A Scottish yarn


Ruins in Edinburgh, Scotland, as seen on Friday, June 5, 2015.

Let me tell you all a secret.

I used to be a Scottish dancer.

 Surprising, I know, considering I have been known to trip while standing still.

 I was never outstanding, but I did it for years. I performed at Highland Games and other Scottish fairs, and it was a wonderful hobby. It also gave me an intense love for bagpipes. 

 That’s mostly why I came to Scotland, after a brief stop in Berlin since last I wrote, and I quickly fell in love.

 The weather is not exactly summery – a saying I’ve heard in Edinburgh goes ‘the weather in Edinburgh is designed to kill the weak.’ Since I arrived in the country last week, it has yet to hit 60 degrees. I can see my breath in the morning.

 That’s just fine by me. The history and culture more than make up for it.

 Here’s their thing about Scottish dancing that differentiates it from other types of dance – it’s very traditional. You don’t make your own dances. Every dance has a story, usually from Scottish history.

 The Sword Dance, for example, is a dance performed over a crossed sword and sheath, historically by warriors going to battle. It involves a lot of precise footwork in the small squares created by the cross.

 It’s hard not to kick the sword or sheath. If you kick the sword, tradition says you will fall in the upcoming battle. If you successfully complete the dance without kicking the sword, you will be victorious.

 You’ve probably seen Braveheart. According to the locals, its mostly hideously inaccurate. The Sword Dance is the real stuff of legend, what heroes would have done.

 Bagpipes, too, have a place in war culture. One story claims bagpipes were originally considered a weapon, not a musical instrument, because of their loud sounds and somewhat screechy nature.

 Whether that’s true or not there’s no denying their use in battle – not just to provide the music for the sword dance, either. Hearing bagpipes up close and personal, it’s easy to imagine running to war.

 Of course, when you imagine a bagpiper he’s probably wearing a kilt. The kilt is a really impressive clothing item unique you the area. I had to get one for Scottish dance performances and they use up to 10 yards of tartan and usually cost upwards of $300.

 Even in the World Wars, Scottish soldiers wore kilts. They were nicknamed ‘ladies from hell.’

Kilts are very culturally steeped as well. In fact there’s a whole dance telling the story of the English forbidding the Scots from wearing their kilts, and the Scots eventually winning back that right. The dance is called the Seann Triubhas, pronounced “Shawn truce.”


 It has three steps involving lots of different leg-shaking movements, symbolizing shaking off the trousers, and a fourth very traditional step symbolizing having a kilt again.

 But there are actually other costumes besides kilts for Scottish dancing, at least for women. A flowy pleated skirt called a national skirt is also worn for some dances, like the Lilt or the Flora MacDonald’s Fancy.

 The Flora is one story I actually didn’t learn until I came to Scotland, even though it was one of my favorite dances to perform. Flora MacDonald was a female heroine who spirited Charles, the son of erstwhile King James, out of Scotland after an unsuccessful attempt to retake the English throne.

 It’s really interesting and culturally relevant to learn this type of thing. Having done Scottish dancing was definitely a boon to me here.

 And here’s the kicker – I’m not Scottish. At all. But you don’t need blood to connect yourself to another culture.

 If you’ve got a cultural interest in something, pursue it no natter how random it seems. You never know what you’ll end up getting out of it.

 And never try to take the kits away from the Scots.