Traditional folk music and dance

By Emma Vilhelmsen and Sara Raaberg

How did the history of Scotland affect the traditional folk music and dancing?


In the late Scottish middle-ages, there were a big culture of dancing and folk music. The traditional folk music, tells stories and legends about how the native population lived, loved and died.

After the Reformation

After the Reformation the secular tradition of folk music and dancing continued, even though the Kirk (Church of Scotland) tried to suppress the dancing, music and penny weddings, because the church was ruled by Calvinism. The Calvinism had strict rules about music and dancing. Only church music was allowed, and you could not sing, dance, play cards or anything like that. But the population used the music and dancing, to fight back the Kirk. They would be behind closed doors for “town meetings” and play music and dance the ceilidh. This time was also the time, which the bagpipe became popular for military purposes. The tradition of the bagpipe continued into the nineteenth century.

After World War II

After World War II, the traditional music was put aside for a while, but remained a living tradition. But it was brought to life again by Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson, Peter Kennedy and others, by collecting, publications, recordings and radio programs with the traditional folk music. And in the 1960’s there where many folk clubs, where traditional performers came to the clubs to perform. After this, the music genre slowly developed through time.

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Today the traditional folk music still exists, but in other variations. There is punk/rock Scottish music, and a fusion between other categories, such as Celtic/rock/jazz and world music.

The history of the bagpipe

The bagpipe is originally from England. It was used by the crier that walked the streets at morning and evening informing people about their work day starting and ending. The idea spread to the Lowlands, and after it spread with rapid speed.The myths about bagpipers are plenty. Some say; that to be the towns piper was something you inherited by birth, and that they gave shelter to the town's piper. Victorian writers claim the piper was of high value and status, but he was usually a simple domestic servant whose master got two talents for the price of one. Something the Scottish took great advantage of up until the twentieth century.

Bagpipe as war instrument

The bagpipe was also used as a war instrument. The music of the pipe gave the soldiers extra war mentality, and made them fight harder and longer. However, when the music was used against the leaders, the tune got an other sound. James Reid was hung for playing his pipe under the 1745 rebellion. He was sentenced for contributing to the riot spirit.

The Great Highland Bagpipe

The classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe is called piobaireachd, which literally means pipe playing or pipe music. Nothing resembling piobaireachd has been discovered in any other corner of the world. In addition, the Great Highland Bagpipe is the only instrument, that can produce the right sound. Piobaireachd is based on a theme. The theme is often very slow, and the general effect of the whole piece of music is slow.
Scottish Pipes & Drums ~ Piobaireached of Donald Dubh ~ KOSB.
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History of Ceilidh

In the Celtic communities, the ceilidh was originally a local gathering, where there was storytelling, recitations, singing and dancing. The performers were locals and it was mainly a common people festivity.

What is ceilidh?

Ceilidhs in the Lowlands tend to be dances; in the Highlands, they tend to be concerts. Ceilidh dancing is informal and it’s main purpose is to make people happy and be fun. Ceilidh can be both a partner- and a group dance and usually with a caller, that tells you what to do.

Ceilidhs meaning

There are different interpretations of ceilidh's meaning and where it derives from. Some say; it derives from the Gaelic word meaning a "visit" and it has meant exactly that. Others say; the word derives from the Old Irish word "céle" and means "companion". However, there is interpretations that indicates a "house party", a "concert" or "informal Scottish traditional dancing to informal music".

Why have there come a new interest in ceilidh?

The youth's interest in ceilidh are meant to be caused by the lack of proper dancing instead of just “shaking it about”. Many companies, schools, concerts and private gatherings use the dance on regular or annual basis.

Which instruments?

The ceilidh music may be based on fiddle, flute, tin whistle, accordion, bodhrán, and in more modern times also drums, guitar and electric bass guitar.
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Names of dances?

Some of the dances are named after famous regiments, historical battles and events, others after items of daily rural life. The "Gay Gordons", "Siege of Ennis", "The Walls of Limerick" and "The Stack of Barley" are popular dances in this genre.


The history of Scotland has affected the traditional folk music and dancing through time. It has been shaped by suppression and war. The bagpipe has resulted in Scotland having a great war mentality and the ceilidh has been a comfort for the common people of Scotland.