Course: Scottish Highland Music and Dance Traditions

Introductory Level: for all aficionados of the the native music, song and dance traditions of the Scottish Highlands. Some familiarity with these genres is desired but not assumed.

Early Medieval Pillar Showing Harp At Base.

Many musicians and dancers are acquiring excellent skills to perform many forms of Scottish Highland tradition, but it is much harder to acquire knowledge about the origins of these traditions, their stylistic features, their functions in Gaelic society, the influences that have shaped them, and the relationships between them. Misconceptions about them abound and are commonly repeated in the popular media.

This course is especially intended for musicians and dancers who want to deepen their understanding and appreciation of the roots of their arts in Highland society, but also welcomes all enthusiasts of these traditions and their legacy in the diaspora.

This is not a performance class but an immersive learning opportunity to deepen your understanding of the cultural foundations of music and dance traditions. We’ll read texts that discuss aspects of the history, characteristics and functions of these musical traditions, as well as listen and watch videos of recordings of tradition-bearers made over the last century of ethnographic fieldwork.

Details about how the courses are designed and how they work are on this webpage.

What We’ll Do

Dr. Michael Newton (far right) dancing with Drumalban folk ensemble (Scotland) in 1998
  • Understand the social and political context for the musical and literary professions in the medieval period and how this laid the cornerstone for Gaelic tradition.
  • Examine the instruments used in Highlands from the medieval to modern periods, how they were introduced, the contexts in which they were played, the functions they provided, and the genres associated with them.
  • Review the range of song genres composed and performed in the Highlands, the social classes they belonged to, the contexts in which they were played, and the functions they provided.
  • Explore the functions and social contexts of the bagpipe when it was introduced into Highland society, the relationship between Gaelic song and bagpipe tunes, and the origin stories of some common “piobrach” (ceòl mór) tunes.
  • Appreciate the innovative nature of social dance and its associated music (jigs, reels, and strathspeys) on the fiddle and bagpipes, the range of dances and associated music genres, the purpose and contexts of social dance (and dance music), and the ways in which this contrasts with previous musical and dance traditions.

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