How to dance a Scottish reel

With Burns Night just around the corner, now's the time to brush up on traditional Scottish dances.

With Burns Night looming and the season of the great Scottish balls just around the corner it is vital to be prepared for the all-important Scottish reels.

Are you filled with dread when you hear the first bellowing chord from a raucous band signal the start of a reel?  Are you left reeling with confusion from the endless patterns, figures of eight, whirling, spinning and dashing….?

Here we will clearly guide you through the most common reels with tips for social conventions and ballroom etiquette.


  • A dance card will be given to all dancers with a list of the dances of the night in order.
  • The men should ask the ladies for a dance early on in the evening and pencil their names into the dance card.  Do NOT lose your dance card.  You will end up forgetting who you are dancing with and cause havoc all night.
  • The band will play the first 4 bars of the dance to signal the start of the dance.
  • There will be a pause whilst partners find each other and make their way to the dance floor to arrange them selves in a set.
  • If you are unfamiliar with the dance stand further down the set.  The top of the set is the end closest to the band.
  • Someone will number you off.  Do not move position once you have been numbered, you will cause unnecessary confusion.
  • A Scot’s ‘set’ is often their signature dance.  Practice your set or pas de basque, aiming to travel sideways more that up and down.
  • In a figure of eight your hands should be held loosely behind your back and you should clearly indicate your direction of movement by angling your shoulders.
  • The men should learn to look after the ladies.  Practice turning them without bruising their arms or throwing them on the floor.  Most girls like to be spun vigorously but when you let go of them position them carefully in front of the next person they will dance with.

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Follow dress protocols carefully.  White tie will be enforced where stated, generally meaning that a ladies dress should not be more than four inches off the ground or trailing on the ground.  Ladies should wear comfortable shoes, flats are preferable.  A stiletto in someone else’s foot will ruin their night.  Avoid wearing bracelets. They are likely to snap in a fast turn.

SCOTTISH BALL 1878. Image shot 1878. Exact date unknown.

The Dashing White Sergeant
4/4 time, an 8 bar reel

Set Up:
This dance traditionally opens the ball since it is a great opportunity to greet the other guests.
Dancers are partnered 2 men with 1 lady or 2 ladies with 1 man.
The man between 2 ladies faces the lady between 2 men forming a circle.  Your circle will be back to back with another circle on both sides and hence the ball room is filled with circles of dancers around the edge.
The man between 2 ladies will move clockwise around the room and the other three counter-clockwise.


  • All join hands in your circle of 6.  Dance 8 slip steps round to the left and 8 back again.
  • Middle dancer turns to right hand partner.  Set to each other, clap and turn with 2 hands.
  • After turning middle dancer ends facing second partner.  Set, clap and turn as before.
  • From the turn lead straight into a reel of three, also known as a figure of eight.  Middle dancer leads the figure of eight by passing left shoulder to left shoulder past right hand partner.
  • Finish by facing your opposite 3.
  • All advance, holding hands in your 3.  Stamp, stamp, stamp.
  • All retire and clap, clap, clap.
  • Then walk towards opposite 3 and pass under their raised arms.  Pass the opposite person to the right.
  • Meet and greet the next three coming towards you and repeat the dance.
  • The middle dancer should alternate which partner they turn and set to first on each repeat.


The Eightsome Reel
The first Eightsome of the ball is likely to be a ‘Kilted Eightsome’ allowing only kilted gentlemen on the dance floor.

Set up:
Circles of 8, 4 couples.  Ladies stand to the right of their partners.
Number the couple 1–4.  Number 1 being the couple with their back to the band.

