Highland Highlights

By Loraine Ritchey

OH! CANADA by Loraine Ritchey

NOTE: This article was written before the COwal Competition of 2003, however it is again to the Canadian women the men must doff their bonnets. The Canadian women enjoyed a clean sweep at this years Cowal Gathering.The men will stil have their work cut out for them it seems.

If numbers of participants are anything to go by Highland Dancing Official Offices need to move lock stock and barrel from Edinburgh to Toronto or at the very least to British Columbia. The Canadians have the largest registered Highland dancing community worldwide. The province of Ontario alone is nearly equal in numbers to the whole of the USA.

The late 50's found the Canadian government reaching out to Britain for her engineers and skilled trades citizens. For the paltry sum of 10 pounds, with the right qualifications, Britons, including the Scots, left the motherland in droves to start new lives in the large factories and shipyards of Canada. Many found their way to the province of Ontario and on the west coast to British Columbia.

In the most simplistic of terms, the ex-pats came together at the British Legion halls and clubs where they could be "at home". Amongst the wives sons and fathers were the pipers, drummers and dancers from the homeland. "The gathering" spawned the pipe bands and dancers, the teachers of the drummers, pipers and dancers were to hand having also brought those skills along with their engineering and technical trades skills.

The great inland seas (known as The Great Lakes) dry docks and ship yards as well as the ship yards on the southeast coasts and West coast beckoned the Scots across the border to the USA, where the great ship builders stood sponsorship for the Scottish tradesmen. This is probably why Ontario and the states bordering on the Great lakes have the greatest amount of Highland teachers and registered dancers. The cluster of Scots that landed grew in number. The Irish have Boston and to a lesser extent New York. Although the Irish have had more decades in which to assimilate into the resident population, the Scots are still very much 1st and 2nd generation.

Along with their skilled trades came affluence, the pay was good- life was good. There was time to relax and enjoy the pleasures of their Scottish heritage. In fact, that heritage has become as a familiar part of Canada as the maple leaf itself. The tourist to Niagara Falls will find tartan and Scottish trinkets as readily available as if you were at Edinburgh Castle. Pictures of pipers along with the Canadian Mounties adorn the calendars and posters of Canada. Nova Scotia, (New Scotland) the provinces all with their very own Tartan. Yes! The Scots made a huge impact in Canada and not to be outdone the Canadians have been making a huge impact in Scotland, at least in the realm of Highland Dancing.

Was it down to the threat of losing the Canadian dollars and participants that Cowal Highland Gathering decided to go totally with the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing? 1969 found the SOBHD pulling its dancers from Cowal and having their own World Championship at Gourock. Scot - Canadians by this period of time were taking advantage of the superior wages and the direct flights to Scotland from Toronto. They were coming home to visit in droves; they wanted to pit their skills in the piping and dancing world against those that had stayed in their homeland. The Canadian Highland community had organized themselves, there were parent organizations, and sponsorships and bingo benefits to help the lads and lassies tread the Highland hills again. The dancing, through personal relationships of teachers who stayed and those who went to Canada found the SOBHD the "governing body" of Highland dance in Canada. The SOBHD that ended up with the Canadians on "Board" and because of that had the leverage needed to gain the "crown jewel" Cowal Highland Gathering.

The past four years at Cowal have found Canadian Colleen Rintamaki holding the Cowal Cup 4 times in a row in the Adult section. Along side her both in the adult and junior worlds have been Canadians. They came, they saw, and they conquered. How did the expats move in on the locals and beat them at their own "games"?

Talk to most Scottish born and bred dancers and they will tell you they dance for the heritage the culture and so on. Talk to a Canadian and they will tell you they dance for the culture as well but they practice and compete to "win". The mindset is on the competition first and foremost. Teacher's focus in on the 4 competitive dances, they go by the book. You are a competitor first in the majority of Highland studios. . Some Highland dance studios will "audition" dancers before taking them on, this is serious business.

With the great clustering of Scots in Ontario, competitions are frequent and within easier driving distances than those of their American cousins. The majority can compete every weekend within a mornings drive. Teachers are listed in the phone book. The clustering effect along with larger schools than most of their other world counterparts and more dancers sitting the teaching exams has caused greater numbers of teachers by area. Parent association's work diligently to run the bingos so the money can be plowed back into the studios and associations. Some have provided money for new outfits, trips to Scotland all organized for the competitive Canadian Highland Dancer. Canadian dancers are usually involved with the pipe bands and it is not unusual to see the big bus pull into a games with pipers, drummers and dancers.

Still the question "Are the Canadians the ones to beat?" Should be rephrased "are the Canadian "women" the ones to beat?" It is the women that have upset the men in recent years. Jacqui Smith, Ontario spoilt the Mitchelson / Bowman run in 1993 and again in 1996 she stood on the platform ahead of the men. Since 1999 Colleen Rintamaki has won hands down and has stood with the coveted cup. The Scottish lads have been outdistanced by the Canadian Lasses to date but they need not be too depressed, as the "men" from Canada have never held the Cowal Cup.

We will never know if Angus Mackenzie who won the "Gourock SOBHD World Championship" the day of the boycott in 1969 could have graced the platform at Cowal. Would he have given the great Victor Wesley a run for the title? The fact remains we will never know. He was Canada's shot at a Cowal Champion that year. Wesley came back and danced again as a US citizen but the fact remains that the closest the men of North America came to having a Cowal Champion was from their brothers south of the border. 1973 found Hugh Bigney holding the silverware. The only natural born non-Scottish male to do so but he a United States citizen.

Are there Canadian men waiting in the wings or will the lasses from Canada continue to beat the men at their own dancing? Scotland is producing some excellent male dancers, some unfortunately cannot compete due to the current restrictions and have gone on to dance in other art forms, but there are some that are tipped to hoist the cup? Is there a Canadian male on the horizon who will do what the lasses have done frequently in recent years "take home the silverware to Canada"! The gauntlet has been thrown will Scotland and the male dancer pick it up?

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

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