Scots travel to the
Venice ball by gondola (Photo: Dena Woodhams)
Scots travel to the Venice ball by gondola (Photo: Dena Woodhams)

Highland balls are becoming a global phenomenon

Bagpipes and trumpets; flag throwers and drummers; tartan kilts and silk pantaloons.

That is what the people of Florence had to look forward to before 500 Scots arrived in February 2016 for traditional Scottish Balls with a twist. A special fusion of all things Scots and Florentine, the event will see highland reels danced in some of the city’s most historic buildings, as bridges are built between cultures and lifelong friendships are made.

Headed up by author and former BBC World Business reporter Andrena Woodhams, whose bubbling enthusiasm for connecting people is infectious, and welcomed by the Mayor of Florence Dario Nardella, the ambitious four-day extravaganza was attended by guests from 17 different countries, will include members of the party flying over Siena by hot air balloon in celebration of the leap year, and culminates with the Blue Ball at the Palazzo Vecchio.

‘So many Florentines have embraced the idea of bringing 500 Scots to reel in Florence,’ Woodhams says. ‘Together with Adalgisa Conte and with the support from many grand families of Florence, we have created a programme that will fuse, in a subtle but real way, the social and spiritual hearts of these two great cultures.’

Scots travel to the Venice ball by gondola (Photo: Dena Woodhams)

Given the sheer scale of the event, you would be forgiven for thinking it had been a decade in the planning. In fact, the Tuscan adventure was just the latest in an extraordinary series of Highland Balls-with-a-difference that have left communities around the world reeling.

It was Woodham’s friend Mark Tennant, then Convenor of The Northern Meeting, who first mooted the idea of a Scottish Ball abroad in 2006, not realising that the concept would gather pace quite so readily and go on to see Highland Reels danced to the sound of The Pictish Players in magnificent settings around the world.

Inspired by an invitation issued to The Skye Gathering from the Caledonian Society of St Petersburg, Tennant wanted to hold a traditional ball of The Northern Meeting in an unusual setting, and decided the perfect place to stage a weekend of sightseeing, piping and, of course, dancing would be Vienna.

The only problem was that he didn’t have contacts in the city, speak the language, or have the first clue how to go about organising a Highland Ball abroad. But he knew a woman who did… His ruthlessly efficient and multi-lingual friend and fellow Pinstripe Highlanders bagpiper Dena Woodhams, who was living in the city at the time.

Guests arrive at the Blue Ball in Jodhpur (Photo: Dena Woodhams)

Although Woodhams had never done anything like this before, she took little persuasion and contacted John McGregor, the British Ambassador for Austria, who quickly came on board. ‘He just got it,’ Woodhams says. ‘I didn’t want to work with anyone in events, where you have a group that swings in and does something somewhere and clears out again, and nobody has any real contact with the city at all.

I wanted everyone to feel like they were being invited in to Vienna. Mark handled everything on the Scots side and it happened. We brought 220 members of the Northern Meeting to Vienna and it was absolutely wonderful.’

The event had been staged as a one off, but buoyed by its success Tennant and Woodhams quickly decided it was an experience they had to repeat. The organising team also grew by one, with Peter Forrester of the Argyllshire Gathering coming on board. The fruits of the trio’s labour culminated two years later in Venice, when 80 gondolas carried 440 members of the three Highland Balls – Skye, Argyll and The Northern Meeting – to the city’s Palazzo Donà dalle Rose for an extraordinary night of dancing.

On their way to the venue the vast group took up three quarters of Venice’s gondolas. With every sixth gondola carrying a playing piper and the sounds of Scotland reverberated around the city, it was a truly unforgettable moment for everyone that was there.

The ball was the pinnacle, but the trip had been about much more; introducing different cultures and making friends. Fifty-one members of the party who had travelled to Italy on The Orient Express danced a Foursome to the pipes in Innsbruck Station, while the Venetians opened up their homes to the visiting Scots. ‘I like to create family, that’s what makes me hum’ says Woodhams. ‘When people reel something magical happens; people connect with one another and themselves in a new way.’

Rocking it on the dance floor (Photo: Dena Woodhams)

No sooner had the sun risen on Venice than thoughts turned to the next event: Turkey. The flamboyant ball held there in February 2012 saw East meet West in Istanbul, with members of the Northern Meeting, Argyllshire Gathering, Perth Ball, and Caledonian Society, as well as friends made in Vienna and Venice, joining 100 members of Istanbul St Andrews Society.

And it wasn’t just in Scotland that word had spread; the 600-strong group in Turkey had flown in from no less than 17 different countries. Practice reels were arranged to teach everyone from around the world who had begun to join the movement, resulting in almost 700 people dancing the Sixteensome and Foursome in the magnificent Ciragon Palace.

Next came the duo’s most ambitious event to date, with the Scots Balls breaking out of Europe for the first time; Tennant had set his heart on India. Woodham’s global contacts didn’t yet reach there, but never one to shy away from a challenge, she agreed to explore the possibility and contacted the Maharajah of Jodhpur who embraced the idea of a Highland Ball in the city. But it didn’t end there…

‘I met the Maharani of Jaipur too,’ Woodhams explains. ‘Jodhpur is the blue city and Jaipur is the pink city. I called Mark from India and said, “this is ridiculous but we’re going to have to do two balls”!’

With great team work and vision, what could have been a logistical nightmare was quickly fashioned into the trip of a lifetime. Visiting Scots enjoyed a week-long extravaganza starting with the Blue Ball at Jodhpur and ending with the Pink Ball at Jaipur, including practise reels in Bombay and Delhi and matches of elephant and camel polo. Reeling around the world had well and truly found its feet.

An elephant seems unfazed by the sound of the bagpipes (Photo: Dena Woodhams)

‘It was in India when it stepped out on its own and really became its own thing,’ Woodhams says.

The itinerary for February saw Scots, Italians and friends from around the world marching in parade behind a dozen pipers along the Via de’ Calzaiuoli to the Palazzo di Parte Guelfa; balls in the stunning Tepidarium, a large, 18th century glass house overlooking the city, and at the ‘Hall of the 500’ in the Palazzo Vecchio; and hot air balloon rides over Siena.

Woodhams enthuses about her beloved Scots with such vigour that everyone involved begins to see the gathering with her eyes. ‘The Scots don’t need to be entertained, they are the entertainment,’ she insists. ‘It’s a celebration of life really, and no one does it better than Scots when they come together to do what no one else does quite like them: to reel.

‘Magic is a big word in my vocabulary,’ she adds, ‘it’s one of those undefined words that’s very real. All of the balls have been magic and I think that’s because there’s love there as opposed to something corporate. It comes from the heart and that’s important, I couldn’t do it any other way.’

(This feature was originally published in 2015)