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Obituary: Betty Jessiman, Highland dancer who was more than a match for the boys in a traditionally male world

Born: 18 March, 1921, in Huntly. Died: 16 February, 2012 in Huntly, aged 90.

Betty Jessiman was a feisty young woman who defied conventional wisdom that the world of competitive Highland dancing was a male preserve.

Traditionally, the energy-sapping dances, such as the Highland Fling and sword dance, were performed only by men and boys, often as a way of keeping Scots soldiers fit for battle.

But when the talented Huntly-born dancer saw an opportunity to challenge the age-old practice of barring women from dancing contests, she ultimately proved herself more than a match for the men, gaining not only her rightful place in the competitions but going on to become a global champion.

As one of the trailblazers of her age, she encouraged countless others to follow in her footsteps and taught generations of youngsters through her own dance school, which celebrated its diamond jubilee last year.

The daughter of Huntly baker Edward Jessiman and his wife Helen, she was also the niece of award-winning Highland dancer William Fraser, whose 1901 medal from the Glenlivet Highland Games is still in her family.

First taught to dance at home by her mother when she was about four years old, she went to a Miss Guthrie of Huntly’s classes, aged nine, along with her three sisters Gertie, Tibby and Margaret. The four girls were known as The Jessiman Sisters and danced with the local harmonium band all over the north-east of Scotland. They performed tap and show dances as well as creating their own dances.

Educated at the local St Margaret’s Catholic School and then the Gordon Schools, in Huntly, Miss Jessiman also took dance lessons in Aberdeen. A bright pupil, and a keen maths and English student, she left school in her mid teens to become a secretary at the town’s Murdoch MacMath and Mitchell firm of solicitors.

By the time she was 18, the Second World War had broken out and she and her sister Tibby joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). She was stationed in Dunfermline before being posted to Shetland and then Orkney. The sisters both served as secretaries to the officers who used to turn a blind eye to their antics when they ignored the curfew to sneak out to local dances.

Part of the reason for their indulgence may well have been the fact that both young women were accomplished ballroom dancers. They also entertained the troops, dancing with various concert parties, and the fun-loving pair were both made honorary members of ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association. Despite her curfew breaking, she was also awarded a certificate of good service when she left the army in 1947, her final posting having been Edinburgh Castle.

After the war, Miss Jessiman began to pursue dancing more seriously as a career and studied at Madam Ada’s dance school in Edinburgh, where she trained to teach ballet and tap. Having already qualified as a Highland dance teacher, she would return home at the weekends to take classes in Huntly and Keith.

It was during this period that she made a stand against the all-male competitions. Although a predecessor, Jenny Douglas, had made a breakthrough in the late 19th century and been permitted to dance alongside men, the move was still not generally accepted and women were barred from many games. When Miss Jessiman spotted a poster for the Nairn Highland Games, which omitted to state the dancing competition was “males only”, she seized her chance and posted in her entry. A special committee was convened to consider her application and it was decided to let her take part. She became the first woman to compete at Nairn. When women initially competed with the men they had to wear the same outfit, including bonnets, feathers plaids and huge sporrans – “everything but the kitchen sink,” she used to say. Later she became the first female to compete in the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) outfit of kilt, hose and lighter jacket.

After her victory at Nairn, she competed in the World Highland Dance championships at the Cowal Gathering for a decade from 1951, always taking the runner up or third place until 1961 when she became world champion at the age of 40. In July that year, she performed at the Palace of Holyrood House and was presented to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Miss Jessiman, who set up her own dancing school in Huntly in 1951 and was also three times open British champion, went on the beat 15 other dancers at the peak of their game by becoming Champion of Champions in 1962. It was, she said, her greatest achievement.

That same year she married local stonemason, Fred McKay, whom she had known through the church for years. They married on a Monday and went off round the Highland games circuit on honeymoon with Betty competing in numerous contests for the rest of the week.

Throughout her long career she competed at countless games, including the Lonach Gathering but her favourite was Morar. She was disappointed never to dance at the Braemar Gathering, which remained out of bounds then, however she did witness a little of her heritage on stage there when her granddaughter competed wearing her grandmother’s kilt.

She also toured Canada and the US as a judge as well as giving lectures. It started as a four to six-week tour and stretched to ten weeks as additional dates were added. In addition, she was an examiner for and the longest-serving member of the UK Alliance of Teacher of Dance and a judge for the SOBHD.

Hugely respected, she was a strict teacher when it came to technique but she also had a great sense of humour and wanted her students, many of whom became champions, to enjoy their dancing. She also had the honour of having numerous strathspeys and a jig composed for her by admiring pipers.

Last year, she was delighted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her school, which is now run by her daughter. Her dancing legacy also endures in her grandchildren: Gordon, a former Scottish Ballet senior associate now studying contemporary dance; Laura, a cruise ship dance captain and twins Fraser and Andrew, who are both dancers.

Widowed in 2002, she is survived by her daughter Patricia-Ann and four grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW

 
 
 

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