Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey


Dancers Weave A Tangled Web by Bruce Campbell

Alex Maguire left and Gillian Whitelaw far right ( blue) with the dancers as always in between!

IN JUST over a decade the Celtic Connections Festival, held in Glasgow in January, has forged its way to the top of Scotland's winter bill. Hosting a myriad of top names from the world of traditional music (this year's line-up included such international headliners as Dougie MacLean and The Dubliners) it has in recent years also become a bastion of Scotland's traditional performing arts.

With piping already cemented on the program, 2003 was to be the year of Highland dancing with an ambitious championship scheduled. Sadly, this was not to be and in a most bizarre fashion the event was firstly on, then off, on again and then, finally, off.

While some dispute whether Highland dancing has shot itself in the foot, yet again, there can be little doubt that the organisers of this event have escaped with little credit. The final week of on-again off-again shenanigans was almost like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie, slapstick and all. The trouble was that no-one thought to re-book a venue and so dancers, teachers and judges were left in the lurch with some traveling hundreds of miles only to find out when they arrived in Glasgow that the championship had been called off.

Gillian Whitelaw, the administrator of the event blames lack of numbers. The organisation she at the time represented, the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association, blames her lack of preparation and planning. Celtic Connections for their part just refuse to answer a string of press enquiries.

It isn't the first time that an event has been cancelled and it certainly won't be the last. In the normal run of things a few slings and arrows would have been fired, and that is something which the all-too-often political world of Highland dance is well used to, and that would have been the end of it.

However, since the event's demise on January 25, ironically Burns Day, Ms Whitelaw has jumped ship to the larger Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing taking her dance studio with her. Now supporters of the elder SOHDA are crying foul, claiming that Ms Whitelaw had already pre-planned her defection and that the alleged lack of numbers was little more than a smokescreen. That Ms Whitelaw, a teacher of high repute who also won the SOHDA Scottish Championship no less than three times in her own dancing career, sat and passed a SOBHD sponsored teacher's examination just a couple of weeks later, they say, fuels their allegations of impropriety.

Ms Whitelaw, whose Gillian Whitelaw School of Highland Dancing has classes in Falkirk, Larbert, Stirling, Denny and Dunblane, is angered by those suggestions. She explains the background to the flop: "A Celtic Connections Highland Dancing Championship, was requested by the SOHDA. "Celtic Connections agreed. "The competition was then very poorly supported by the SOHDA. "Due to lack of support, the competition was cancelled. "Disillusioned with the SOHDA I resigned."

She also speaks candidly of her desire to promote the event as a rival to SOBHD's own world championship, held annually at the Cowal Highland Games. "Some time ago, a discussion was held at an SOHDA meeting, and it was agreed, that as the SOHDA dancers were probably never going to be allowed to dance at Cowal, the SOHDA ought to have its own World Championship," said Ms Whitelaw.

"After this was agreed, the SOHDA had to find a Games, or festival or some event prestigious enough to attach this championship to, to raise its status and profile sufficiently to be acknowledged in the world of Highland dance in the cultural spectrum, and in the Celtic world, to be considered worthy of the title. "My friendship over many years with members of the organising team for Celtic Connections was known to my ex-colleagues in the SOHDA, and I was given a mandate to approach Celtic Connections, to explore the possibilities of attaching a competition to that excellent festival. "I and others believed that the profile of Celtic Connections was sufficient for this and indeed, in many ways, had a higher profile in the Celtic world than Cowal Highland Games.

"After much discussion, with Celtic Connections the go-ahead was given. "We were persuaded by the vice chairman of the SOHDA, not to call the event a World championship this year, but to wait and see how the competition developed, then go for a SOHDA World Championship in 2004."

In all 86 entries were received, not exactly a huge amount, but given that it was the first event and that possible entry was restricted by both the championship status and the very dances listed for competition, meant all along that the possible entry would be limited. Another factor was a ruling by the rival SOBHD which excludes their dancers competing in any SOHDA championships. Alex McGuire, vice president and an influential figure in SOHDA and also Gillian's former teacher, says that the entry number received was very acceptable. Other competitions on the Highland Games circuit would have been delighted with the size of the entry.

"I felt that the competition had not been given enough lead time (although), I was particularly thrilled that the competition was to be run under SOHDA rules with all dancers being made welcome," said Alex McGuire. "After much prompting from me and as a result of phone calls I was receiving, the entry forms were (finally) published-just at the time when all or most of the dance schools were closing down for the Christmas and New Year break which, consequently, only left the dancers about a couple of weeks to practice and prepare for such a prestigious event in January.

"My personal feeling is that Gillian has not only betrayed the Association but, even more so, has betrayed me as she was an ex-student of mine. "With all of the horrible things that she is now saying about the Association she must also remember that it was me in particular and the SOHDA in general who nurtured her, gave her a fair degree of glory with the successes of herself and her students coupled with the passing-on of a fair degree of knowledge. "The successes that her dance school achieved while with the SOHDA obviously made her own school grow in numbers. "I admit that with the defection of Gillian's dance school has caused a dent in the numbers of SOHDA dancers but it's something that we'll have to get over in time.

"At the last meeting of the SOHDA on Sunday February 9, all those present agreed to pull together and overcome the current slight difficulty that this episode has caused. "In fact the first SOHDA competition of the year held on Saturday February 15 attracted an entry of 106 dancers - not bad for a "normal" monthly competition."

Pauline Knox, National Secretary of SOHDA has equally strong views. She says: "80 dancers at an event is considered fair - at most competitions we expect around about 100 dancers with more entries coming in at a championships, possibly 120-140, which we would consider well supported. "A local comp held in Tranent on February 15 drew in 106 dancers, numbers for this competition were not affected in any way by the loss of The Gillian Whitelaw School. "Gillian Whitelaw was one of many successful teachers within the SOHDA. "A departure of any member of our Association would always be regretful.