Dance – Beginning: 

  • All hold hands a circle round clockwise for 8 counts and back for 8.
  • Drop hand holds, men place right arm round your partners waist, ladies left arm round partners waist, ladies place their right hand in the middle of the set, joining hands with the other ladies (ladies teapot) and all round clockwise.
  • Couples about turn (don’t let go of your partner’s waist whilst turning) so that the four men have their left hand in the centre of the circle (men’s teapot) back round.
  • Turn to your partner and set to them twice and turn on linked arms.  Offer your partner your right hand.
  • Grand Chain: Ladies move clockwise and the men move anticlockwise.  Everyone starts by offering their left arm to half turn past the next person in the circle.  Then offer alternate arms as you work your way around the circle.  Pass your partner once and stop when you next meet them.

Dance – Middle: repeat for ladies 1-4 and then for men 1-4.

  • 1st lady enters the centre of the circle and dances solo, highland style or freestyle.  The rest of the set join hands and dance in a circle round for 8 and back for 8.
  • 1st lady faces her own partner, sets and right hand turn.
  • 1st lady then faces the man opposite her partner, sets and turns.
  • The dancing lady and 2 men dance a figure of eight across the circle.  The men finish in their positions and the lady back to the centre.
  • The dancing lady repeats the above, this time dancing with the 2 men in the set that she hasn’t yet danced with, starting with the man standing next to her partner.
  • Once the 1st lady has danced with all four gents she retires back to the side of her own partner and the 2nd lady enters the circle – following the above steps but starting with their own partner and his opposite before dancing with the other men.
  • Once 2nd lady has danced with all the men the 3rd and 4th ladies will follow and repeat the above.  All four men will have their turn in the centre too.
  • Once all four men have danced repeat the beginning steps.
  • After the final Grand Chain hold your partner in the Tulloch hold (hands behind back) and turn until the music stops.


The Duke of Perth
Usually played a considerably slower tempo, this reel is in 2/4 time.

Set up:
This reel is danced in long line of men facing their lady partners.  You will be numbered off into sets of 6 couples.  Dance within your set, don’t dance too low down the set and stray into the next.  A new top couple begins the dance on each 3rd repetition.


  • 1 couple meet in the middle and turn double handed.
  • Cast off 1 place on their own side.
  • Dancing couple turn each other left handed 1 ½ times to finish facing their first corner.
  • Turn 1st corner right handed and turn partner in the middle left handed.
  • Turn 2nd corner right handed and partner left handed, finish facing 1st corner.
  • Dancing couple set to and turn 1st corners and then set to and turn 2nd corner.
  • From the turn move straight into a figure of eight with your 2 corners, beginning by giving left shoulder to 1st corner.  The man on the ladies side and the lady on the men’s side.
  • Dancing couple ends 1 place down but on the wrong side.
  • When you start the next repeat add and extra ½ turn so that you cast off on your own side.
  • 1st couple repeat the dance, this time with the next 2 couples below you.
  • A new couple can start at the top of the set when there are 2 free couples below them with whom they can dance.


The Hamilton House

Set up:
Again this is a line dance for sets of 6 couples.  The easiest way to remember the dance is: ‘Flirt, divert’ or the formation of ‘H’s’.


  • The 1st lady sets off and ‘flirts’ or sets to 2nd man, then turns the 3rd man.  She walks down the back of the set to end up at the top facing down the set.
  • Meanwhile the 1st man repeats this by setting to 2nd lady and turning the 3rd and end between the 3rd couple facing up the set facing the 1st lady and 2nd couple who are in a line facing down set.
  • The 2 lines face each other and set twice, holding hands. (Or advance stamp, stamp, stamp, retire clap, clap, clap).
  • The 1st man then turns the 1st lady and places her between the 2nd and 3rd men, the man ends up between the 2nd and 3rd ladies.
  • Again they all set twice holding hands.
  • The dancing couple turn and end up on their own side, one place down.
  • The whole set joins hands and circles round for 8 and back for 8.
  • The process is repeated and a top couple can start dancing when there are 2 free couples below with whom they can dance.


For a more in depth guide to Scottish dancing with diagrams, the following book is invaluable:
The Swinging Sporran: A Lighthearted Guide to the Basic Steps of Scottish Reels and Country Dances by Andrew Campbell and Roderick Martine.