Inspirational women - Jean Milligan

Jean Milligan and family


Today, Friday 9th July 2021, marks 135 years since Jean Milligan entered this world. A key figure in the world of Scottish country dance, she was best known for co-founding The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, along with Ysobel Stewart. To celebrate this date, we have collected together a few lesser-known facts about this remarkable woman!

  • Jean Milligan did not start school until she was 9 years old. She was not a strong child due to the effects of rheumatic fever and was not considered fit enough to manage the walk to and from school. Her mother Isabella Milligan, who was a trained teacher, taught Jean at home until she started to attend Garnethill School (later Glasgow High School for Girls) where her father James Milligan was headmaster. In recognition of his contribution to Scottish Education he was given the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws in 1901, an achievement repeated by his daughter 77 years later when Aberdeen University awarded her the same honour.

  • Jean Milligan often said that the person who made the deepest impression upon her life was Madame Martina Bergman-Österberg, the principal of Kingsfield College, Dartford where Jean Milligan trained as a teacher. When she left the college Madame Österberg gave Milligan a cat as a parting gift. Jean Milligan called her cat Kingsfield (Kinky) after the name of the college. She had Kinky for many years, and he travelled everywhere with her in a specially designed hamper.

  • Jean Milligan's introduction to Scottish country dancing was from her mother, who was an accomplished dancer. It was from her that Jean Milligan learned the Foursome Reel, and was also given a description of the Allemande formation (when researching dances for the then Scottish Country Dance Society). Her mother’s early encouragement to dance resulted in her becoming closely associated with the Beltane Society, which aimed to preserve a knowledge of folk songs, dances, singing games and national customs and curiosities. In a report on the first festival of the Beltane Society held in the Athenaeum in Glasgow in 1910, the Glasgow Herald commented that “the Misses Florence Clark and Jean Milligan gave an admirable representation of Morris Dancing”.

  • During her early years at Dundas Training College and with the Beltane Society, Jean Milligan was a prolific choreographer and composed costumed miniature ballets and dance displays, often illustrating themes from nature such as “The Seasons”. She not only devised the dances but also performed in them. In a programme from 1914, she and her partner Florence Clark performed a Gypsy Dance, once with Castanets and repeated using Tambourines.

  • In 1916 Jean Milligan served as a member of the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) in the military hospital in Valletta, Malta. She was assigned to a ward composed entirely of soldiers injured in the Salonica campaign. She recalled later of initially breaking down at the sight of the appalling injuries and suffering, but she went to add that she soon regained her composure and began to put to good use her training in medical gymnastics and massage, first learned at Dartford. She told of one young soldier who had lost part of each foot due to frostbite and had resigned himself to termination. She managed with much coaxing to restore this young man’s confidence and to enable him to walk again.

  • Apart from providing a stimulus to engage in dancing, Jean Milligan’s mother passed on her kitchen and culinary skills to her daughter which endured for all her life. A  maid in the Milligan household prior to the First World War, recalled that she learned a great deal about cooking from Jean Milligan.

  • Jean Milligan was also skilled in knitting and crochet work and the best examples of her handiwork were knitted shawls. These shawls were often given away as gifts, and were much prized by the recipients. We are lucky to have two examples of these in The RSCDS Archive.

  • Jean Milligan lived in Saltoun Street, in the west end of Glasgow. In 1993 artist Avril Paton painted a picture called “Windows in the West” which featured the tenement in which Jean Milligan lived. A few years ago, the Glasgow Herald in one of its weekend magazine sections featured an article about life in the tenement in Saltoun Street in Glasgow. One of the residents describes a event during an air raid in 1940.  He mentions that during the raid Jean Milligan appeared at the entrance to the air-raid shelter wearing a dressing gown and an iron cooking pot on her head!

Many thanks to our volunteer Archivist Alan MacPherson for providing this information.



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