Keeping in step at the ghillies' ball

7th July 2000 at 01:00
AS the Queen Mother approaches her 100th birthday, she has not yet taken part in the TESS Friday feature, "My Best Teacher". But perhaps her well-known love of Highland dancing, practised at least into her nineties, gives a clue as to whom she might nominate. This week there has been revealed a photograph of her at seven, with her younger brother, being taught traditional steps by a white-bearded "Dancie" Neill.

Not that the venerable dancing master turned up at Glamis primary to follow the relevant section of the 5-14 expressive arts guidelines. The then Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was privately educated and thus privately schooled in the art that she was to demonstrate for decades at the Balmoral ghillies' ball. "Dancie" Neill on the other hand did not limit his clientele: a former owherd, he would play the fiddle at village functions as happily as in the grand houses. Indeed, by taking the folk arts to the aristocracy he was practising social inclusion in a way opposite to what is usually meant today.

The story has become public because Neill's great-grandson took mementoes, including the photograph, to a recording of the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. The Neill family has not cashed in on its royal cache. That was not the way of those who worked in big houses. As a recent television programme showed, it was Crawfie, governess to the Queen Mother's daughters, who, perhaps unwittingly, broke the convention. Now we have the ridiculous spectacle of the Prime Minister's office rebuking primary pupils who sent their snap of the infant Leo to the local paper.

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