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In 1651 the English Country Dance found its way into print, in John Playford's "The English Dancing Master". Between the first and the last editions of this work in 1728, all but one of the typical formations of the English Country Dance had died out. The surviving formation was longways for as many as will.

The character of these dances was that they were geometrical (straight and opposing lines) and they were progressive. It is thought that the progressive feature originated in Italy where a geometrical type of dance was favoured. The first known example of a progressive dance is La Chiaranza described in Il Balarino in 1581. During the life time of the "English Dancing Master", over a thousand different dances were described. Some would have been collected but the majority would have been composed by the dancing masters. The music for these dances was very varied and including Welsh, Irish and Scottish tunes. From this it is evident that the nationality of a dance is not necessarily that of its tune. The dance the "Geud man of Balangigh" was made up by a dancing master called Beveridge and is therefore English, but its tune is Scottish. On the other hand the dance we know today as the "Dashing White Sergeant" is a Scottish Dance with a English tune.

For 50 years, Playford was the only publisher of country dances. Others soon followed and by 1750 there were upwards of a dozen firms publishing country dances. The first to follow Playford was William Walsh, who's "Compleate Country Dancing Master" of 1718 was little more than a copy of the contemporary edition of Playford. Walsh's second book was entitled "Caledonian Country Dances". There is, however, some doubt regarding the authenticity of the Scottish nature of these dances, since despite the index being entitled "Table of Scottish Country Dances", only certain dances in the text are described as "Scotch Country Dances". It may be that Walsh was trying to commercialise on the fact that the Stuarts had introduced and popularised country dancing at Court.

More and more publications appeared, and each volume could contain upwards of 200 dances, many of which were copied word for word from other publications. This proliferation of publishing lead to an extremely large number of dances being in circulation. As well as these collections it became fashionable to publish annual selections. The first of these was probably Walsh's "Twenty-Four Country Dances for 1714" and one of the last was Button and Whitaker's "Twenty-Four Country Dances for 1818". The main publishers of these annual selections were:
Walsh - 1711 to 1756;
Thompson - 1755 to 1813
Campbell - 1780 to 1806;
Cahusac - 1785 to 1799
Skillern - 1768 to 1799
Longman and Broderip published six volumes in 1792.

Dances were changing gradually during this period. The early dances were built around simple movements such as lead up, cast off, set (or foot), turn, cross over etc. and at this time the only common figures were the reel (or hey) and the figure of eight; - although hands across, hands round, and right and left made fairly frequent appearances. Composing a dance was is fact little more than assembling a selection of standard figures - which perhaps explains why there were so many dances. This practice reached its peak and was formalised by Thomas Wilson in his various works. His "Complete System of English Country Dancing" of 1825 of 1825 contains descriptions of 109 standard figures and 33 new figures invented by him, with instructions for putting them together to form complete dances.

A country dance is composed of two elements - the figures and the tune. The relative importance of these two components has varied throughout the lifetime of country dancing. Today the figures are regarded as the principal part, with the tune the accompaniment, for example the "Duke of Atholl's Reel" is a set of figures danced, usually to the tune "The Atholl Highlanders"*. In Playford's day the emphasis was the same, as we can see from the description give on the title page of his book, which states: "The English Dancing Master, or plaine and easie rules for country dancing, with a tune for each dance". This emphasis has been reversed for most of the history of the Country Dance. For instance a typical book of the 18th century is a collection of dances with proper figures (or directions) for each dance. A book described as a collection of dances may in fact contain tunes only, as is the case with Bremner's first collection; and it was common in publications of this period to find the same dance (i.e. tune) appearing many times with different figures. Thomas Wilson in his "Companion to the Ballroom" list 300 country dances (i.e. tunes), and with only a few exceptions gives 3 sets of figures for each dance - one easy, one moderate and one difficult. Wilson describes the figures in his "Analysis of Country Dancing", and included in this book are tables, by means of which the dancers are able to set there own choice of figures for a particular dance. In fact it was common practice at some assemblies for the top couple to call the figures for their turn of the dance. In this respect Wilson exhorts the dancer as follows; "the couple about to call the Dance, should inform the Master of Ceremonies of the tune and figure, that he might give directions to the different sets and band accordingly; the tune should be played once before the dance commences".

