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Everything You Need To Know About Scottish Reeling

Everything you wanted to know... But were afraid to ask

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Curious about Scottish reeling? Read our guide and top tips to learn everything you need to know, including some great spots to practice in London to spurren you on to try it for yourself… 

Everything You Need to Know about Scottish Reeling


Once the preserve of Highland aristocracy and the military elite, Scottish reeling is now a mainstay on the British social calendar. Yes, some balls are taken very seriously with strict white tie dress codes, but there’s plenty on offer for the beginner, too, particularly in London where newbies can attend classes to brush up on their footwork.

The first rule? Don’t confuse it with Highland dancing, which is more ceremonial. Reeling is mostly about socialising – having a bit of a knees-up with friends. It was made popular in the 18th century by lairds who held formal balls in their castles. It might seem a bit overwhelming – there’s 11,000 Scottish reels and dances on record – but you’ll find the same favourites cropping up, namely The Gay Gordons, The Dashing White Sergeant, Hamilton House, the Duke of Perth and the Reel of the 51st Division. These are all very easy to pick up with simple, repeated patterns. Even if you’re not the most coordinated dancer the steps are basic – setting, turning, casting off, figure of eights – so don’t worry about looking inelegant, the movements are rolling rather than balletic. As with most things, show enough enthusiasm and you can wing your way through it.

The Best Ballroom Classes in London

Where to learn Scottish reeling in London

If you’re attending an informal reel, taking lessons before isn’t always necessary – especially if you go with regular dancers – but it’s much more fun when you know what you’re doing. After one lesson you’ll know enough to muddle your way through. If you’re going somewhere smarter, two or three lessons should do the trick. Try PGT reels, at St. Alban’s Church, Margravine Road,. It’s great value at £7 for a three-hour class, and a good one for beginners as they take you through the basic steps and dance routines. Check their online calendar for the next dates – it’s a great introductory reel to attend. The Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society near Sloane Square provide a real range of classes, from first-timers to old-hats looking to brush up on technique. Or, you could try London Reels, the city’s most popular Scottish reeling society. They meet once a month in Knightsbridge and welcomes dancers of all abilities and ages. Wear a kilt and get a pound off entry.


What to wear

  1. Men should wear kilts.
  2. Women should take sensible shoes. Attire depends on the dress code, this ranges from casual to ballgown to demure traditional dress. A tartan sash wouldn’t go amiss.
  3. A hip flask with a nip of a serious single malt.
  4. If you’re feeling dapper, wear lace cuffs and a doublet.
  5. Put a pair of ghillies on your feet, these lace up shoes are tricky to tie up and are great at letting water in…

Whatever you do, don’t…

  1. Wear boxers under your kilt. The official British Army regulations for under-kilt wear state that undergarments should only be worn for taking part in organised sports, Highland dancing (not reeling) or when ladies are present in the mess hall. At all other times it is at their discretion. Just remember to keep your knees together when sitting down.
  2. Wait to be asked to dance. Although there is a long-standing tradition that the men ask the ladies, men – both young and old – will be overjoyed by your advances.
  3. It’s very rude to start forming sets before the dance has been announced or the band has played the first few bars of the tune. We suspect this is because the ensuing panic to grab the nearest dancer without two left feet provides a great source of entertainment.
  4. Stick to the same partner. Remember to flirt outrageously. Making eye-contact and spurning partners is part of the fun.
  5. Walk through a set of dancers, obviously.
  6. Elaborately embellish your routine. While it’s fun to throw in a few extra twiddles, don’t overdo it, nobody likes a show-off, let alone one that steps on their feet.
  7. Push beginners – however tempting it is to shout and cajole them, it’s generally frowned upon.
  8. Dance to every number. No one likes a floor hog. Make time to knock back a few glasses and rest your feet.
  9. Go gung ho – ladies don’t appreciate bruised arms from over-enthusiastic grips and wayward spins. That being said, expect to end up on your backside at least once throughout the evening.
  10. Barge your way to the top of the set, no matter how advanced you are, always join the set from the bottom.

Where the pros go

The Caledonian Ball at Grosvenor House on 1 May 2020. This one’s a military affair, with concession tickets available for those serving who attend in uniform. It’s now in its 172nd year so make sure you’ve nailed your setting.

But, of course, to truly experience Scottish reeling you must head north of the border. If you think you’ve got what it takes, try The Perth Ball, which has been running since 1750.

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