History of the Boston Branch of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society

Early Days

Scottish Country Dancing is the ballroom dancing of Scotland. Quick-time dances, such as jigs and reels, and elegant strathspeys (a form unique to Scotland) originated in the Scottish court of the mid-1700s, but quickly spread to village halls and barns, captivating all levels of Scottish society. Fans of Downton Abbey may recall Lady Mary’s fondness for “reels” when she visited friends in Scotland and the delight of Anna, her Lady’s Maid, when Mary ensured Anna could learn and enjoy them, too.

To preserve and promote Scotland’s distinctive forms of dancing, the Scottish Country Dance Society was formed in Glasgow, November, 1923, by Mrs. Ysobel Stewart and Miss Jean Milligan. The title "Royal" was added to the Society’s name in 1951 by declaration of King George VI, hence the acronym RSCDS. The Society’s current headquarters are in Edinburgh. As this history was being updated in 2023, the Society was celebrating its 100th Anniversary! The aim of the Society, at its inception and today, is to practice and preserve Scottish country dances as performed in Scotland and as they have been elaborated over the decades by talented dance devisors around the world. In addition, since the music and dances of Scotland are so intimately linked, both the Branch and the Society foster, support, and give thanks for the many musicians who play for our balls, dance camps, parties, and classes.

Organized dancing in Boston started in 1947, thanks to Edinburgh-born Jeanne Robertson Buchanan Carmichael. A mathematician, Jeannie came to the USA in the 1920s to work at the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory in Cambridge, MA. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Boston Branch to this day includes many mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. While Jeanne’s first class met in a small room on Beacon Street in Boston, the group eventually moved to the Sargent College gymnasium in Cambridge and began to perform at the New England Folk Festival, a tradition that continues today. As the group grew, Irvin Davis suggested a more formal relationship with the Society, and in 1952 Boston became the first overseas branch of the RSCDS.

The Branch grew rapidly to include as many as nineteen classes across New England. In addition to the founding members, three teachers played seminal roles in the Branch’s growth and success: Jeanetta McColl, Marianne Taylor, and Sally Dee. All three taught generations of dancers with inimitable skill and spirit, as well as directing our performing group (the Boston Scottish Country Dancers). Sally’s infectious good humor established the Salem Class as one of the largest in the Branch. In recent days, the Albany, NY, and Cambridge classes were among the first to show us how to flourish even during a pandemic, using Zoom to include the wider community along with classes conducted in private homes.

The Monday night class begun in 1947 continues today, though the venue has changed more than once. What continues to be known as the Cambridge Class, moved to the Cambridge YWCA in 1959 and then, in 2002, to Springstep, a beautiful, purpose-built dance space in Medford, MA, the vision of Branch member and benefactor, Deborah Hawkins. In 2013, after Springstep sadly closed, the class found a new home at the Canadian American Club in Watertown, MA, a haven for Cape Bretoners and all lovers of Scottish music and dance. Currently, more than a dozen other classes can be found in the Greater Boston area (Bedford, Chelmsford, Stow, and Salem) western Massachusetts (Great Barrington and Northampton), Maine (Kennebunk, Brunswick, Bucksport, and Belfast), New Hampshire (Greenland, Nashua, and Lancaster), Vermont (Fairlee), and New York (Albany).

Live Music for Dancing

Initially, except for balls and major events, teachers had to rely on recorded music. Live music for dancing began to grow in the mid-1970s, however, when the Branch organized three weekend workshops with stars such as Angus McKinnon, Carol McCloud, and Jean Redpath. Several attendees formed the area’s first Scottish country dance band –The White Cockade – whose members played widely for classes and parties for many years.

One attendee at the first workshop was Barbara McOwen. Later, she and her husband Robert came to Boston from Berkeley, CA, and further strengthened the music scene. They produced the area’s first compilation of dance arrangements and encouraged local musicians to learn to play for dancing. Their own band, Tullochgorum, became popular across the country and is still in demand today. Barbara also cofounded the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club and the Strathspey and Reel Society of New Hampshire. These clubs nurture new generations of musicians that play across the US and maintain live music at many local classes. In particular, the Cambridge Class features live music every week, both for classes and for the social hour.

Highland Balls

The Boston Highland Ball in May is a signature Branch event that attracts dancers from near and far. It has featured well known bands and musicians, including Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Tullochgorum, A Parcel of Rogues, Anne Hooper, and Muriel Johnstone. Flags and banners deck the halls, and dancers put on their kilts and tartan sashes. Observers might think they had stumbled into Robert Burns country in the 1700s—or Brigadoon.

The Ball has enjoyed various venues, including Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, world-renowned for its fine acoustics. More recently, we have danced in quintessentially New England settings, the Town Halls of Framingham and Melrose, MA. Traditionally, the Ball features fifteen to eighteen dances, a grand march, a sherry party, tasty hors d’oeuvres, and desserts. In 2023, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the RSCDS in Edinburgh, highlighting the years in which the dances were published and singing “Happy Birthday, RSCDS” during the intermission. Also popular are the Nashua, NH, New Year’s Day Ball and seasonal parties in Fairlee, VT, Albany, NY, and Kennebunk, ME.

