The annotated Foula Reel

One of the most popular dances, a classic you are likely to meet at every festival. It has a gallop, a strip the willow and a sort of shunting back and forth to get from one end of the set to the other.

Longways sets of four couples... So you need a partner and you join up with 3 other couples. Men on one side, ladies on the other. It's good to make sure that you know where your set 'starts' and 'stops' (and, once you've got four couples, make sure any further couples don't attach themselves to 'your' set).

A1: Top couple dance to the bottom of the set

  • It can be a measured lead down or a mad gallop (way past the end of the set and then back up into place), you just have to be at the bottom of the set 'poised' ready for the Strip the Willow.

It may look a bit different north of the border, the version in the Scottish Country Dance Book, (Book 4, 1927) has the first couple dance down and back and Strip the Willow from the top and fit in a quick cast to get the first couple back up to the top.

A2: Strip the Willow back to the top

  • You are both doing the Strip The Willow, with the mantra, Right arm to your partner, Left up along the line. If you have danced Stoke Golding or the 'Double Reel' in Drops of Brandy, you know the business...
  • As the result of a strange construct of geometry, the men will find they have more time when Stripping the Willow in the Foula Reel than in Stoke Golding. This is because the working couple are stripping up the set.

B1: Arch down over the men, arch back up over the ladies

  • Back at the top, the working couple make an arch....

There's an easy way and a difficult way of doing this. The difficult way is swing your partner when you get back to the top, untangle yourselves, make an arch and get the lady from the inside to the outside of the set. The easy way is that the lady carries on with her left arm turn with the last man until she is facing down the outside of the set and launches herself down behind the line of men. Her partner just has to stay out the way, make it clear and obvious that the lady needs to make the most of the left hand turn and join in with the arch when she's heading down the set.

  • ...carry it down over the mens' heads, then back over the womens' heads

B2: Poussette with first man pushing...

All take two hands with partner. The top couple wants to get to the bottom of the set and do it with a sort of shuffle forward and back....

The common way it is described is by telling the top man what to do...

  • The first man gently pushes his partner, while the other men gently pull theirs. This means there's one couple shunting one way across the room and all the others shunting the other way...
  • Two steps and reverse direction. The first man takes a step sides ways down the set and pulls his partner. If all is working well, he'll reverse into a gap ..
  • Reverse direction again, and the first man pushes, the others pull...
  • Reverse direction the last time, and the first man pulls and gets back into line at the bottom of the set

Something a messy move; it's likely that people forget whether they should be pushing or pulling, there's a strange reluctance to crash into each other and people often get out of time and the first couple cut and run for the bottom when they realise they are running out of music.

It can however help if the set, and that is the three couples in the set that are not the top couple, show some grit and determination. They are the ones that are going to be going back and forth together and they are not going to be distracted, the top couple is just going to have to get used to the idea and do the weaving...

More information: Origins...

A Shetlands dance, supposedly from the Swedish Väva Vadmal, or the 'Norwegian Country Dance' (The fiddler's companion, quoting Traditional Dancing in Scotland, Flett and Flett, 1964).

Väva Vadmal in the Swedish Wikipedia

Youtube shows quite a number of local variations of Väva Vadmal, which include moves which are quite recognisable - there are dip and dives, forms of strip the willow and thread the needle, arching down over the women and up over the men, and poussettes (variously in the Väva Vadmal från Väckelsång, Rönnenberga, Jät)

The dance was published in the Scottish Country Dance Book Book 4, in 1927, Foula Reel in Scottish Country Dance Book 4, (1927) and in the EFDSS's Community Dances Manual No. 7 in 1967

The Edge of the World

There's a reference in the Foula Heritage site about

... an old lady of 84 who tells me she was paid sixpence an hour as an extra at the cliff scene, and to dance the Foula Reel
for Michael Powell's 1936 film, the Edge of the World (on the WayBack Machine).


The version typically danced in English Ceilidhs is fairly standardised, although there are a number of similar dances based round a Strip the Willow (such as the Stoke Golding Country Dance).

There are a number of variations in the Scottish descriptions, the Scottish Country Dance Book (Strathspey description) being one, and a second which drops the gallop down and double Strip the Willow back, replacing them with a single Strip down and back, a bit reminiscent of the Drops of Brandy


Traditionally danced to the Shaalds of Foula, but there are many options, YouTube has Chalktown playing Another Cup of Tea

See also...