History of the Boston Branch

The Scottish Country Dance Society was formed in Glasgow, November 1923, by Mrs Ysobel Stewart and Miss Jean Milligan. Its first stated aim was to practice and preserve Country Dances as performed in Scotland. "Royal" was added in 1951 by declaration of King George VI. The current headquarters of the Society is in Edinburgh, Scotland.

It all began in Boston with Jeannie Robertson Buchanan Carmichael, born in Edinburgh, who came to this country in 1923, the year that the Scottish Country Dance Society was founded. Jeannie, a mathematician, eventually worked in space rocketry at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, retiring in 1960.

In 1947, while attending English Country Dance classes in Boston, Jeannie was asked by several of the dancers, among them John MacDougall, David Bridgham, Duncan Hay, Fred Newcomb, and Irvin Davis, if she would start a Scottish Country Dance class. Through her affiliation with the Country Dance Society, Jeannie obtained the use of a small room in the facility they shared with the Girl Scouts at 87 Beacon Street, Boston. Thus the Monday night classes began and have continued for 50 years.

It was difficult to obtain proper attire, especially for the men. Dyeing athletic socks in appropriate colors was the solution for the men's hose. Cut off tailcoats and white waiter's jackets were worn for formal affairs. One of the early members was Emilie Hartman who was on the staff of Sargent College of Physical Education. She arranged for the fledgling group to use their gymnasium, just north of Harvard Square, in return for putting on demonstrations.

This was a big step forward and the class began to grow. In 1949, the group gave its first demonstration at NEFFA. Dancers included all those previously mentioned, with their partners Kay Jacobs, Helen Spalding, Emilie Hartman, Theora Morrison, and Anne O'Brian. This demonstration attracted new dancers from the folk dance world who readily took to the Scottish form.

About this time, Irvin Davis suggested the formation of a proper organization with legal status. He soon formulated bylaws and a plan for the annual election of officers. In April 1950, Boston was granted the first overseas Branch status by the SCD Headquarters. There were 23 Charter members, some of whom you may remember; Jeannie R. B. Carmichael, Florence Brunnings, Katherine Jacobs, David Bridgham, John MacDougall, Duncan Hay, Leonard Hooper, Irvin Davis, Barbara Little (still dancing), Agnes Brown, Barbara Chisholm, Miriam Cochrane, Larry Collins, Arlene Dow, Susan Goodale, Emilie Hartman, Ruth Hunt, Anna L. O'Brien, Anne R. O'Brian, Helen Spalding, Ted Sannella, Jean Staples, and Theora Morrison.

In 1957, Miss Milligan, under the sponsorship of the Boston Branch, visited North America for the first time.

Dancing continued at Sargent College until the 1958-59 season. During that time we danced at Orange Hall, Somerville, and at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church. In June 1959 we moved to the YWCA in Central Square, Cambridge, where we danced on Monday nights till the Fall of 2002, when the class moved to Springstep in Medford Square. Our Branch may be unique in holding simultaneous classes at all three levels for almost 40 years.

Other Branch Classes

The Stow group had its beginnings in 1966 when Alistair Duncan began teaching a group of friends and neighbors, meeting in the homes of members in Sudbury twice monthly.

In 1967 the group became a Branch class and met in the Sudbury Grange Hall. In 1968 they moved to Stow, dancing in a barn and subsequently to the Stow Town Hall where they presently dance under the able direction of Jeanetta McColl. Several of the original members are still active dancers.

The Brookline group was started by Evelyn Murray in 1973 when she was asked by Rev. George Blackman to teach at his Church of Our Saviour on Sunday evenings. He, his wife and sons, all with a strong Scottish background, danced with the group until his retirement. The original teachers were Evelyn Murray, Julie Smith and Isolde Lamont. It became a branch class around 1975.

The Salem Scottish Dancers known as the "Wee Bluets", started in January 1974 by Sally Dee and Iain Goddard. This is the second largest class of the Boston Branch and currently meets in the Universalist Church in Salem.

