Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

Mats Melin, Scotland is one of today's leading authorities in the dances and steps of Scotland. Mats has traveled the world in search of Scotland's dances and teaching the steps and dances of yesteryear. I have included his letter from the Millennium Summer School New Zealand.

January 2000
"I was delighted to accept the invitation to come to New Zealand to teach solo dancing. I did not, then, realize that I would be one of the first overseas tutors to be officially asked to teach at the Academy's annual summer school. I felt very honoured indeed.

The first of the two Summer Schools was held in .Christchurch in the South Island and was arranged by the Balmoral Club. The second was held in Palmerston North, in the North Island and arranged by the Manawatu Teachers and Judges Association, this being their first summer school. The other teachers were Cushia Piesse, Adele Swanson (Christchurch) Sherilyn Hall (Christchurch and Palmerston North), Robyn Simmons (Palmerston North) and Judy Clark (Palmerston North), who all taught the Academy's Grade work during each week. In addition to this, the Academy invited Margaret Paterson from Brisbane, Australia to teach the SOBHD technique, thus showing the difference between Academy work and the SOBHD style of Highland dance.

I taught five sessions each day, which included Old Highland steps and Reels, solo dances from the Hill Manuscript of 1841, Hebridean Solo Dances and Scottish Step Dancing, or as it is better known Cape Breton Step dancing. The students were challenged with the steps of Dance Master John Reid's "Delvine Side Highland Fling", danced to the fiddle music played at a faster speed than Fling's are presently danced at.

Out of the Hills Manuscript, we danced the following "High Dances" . "The Flowers of Edinburgh", Earl of Errol" and the "King of Sweden", the first two being different from the Academy versions. In the Reel Class we looked at various forms of Reels of Three and a Reel of Five. In the Hebridean classes the "Till A' Rithsid" or "Aberdonian Lassie" and "Tulloch Gorm" were taught primarily, but we also looked at "First of August".

The step dancing sessions concentrated on the footwork still actively danced and remembered in Maritime Canada and primarily in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I passed on the steps I have been privileged to learn over the years by many prominent step dancers from the Cape. Finally in the technique class, we looked at various movements and styles of performing them. The students were taught "the Jacobite Sword" Miss Forbes (farewell to Banff) and "Salute to McNab Sword Dance"
I generally found the standard of dancing very high. In a few cases lacking a bit in technique, but enthusiasm certainly made up for it. What really impressed me was the general good shape, stamina and discipline of all the students. Their understanding of the music and their ability to listen and respond to it was, on the whole, was very good indeed. All the students polite and cheerful manners at all times made my classes a joy to teach. It's probably the first time ever, apart from in Canada, where I never had to ask anyone to be quiet or to pay attention. I found the NZ dancers very dedicated and hard workers, even though at times the heat took its toll, especially in Palmerston North. Very gratifying were the favourable remarks on and genuine interest in the dances I taught.
Due to the Academy style of dance, hailing back to the teaching of MacNeill, MacLennan, Sutherland and Douglas Taylor among many others during the early parts of the century, many movements now no longer practiced or even generally known in Scotland, are still part of the Academy work. This made my work easy not having to explain certain movements featuring in some of the Hebridean and other older dances.

Bone structure, strength and muscle development have all been taken into account for the exercises contained in the Academy Syllabus, which are used to train their dancers. I found that even young students had a very good grasp of the different techniques involved in elevating correctly in Highland dances and staying low, closer to the ground in the step dances. The relatively few injuries that occurred testified to this fact. I was delighted to see so much talent on stage at the concluding Concerts of each summer school. It certainly gave a good overview of the weeks achievements and provided good entertainment indeed.

On the whole I found the New Zealand dancers very strong and smooth in their dancing. Their elevation and technical abilities enhancing the character of each dance in question, thus giving a musical flow to the whole performance. A number of young students impressed me greatly in this last respect. Dancing should be for enjoyment in my opinion.Dance is an Art. You dance because you love it, and if you do, it shows!!. New Zealand Academy dancers obviously love to dance!!!

In answer to a question on the Highland Laddie Mats wrote:

"Regarding the Highland Laddie, the tune is very old. Known in Medieval lute manuscripts. The Hebridean version of the solo dance is from about 1850-60. The one adopted by the SOBHD is DG MacLennan's (Whose brother DH MacLennan emigrated to New Zealand and taught dancing there) version. He saw a Highland Laddie in South Uist when judging the Askernish Games in about 1925, and later modified it to the version you see today. The original is a very nice dance indeed.

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

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