Reeling is an odd concept. In one sense the word means staggering, lurching violently. Also, losing one’s balance, as when under the influence of illness, shock or alcohol.
In another it refers to the controlled performance of a dance. But not just any old dance, where you have one partner, or none, and do whatever takes your fancy. This has a pattern which conforms strictly to bars of music. Every performer co-ordinates with a number of other people in a variety of figures. It employs both travelling steps and dancing on the spot. The result is a shifting pattern, like a kaleidoscope, only you’re in the middle of it instead of watching from above.
Believe me, there’s no room for the first definition in the second activity. There would be blood on the floor. Reels are nothing if not precise.
They also often reflect some activity, such as weaving (Shifting’ Bobbins), or event (Mhairi’s Wedding). And sometimes they can deliver a surprising emotional impact.
My first reeling experience was in one of those public hooleys in which Dancers, who know what they’re doing, try to educate the other sort. This was in Edinburgh at Festival time. I was very young, still at school. The Dancers were a mixture of restrained and elegant drawing room dancers and muscular soldiery.
The latter must have been largely drawn from the Scottish regiments. They approached the task with the sort of resolution that Nelson’s gunners brought to the Battle of Trafalgar: brisk, accurate, effective. I remember feeling very safe in their hands — because mostly they passed me round like a parcel, in time to the music. My feet touched down often without my direction but always on the beat.
Later I went to classes. But I don’t think I’ve ever repeated that sense of being able to fly. And goodness, it was inspiring.
The Laufen Reel
The dance I particularly loved was the Reel of the 51st, probably because I picked it up more quickly than others. It has a remarkable history.
In the last days of the Fall of France in 1940 the 51st (Highland) Division fought to defend the town of St Valery, 32 Km west of Dieppe while waiting for evacuation by the British Navy. The enemy commanded the cliffs and there was dense fog in the Channel.
So by the morning of 12th June Major General Fortune accepted that he had no option but to surrender to Rommel. The evacuation from Dunkirk was 27th May – 4th June, so already over.
Among those taken prisoner was Lt Jimmy Atkinson (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). On the march to POW camp he devised 16 bars of dancing to reflect the Saltire shoulder flash of the 51st (Highland) Division. He said that he started thinking “about dance tunes to keep my mind clear of grisly thoughts”.
He was imprisoned with other officers in Oflag VIIC , in the 15th century Schloss Laufen built for the Archbishop of Salzburg. There he found that Lt Peter Oliver (4th Seaforth) had organised a thrice weekly reel club. Over the winter of 1940 they developed the reel (which was initially danced to whistling) in consultation with Lt Col Tom Harris Hunter (51st Division Logistics Group RASC). He had been Chairman of the Perth and Perthshire Scottish Country Dance Society.
Reel of the 51st
On Hallowe’en 1941 they danced it to honour Major General Fortune, clearly a truly remarkable man. He approved the name the 51st Country Dance.
Sending details of their new dance home, however, hit a snag when the Germans decided that the instructions represented a coded message. So they gave their captors a demonstration and Harris Hunter’s letter to his wife went through.
The Perth branch of the SCDS printed copies of the dance and sold them for the benefit of the Red Cross. The main Society did not print newly invented dances as a matter of policy at the time.
On this one, however, they came under some Royal pressure, as their 1944 Bulletin records. “On hearing about the dance the 51st Division Reel, sent from a German Prisoner of War camp, Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother] said she hoped it would be published some day.”
It was published in Book XIII.
They called it The Victory Book.