The inevitable consequence of such a system of assembling dances was the duplication as previously mentioned. For example the sequence of figures known today as "Hamilton House" occurs also as "Miss Graces Hay's Delight" in Longman and Broderip's 4th Collection and as the "Royal Archers" in Preston's publication of 1792.


Periods of Change are evident between the start of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th century.

1. 1725 - 1750 The main publications of this period are the later editions of Playford, Walsh's and Johnson's books. The most complex figure was the Reel of Three. This tended to fit into the dance in an informal and flexible way. As an example we can compare the Reels of Three in "Red House" with those in dances of a later period, where the reels fit in a geometric or regular way (i.e. across the dance or on the sides).

2. 1750 - 1775 The principal books of this period are those of Thompson, Rutherford, and Bremmner. During this period some of the more intricate figures are becoming common. e.g. turn corners and partner (called swing corners), set to and turn corners; cross over two couples; hey on your own sides; hey on the opposite sides; lead outsides. As a result of this development in the complexity of the figures, books describing these figures started to appear; Nicolas Dukes' "Concise and easy method of learning Country Dancing", of 1752; Mathew Welch's "Country Dances explained.....". The need for these books was prompted no doubt by the popularity of the more complicated figures.

3. 1775 - 1810 The important publications of this period are the yearly collections of Preston, Campbell, Longman and Broderip, and Thomson. It is interesting to note that it was during this period that the very simple movement lead down the middle and up first appeared as a complete figure in its own right. Previously the only similar instructions had been lead down two couples and lead up to the top. It was during this period also that the use of French terms became common. An example of this is Poussette was borrowed from French country dances to describe a similar movement in English country dancing called the draw.

4. 1810 - 1830 This 4th period which lasts until the decline of the popularity of the country dance in the English Ballroom is typified by the publications of Thomas Wilson such as "Companion to the Ballroom" , "The Complete System of English Country Dancing", and the "Analysis of Country Dancing". As well as writing his own books, Wilson composed the dances in the annual collections of Thompson and of Button and Whitaker. Wilson's descriptions are particularly clear, but sometimes his usage differs from others. This is illustrated in the Allemande, which was originally a quite different movement from the one we know today. Wilson uses the term to mean a back to back movement, danced with three chasse steps and a Jete and Assemble, whereas other dancing masters describe it as turn your partner under arm as in "Allemande with the right hand and then with the left".

In Scotland at this time smaller collections, such as, Gow's "Five Favourite Dances for 1802", were beginning to appear. These collections resembled English country dances of the previous period, but had a high proportion of Scottish tunes.


The first evidence we have of country dancing in Scotland is contained in the Holmain MSS. These MSS are dated between 1710 and 1720 and contain instructions for the following dances:
Green Sleves, The Old Way of Killiecrankie, Cauld Kale, Bathget Bogs or Pease Straw, Hunt the Squirrel, Miss Heyden, The Dusty Millar, This is Not My Own House, Argile's Bouling Green, The Birks of Abergeldie, Lennon's Love to Blanter, Reel a Down a Mereken.

The dances are much the same as in contemporary books, except that the words "reel" and "set" are used, where an English writer would have used "hey" and "foot".

Contemporary with the Holmain MSS is the Menzies Ms (Bell Library - Perth) of 1749. The descriptions of the dances are much clearer than in the Holmain MSS. In the Menzies Ms we have the first reference to the strathspey in connection with a country dance; - "Mongomeries' Rant" and "Conteraller's Rant" are described as strathspey reeles.

