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From a talk given at the Galashiels Collogue by Joan Flett, regrettably losing much of its colour as a printed extract rather than being enjoyed in its entirety at the event itself.

We'd read about the Gaelic dance, the Hebridean dance, so we set off to find out something about them, and in Easter 1955 we went to the Hebrides. Much work had been done on songs, but no-one had traced any dances at all.

We went to Barra where we were directed to the local character Neil MacNeil - 90% of the men on Barra are MacNeil and 75% appeared to be Neil MacNeil at that time - and he directed us to another Neil MacNeil on the other side of the island. We called round (we did all this on bike or we walked) and we found a marvellous old man, 6ft, tough, red hair, blue eyes, Viking sort of type. We started talking about dancing and he said “It’s my father you want, not me; it’s my father”. His father was 89 and equally impressive. After various attempts in Gaelic we discovered an enormous amount of material. I should explain about the Gaelic. Neil MacNeil was of a generation who spoke Gaelic at home, but he couldn’t actually write Gaelic - and he had no English at all. The next generation daughter-in-law helped us a lot; she had been to school and learned English but spoke Gaelic at home. So she could read and write English but couldn’t write Gaelic! But her children did both English and Gaelic, so the daughter-in-law translated his Gaelic and the children wrote it down. The wonderful thing about Neil MacNeil was that not only could he remember the dances but having been a piper he remembered the phrasing of these dances. It was 60 years since he’d seen them, but I think in a simpler age peoples’ memories were probably much better. And he was absolutely precise about the phrasing of those dances.

They still dance at the cross-roads on Barra. The Stealing Reel is still danced. Compton MacKenzie describes it in Whisky Galore - the last dance at a wedding where the bride is stolen away to defeat the fairies. After they’d been dancing the reel for a while a couple of girls will come in and take away the Bride, another girl will take her place. That’s to cheat the fairies in case they take it into their heads to steal away the Bride themselves. Then the Groom looks round and sees his Bride has gone, whereupon two men take him away to where she is and another takes his place - also to cheat the fairies!

And that was still done on most of the Islands - Barra, Eigg and S Uist. There were places on the road that were stamped down and these were places where on a fine night when the weather was good they would still dance on the roads.

Then we went to South Uist and Benbecula where we collected more forgotten dances with Gaelic names. We also collected the famous Hebridean Solo Dances. We found a fascinating dance/game ritual of the type you get much more in England - with the Morris dance, where someone is killed and then revived, usually with a doctor. We found it all over the place. It first occurred in the Perthshire Highlands in 1804 but they still know it on most of the places we went to. The dust from the mills in the islands was actually black, so it would black your face or hands, Which may tie up with some of the English dances where you black up.

A nice version Father Alan MacDonald had written up. He said it is a Punch and Judy dance and has a special pipe tune. Two take part; an old man and an old trembling shivering hag. They fight with the sticks, dancing all the time. Finally the old man thrusts his stick into her body and she falls down dead. The old man beats his hands and he howls most atrociously as it occurs to him that he has murdered the old woman. The sudden change from anger and animosity into broken-heartedness at the loss of his partner’s life is ridiculous. He bends over her only to find out more sure that she is dead. The lamentation is heart-rending. Again and again he bends over her and again his sorrow is only intensified. He bends down and touches her boot and the foot rises a little and quivers most singularly. The old man regains a little confidence. He bends down again and touches the other foot, and it too begins to shake incessantly, At these signs of returning life he bursts into hystcrical laughter. He touches the hands one by one and they too begin to quiver. The old carl is stretched out on the floor with her two feet and two hands quivering. It looks ridiculous to a degree and the spectators nearly drown the piping with their uproar. The old man then bends down and touches her hair and up she springs with renewed life and they both rush into each other’s arms most gleefully.

The interesting thing was that on Benbecula they were rather down market - the old hag was drunk, or supposed to be! and the old man comes in to find her not doing the housework - otherwise exactly the same.

We found a wonderful couple, Angus John MacLellan on Benbccula. He was one of the old storytellers - telling those long sagas and telling them word for word every time they were recorded. In Angus John’s home we experienced our first real Ceilidh. We sat around a peat fire with Angus and his wife. People began to come in and they just sat down and nobody took any notice of them, and nobody took any notice of us and nobody introduced us. We really felt quite self-conscious and said to each other afterwards we thought Angus John was sending up smoke signals saying come and see these odd people. But we learned, of course, that this was how people lived. You had one house in the neighbourhood which was the Ceilidh house where they either piped or they played the fiddle, or they sang or they told a story, and the neighbours simply used to do this. They would just wander round and sit down and when they could join in the conversation they joined in when it was suitable to join in. Some people would play cards. Some of the younger people would dance, and one old lady told us about Ceilidhs like this and she said sadly “Now neighbours seldom call, and if they do they rap on the door.” You've got to realise there were no village halls in these places - in fact on the mainland very few village halls earlier on. And what you danced would be completely simple because there’d only be room on the floor for four people, perhaps six, sometimes eight but unlikely to be more than that at the very outside. So you might only dance 3 or 4 times in the evening. So it didn’t matter what steps you had, the joy of the dance came from the atmosphere, from the whisky going down, the piper or the fiddler sitting up on the table stuck in the corner out of the way - this sort of thing. It was the atmosphere that made the evening’s dance.

