By Loraine Ritchey
Betty Jessiman Part One by Loraine Ritchey
As the dancers of today get ready in the staging areas of the competition or wait in the wings for their entrance, do their thoughts go to the dancers of yesteryear whose talent and tenacity enabled them to be on that stage? Those young girls who are there because the woman of yesterday dared to enter the men's competition. Elizabeth Watson, a young girl of 12 remembered (Celtic World 2002) and performed her contribution as part of a project "Choose someone in your interest area before 1950 who made a significant contribution to their art form" Elizabeth chose Jenny Douglas:
"I suppose yer wonderin who I am
Up here dressed like a man,
A man you say in that wee little skirt
That funny hat and ruffled shirt
Aye, I'm in disguise and you mustn't give me away
Fer I am dancing against the lads in a place where lassies can't play
Fer Highland Dances are only for the men
We lassies can't compete, let alone win!
But, I'll fix em I will, one and all
By dancing and winning and tearing down their wall
Fer I am Jenny Douglas and can dance as good as any lad
These rules, these regulations, Ohhhh they make me mad
So I will dance against the men and beat them with easy stroke
But if the judges find out who I am they surely will choke
So I will show them all what I can do
They won't know what hit them when I am through
And showed them I did, that we girls can also dance
That all we needed was a single chance
Now dancing is free for one and all
No longer blocked by the sexist wall.
But Jenny Douglas wasn't alone in breaking down barriers, another Elizabeth affectionately known as Betty Jessiman joined Jenny in competing in a man's world. Betty was the first woman to compete at Nairn. One year, on the posters for the Games, they omitted to state "males only" so Betty sent in an entry straight away. They had to hold a special meeting what to do and ended up with no option but to let her dance!
There were many other firsts for Betty including 1sts in the World Championships, the first female to compete in the SOBHD uniform as it is today. " Some games did not take to the outfit to begin with". The female dancer of those times had to contend with " Ladies should wear heeled shoes.. those over 15 years of age are discouraged and debarred from some places; and at Royal Braemar, they must wear a kilt -skirt 2 inches under the knee, black stockings, white blouse and tartan tie." (Highland and Traditional Scottish Dances by D.G. Maclennan).
Betty was not alone in her dislike for the "costume" " the tights laddered easily or were holed- not very ladylike".
Royal Braemar was not amongst her favorite games " because women were never allowed to compete (despite everywhere else) during my career".
Aboyne Highland Games also did not approve of lady competitors wearing a kilt. All the controversy over what the woman could or should wear finally "lead to the introduction of the Aboyne dress which is now worn for the national dances"
Who was this young dancer who contributed to the heritage of Highland and its emancipation and continues today to play an integral part in her heritage? Betty Jessiman (Elizabeth Fraser Jessiman) was born on 1921 Huntly Aberdeenshire. She was the 5th of 6 children. She had two older brothers, William (Billy) and John (Johnny) and who were, respectively, a drummer and a piper in the Gordon Highlanders. Three sisters: Helen (Gertie), Isobel (Tibbie) and Margaret. They danced as "The Jessiman Sisters" in concerts all over the North East of Scotland. It was their mother Helen who taught the girls to dance at home but when Betty was 9 started lessons with a local teacher, Miss Guthrie.
The little girl danced at the Highland Games around Scotland traveling with all the dancing gear by train and bus and ferry. 1939 found the start of World War 2 in Europe, the Highland games circuit stopped for the duration of the war. The competitors in the various competitions pipers, drummer's athletes and dancers were fighting for their country, way of life and ideals. Betty also joined those brave souls and at the age of 18 in 1939 joined the A.T.S. (A.T.S. was the Auxiliary Territorials Services amongst whose ranks served the now Queen Elizabeth II http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/lj/warslj/women_11.shtml.
1946 found Betty continuing her dancing career and her story continues next month.
As always for Questions and Comments, I can be reached at
Loraine Ritchey, 1127.W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052.