The first book of dances to be published in Scotland appears to be a volume by John Bowie of Perth. It is entitled "A collection of Strathspey Reeles and Country Dances" and was published in 1789, 138 years after the first book appeared in England. It was not, however, the first collection in Scotland to be written down. That honour goes to David Young, an Edinburgh Writing Master, who produced a handwritten volume for the Duke of Perth in 1740. Late as these publications may seem in comparison with those in England, Scotland did influence the country dance. Playford included several Scottish tunes in his book, and the proportion of Scottish tunes appearing in dance publications gradually increased until well over half of the tunes, in a typical collection of country dances of the 18th century, were Scottish. The first book to show this Scottish influence, predated the Bowie publication by twenty years. This was Robert Bremner's "Second Collection of Scots Reels and Country Dances" published in London in 1769. Typical of the tunes it contains are "The Bridge of Nairn”, "Miss Cahoon's Reel", "The Deacon of the Weavers", "Open the Door to Three"*, and "Strathglass House". The latter is referred to as a strathspey and this is the first appearance in print of a country dance to a strathspey tune.

The country dance while gaining increasing acceptance in Scotland did not usurp the traditional Reels from their place in the Ballroom. Even the English dancing masters recognised them as part of the fabric of social dancing. In his "Complete System of English Country Dancing", Wilson says of them "These Reels have for a number of years been a very favorite, and most generally approved species of dancing..... they have, likewise, been introduced into most of the foreign Courts of Europe, and are universally practised in all our extensive Colonies". In his book he devotes an entire chapter to an explanation and description of these Reels.

The Bowman Ms is from the second half of the 18th century and contains descriptions of 122 country dances, all of which are fully developed three couple dances, none of which contains the poussette figure. These two characteristics place date between 1750 and 1800. (The poussette did not become common in Scotland until about the end of the 18th century). The dances are all very stereotyped with examples of several being identical. Over 70 of the dances finish with "set to and turn corners and dance reels of three on the sides". Other figures which appear frequently are "cross over two couples", "set three and three abreast", and a common opening figure is "1st man sets to 2nd woman and turns her, then 1st woman sets to 2nd man and turns him".

The Blantyre Ms contains a letter dated the 25th January, 1802 from a Mr. A Smith (a teacher) to William Watson of Blantyre Farm, in which he replies to questions about dance figures. One of the subjects of his reply is the Poussette, and he makes it clear that this should be danced with a two handed hold, and not as was common when the Society was formed, using waltz hold. This is also the earliest reference to the Poussette in Scotland. The remainder of the Ms describes the dances taught at Blantyre Farm on three occasions in 1805. These include a cotillion, Eightsome Reels and a Ninesome Reel. The Ms also contains the earliest reference to the dance the "Duke of Perth".


The period after about 1830 is the one where the country dance was confined almost entirely to Scotland. In England it had been displaced by the Quadrilles, Waltzes, and Polkas. One of the consequences of this change was that the large annual collections of country dances were no longer published. Effectively the country dance repertoire stopped growing.

This period saw the emergence of the "Ballroom Guides". The English Ballroom Guides contained few or no country dances (only Sir Roger de Coverly and La Tempete were common), whilst those published in Scotland contained many country dances. Often the same dance appeared in different Guides, described in slightly different ways. The main books of this period were J P Boulogne's "The Ballroom" (1827), J Lowe's "Ball Conductor and Assembly Guide (1850), D Anderson's "Universal Guide" (1890), and Mozart Allan's. In fact the latter was available well into the 20th century. Often the Ballroom Guides classified the country dances according to the nationality of their tunes. Some of the dancing masters included in their Guides dances composed by themselves, but they were few in number and never attained the volume of material produces by the 18th Century writers. Most of these dances have died out by few notable examples are still danced today - W F Gilles' "Glasgow Highlanders" and D Anderson's "Ladies Fancy".

We have now reached that part of the history where the RSCDS was born, but that is another story. The dances described as English in these Ballroom Guides, as well as those classified as Scottish in form or origin, are all termed Scottish Country Dances today. A dance so described does not necessarily mean that they are Scottish in form or origin or that they were danced with a Scottish style or technique. What it does mean is that they had Scottish titles or tunes - since it was in the Ballrooms of Scotland and not of England that they were preserved and survived for us to enjoy today.