It is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in Scotland) that the longest nights of the year are best warmed by a ceilidh and the company of friends and family. This year, after a long gap, I was one of a large party who drove miles along frosty roads to go to the Oban Ball in Argyll. It was a fantastic occasion with everyone dressed in their finery and looking wonderful – men in kilts and women in the most glamorous dresses.
Old hands will be familiar with the bible of reels for these occasions – The Swinging Sporran – but perhaps it’s worth noting for anyone who has not come across it because it is such a gem and brilliantly captures this eccentric yet fantastically successful form of dancing.
The Swinging Sporran was first published in 1972 by Andrew Campbell and Roddy Martine and has been reprinted several times since – an updated edition was printed by Birlinn in 2006.
But the illustrations of the original edition are particularly brilliant and so true to life. The text is equally tongue-in-cheek. Here is their description of the teapots, best known from the reel of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh.
“Teapots is the name given to a particular movement used in the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh (so called because of the correct posture which should be taken up by the dancer to resemble a teapot. The left or right hand should be placed on the hip so that the arm represents a handle, and the other arm should be elevated to form a spout. The left hand is rarely placed on the hip when dancing nowadays). The popularity of this dance has meant that the name ‘teapots’ is used for a similar movement in some other reels, namely the wheel (Teapot of four). A teapot is a movement where three dancers, two of one sex and one of the other, raise and join either their right hands or their left hands in a type of policeman’s halt grip, and turn once round using the travel step.”
But in all the whirling, spinning and setting, one thing makes Scottish reels completely distinctive from other forms of dance: you have to focus a hundred percent on the other people dancing with you, because otherwise you’ll fail to be ready to set, swing or weave into a figure of eight with whoever is dancing at the time. For this reason, reels are the ultimate social dance, mixing all ages and abilities, and requiring a level of altruism not found in other more “individual” forms of dancing.
The all-time favourite Reel of the 51st has an extraordinary history. It was devised by Lieutenant ‘Jimmy’ Atkinson of the 7th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders while he and other fellow Scotsman where imprisoned in a German POW camp in Laufen Castle near Salzburg. Its diagonal lines were inspired by the Saltire flag.
Another popular reel the Eightsome – and its follow-up the Foursome – seens to have evolved out of an earlier version danced in the 16th century, the Threesome reel which was probably based on a travelling figure of eight. However, the modern versions of the best-known reels we danced the other evening – Hamilton House, Speed the Plough, Duke of Perth, etc. – are all the work of two enthusiastic women who made it their mission to standardise the steps and music: Mrs Ysobel Stewart of Fasnacloich (a distinguished family from Appin, Argyll) and Miss Jean Milligan (a teacher of physical education at Jordanhill Teachers’ Training College) who published the results as the Scottish Country Dance books.