibiting dancers, out with the ranks of the SOBHD, from competing. In other words, this competition has become, since 1993, a “closed-shop”. The championships now being held at Cowal are, in effect, SOBHD Scottish and World Championships and not THE Scottish and World Championships as is advertised by Cowal in their programme.

Consequently, I would seriously question the validity of these championships since 1993 - albeit many dancers have worked extremely hard to attain such championships. However, that apart, in order to keep alive the traditions of Highland dancing we ALL need to be “dancing from the same hymn sheet” and I don’t mean standardisation. The ultimate goal is for all dancers to unite and perform under the one organisation’s set of rules, or rules compatible to one another, to promote Highland dancing worldwide in a truly OPEN forum for the benefit of ALL dancers thus enabling them to perform all over the world in truly OPEN competition. What “the politicians” need to remember is that we are here for the good and furtherance of the children of the dance.”

Dancing has evolved and there are those that miss the male domination of the dance. Highland has become the sport or art (depending on the organization) of the lasses; so who gets Alex’s pick as the top male dancers:

“I am on record already as saying that Victor Wesley was the greatest male dancer that I’ve ever seen and I haven’t changed my mind, albeit, that Victor decided to become an SOBHD adjudicator in 2004. The reasons given were somewhat spurious to say the least and, I am extremely disappointed that he has decided to take this course of action. It remains unbelievable that, for someone to have been so vociferously and publicly opposed to the SOBHD has, in my opinion, discredited him and somewhat diminished his integrity. (Note) I have, by the way, already replied to Victor’s shock announcement of his intentions in an article in “Celtic World” issue 75 – 03/04 and published by Highland Media Group

I would rank Gregor Bowman next in line with the Mitchelson brothers (Gareth and Deryck) and Peter Daniel coming a close third and fourth. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t see Angus MacKenzie from Canada nor Hugh Bigney from USA to make a comparison.

Alex continues to carry on the legacy of Charlie Mill, Orma Smith and others of his extended family tree to “open the world” of Highland. Is he the Don Quixote of Highland, the “crackpot” as some as labeled him or a man who will fight for the principles, honesty and openness in dance no matter what his critics throw at him? Champions have tenacity and the intestinal fortitude to carry on no matter what and Alex certainly can lay claim to that title.


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

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