THE MUSIC WILL THRILL YOU: RSCDS WINTER SCHOOL IN PITLOCHRY

Andrew and I were among the thirty-six first-timers who attended the RSCDS Winter School in Pitlochry in February. The base for this residential school was the Atholl Palace Hotel which nestles high on a hill overlooking Pitlochry town and is surrounded by extensive gardens and forests with red squirrels. This country house hotel was originally a Victorian hydropathic spa hotel and made a comfortable base and lent to the relaxed atmosphere.

The co-ordinator for this year’s Winter School was Sue Porter, who was also one of the teachers. Sue was super-organized and even included snow on her checklist. Our other teachers were Alasdair Brown and Eric Finley and our trio of musicians were Bill Ewan, George Meikle and Frank Thompson.

Registration was efficiently handled by Gordon Porter and we were soon freshening up in our room with a view of hills before the opening wine reception. Dancers from all over the world (Australia, Canada, France, South Africa, Spain, England and Scotland) mingled over a glass of wine. The opportunity to meet dancers continued during the meal, as careful thought and planning had been given to seating arrangements for the dinner with pre-assigned tables named after Scottish Isles.

Each morning for four days there were two classes which you were required to attend. The teaching was excellent and we were worked hard and encouraged to do better than our best. I reveled in the chance to get expert teaching and innovative ideas for warmup (Eric’s warmup I think will be one of his trademarks). It was a great treat to have Musicians play for the classes. I found it most interesting to hear Frank Thompson’s account of how he’d travelled to Raasay to walk Callum’s Road, a tune that is often played and is one of Andrew’s and my favourites. This is definitely a trip to add to our bucket list.

Afternoons were free to explore the surrounding area or take part in optional classes and activities. This year these included an illustrated, entertaining talk on Gaelic music by Johan MacLean on the Tuesday.

This talk was one of the highlights of the course for us. Johan included examples to illustrate the variety of Gaelic songs – happy ballads, songs of the sea, work songs and laments. Of course the presentation included a lively performance of mouth music – “Puirt a Beiul” – songs for dancing. Her friends also assisted with a demo of a waulking song.

On the Wednesday afternoon Alasdair Brown gave a class on Highland steps for Scottish Country Dancing. His patient tuition had us attempting not only the Glasgow Highlanders step but Coupe pas de basque, Flora turning and high cuts amongst other steps.


The course also provided opportunities for retail therapy: In addition to the RSCDS shop Janet Washington of Claire Charles Designs and St Andrew’s Shoemakers had small stores on site.

 We didn’t manage to find the time to enjoy the heated pool, or complete a round of miniature golf but I was pleased to make use of the hotels washing machine and tumble dryer.

Dining in the evening was a fine three course meal. Here’s an extract from the Bill of Fare to whet your appetite: Salmon, haddock and shrimp kedgeree finished with mild spices, parsley and yoghurt for starter, Aberdeenshire Beef Olive braised with baby onions, red wine and thyme with green leek and parsley mashed potatoes and parsnip, with Strawberry and Vanilla Tarte with mango coulis to end.

Social dancing followed the evening meal. This was quite relaxed with dances recapped.  The evenings ended with a soirée from the musicians in the hotel lounge.  The music thrilled us and we tumbled happy and tired into bed.

Wednesday night was ceilidh night with a mixture of turns from the dancers on the course and ceilidh dancing for all. The ceilidh dances were quite simple and were expertly demonstrated by Sue and Gordon Porter before we were encouraged to join in. The evening was ably MC’d by Eric Finley a man of many talents. I was pleased to see a dance from the new Berkhamstead book presented. I’d purchased it in London en route to Winter School – Ocean Voyage the 5 couple hornpipe inspired by Pelorus Jack is a dance I hope we’ll add to our repertoire in Cape Town.

The culmination of the dancing was the Ball on the Thursday evening in the grand ballroom of Blair Castle, the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl. This was indeed a magnificent setting for a dance and provided an opportunity for a highland fashion fair with ladies wearing satin and silk ball gowns and men dapper in formal evening dress. It seemed most apt that there was a portrait of Niel Gow, celebrated fiddler and composer of Scottish country dance tunes, displayed on the stage.

 Beautiful scenery, excellent teachers and musicians, lots of happy social dancing, fine dining and snow made the lengthy journey worthwhile.

Andrew and I enjoyed the event immensely and have brought back many happy memories and dream of attending again in the future.

 Collage of photos from RSCDS Winter School 2012

Heather Hodgson

RSCDS Cape Town