This class hosted the Pinewoods Benefit Ball in Hamilton Hall each December until 2002. Class members participate in the Salem First Night Celebration as well as performing other small demonstrations in the local area. Sally Dee is still the major teacher of the class, though is now assisted by others who have gained their certification.

The Concord, MA SCD group was started in 1960 by Alan and Lydia Smith. For many years it was directly affiliated with the RSCDS HQ in Edinburgh, but in 1989, it applied to the Boston Branch to become a Branch class. This class generally dances at the First Parish Church in Weston, MA.

Other classes supported by the Branch may be found in Northampton, MA, Greenland, NH, Nashua, NH, Kennebunkport, ME, Belfast, ME, Brunswick, ME, Fairlee, VT, and Albany, NY. There are other classes in New England, but they are not part of the Boston Branch.

Candidate Class

In odd numbered years, a team of examiners is sent, one from Edinburgh and one from North America, to tour North America. These people examine candidates for both the Preliminary and final Teaching Certificate. The Branch operates a Candidate class for future teachers, starting in the summer of even numbered years, assuming there are enough interested dancers.

The RSCDS is now putting together a new way of examining candidates. Details for interested dancers may be obtained directly from HQ or the TAC (Teachers Association, Canada).

Demonstration Team

The first demonstration of Highland and Scottish Country dancing was at the Harvard Folk Dance Society's Fourth Annual Festival in 1947. Since then the Demonstration team has grown and been under a number of directors. First was Jeannie Carmichael, the founder of the Branch, then Marianne Taylor for MANY years, followed by Jeanetta McColl, Sally Dee & Roberta Lasnik, Beth Murray & Robert McOwen, and currently Howard Lasnik. The team can be seen at NEFFA, the annual concert, Boston's First Night Celebration, numerous nursing homes, schools, and church events.

Tartan Times

This Branch newsletter was first edited by Hugh Thurston in January, 1956. The circulation is now world wide, as is the RSCDS. The newsletter covers all aspects of Branch activities as well as other events of interest.

Its present editor is Evelyn Murray, who agreed to do this job in 1968. Well done, Evelyn.

Highland Ball

On April 6, 1956, 300 people attended the first Boston Branch Highland Ball taking place at the Hotel Somerset. Will MacKay was the band leader and a ticket cost $3.75 including tax. Two years later, a six year hiatus occurred before the next Highland Ball featuring Stan Hamilton was held at the Hotel Continental in Cambridge.

As the years passed, the Hotel Continental became the Harvard University Police Station and the Highland Ball moved to Mechanics Hall in Worcester in 1987 via various other locations. The Ball has been held in Framingham at Nevins Hall for a few years now in an effort to minimize costs. A ticket now costs a dancer $65.00, one of the many changes which have been seen in the forty years since the first Ball.


In 1949 the New England Folk Festival saw the first demonstration of SCD. In 1958, the Branch began making and selling food at the Scottish Food Booth. In that year $150.57 was the profit margin. Meat pies, prepared in a very Scottish fashion, were very popular and we sold out at 500. The recommendation for the next year was to have available at least 600 meat pies. It was good advice in 1959 as well as in 1997, since meat pies continue to be a popular item and still sell out.

Annual Concert

In 1980 Robert J. Lurtsema invited the Branch demonstration team to participate in a concert at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre featuring Jean Redpath, Robert J., and Norman Kennedy. A few years later the Branch took over the production of the event, which became known as the Burns Night Concert, taking place at the end of January in celebration of Robert Burns' birthday.

In 1995 the concert moved its venue and its date. Now taking place in the fall, the concert features a different Scottish theme every year and takes place at The National Heritage Museum in Lexington, MA.

Benefit Balls

In 1976 the Boston Branch voted to sponsor a ball to raise funds towards the purchase of Pinewoods Camp. RSCDS Boston Branch raised over $10,000 in a number of different ways. The first Pinewoods Benefit Ball took place at the First Congregational Church in Winchester. The ball has taken place at Hamilton Hall in Salem with proceeds contributed to Pinewoods Camp. Springstep now hosts the Benefit Ball, the proceeds of which are kept either by the Branch or donated to Pinewoods. The decision as to where the proceeds will go is made by the Executive Committee each year.


