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An extract from a talk given by Maggie Moore and published with permission of the

Scottish Arts Council, [The tempo of the music played for step-dancing was illustrated by Hamish at the 1994 Collogue in Dunkeld, Ed.]

Scotland was and is famous for its dancing, and the variety of dance styles which are     represented here is testimony to the richness of our Scottish dance heritage.

It is my contention that the step-dancing found in Cape Breton should also be included   under the broad umbrella of Scottish traditional dance and that its revival in Scotland in the past few years is an exciting and welcome development.

The Cape Bretons themselves, and indeed the Gaelic communities in other parts of Canada, have never been in doubt that step-dancing came from Scotland.

There are two counts on which I believe the rediscovery and indeed the very existence of Cape Breton step-dancing is important to us here in Scotland. Firstly it enables us to take a fresh look at the evolution of dance in Scotland in the last two hundred years by contrasting it with the development of the same dance form in the Gaelic communities in Cape Breton; and secondly the more informal and less regulated approach that exists within Cape Breton may provide an alternative model for future dance development in Scotland.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and during the first half of the nineteenth century large numbers of Scots went abroad either willingly to seek a better life or unwillingly as part of the infamous Highland Clearances. Many Scots settled in Canada, and Cape Breton Island in eastern Nova Scotia received around 30,000 Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. Except for a small French enclave in the north-west and parts of the eastern Cape Breton, the majority of the island was settled by Gaels, and even today the sheer concentration of Highland names in many parts is quite astonishing - MacDonald, MacKenzie, MacNeil, MacInnes and many more. Stanford Reid in his book The Scottish Tradition in Canada states that parts of eastern Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton Island, became as Gaelic in speech and outlook as the Highlands themselves. [1]

I believe it is this phenomenon which has resulted in the survival of much of the old culture.

That these communities have remained intact for nearly two hundred years is due both to Cape Breton’s relative isolation from the rest of Canada and to the fact that the area did not attract later incomers, Travel within Cape Breton was very restricted up to the 1940s due to the rough roads and lack of motorised transport. Also the lack of electricity meant that they weren’t being exposed to external influences on radio and gramophone, and that they had to make their own entertainment.

What did these folk bring with them from Scotland as well as their indefatigable spirit in conquering the difficult new terrain? Well, they brought their Gaelic language in song and story, their music and their dance. This has been passed down in a largely oral fashion from one generation to the next and Cape Bretoners are particularly proud of their genealogy. The old-style Scottish music and step-dancing is intrinsically linked, and the love of them runs in families. In the fascinating book, The Cape Breton Ceilidh, compiled and edited by     Allistair MacGillivray, many interviews with old and young Cape Bretoners give a vivid account of the passing down of the tradition from the earliest Scottish settlers.

Of course, this passing down of talents and skills from generation to generation is not unique to Cape Breton, but is more a reflection of the strength of their Gaelic heritage. It can equally well be seen in Scotland where there are families which have been famous for generations for their piping, or their singing, or indeed their dancing.

But what were the dances that these early immigrants took from the old country to Cape Breton nearly two hundred years ago? Understandably they were the dances that were   popular in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland at the time of their departure and so we are able to cross-reference information from Cape Breton with sources in Scotland. Mr & Mrs Flett, in their book Traditional Dancing In Scotland, were in no doubt about both the style and popularity of the old Reels. I quote:

-. only Reels are truly indigenous to Scotland. Reels of one sort or another were known in every district of Scotland, in all classes of society, and were particularly popular in the crofting regions; in these latter regions most dancing took place in the kitchens of the croft houses, and Reels, with their compact travelling figures and well-contrasted periods of   vigorous stepping, were ideally suited to the restricted dancing-spaces available. [3][There will be an edited transcript of a talk by Joan Flett given at the 1993 Collogue in a future edition of COMMON STOCK. Ed.]

Today’s solo step-dancing developed out of the stepping within the old Reels. It is this fact that defines step-dancing in Cape Breton today and also goes some way to explain why it had almost died out in Scotland until very recently.

