A Short History of Scottish Country Dancing in St. John’s

by Noreen MacLennan

A large contingent of Scottish war brides arrived in St. John’s in 1946 and soon formed a club to maintain friendships and share memories of Scotland. They enjoyed Scottish dances such as The Dashing White Sergeant, Eightsome Reel, Gay Gordons and others, which they shared with relatives and a widening circle of friends as they settled in their new home. As these became familiar and enjoyed by many, they were included on the programme of the annual St. Andrew’s Ball.

Newfoundland became the 10th province of Canada in 1949.  Under the premiership of J.R. Smallwood, an era of growth and development followed, and many professionals came to Newfoundland to work, teach and advise.  In this group were many adherents of Scottish Country Dancing who formed a dance group.

When I arrived in the mid sixties, I joined the group which met then at St. Andrew’s Church (the Kirk).  Mrs. Stobie, the minister’s wife at that time, taught classes every week in the church hall.  Class members were war brides and spouses, professionals who had come to the province, and friends of theirs who were interested in the social activity.  This class disbanded in 1967 for various reasons, and there is no record of classes being held in St. John’s for the next few years.

In 1970, Cathy and Lloyd Leland arrived from Montreal, where Cathy had been a keen dancer. Finding that there was no active dance group at that time, Cathy took steps to form one. She approached the St. Andrew’s Society and asked if members would be interested in attending a class in Scottish Country Dancing. This led to the formation of The St. Andrew’s Dancers with initial classes being held in dancers’ homes. As numbers increased, the St. Andrew’s Society took on the financial responsibility of renting a venue for classes until the group became self-sufficient. Expatriate Scots Dr. Bruce Miller was a strong supporter, while Jim McAndrew, taught the dances. In 1975 James Orr and Edward Moore shared the teaching. In 1976, Edward Moore attended candidate classes at St. Andrews Summer School and on his return to Newfoundland became the regular teacher for several years.

I rejoined the group in 1980, which at that time consisted of about two sets per evening. Classes were held in the Cafeteria of the Engineering Building of Memorial University. Edward Moore had continued as the teacher but as he had other commitments he asked me to take over the teaching of the class. Because I had a full certificate, we applied to Scotland in 1983 to become an affiliated group of the R.S.C.D.S.

Since the group was small in number, we embarked on a programme to increase our visibility and thereby increase membership. We took part in multicultural functions, outdoor folk festivals, and the annual Burns Supper, benefiting from the media coverage of these events.

In 1985, we travelled to the west coast of Newfoundland with the City of St. John’s Pipe Band to participate in a two day Scottish Festival in the Codroy Valley. This is an area of Newfoundland settled during the years 1840-1865 by large numbers of Scots from Cape Breton.

We were invited in 1986 to go to the French territory of St. Pierre et Miquelon off the south coast of Newfoundland to take part in their Bastille Day Celebrations. Led by two pipers from the City of St. John’s Pipe Band, we paraded through the streets with the local dance group Orok Bat, making stops in several areas to give performances of dances.

In August 1987, we held our first weekend workshop. Our guest teachers were Sandra Binns Johnston and Jim MacLellan. The event would not have been possible without the help of the TAC Outreach Programme. In addition to our local members we welcomed many out of province guests from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

In the summer of 1988, three fully certificated teachers, Martin Mulligan, William and Susan Scott, took up residence in St. John’s. At this time we expanded the class schedule to three levels – beginner, social and technique. As we now met the requirement for Branch status, formal application was made to Scotland. Martin Mulligan and Bruce Shawyer drafted a constitution and Branch status was granted in 1991.

In the late 1980’s, two of our musically talented members, Bruce Shawyer (piano) and Stewart Gillies (violin), began playing for some demonstrations and social programmes. Over the next few years, the musical group expanded and developed into an ensemble of seven musicians now known as Corryvreckan. The band plays for our socials and many of our public performances. We are delighted to dance to this excellent music which consists of traditional tunes and original composition, some of the latter forming a collection printed in Our Kind of Music.

Since becoming a Branch in 1991, we have continued to organize both one-day and weekend workshops with guest teachers from other parts of Canada and the United States. In 1997, we sponsored a small Preliminary Test class, one of whom, Penny Gillies, has since obtained her full certificate.

We have made a contribution to the community by providing entertainment for several years at various venues, including Hogmanay Blood Donor Clinics, Glenbrook Lodge and other seniors’ homes, Macdonald Drive School, and the Commissariat House provincial historic site. With an eye to the future, we have also offered programmes and children’s classes which provide encouragement for younger dancers. We hope to continue attracting new members through demonstrations, audience participation and continued advertising.

This article was originally published in All Around the Circle, Scottish Country Dances from Newfoundland, Vol.1, 2002.  The final paragraphs have been edited slightly to update the material.