Review: An Afternoon of Historical RSCDS Dances

A special celebration of our Dance Scottish history

Following the very successful Early Wellington Dances afternoon in 2023 to celebrate the RSCDS Centenary, the Wellington Region organised a special afternoon of Historical RSCDS Dances for intermediate dancers and above on Saturday 27 April 2024.

Close on 40 dancers from around the Region and Manawatū along with two visitors from Canberra, gathered in the St John’s Anglican Church Hall in Johnsonville, eager to try out dances not commonly done nowadays.

Wellington Region President and Johnsonville tutor Rod Downey selected and taught the dances. To add to this special afternoon, Lynne Scott and Sam Berkahn provided the music. We also welcomed Edith Campbell who had suggested having this afternoon of older dances.

Rod with Lynne on the fiddle and Sam on the cello

Source of the dances: RSCDS Books 1-5

RSCDS Book 1 was first published in 1924, meaning 2024 was the Centenary of this publication, the first of the numbered RSCDS Book series. Rod chose dances from RSCDS Books 1-5, all pre-1930.

These books contain 60 dances. Rod selected dances for the afternoon based on interest and danceability. He avoided dances that are relatively well-known, for example, Glasgow Highlanders.

He tried to feature a variety of formations, which is not an easy task when using the early books. For example, seven of the 12 dances of Book 1 finish with a poussette. Rod kindly did not wish to tire our legs out during the afternoon with an overabundance of Pas-de-basque so took care with his selection of dances. He included at least one dance from each of Books 1-5.

The music: A fun challenge to arrange the sets of tunes

Lynne says it was a fun challenge to put together sets of music for the early dances. To add an authentic feel of dancing during the times the dances were devised, over half the tunes she and Sam played during the afternoon were composed by famous fiddler/composers of the 18th century:

  • Niel Gow (b 1727)
  • Nathaniel Gow (his son, b 1763)
  • William Gow (another son b c.1750)
  • Robert Mackintosh (b 1750)
  • John RIddell (b 1728)
  • Alexander Gibb (b in 1700’s)
  • Malcolm MacDonald (b c.1740)
  • William Marshall (b 1748)
  • James MacDonald (b 1700’s)

Lynne adds the tunes were written and being danced to well before the invention of the accordion.  A typical dance band of the time would have been fiddle (and/or perhaps flute/recorder) with cello.

To give us a taste of an authentic experience, Lynne played the fiddle while Sam played the cello for three dances (two reels and a strathspey) and keyboard for the others.

Sam’s music for playing the cello for The Triumph

The remainder of the tunes played were ‘traditional’ but also mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. 

The dances: Somewhat vigorous with unusual formations

Rod welcomed us to the afternoon, saying dances from Books 1-5 are ‘quite vigorous’, with some ‘tricky formations’. This proved to be so!

We started the afternoon with the jig Light and Airy Book 4, devised by William Campbell in 1790; a dance familiar to a number of us. Rod encouraged us to be ‘light or airy’ in our dancing to make the most of the music.

Then to The Triumph Book1, a reel Introduced by Nathaniel Gow in 1808. The unusual feature of this dance is a poussette for one couple, which required some practice under careful tutelage from Rod.

Lots of smiles while dancing The Triumph

We tried Lady Macintosh’s Rant next (also known as The Duke is Welcome to Inverness), a strathspey by Rutherford 1754 from Book 3. Rod shared he’d taught this dance at Johnsonville Club the previous week and discovered it had a bunch of hooks for both the tutor and dancers!

A tricky dance indeed, with the first couple starting on opposite sides and only returning to own sides when they reach the foot of the set. Some discombobulation was apparent during the dancing (you may spot a few perplexed faces in the photos).

Making sure you’re on the ‘correct’ side of the set in Lady Macintosh’s Rant

Rory O’More, a jig from Book 1 ‘collected locally’, was rather entertaining. In Rod’s old version of Book 1, the instructions indicate that after the first couple dances down the middle, for Bars 21-24 the first couple dance back up the middle backwards! This did feel slightly weird but I could imagine the ladies of the 18th Century, dressed in their long full gowns (with perhaps bustles), finding it easier to ‘retire’ rather than turning around in the middle of the set before dancing back to the top.

Haughs o’ Cromdale Book 4, a 16 bar strathspey from the 18th Century ‘collected in Galloway’ also had some interesting quirks, with a version of the Diamond Poussette danced using Highland Schottische which stretched our brains.

Lynne says an interesting link with New Zealand arose when she was researching Joseph Lowe (b 1796) who wrote the second tune played for this dance. Joseph was a dance teacher for the Royal Family at Balmoral and Windsor. One of his sons emigrated to New Zealand and taught dance here. His family continued the dance tradition, with one of the grandsons being Sir Jon Trimmer, the renowned ballet dancer.

A break for our brains and bodies was needed after the complex array of dances we’d tried out during the first half of the afternoon. Thanks so much to Elaine and Kevin Lethbridge for preparing and bringing along a sumptuous afternoon tea for all of us to enjoy (including gluten free and dairy free options for those with restrictive diets).

Fortified with great food and a cuppa, we set forth to find out more about The Princess Royal Book 2, a 28 bar reel collected around 1850. This is the only 28 bar RSCDS dance Rod knows of. Lynne says it was a particular challenge to put together the set of music for this 28 bar dance! Although it had Pas-de-basque in the Half Petronella, I thought the tempo of the dance was perfect and the dance didn’t overly tax my legs.

The Haymakers, a 48 bar jig in Book 2 from around 1761 or earlier, contains running step which was popular in some of the old dances, such as this one and Strip the Willow. We are probably more likely to come across this dance at a ceilidh nowadays than at a Scottish Country Dance.

Zooming around the floor using running step in The Haymakers

The Duke of Hamilton’s Reel, a strathspey from 1754 in Book 5, has an intricate start as the first man turns the second woman right hand one and a half times at the same time as the first woman and second man turn. Once we mastered that, we realised an aide-mémoire was sometimes needed for the second couple, as on bars 9-10 they needed to move down and then move back up on bars 13-14.

Rod chose to finish the afternoon with The Merry Dancers Book 4, a jig from1827. Quite a vigorous dance with some strong turns needed plus setting to and turning corners. And finally Dumbarton Drums Book 5. A reel from 1816 danced to uplifting traditional tunes.

Thanks so much to Rod for all the work he put into researching dances from so back in our Scottish Country Dancing history and selecting and teaching the dances in his thought-provoking, balanced programme.

Thanks also to our musicians Lynne and Sam for all the research into authentic music, arranging the lovely sets of tunes and playing for us all afternoon. It’s marvellous to have such outstanding live music available in Wellington to enhance the joy of the dance.

And thanks to the dancers who came along to try the host of unfamiliar dances and help each other through the unusual formations, and to all others who helped make this afternoon of historical RSCDS dances such a memorable occasion.

See more about the history of the dances, music and formations in Rod’s notes

Click here to see the smiles in all of Loralee’s photos and download if you wish

Loralee Hyde
4 May 2024

Photos: Loralee Hyde