You see, at the same time as the old Reels were taken over from Scotland, there was a body of more formal solo step-dances, which also went over with the early settlers. These included the ‘Fling’, ‘Seann Truibhas’, ’Flowers of Edinburgh’, ‘Tullochgorum’, ‘Jacky Tar’, ‘Irish Washerwoman’, and ‘Princess Royal’. These dances were taught by the early dancing masters, but their complexity and the requirement to dance the steps in a prescribed order, meant that they had to be learnt, and eventually fewer and fewer people danced them.     Margaret Gillis from South West Margaree is perhaps one of the few people in Cape Breton who can still dance some of these old step-dances. She learnt them from her father, John

Ales (1880-1975), who learnt them from his father, Allan, who learnt them from his

father, Allan, who learnt them from his father Alexander, who had emigrated from Morar in Scotland in 1826 and whose profession both in Scotland and in Cape Breton was that of dancing master. Margaret Gillis said:

I think the Flowers of Edinburgh was one of the dances in Scotland, and you'd have the Jacky Tar and all the hornpipes that were danced individually, There was form to it, a     format. Even the Seann Truibhas was a different dance then than the one they do in     Highland dancing today. [2]

The relatively greater freedom in expression in choosing and dancing steps, which was available in the context of the old Reels, became the vehicle for solo dancing also, and as a result solo step-dancing in Cape Breton today consists almost entirely of extemporised strathspeys and reels.

Whereas in Scotland a different evolution was occurring. The introduction of country dances from England produced a smoothing out of travelling steps and a greater emphasis being placed on the figures of the dance rather than on the stepping, which was the fundamental component of the old Reels. An Englishman by the name of Colonel Thornton, who was touring in the Highlands about the year 1804, remarked:

They were dancing a country-dance when we entered. The company consisted of about fourteen couples, who all danced the Glen Orgue kick. I have observed that every district of the Highlands has some peculiar cut; and they all shuffle in such a manner as to make the noise of their feet keep exact time. Though this is not the fashionable style of dancing, yet, with such dancers, it had not a bad effect. [3]

Additionally, during the 19th century, the old solo step-dances were being danced regularly in competition at Highland Games and in performances at concerts, and the style became ever more open and balletic perhaps to suit the larger arena.

The introduction about the turn of the century of soft-soled dancing-shoes hastened this change in style, so that what we see now in modern Highland dancing is the direct descendant of the old step-dances, When the 80-year-old James Neill, the respected Angus dancemaster, was asked in 1908 about the new fashion, he replied:

It is more scientific, but it is not so Highland, so to speak. The steps they dance are not the real Highland steps. [4]

So, to recap, what we have had at the beginning of the 19th century was a dance heritage common to both the Gaels who stayed in Scotland and those who emigrated - i.e. the old Reels and the solo step-dances. In Scotland, social changes, especially the context within which dance was being performed, and the proximity to our English and European neighbours, had produced the rich and varied dance tradition which we now enjoy. In Cape Breton, geographical isolation and social stability has led to a much narrower seam of   dancing, which was exposed to very few external influences until very recently.

Until the middle of this century, with one notable exception, the life-style of the Cape Bretoners remained fairly constant. Their socialising was based on music and dancing in the home, and the old Gaelic custom of visiting and having a party or ceilidh is still very much alive even today.

From the Cape Breton Ceilidh book there are many quotes which give an idea of the universality of the music and the dancing:

When they'd have “bunch dances” or when a crowd would come to the house, there’d be a lot of step dancing going on - and square sets and Single Fours. They'd gather at different houses particularly where there was a violin. Christena Campbell MacKinnon, Gillis Lake.

There’d be Scotch Fours and eight-hand reels, and the dance would fast till daylight; they'd dance all night! A lot of people would come by horse and wagon, but my first cousin. Alex Cummings, would walk from Skye Mountain to Ashfield to a dance and that would be quite a way, They didn’t care as long as they could be dancing. Dan Norman Cummings, Skye Mountain [2]

But what of the music? Well, for fiddlers and step-dancers alike, their favourite tunes are nearly all from the old Scottish piping repertoire. Well-known tunes like ‘Calum Crubach’ and ‘The High Road To Linton’ are played alongside tunes that are rarely heard in Scotland today, like ‘Moulin Dubh’ and ‘Put Me in the Big Chest’; and tunes which in Cape Breton are still being played in their original simple two-part state, like ‘Pretty Marion’ and ‘Caberfeidh’, have in Scotland been turned into complex competition tunes by the addition of a further 2, 4 or even 6 parts. But why pipe tunes, when the instrumentation today is   almost always fiddle and piano? The answer is, of course, that both in Scotland and Cape Breton, it was pipers who traditionally played for dancing. Indeed, the last of the old style pipers, 84 year-old Alex Currie, was still playing for step-dancing as late as the 1970s.

