Person Hugh Foss 129

Lived
1902 – 1971
Areas of activity
  • Deviser of dances
  • Publisher of dance descriptions
  • Composer of tunes

Hugh Rose Foss was born in Kobe, Japan, on 13 May 1902. One of five children of the Rt Revd Hugh Foss, Bishop of Osaka, he went to Hoylake and Marlborough College (a boarding school in Wiltshire that at the time catered for the sons of Church of England clergy) and in 1924 graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge with a degree in mathematics.

After university, Foss joined the “Government Code and Cipher School” – the precursor of today's GCHQ, the UK's equivalent to the NSA – as a cryptanalyst. During World War II he worked at Bletchley Park, distinguishing himself in various ways, including as the first person to break one day's worth of German Enigma traffic in November 1940 – the day in question was 8 May 1940, which cryptographers today refer to as “Foss's Day” (Foss had been working on early versions of the German cipher machine, which used to be commercially available, since the late 1920s). A fluent Japanese speaker since his childhood in Kobe, he not only broke the Japanese naval attaché cipher in 1934 (together with Oliver Strachey) but also headed the Japanese Naval Section of Bletchley Park from 1942 to 1945. Foss also worked with US Navy cryptographers on deciphering Japanese communications – to do so, he was sent to Washington, DC, towards the end of 1943, where his tall and thin stature, red hair and beard, combined with his predilection for wearing sandals, earned him the nickname “Lend-Lease Jesus”.

After the war, Foss stayed with GCHQ until he retired in 1953. He moved to Dalry, near Castle Douglas, in Scotland in 1955 and died at his home there on 23 December 1971.

Hugh Foss became interested in SCD in the mid-1930s and joined the Chelsea Reel Club in London. Even at Bletchley Park, he ran a SCD class and put on regular dances (including a full-dress affair on St Andrew's Night). Later in life he served as President and Committee Chairman of RSCDS London Branch and it was during this time and through his initiative that the London Branch newsletter, The Reel was founded; Hugh also served as its second editor. Being a mathematician by training, Foss excelled at devising new dances whose inventiveness and precision remain unchallenged to this day, but he also contributed greatly to the “theoretical” aspects of SCD, writing articles that expounded on various topics of interest. Many patterns that are taken for granted in modern dances, such as five-couple dances with couples 1 and 3 starting simultaneously, were pioneered by Foss. He was also the first to introduce the concept of “fugues”, patterned on the type of musical composition, to SCD.

Hugh Foss was a first-rate independent thinker, and it comes as no great surprise that his relationship to the leadership of the (R)SCDS was not always simple. He used to encourage research and experimentation (in issue 100 of The Reel, he reminisces that

At that time [1951], Scottish Country Dancing had no free press. Many words were spoken, but none written. The S.C.D.S. Bulletin gave only the official view and rarely dealt with research. “The Reel” was free to be controversial, […]

and he frequently exhorted dancers to “roll back the carpet” and try new things). It is perhaps telling that, in spite of Foss's devising over 150 dances, some of which became very popular indeed, it took the Society until 2007 to acknowledge his contribution to SCD by (re-)publishing three of his most well-known creations: Fugal Fergus, John McAlpin and Polharrow Burn, and later re-issuing his book Dances To Song Tunes.

The Bletchley Alphabet mentions Hugh Foss:

F is for Foss – six foot in his shoes
Seen in a kilt, but nir tartan troos
If on a Friday a stroll you will take
You'll find him dancing a reel by the lake.

Hugh Foss in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Hugh Foss in the Bletchley Park web site's “Roll of Honour”

Although Hugh’s interest in new Scottish dances became clear during his editorship of The Reel, the vast bulk of his own dances did not emerge in print until after he had retired in 1956 and moved to Dalry in Scotland. The one book of his dances that appeared before was the Angus Fitchet Album, published by J. S. Kerr around 1955, for which he was asked to fit dances to tunes composed by Angus Fitchet, then a well-known Scottish fiddler and bandleader. From that book, Hugh’s dance J. B. Milne has remained popular to the present day. But although that book must have proved popular – it was re-issued twice – it was clear that music publishers were not comfortable with the artwork challenges of complicated Scottish dance diagrams. So starting about 1963, Hugh began producing his own books and leaflets. He also produced sheets and leaflets featuring dances by other devisors, gave advice on publication, and published at least one album solely of music, Ashley Album with tunes by Nan Main.

Apart from publishing many dance instructions, Hugh also wrote books about SCD and its history, for example Notes on Evolution in Scottish Country Dancing. He also wrote many articles for The Reel which were later gathered into leaflets called Roll Back the Carpet and We Agree to Differ.

Given Hugh Foss’s close association with The Reel, many articles in it over the years have been connected with him, his role in RSCDS London Branch and his dances. Two recent articles by Adrian Conrad in issue 302 and issue 303 focus on Hugh’s legacy to SCD, and at the end of the second article is an index to other earlier ones, notably the fine biography of Hugh in issue 200 by its editor Andrew Kellett.

NameTypeShapePublication
HiddenNamePublisherYearDancesTunes
Angus Fitchet Scottish Dance Album Angus Fitchet Scottish Dance Album Hugh Foss 1954
Ballochmyle Set, The The Ballochmyle Set Hugh Foss 0
Belhaven: Demonstration dance for four couples Belhaven: Demonstration dance for four couples Hugh Foss 1963
Captain Whiteside Set, The The Captain Whiteside Set Hugh Foss 0
Castledeen Album of Nine Scottish Country Dances Castledeen Album of Nine Scottish Country Dances Hugh Foss 1965
Celtic Brooch, The The Celtic Brooch Hugh Foss 1964
Dances To Song Tunes Dances To Song Tunes Hugh Foss 1966
Galloway Album Galloway Album Hugh Foss 1964
Galloway Hills Set, The The Galloway Hills Set Hugh Foss 0
Glendarroch Scottish Dance Sheets Glendarroch Scottish Dance Sheets Hugh Foss 0
Greenwich Hill Set, The The Greenwich Hill Set Hugh Foss 0
Ian Powrie's Farewell to Scotland Ian Powrie's Farewell to Scotland Hugh Foss 0
Kendoon Set of Dances, The The Kendoon Set of Dances Hugh Foss 1960
Mantua-Makers Set, The The Mantua-Makers Set Hugh Foss 1968
Roll Back the Carpet - We Agree to Differ Roll Back the Carpet - We Agree to Differ Hugh Foss 0
Rose Collection of Scottish Dances Rose Collection of Scottish Dances Hugh Foss 1979
Schiehallion Schiehallion Hugh Foss 1971
Two Scottish Country Dances: Miss Jean Raeburn + Wheatly Hills Two Scottish Country Dances: Miss Jean Raeburn + Wheatly Hills Hugh Foss 1968
Wagstaff Set, The The Wagstaff Set Hugh Foss 1969
Waverley Fugues Waverley Fugues Hugh Foss 1963
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