Hints and Tips

Scottish Country Dance is social dancing, so it is not as structured as other forms of dance. Even so, there are a few rules a good dancer should abide by. The following is an adaption of Mel Briscoe’s Unwritten Rules of Scottish Country Dancing as well as Ian Brockbank’s hints and tips found on his Grand Chain SCD site. Both authors have granted permission to use their work on this site.


Setting in line: If 3 people are setting, the middle person’s hands are up.

If 2 people are setting, the man, or the first man/woman, often puts his/her hand up.

Two-couple sets dance individually, without trying to join all four people on the side. Local variation is as many people join hands as possible, even between sets, especially in three-and-three across in strathspey setting. However, one should not force other sets to join in.

Hands across: There is no rule on whose two hands are on top. Some say first woman’s hand is on top. It is accepted for hands to be taken as they are raised, so the hands on top are those who raised them first. (Hands are taken across, not piled in a clump in the middle. For three hands across, no hand on top, i.e. all hands joined “shake hands” grip is prefered.)
Circle: Middle person in line of three has hands up.

End people in lines join across with other line, often with men giving palms up to the women on the other side.

Variant: “thumbs right,” meaning each person has left hand palm down, right hand palm up.

Final Circles: Any couples standing out are invited in to join a final circle. (This can produce larger-than-normal circles, so on a crowded floor some caution is advised.)
Casting off: On a crowded floor, casting off can mean collisions with the next set over. To help, the man lets the woman from the next set go in front.
Anticipation: SCD is social dancing. If some careful anticipation of a movement will help a figure happen smoothly, it is OK, but phrasing and covering should still be maintained as much as possible.
Five couples: If an extra couple “shares a round” with the fourth couple, the fourth couple stays in second place after their first round of the dance (the seventh round of eight), and then the fifth couple starts at the top.


Women asking men to dance is a local thing: in some areas it is common, in other areas it avoided. SCD seems to be evolving to “anyone can ask anyone.”

Booking ahead is also a local thing. In some areas it is quite common, in some it is acceptable but unusual, in others it is quite frowned upon. Often, couples arriving will agree to do the first (and/or last) dance together. However, booking ahead tends to exclude new dancers and visitors and makes it difficult to respond to the whims of the moment or the sociability of the dance that just ended.

It is considered bad manners to start forming up sets for the next dance before it has been announced. Wait until either it is announced or the band has played the first few bars of the tune.

Sets are formed from the top. When joining a line of dancers, always join at the bottom end of the line – since it is counted from top to bottom. If you join in the middle you may make the count confused. Rushing to be top couples is to be avoided.

The first man in each line of dancers should do the counting – count down the line telling each couple clearly what position they are in in their set. Remember the ladies need to know as well. Once you have counted the line into sets, indicate clearly to the MC how many more couples are needed to complete the last set – in Scotland this is traditionally done by holding up as many fingers as couples needed. If you’re not in a rush, once the line is complete, walk back up again counting backwards to check that you’ve numbered everyone correctly – this saves the bottom dancers yelling for a recount when you’re back at the top.

Do not walk through a set of dancers – walk around instead.

If your partner is late coming into the line, stand on the men’s side of the set during the count. This ensures that one line holds the right number of people.

Dance within your own set. That is, big swooping reels that interlock with folks from the next set over are to be avoided.

When casting down the outside, it is common in some areas to take the hand of the opposite gender from the next set over.

It can be fun to embellish the dance if you are confident with your dancing and with the dance. Remember you can put other dancers off by doing this. You should only do embellishments (for instance twiddles or extra spins in turns) if you are sure both you and the other dancers in the set are okay with this. Be particularly courteous to beginners – they find the whole thing confusing enough anyway without you going out of your way to complicate matters.

Birls, or extra spins during set-and-turn-corners in quick time, are written into “The Hamilton Rant”, but otherwise are to be avoided. It can be found exceedingly rude to force someone into an unanticipated spin by a strong arm during the turn, and can be disorienting and even dangerous.


The most important part to remember, when it comes to clothing, is to dress comfortably. Dancing is a form of exercise, and you will get warm. Best are light, loose fitting clothes, in which you can move about easily.


There isn’t really a dress code for classes, though it is prefered that ladies wear a dress or a skirt. Should you, as a lady, happen to come in slacks, you won’t be turned away either.


In order to make dances a bit more special, put on your Sunday clothes. Ladies, wear a nice dress or your better skirt with a nice top. Gentlemen, wear nice pants and a nice shirt with it.


This is the time to shine! Gentlemen are encouraged to wear their kilts and a white shirt. Should you not posess a kilt, dress up in your best pants and a nice dress shirt. Suits are fine. This is also a great opportunity for you ladies to dust off your ballgown! Remember that you will need to be able to move in it. If you do not have a ballgown – don’t panic! Just wear your nicest outfit in which you will be comfortable to dance. Wearing Scottish accessories, such as a sash, are also popular at balls.


In order to perform good technique and traction, you will want to dance in soft shoes with a flexible sole, such as ballet slippers, jazz shoes, or dance pumps.

The traditional shoe for Scottish Country Dancing, however, is the ghillie. Ghillies are a type of shoe with laces along the instep and without a tongue. Although now worn for dancing and social events, ghillies originated as a shoe that would dry quickly due to the lack of a tongue, and not get stuck in the mud because of their laces above the ankle. Thankfully Scottish Country Dancing is not performed in the rain or on muddy plains! We wear ghillies, because they are just about perfect for dancing and they look ever so nice! Insoles from the local drug store provide cushioning for more comfort and support. When buying ghillies it is important to remember that leather stretches. So should you decide to get your own, make sure they cradle your foot very snugly.