"The loss of Gillian Whitelaw will have some effect on overall member numbers, but we must remember that she was one teacher amongst of many of an equally high standard, with this in mind we do not expect to see any decline in standards, quality or competition.

"We were all extremely disappointed that Celtic Connections competition was cancelled.
"I was informed of this on the evening of Friday January 24 (the eve of the proposed event). "It is still unclear why it was cancelled, a lack of entries was suggested. "86 entries may have been less dancers than anticipated by Gillian, but it was more than sufficient in our eyes to deem the event viable."

So who is to blame for the final cancellation, who didn't book the venue? Gillian Whitelaw for her part refuses to lay any blame at the door of Celtic Connections over the failure to re-book the cancelled venue, the circumstance which forced the ultimate and final cancellation of the event.

"I contacted Colin Hynd (of Celtic Connections) Monday evening (January 20) and the hall was to be re-booked," she says. Ms Whitelaw also offered 1000 of funding from her own studio to ensure the event would break even. But it didn't go ahead.

And while the arguments surrounding the cancellation of the Celtic Connections Highland Dancing Championship will rage on so too will the rancour of Ms Whitelaw's decision to 'cross the floor' and join SOBHD.

Both organisations offer tremendous opportunity for Highland dancers and teachers. SOHDA, the elder and smaller of the two, offers a magnificent range of ancient dances and steps as well as truly open competition. They have associated bodies in Australia and New Zealand.

On the other hand SOBHD offer more competitions and in more countries with member organisations in England, Canada, USA, South Africa, Europe, Australia and, now, New Zealand. However, their events are restricted to members only and they offer a smaller range in both dances and steps.

Their members are also debarred from dancing in 'outside' championships, such as SOHDA's. To many, Gillian Whitelaw's studio was the 'jewel in the SOHDA crown.' That makes her loss even harder to bear.

"I decided, during the course of the week leading up to the competition, that I would be leaving the SOHDA," Ms Whitelaw added. "Either I would join another body, or I would give up teaching. "I knew that saving the competition and seeing it through was to be my swansong within that organisation.

"To blame Celtic Connections (for the cancellation) would be incorrect and unacceptable. "This situation should never have existed.

"The SOHDA having given a mandate for the competition to be set up, and having dreamed long of having a championship to match Cowal, should have been in such support of the event, that cancellation should never have been dreamt of. "Whether the competition will be run again in 2004 is a matter for Celtic Connections."

Another by-product of the fact that the Gillian Whitelaw school has crossed the floor is the redundancy of the many titles her pupils won in recent years under the SOHDA umbrella, including both British and Scottish Championships. These are now all worthless as they are not recognised by SOBHD. One parent has already made her feelings known to CELTIC WORLD about this, and has also expressed her disbelief that Ms Whitelaw will have sufficient knowledge of SOBHD steps to steer her pupils to contest success this season.

That remains to be seen.Many are saying that the real reason for the defection, and the collapse of the Celtic Connections event, was SOHDA's refusal to give it 'World Championship' status. Given that Ms Whitelaw's pupils have clearly demonstrated their ability to win a vast amount of prizes it isn't unrealistic to expect them to have won numerous SOHDA 'World' titles either.
Suggestions have been made that this was one of the reasons why many in the SOHDA did not want to see Gillian Whitelaw head up a plan to promote a World Championship, particularly as many of the events at the doomed Celtic Connections competition featured obscure dances even by SOHDA standards.

"Had the SOHDA overwhelmingly supported Celtic Connections, I probably would not be moving in the new direction I have chosen," says Ms Whitelaw. "I have them to thank, that they unwittingly prompted me to go. "I have heard some of the lies being perpetrated about me.

"I am considered now by the extremists within the SOHDA to be in the enemy camp, and they will say anything that they imagine will be believed, and that they can get away with. "My long term hope for that organisation, is that the decent dancers and teachers, will eventually recognise the spoilers and extremists, and separate themselves from them, either by ousting them, or following the path to other dancing bodies. "I consider that my entire input was flawless, my only mistake being in underestimating the stupidity and lack of vision of my ex-colleagues within the SOHDA."

Ms Whitelaw was made aware of the tone of the enquiry being carried out by CELTIC WORLD'S writers and the likelihood that she may be seen by many within the dance world as a villain in the piece, particularly in regard to the timescale of her defection to SOBHD.

Causing concern too is her remarkably quickly organised teacher's examination which was a specially convened one-person sitting by the United Kingdom Alliance in Aberdeen on February 14 after she resigned from SOHDA just a few days earlier.

"I intend to comment on the facts only," she replied. "The other questions you ask, regarding timescales, of my examination with the UKA, etc. requires speculation."

Undoubtedly Gillian Whitelaw suffered a great deal of frustration at her perceived inactivity of SOHDA. Equally undoubtedly she was lured by the temptation of the much bigger SOBHD. Her decision to join whichever organisation she wants is a personal one and her right to do so should never be questioned.

In the end Ms Whitelaw took the necessary lessons from UKA teacher Anna Bain to gain her own teacher's certificate. But along the way Celtic Connections was the scene of yet another disaster in the sometimes petty and spiteful world of Highland dancing.

Has dancing shot itself in the foot yet again? Of course it has!

Does anyone come out of this with any credit?Sadly, no!

Robert Burns wasn't far off the mark when he wrote "oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."

Celtic World's readers can make up their own minds on who is at fault.

FOOTNOTE: for the record numerous requests to Celtic Connections staff and press officer Jane Donald to supply information on this episode have been refused.

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

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