Scottish Country Dancing was first seen at Pinewoods in 1953. This was the first weekend workshop for SCD in North America. Many SC dancers and others are familiar with "Pinewoods Reel" which was devised by John Bowie Dickson and presented to Mrs. Lily Conant in July 1969. This weekend workshop became so popular that negotiations were started to find more time for SCD in the schedule.

This resulted in a second session which started in July 1973. It appears that this second session is now almost more popular than the original weekend session.

As time progressed, both sessions were plagued with waiting lists, so a deal was made with CDS Boston Center to share the camp during their Ritual Days starting in 1984. This has become the English-Scottish Session, which is most conveniently placed between the Fourth of July weekend and SCD Session I.

Live Music

Dance without live music is like strawberries without cream - still yummy but not as rich!

In New England, live music for dancing began in the mid-1970s when three weekend workshops focusing on playing for dancing were held in Pembroke, New Hampshire. A group of Boston Branch teachers and musicians organized these weekends and invited such stars as bandleader Angus MacKinnon, piper Carol McCloud, and singer Jean Redpath as instructors. Several of the local musicians who also taught at the weekends then formed the area's first Scottish country dance band, The White Cockade. The band's original members included Sylvia Miskoe, Cal Howard, Ralph Jones, Vince O'Donnell, and "Shag" Graetz. Many of these musicians still perform with the group, play widely for classes and dance parties, and have issued a number of recordings.

The growth of local music was further strengthened when Barbara and Robert McOwen of the Berkeley Scottish Players (the Cabbage Band) moved to Boston, via New York, a couple of years later. Barbara had been at the first music workshop, having been sent by the San Francisco Branch.

The McOwens produced the area's first compilation of dance arrangements and encouraged local musicians to learn to play for Scottish dance events. A year or so later, the McOwens formed the band Tullochgorum, a popular group who receive invitations to play for balls in many different parts of the country. Barbara has issued a number of recordings under various guises..

In 1981, Barbara McOwen and Scottish fiddler Ed Pearlman co-founded the Boston Scottish Fiddle Club and welcomed all levels of musicians and most types of instruments. Besides teaching the style and feeling of Scottish music, the Fiddle Club encouraged musicians to get together for practice and fun, and these meetings spawned inexperienced but eager bands. The most permanent of these is Highland Whisky, currently a successful group who play for balls and other Scottish events in New England, New Jersey, and New York. Other area bands include Local Hero, led by Susie Petrov, and Boston Hospitality, featuring Ed Pearlman and Beth Murray. Both groups are highly acclaimed in New England and beyond.

Besides leading their separate bands, Barbara McOwen and Sylvia Miskoe helped to create the Strathspey and Reel Society of New Hampshire in 1988. The group now boasts of over 200 members (not all musicians) and, like the Fiddle Club, gives annual concerts, performs at the New England Folk Festival and the New Hampshire Gathering of the Scottish Clans at Loon Mountain, arranges performing tours of Scotland for their members, and offers instruction in playing both dancing and listening music. In 1996, the SRSNH had a very successful tour in Scotland playing at concerts and dances.

Due in large part to the efforts of a few dedicated musicians, the Boston Branch of the RSCDS is the envy of most other dance groups. The Boston Musicians list currently numbers 61. Most of these people are willing to play for classes and parties when available. The largest Branch class, held at the Canadian American Club in Watertown, Massachusetts, enjoys live music for each of its classes and for the popular Social Hour. Other Branch classes invite local musicians for special events.

The advent of live music has also transformed the Branch's most famous and most demanding activity — the Scottish Sessions at Pinewoods. Not only does a full band play for every evening dance party, but each of the 11 daily classes has its own musician(s), creating an administrative challenge similar to weaving of a bolt of tartan cloth. Musicians are chosen from many parts of the country and classes are offered in the craft of dance musicianship.

Contributors: Gillian Charters, Sally Dee, Deb Hawkins, Jeanetta McColl, Julie Smith, Joan Young

June, 1997
Updated: June, 2005