Preserving a Scottish tradition: the Ghillies Ball

Just recently I’ve been re-watching seasons one through four of Downton Abbey. Over ten years has passed between the beginning of the series to the recently aired season five and a lot of drama has happened. From deciding the fate of Downton in the hands of the heir to the feud between sister’s Mary and Edith, drama at Downton is always around the corner. I’d like Downton’s past fresh in my mind when I catch up to the latest season so I can remember who has done what misdeeds.


One of the latest episodes I finished was the Christmas special, (Season 3, episode 9) where the Crawleys visit relatives in Duneagle, Scotland. During their stay, viewers are introduced to Scottish traditions which differ from the Crawley’s lifestyle we usually see. For instance, in the Scottish home of the Crawley’s cousins, the Marquess of Flintshire, a bagpiper wakes up the family early in the morning and before meals he is seen parading in and out of the dining room.  Another tradition is the Ghillies Ball, held annually, and this special event is a dance held by the family where the staff and servants are invited to attend as well as dance. While I was watching the episode, I was curious to learn more about this ball and if it was still held today.

Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, had been visiting Scotland during their holidays since 1842. They grew to love Scotland so Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle in 1852. As a way to thank her staff and servants, Queen Victoria held a dance in September 1852 which became known as the Ghillies Ball. During this ball the servants are allowed to dance with the upper class. This is important because usually staff such as the cooks and maids don’t have everyday interactions with the family.

NPG P22(3); The Gillies Ball, 1868 by W. & D. DowneyThe word ghillie comes from a shoe that resembles a ballet shoe and is made from supple leather that forms to the foot for the purpose of dancing. In a similar fashion to men’s Scottish country-dancing, both men and women wear ghillies for Scottish Highland dancing. Irish women also wear this type of shoe, although the Irish men use reeling shoes to dance in. The Irish ghillies vary little from the Scottish made ones in style.

The term ghillie can also be used in other ways. A ghillie, or gillie, is another Scottish term for a boy who acts as an attendant during one of the many activities the upper class gentlemen like to partake in, like fishing, fly fishing, hunting, or deer stalking.

The ghillies ball, however, is still held annually ever since Queen Victoria started the tradition in 1852. There are some exceptions to when the dance is held, for example, when the voting for Scottish independence fell on the day of the ball last year. Queen Elizabeth II postponed the ball one day so estate managers of Balmoral Castle could vote.

Photo credit:
First photo of Downton Abbey men shooting in front of Duneagle Castle

Second photo of the Ghillies ball during Queen Victoria’s reign.

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