‘Social’ dancing

If you attended a Scottish high school any time after 1940, you very probably took part in mandatory Scottish country dancing, or social dancing, lessons as part of the P.E. curriculum. You’ll probably remember the experience, even if you couldn’t talk me through a Dashing White Sergeant off the top of your head. While your teachers may have crowed that they were teaching you important social skills that you’d use as adults*, the forcing together of gym-clad adolescent bodies, the mandatory opposite sex hand-holding and the terminally, terminally uncool pointed-toe skipping all leave the sort of impression that few former teenagers forget.


Meet Jean Milligan, LLD. She’s the reason you feel this way. As Head of Physical Training at Jordanhill College for thirty-nine years, an estimated 40,000 future P.E. teachers passed through Jean’s hands. She was also the driving force behind the creation of the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society, and many, many other organisations with similar aims. Jean could be said to have singlehandedly rescued Scottish country dancing, revived its fortunes, pushed it into schools and popularised it all over the globe. I’ve just finished reading a biography which left me equally in awe of and exhausted by her.

Getting back to you, though. Have you ever found that, actually,  those lessons did their job? Have you been at a wedding or ceilidh with absolutely no intention of dancing, been dragged up for a Gay Gordons and found that you just knew what to do? That those dances seem to have been lying there, somewhere in your physical memory, perhaps one of the only things that everyone who went to school in this country can claim to have in common.

I’m beginning to write a play, working title Take Your Partners. Some of the things it may be about: Scottish country dancing, physical memory, adolescent awkwardness, Scottishness, ‘Scottishness’, Jean Milligan and her  unstoppable energy, socialising, social class, the Twentieth Century, teenage lust, group politik, history, culture.

If you’ve got any memories you’d like to share with me, that may eventually become part of the play, I’d absolutely love to hear them. I’ll give full credit to any stories that form part of the piece, unless it’s all still too traumatic and awkward and you’d like to remain anonymous. I’m going to be pulling together stories over the next couple of weeks. Please do get in touch: kirstin [a t] wordsperminute [d o t] org [d o t] uk.


*Okay Ms Viviani, you were right. I bloody love a ceilidh at a wedding, I do.

3 thoughts on “‘Social’ dancing”

  1. The compulsory Scottish Country Dancing lessons at PE, from Bruntsfield Primary School to James Gillespies High School, are a huge reason why I left my last PE lesson thinking “Well, that’s it: I never, ever have to go back” with pure joy.

    I can’t dance. According to family anecdote, my grandfather had exactly the same problem (he also, like me, had an accent that remained unchanged from earliest childhood no matter how long he spent in other countries). When people say “feel the rhythm” “move with the music” – I can’t do it. I also can’t tell one tune from another and generally, in any dance pattern, only knew what to do/when by following what the person next to me was doing.

    All of this was assumed by every PE teacher I ever had, and all of my classmates, to be just me not trying – or being innately clumsy. (I also have poor depth perception due to being shortsighted from birth, diagnosed late, which I can’t say helped.)

    That I was a fat unattractive girl who didn’t yet know she was a lesbian (I didn’t consciously figure it out til 16) but did know that I didn’t want to spend time holding hands with boys who made no secret of how much they loathed me, or girls who despised me, didn’t make the lessons any happier. The best thing about them was that there was usually an odd number, and if one timed it right – carefully hanging back and avoiding everyone’s eye – I could spend most dancing lesssons sitting on a pile of mats being bored, but better bored than in torment.

    I’ve been to ceilidhs as an adult, and enjoyed watching people dance – especially gay ceilidhs – and I don’t mind (as an adult) filling in one space in a figure if needed, on the clear understanding that I’ll be walking the pattern, not dancing it. But generally, as a wedding, if someone grabs my arm and invites me to dance, I sit down a bit more firmly and tell them no way: it was hell enough as a child when no one lets you decide for yourself what you want to do, but now I’m an adult, I can say no.

  2. Came upon your link on google images! i recently found out that Dr Jean Milligan is my great grandfather’s sister! Learning about her amazing life at the moment also and will be reading her biography very soon. Get in touch if you want to chat more.

  3. It’s not much, but in first year it was ridiculously embarrassing – I was picked, more than a few times, by the teacher to show the rest of the class what to do. Think it may have been because I was the tallest girl in the class, as if that wasn’t enought to deal with!
    I will say though, I love a ceilidh and can’t help getting right in to an Orcadian Strip The Willow! So thankful for the social dancing classes now.

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