About Scottish Dance Steps

Updated July 19, 2017

There are two main types of Scottish dance: Country and Highland. Country Dance resembles ballroom dancing with Reels, Hornpipes and Jigs all in quick tempo using the same steps. Strathspeys are in a slower tempo with different steps. Country dancing is usually done with three or four couples but can go up to five or more. Highland Dance is performed solo with precise movements that require a lot of stamina. Traditionally Highland Dance was performed only by men, but in recent years, women are the majority. The Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing has standardised all dance steps and competitions are held throughout the world. Judges evaluate timing, technique and general deportment. Dancing is performed to bagpipe music with the melody played on the chanter backed up by the unchanging tones of the three drones.

Country Dance: Reels, Hornpipes and Jigs

To perform Reels, Hornpipes and Jigs, you need to master four basic steps. The "Slip" step is a sideways travelling step used for "Hands round" or dancing round in a circle and for travelling with both hands joined with Scottish dancers facing each other. The "Skip change" is a forward and sometimes backward step used for travelling figures, and the first movement is with the right foot. At the last beat of each bar, one foot is behind the other and continues forward on the first beat of the next bar. This step is long and quick to reach the required position at the end of the beat. With the "Pas-de-basque," one foot is extended forward diagonally, like the jete position in ballet. On the first beat the foot moves back to ballet's first position to perform the spring. The last position for these dances is the "Step up." This is a sideways travelling step used for moving up or down lengthwise and it requires two bars of music to perform in quick tempo.

Country Dance: Strathspeys

A Strathspey refers to a dance and tune in 4/4 time written in eighth notes. The dance is a slow, stately waltz composed of three main steps. The “Strathspey travelling step” is forward step beginning with the right foot. The dancer faces the direction of the travel. The complete step takes two bars, one for each foot. The next step is the “Setting Step” also known as the Common Schottische. It is a sideways version of the travelling step. The first move is to the right on the right foot with a step back to the original position on the left foot step. A zigzag path is followed diagonally to the right on the right foot step and left on the left foot step. The dancer always faces the direction of travel at all times. The step takes two bars to complete and at the end, the right foot is behind the left calf. For diagrams on all seven steps in country dance, please see the "Footwork" link at

For more information about Scottish Country dance, contact:

Royal Scottish Country Dance Society

12 Coates Cresent

Edinburgh EH3 7AF


+44 0121-225-3854

Highland Dance: The Fling

Highland dances were often meant to represent or commemorate an event or historical moment. With Highland Dancing the focus is on the precise execution of elaborate footwork. The Highland Fling was a dance of celebration after a battle was won. Warriors danced on a small, round shield called a targ. There was a sharp spike in the centre so dancers had to be ginger with their steps. The dance was inspired by the sight of a stag gambolling around the highlands. The dancer holds his arms aloft like antlers, his feet in a crisscross movement and his body turns around, all suggesting the playing motion of a stag. There are eight steps in the Fling. Shedding and Last Shedding are always the first and last steps. The next are first-back stepping, toe and heel, rocking, second-back stepping, crossover and shake and turn.

Highland Dance: The Seann Triubhas

The Seann Triubhas in Gaelic means “old trousers.” It is a graceful, flowing dance that begins in a slow tempo and ends with the last few steps at a quicker pace. The dance signified the end of the outlawing of the kilt by the English with the Disarming Act of 1747. The dance depicts a Scot shedding his breeches during the slow, beginning of the dance and donning his traditional kilt and tartan during the final fast tempo step. The steps are: Brushing, Side Travel, Diagonal Travel, Backward Travel, Travelling Balance, Leap and Highcut, Highcut in Front and Balance, Side Heel-and-Toe and Double Highcutting.

Highland Dance: The Sword Dance

The Sword Dance or the “Ghillie Callum” has its origins in ancient battles. It was created by Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland when he won a battle in 1054 near Dunsinane against MacBeth’s army. He placed his own sword and one of his enemies’ on the ground in the shape of a cross and then danced in victory over them. It was also a common practice for soldiers to perform the Sword Dance before battle. Landing on a sword was thought to predict the loss of the battle. The following steps are required: Intro-Step to 1d, Addressing the Swords, Reverse Points, Pointing and the Open Pas de Basque Quick Step.

Highland Dance: Scottish Lilt, Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, Scotch Measure and Earl of Errol

The Scottish Lilt, Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, Scotch Measure and Earl of Errol are Scottish National dances. They are more modern and have been collected from old dance masters. The Scottish Lilt is performed in 9/8 time. The Flora MacDonald is in honour of the woman who helped Bonnie Prince Charles escape the French in 1746 after the battle of Colloden. The Scotch Measure can either be danced as a solo or with a couple when it is called a "Twa Some." It is thought to depict the Scottish courtship ritual. The Earl of Errol was performed in hard shoes and choreographed for the Earl of Errol. Errol is a small town in Aberdeenshire. Although it looks quite easy, it is perhaps one of the hardest National dances to perform well. The national dances require a lot of skill to execute correctly, and often the rhythms are more complicated than in conventional Highland dancing. For a more detailed description of Highland dance steps, contact the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing:

Helen Ford

Director of Administration

Heritage House

32 Grange Loan



Tel: +44 (0)131 668 3965

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About the Author

Ann Brzezniak resides in Ypsilanti, Mich. and is a freelance technical writer working for KAS2000, Inc. Her areas of expertise include writing software instruction manuals and news articles. She has been writing professionally since 2002. Brzezniak holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from Eastern Michigan University.