In December, 1976, a new tradition was born: the Pinewoods Benefit Ball in Salem. While this is an independent event, it is supported in major ways by MaryEllen Scannell and other members of the Salem class, and many Branch members attend. The original aim was to raise $10,000 towards the purchase of Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth, MA, as a place for a Scottish dance camp. The ownership of Pinewoods took a different path, but the annual ball continues to support Pinewoods to this day. Initially held in Hamilton Hall (1805) in the center of Salem and then in the Old Salem Town Hall (1816), dancers enjoy the architectural connection to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Scottish country dancing flourished across Scotland.

Scottish Sessions at Pinewoods Camp

Founded in 1919, Pinewoods Camp in Plymouth hosts a variety of dance, music, and cultural programs from May to early October. In 1953, the Boston Branch sponsored the first weekend workshop of Scottish country dancing in North America. The Scottish weekend was so popular that in 1973 a five-day session was added and, in 1984, we co-sponsored another session, Ritual Days, with the [English] Country Dance Society Boston Centre. Ritual Days then became the English-Scottish Session and then English-Scottish-Contra (or symbolically, ESC—“Escape”).

Great music is key at Pinewoods. Outstanding fiddlers, keyboard players, guitarists, pipers, and other instrumentalists join us from many parts of the US, the UK, and beyond. A full band plays for every evening dance party, the musicians play for all classes, and the featured instrumentalists offer classes in the craft of playing for dances.

Dancers from around the world attend our Pinewoods sessions, and many know the dance Pinewoods Reel, devised by John Bowie Dickson and a staple on our dance programs since 1969. Branch members were delighted when this lively reel was accepted into Book 53, a collection of dances published in 2023 by the Society in Edinburgh. For many, the Pinewoods Scottish Sessions are the highlight of their Scottish dance experiences. Their joyous spirit can be seen in a narrated slide show created by Branch members and broadcast by the Edinburgh Society in July 2020; it is available on the Branch website (http://rscdsboston.org/movie-gallery.html#pw-slide-show). Give it a look!

The Boston Scottish Country Dancers

Our first public demonstration of highland and Scottish country dancing was at the Harvard Folk Dance Society's Fourth Annual Festival in 1947. Now, experienced dancers interested in performing are invited to join the Branch performing group, the Boston Scottish Country Dancers. Over the years, the group has benefitted from wonderful directors, including Branch founder Jeannie Carmichael, Marianne Taylor (for many years), Jeanetta McColl, Sally Dee, Roberta Lasnik, Robert McOwen, and Howard Lasnik.

Currently the group is led by AndyTaylor-Blenis (Marianne Taylor’s daughter) as teacher and Laura DeCesare as administrator. The group has performed at the New England Folk Festival, the New Hampshire Highland Games, Boston's First Night Celebration, the Dance for World Community in Harvard Square, and the Ancient Universities’ annual Burns Night supper, as well as numerous town festivals, retirement homes, and schools. Prior to major events, we rehearse on Sunday nights somewhere in the Greater Boston area. We are always looking for new opportunities to showcase Scottish country dancing--and for new members who wish to improve their dancing and who enjoy performing.

Scottish Concerts and Ceilidhs

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Branch joined forces with Jean Redpath and Alasdair Fraser to sponsor a gala Burns Night concert at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. In the late 1990s, the concert moved to a November date (fewer worries about snowstorms) and to the more intimate (and affordable) auditorium at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library in Lexington, MA. Over the years, Alasdair and cellist Natalie Haas have been frequent headliners, along with local stars, such as Anne Hooper, Barbara and Robert McOwen, Susie Petrov, Hanneke Cassel, Katie McNally, Neil Pearlman, and Laura Risk, among others. Choreographed country dance medleys, as well as highland dances (provided by Robert McOwen and Highland Dance Boston) are integrated into the concerts, and each show is followed by participatory dancing for all—the Branch’s way of saying “Won’t you join the dance!”

In 2018 and 2019, we joined forces with the local Scots Charitable Society as well as Highland Dance Boston. Founded in 1657 in Massachusetts and incorporated in 1786, The Scots Charitable Society is the oldest continually operating charitable society in the country. The informal “joint ceilidhs” were successful in many ways, but after the interruptions of Covid 19, we returned to a more theatrical concept. The concert held in Lexington in November, 2022, hosted Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas once more. It was our 25th performance at that venue and coincided with our 70th anniversary as an official Branch or the RSCDS—two significant accomplishments!

Looking Ahead

Members of the Branch can and should celebrate our milestones and our resilience. Like many other dance and cultural groups in the early 2020s, we negotiated three difficult years of Covid 19 restrictions and (more important) illness among our friends and loved ones. We mastered Zoom classes, managed different views of the need for and efficacy of masks, and fostered the welcoming spirit that is a hallmark of Scottish dancing and of Scottish culture generally.

Now, we are exploring new ways for class leaders and teachers to share ideas and best practices, and we are embracing the Core Training for Instructors, a new way for veteran teachers to fine tune their skills. Our concert in November, 2023, will try out a new venue, the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, MA, closer to Boston and more accessible by public transportation than suburban Lexington. We hope to engage new audiences and introduce them to the joy of Scottish dancing.

Stay tuned as “the Scots” continue to show their devotion to country dancing, their mettle in the face of adversity, and their ability to adapt to the ever-changing dance and music environment. And, most important, as we continue to share the joy of Scottish dancing with friends, old and new. We invite you to join us at any of our regular classes and special events!

Linda McJannet
June, 2023