Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

Highland Highlights Betty Jessiman part two

"A lass in the world of men" Betty continued to compete in the dances of her heritage. Staff-sgt. Jessiman, of the A.T.S found time whilst on tour of duty in London to "carry off chief dancing honours at the Scottish Societies annual piping and dancing contests" according to the print media of the day. Betty served in Orkney, Shetland and Edinburgh. Tibby, Betty's sister was with her for most of the time and, entertainers that they were, they were both made honorary members of ENSA. When she was in Edinburgh she attended the Madam Ada Ballet School for teacher training and also ballet and tap as potential additional skills/subjects for a future dancing school! It was here she gained valuable experience as a dance teacher.

In 1951 Betty started her own studio to teach the dances of her heritage. "When I started the classes in Huntly, I continued to teach in Edinburgh for a time. That meant I used to travel by train to Edinburgh of a Sunday night and teach there Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I caught the late train home and was back in Huntly by 6: a.m. ready to teach my Huntly pupils on Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Keith" (Huntly Express 2.2.2001)

As the success of her dancing studio grew she set up lessons in Dufftown, Insch, Portsoy, Keith, Banff and Strathdon to fulfill the dancing demands of students at that time. The nursery classes very large due to the fact that there were no playgroups or crèches so "people put their children into dancing to get them out and about". The studio's success continued with many of her students winning the prizes at the games and performing for Royalty. Joe Simpson, a 15yr old had the honour of performing for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip at Hollyrood House. Joe, a champion dancer in his own right also had the pleasure of the company of his dancing teacher Betty at the event.

Betty continued to teach and compete with the greats of the day such as the late Bobby Watson and J.L. McKenzie. Competing at the London Scottish Annual competition, the hornpipe was the last dance. J.L. (Jimmy) McKenzie, Bobby Watson and Betty (as the winners) were asked to come back and give another demonstration of the hornpipe. At the end of the dance Bobby did a cartwheel. JL said, "…If he had told us we could all have done one." Bobby always "did his own thing"!!!" said Betty.

The first year of competing at Cowal found Bobby and Betty together again on the platform. 1stMargaret Samson, 2nd Betty Jessiman, 3rd Bobby Watson. In those days, there were no cash prizes - only "gifts". Betty got a travel clock, a silver cake stand and fish forks and knives. Bobby Watson got a boxed tea set. On leaving the field he said "well, I'd better awa' hame wi' ma dishes"!!!!! "He then hoisted them over his shoulder and went off to his car. Amazing, third place in a World Championship and he went "hame" with a teaset"

1960 found Betty again on the boards at Cowal, The World Highland Dancing Championships. Here Betty was only two points behind the winner, Flora Stuart Grubb, Australia. A year later 1961 found the now 40-year-old Betty on top of the World podium with the title World Champion to add to her other accolades.Miss Jessiman was quoted in 1962 after recently having won her World Championship "I practice everyday when I am in training for a competition, or I run at a leisurely pace, five to seven miles is not uncommon and I usually feel more fit enroute home than on the stretch covered during the first part!"

The sixties found Betty traveling to Canada and the United States where she delighted audiences in performance whilst also adjudicating and giving instruction. Betty returned home to Scotland and married Fred MacKay. But even the honeymoon was Highland with Betty and her groom touring the North of Scotland and Western Isles where Betty competed in a number of competitions. "Everything was, and to some extent still is arranged around dancing!" Fred converted 2 adjoining cottages into their house and also dancing studio as they are today. Betty's daughter, Patricia-Ann also followed in her mum's footsteps and had a successful competitive career and the grandchildren carry on the "Huntly Highland" tradition started by Betty and her sisters.Betty's studio last year celebrated their own Golden Jubilee 50 years of teaching Scotland's dancers their special art form, Highland.

Reflecting on the dancing of Betty believes "(It is) better today - dancers from all over the world are now dancing the same techniques so can all compete together (on an even playing field)."However the down side.. "The "feeling" of the dance has gone when dancers have to measure the amount of head and movement to such a degree that it looks clockwork. Leaps are over exaggerated and this was one of the fist points brought to the Board - they did not want splits in the air !!!!

So with all the accolades and championships over such a long and illustrious career what was Betty's most treasured win? "winning the "Champion of Champions" where the previous year's top winners were invited to compete. This was the first competition of its kind where the steps were set in advance and she won! (Note: pertains to the SOBHD steps. The media of the day " the competitors had to perform set steps by the (SOBHD) instead of, as usually happens, steps of the dancers own choice").. This was the first competition of its kind where the steps were set in advance This was in 1962 at Gourock - 16 champions were invited to compete" - Betty won outright in all 4 classes. Betty now 81 years of age although no longer actively teaching full time her beloved Highland, stated, "Highland dancing has been the number one thing in my life!"

Is it any wonder that she has a pipe tune bearing her name? (For a copy http://www.bagpipesatbest.com/midi/MIDI-B.htm) and like Jenny Douglas before her caught the eye of a poet: C. Boath, Blairgowrie Perthshire wrote of Betty in 1953

"She Swept the Boards"

Accordin' tae the Huntly Express"

Which I got in Dundee O'

A Huntly lass in Hieland dress

At dancin' bears the gree O'

I believe that at the "Games" at Luss

And syne at Tobermory O"

She swept the the boards wi' little fuss

And added tae her Glory O'

Next I heard o"her at Errol

A 'birdie' gied me wird O

This bonnie Hieland dancing girl

Got twa firsts and a third O'

Syne Brig O' Allan saw her there

Upon a slippery board O'

That must have tried the dancers sair

Yet three seconds, there she scored O'

Gaitherin Laurels

Later on I heard o' her again

Gaitherin laurels at Glenfinnan O'

And I mind o' hearin some are sayin'

Maist points she had been winnin" O'

At Cowal, oor country's premier "Games"

'Mang fifty-nine o" Scotland's best

Her's was amang the first six names

Tae qualify for "Champion" test

But a lucky charm, she ne'er had kissed

For she made ae tiny slip O'

And though the championship she missed

She was a splendid runner-up O'

This season since the "Games began";

(I hinna place or date O")

Fifty-twa prizes she has won

Sae she is hard tae bate O'

And this quiet , modest dancing lass

(whause skill has made me an ardent fan)

Was kent, when in the ATS

As Sergeant Betty Jessiman

Questions and comments Loraine Ritchey, 1127 W. 4th Street, Lorain, Ohio.44052. Tel: 440.246.6046 E-mail lritch7@yahoo.com

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

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