Betty Jessiman

Highland dance champion

18 March  1921 - 16 February 2012

Betty Jessiman took on the traditionally male world of competitive Highland dancing and won – in spectacular fashion. She refused to be bound by the archaic system barring women from taking part alongside men and boys and her determination paved the way for generations of women to compete for trophies at Highland games across the land. It also saw her become a world champion, beating the men at their own game time after time, ultimately being crowned champion of champions.

Born in Huntly, the daughter of baker Edward Jessiman, she began dancing when she was four. Initially taught at home by her mother Helen, she later attended classes in Huntly with her sisters Gertie, Tibby and Margaret, and also took lessons in Aberdeen. The four girls, known as The Jessiman Sisters, danced with the local harmonium band all over north-east Scotland.

After leaving the Gordon Schools, Huntly, she worked as a secretary for local solicitors Murdoch, MacMath and Mitchell before joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) at 18 with Tibby.

During the war they both served as secretaries to officers and were stationed in Dunfermline, Shetland and Orkney. They also entertained the troops, dancing with various concert parties, and were both made honorary members of the Entertainments National Service Association. Her last posting was to Edinburgh Castle.

After leaving the ATS in 1947 she trained as a ballet and tap teacher at Madam Ada's dance school in Edinburgh. She was already a qualified Highland dance teacher and returned home at the weekends to take classes in Huntly and the surrounding area.

At this time, despite the efforts of one woman named Jenny Douglas, who had managed to dance alongside men in the 19th century, women were generally banned from competing at many games. However, all that changed after a poster for the Nairn Highland Games failed to state the dancing competition was "males only".

When Miss Jessiman noticed the omission she entered the contest, prompting the convening of a special committee to decide whether she could take part. Having forced the issue, she got her way, becoming the first woman to compete at Nairn.

She also became the first female to compete wearing the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) outfit, and went on to take part in the World Highland Dance championships at the Cowal Gathering.

She competed there for a decade, clinching the world champion title in 1961 at the age of 40. She also performed at the Palace of Holyrood House that year and was presented to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Named champion of champions in 1962, having beaten 15 other world-class dancers, she also took the open British title three times during her career.

Miss Jessiman who, in her dancing heyday had numerous strathspeys and a jig composed for her, toured Canada and the United States as a judge and lecturer, was also an examiner for the UK Alliance of Teachers of Dance and its longest-serving member, as well as an SOBHD judge.

She set up her dancing school in Huntly in 1951 and after her marriage it was based in a studio next door to their house.

Widowed in 2002, she is survived by her daughter Patricia-Ann and grandchildren Gordon, Laura, Fraser and Andrew, who are all dancers.

To make your own nomination download the nomination form here