And another thing we found in Eigg and in the Borders - everywhere we went - we found the Kissing Reel. This is absolutely ubiquitous. Sometimes just known as the Kissing Reel, sometimes Bab at the Bowster, sometimes Bob at the Bowster, sometimes the White Cockade, sometimes the Bonny Lad. And this originates with the old medieval cushion dance, where somebody took a cushion and put it very formally in front of their partner and invited them to dance. Then it got presumably to be a bolster, and then maybe a pillow case, then it finally came down to a hanky. The fiddler or piper would play a little phrase on the pipes saying Kiss Her if it was a piper, if not the fiddle would squeal above the bridge and make a grinding sort of noise insisting that everyone kissed. Various versions of this; sometimes it was called the sword dance which was most confusing. But in fact sometimes it did start with a young man showing off a bit - he would put two handkerchiefs on the floor in a cross and do a few steps of the sword dance.

So you find this both in a kissing dance and a sword dance so you have to sort the business out. This description came from Angus MacLellan on Benbecula:- “This was usually the last dance of the evening and was always danced to the pipes. A young man, usually the MC, takes his handkerchief in his hand and walks clockwise around the room to the tune of the White Cockade. He throws the handkerchief to the girl he selects who joins him on the floor. As she does so the piper breaks off the tune and plays the phrase meaning “kiss first” several times. At this he puts his arms round her and kisses her, The piper then resumes the White Cockade. The couple will then link arms and walk on round the room. The girl then throws the handkerchief to another man who falls in behind the couple and all three walk on round the floor. The second man throws the handkerchief to another girl who joins him and is kissed to the appropriate accompaniment, and the new couple fall in behind the first. And this is repeated until ail the supply of men and girls runs out. Then the piper changes to a reel when they split up and make 4’s and dance the Four-some reel. Often a girl was shy, and when the handkerchief was thrown she'd quickly pass it on to her neighbour. And in some places one of the young men would bar the door so that the girls couldn’t run out!. And very often this was danced as the last dance of the evening and they’d see who was going out with whom.”

Then in September we came here, to the Borders, and of course by this time we were beginning to build up a jigsaw. In the Hebrides we were collecting dances that were long forgotten; but here we were finding dances that were danced up to the 1920s and 1930s.

We found a lovely thing - one of my most vivid memories - we found a Broom Dance at Lanton near Jedburgh. Absolutely incredible. We didn’t find it anywhere else, though of course you do get Broom Dances in England. We found a very very poor family; a Granny, a daughter and some children... an incredible house. A table in the middle of the room, a couple of chairs round it and a milk bottle on the table. There was a cot in the corner with some children. Broken floor-boards everywhere in the room. A potty somewhere or other for the kids; this sort of thing. Granny and I sat at the table and she grabbed my arm and talked to me. And it was totally incomprehensible to me, and I just hoped I was looking intelligent, while Tom was taking it all in. When she got to the Broom Dance the daughter, in order to demonstrate the dance, put on a pair of her father’s trousers (I don’t know where father was; we never discovered father) but she put these things on and she tied them round her waist, her shirt sticking out through the front - and I’m keeping a straight face! And she took the broom and of course it’s one of those things where you swap the broom from hand to hand and you cock your leg over as you move your hand from side to side. It was absolutely incredible because she was a huge ungainly lady, and this image of her with her shirt sticking out of the front of her father’s trousers - I've never forgotten that.

On this trip we also found clog dancing at Dalbeatie. And this was the only time in all those years we were refused information. There was this marvellous little man who had this huge amount of material. He was a wonderful dancer, in his 40s; 45; something like that. His wife wouldn’t let him talk to us, being quite convinced we were going to go away and write a book using his material and make a lot of money - and wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have done! That was the only time we were refused. Everyone else was so delighted; and you got that lovely joy of dancing.

Tom found clog dancing later on in Lanark. The men used to tie bells to the laces of their clogs. They used also to hollow out the heels of the clogs and put chucky stones in to make them rattle as they danced,

Joan Flett finished with a few stories concerning the early days of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, and mentioned Jameson, an early collector of dances from the Borders who was concerned with the tempo of the music then being used. For in living memory the tempo of, for instance, Strathspeys had been slowed down by the Scottish Country Dance Society from 40-42 bars/minute to 26 bars/minute.