Highland dancing is not just a colourful spectacle accompanied by music; it’s also a celebration of cultural freedom, which was once outlawed, but now flourishes in many nations

To the tune of the highland pipers

by Andy Bryenton

One of the most anticipated events at the forthcoming Ashburton A&P Show is the display of skill and cultural heritage, which is the highland dance competition.

A feature of many Kiwi country shows, this form of performance comes down through history, despite efforts in less enlightened times to abolish Scots traditions.

In the dark days of the 1700s, efforts were made to make Scotland submit to English rule once and for all. Men were banned from wearing the kilt, the bagpipes were not to be heard, and many other cultural practices were suppressed. Among these was the famous ‘sword dance’, enacted since the dark ages both as a celebration, as a way of determining good luck before battles, and also as a cunning method of teaching the fast footwork used in sword fighting. From medieval times the English had tried to stop the Scots training warriors or practising with weapons; the sword dance, recorded as long ago as 1285AD, allowed people to train in plain sight — after all ‘it was only a wee bit of dancing’.

The Scots ‘renaissance’ of the 1800s was supported by no less luminary than Queen Victoria, and under her auspices, historians and cultural researchers rekindled a love of the old highland games, as well as establishing highland dancing as a competitive and colourful spectacle. At those early events, it was mainly men who danced, but there was no rule against women competing, and soon female exponents of the art form like Lorna Mitchell and Jenny Douglas were well known. The patronage of a queen may have helped break down gender barriers in this regard; nonetheless, today, the highland dance is predominantly the domain of women. The first-ever adults’ world championship was held in 1948, and it was won by New Zealander Nancy Cotter.

When the dancers take to the stage in Ashburton this year, they will be striving for top place, but also displaying a unity of culture and history, which stretches back to our early settlers, many of whom were Scots fleeing the legacy of the highland clearances. By allowing this lively, uplifting aspect of Scottish culture to be seen by the wider public, they are keeping a colourful heritage alive.