Historical Discovery Inspires a New Renaissance Dance in Scotland

by Lexa Pennington /
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Jun 21, 2010 / 0 comments



It’s one of the newest dances around – but harks back to the elegance of the Renaissance royal court at Stirling Castle.

Primary age children are being invited to take part in special workshops to learn ‘The Dance of the Musical Head’ on June 26 and 27, 2010.

It was created by early music experts involved in last year’s remarkable discovery that carvings on one of the 16th-century Stirling Heads may be the earliest musical notation in Scotland.

Barnaby Brown of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and expert harpist Bill Taylor used the notation to recreate the sort of dance that courtiers might once have performed when the music of the head was played.

This will be the first time that children other than school groups have had the chance to learn the dance.

Kirsten Wood, Stirling Castle education officer, said: “The dance is very special because it belongs to Stirling Castle and is inspired by the musical head.

“It takes us right back to the days when great lords and ladies would gather at the castle to feast and dance.

“Children will be able to dress up in period costumes, hear the music and learn the steps. It’s something youngsters love doing, they really get into character and go home afterwards talking about what fun they’ve had.”

The workshops will take place in the castle’s education rooms at 11am and 2pm after which the youngsters will be able to do a small public performance in the Chapel Royal.

The children will also have the chance to learn a Pavan, another courtly dance of the era in which the dancers face each other in rows.

The workshops are included in the normal ticket price and it is best to book in advance by calling 01786 431321, some spaces may be available on the day.




● If you would like to try the dance yourself the steps for the first two quarters are shown below.

First quarter:

Hold hands: two double steps left

Face partners: Men hop right, left, right

Women hop right, left, right, curtsie

Second quarter

Face neighbours: Men hop right, left, right, bow

Women hop right, left, right, curtsie

Hold hands: two double steps right

● The word ‘Pavan’ means peacock – as the trains of the ladies’ dresses were like the tails of peacocks, and the dancers would strut to the music, arms outstretched, lightly touching their fingers.

● For all the latest on the palace project, and everything else that happening at Stirling Castle, visit our website at www.stirlingcastle.gov.uk/ and sign up for our free e-newsletter.

● Stirling Castle is at the top of Stirling Old Town off the M9 at junction 9 or 10. Call 01786 450000

● Historic Scotland has 345 historic properties and sites in its care. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country, including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace, the Border Abbeys, and Skara Brae. For further details visit: www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/places

● Historic Scotland’s Mission is to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

● Historic Scotland around the web: www.twitter.com/welovehistory, www.facebook.com – search for Make Your Own History, www.youtube.com/historicscotlandtv and www.flickr.com/groups/makeyourownhistory


About the Musical Head:

● The project to create a replica set of Stirling Heads brought a potentially remarkable discovery. Craftsman John Donaldson noticed a sequence of Os, Is and IIs round the border of one of the metre-wide wooden medallions which experts now believe could be the oldest surviving ‘written’ Scottish instrumental music. The music could have been played on harps, viols, fiddles and lutes. But evidence from Wales later in the century, suggests it may have part of the home-grown harp tradition.

● In 2009 Historic Scotland teamed up with specialist musicians to carry out an experiment to recreate the music for what might have been the first time in centuries. The task was challenging as the markings are not an exact musical score, but guidance to players who then improvised in the same way as modern jazz and blues musicians. The experiment, which was carried out in front of the media, was highly successful with harpist Bill Taylor creating music based on the sequence.

● There are earlier examples of written music in Scotland but these are all for choir rather than for an instrumental band. 

● The sequence shown on the head is substantially grander in length than similar 'measures' recorded in a Welsh manuscript of about 1480.

● The head may also be the earliest example to use the numerals I and O, first recorded in Wales in the 1570s, in sources which connect this harmonic notation to a council of master musicians held in Ireland in the twelfth century.

● Renaissance harps were played with the fingernails all across Europe, but this technique remained popular in Scotland, Wales and Ireland long after its disappearance elsewhere.