However it is not only the repertoire which has remained largely unchanged but also the style of playing the old tunes. The rhythms and tempo required for step-dancing are very well defined - 8 even beats of the bar in strathspey time and 2 on-beats and 2 off-beats in the bar for reel time, with the strathspeys being played at 40 bars per minute and the reels at between 52 and 54 bars per minute. It is this speed and unremitting rhythm in strathspey time which produces the excitement and there is an almost intangible relief when the                   musician breaks into reel time.

I’m sure there will be many who doubt that strathspeys were ever played this way in Scotland, but there is much evidence for believing that this is indeed the case, Margaret Bennet, of the School of Scottish Studies, made many visits into the Codroy Valley in Newfoundland, an isolated valley with a strong community of Scottish descendants. In her book,

The Last Stronghold, she describes finding Gaelic singing and story-telling, old style piping, fiddling and step-dancing still being practised in the original intimate setting of the ceilidh or house-party. The strathspeys and reels were played exactly like the Cape Bretoners play them today, and Allan MacArthur (1884-1971) confirmed that he learnt them from his mother Jenny who was born in Moidart in Scotland.

I would also like to quote from the 36th edition of Allan’s Ballroom Guide, which gives a fascinating insight into the dancing in Lowland Scotland towards the end of the 19th     century. The dances included Quadrilles, Circle Dances, Country Dances and Scotch Reels, and the following is part of the Hints on Dancing:

The Scotch Reel, when well danced, has a very pleasing effect, and indeed, nothing can be more agreeable, or lively or brilliant, than the steps which are appropriate to the music. There are two kinds of music to which the Scotch Reel is danced, viz, the Reel properly so entitled, and the Strathspey, which is accented in exact resemblance to the Jig. The music is so charming and fascinating in its nature, as to set a whole company on their feet in a     moment, and to dance with all their might till it ceases, As I have observed that the dancing should be in strict conformity with the music, it is necessary to accompany the Strathspeys by steps of more alacrity than those generally used in other dances. There ought to be little or no bending of the knees used in the steps, as the rapidity of the music and dancing will not admit of much yielding of the limbs. [5]

Ironically perhaps the last twenty years has seen the greatest potential for change in stepdancing in Cape Breton. Concern that there was a generation gap opening up encouraged several well-respected dancers to start regular step-dancing classes. These have proved     extremely popular and there is now a new generation of trained young dancers. This has meant that there is a certain degree of formalisation and standardisation starting to creep in, and that the young dancers are perhaps concentrating more on the intricacies of their newly learnt steps and routines, rather than on the music, and the older emphasis of complementing and ‘marrying’ ones steps to the particular tune being played.

As a visitor to Cape Breton during the past two summers, I was struck by the depth of the musical tradition and the sense of community which still exists. House parties consist of gatherings of folk where tunes are played for hours, and when the music becomes irresistible people get up and step-dance. The tunes are inevitably strathspeys and reels, which may sound boring, but it doesn’t work out that way. Every player has their own individual style, as does every dancer, and it is the subtlety and personal expression which comes out in the music and dance, which gives a variety and interest.

The incredible excitement of rattling one’s feet in time to Scottish music played in a wild and vigorous manner is hard to convey.


1. The Scottish Tradition in Canada edited by W. Stanford Reid (McLelland & Stewart 1976).

2. A Cape Breton Ceilidh compiled and edited by Allister MacGillivray (Sea-Cape Music Ltd 1988)

3. Traditional Dancing in Scotland J.P. Flett & T.M Flett (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1964)

4. Forfar Weekly News (1908)

5. Allan’s Ball-room Guide, Circa 1890 (Mozart Allen, Glasgow)