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From Pagan Roots

Exploration of the Lineage of Scottish Sword Dancing and its Purpose within the Culture

Kathryn Mecham 12/13/2013

Kathryn Mecham Caroline Prohosky D 460 Dance History 12 Dec 2013 From Pagan Roots: Exploration of the Lineage of Scottish Sword Dancing and its Purpose within the Culture Thesis The Highland (Scottish) Sword Dance is a dance that I have always been intrigued by. Often times the legend behind the origin or purpose of this dance is blended with fact and there is no separation between reality and legend. My goal in writing this paper was to find a trail to follow that led me to the source of the Sword Dance that is competed and performed today. It would be near to impossible to cover the entirety of this research in this length of paper, notwithstanding the limitation of language barriers and text available to me at local libraries and online journals and articles. My hope is that I can find the fact, follow it, and then link the modern Sword to the legends of its origin using that fact. The Sword Dance of Today Highland competition dance consists of several regulated and technical dances. One of which is the Sword Dance most commonly danced to the Gillie Chalium tune. The Dance itself consists of closed and open pas de basques, leap high-cuts, and extensions. All of the aforementioned movements are intensive and require strength and endurance. The Sword Dance is often remarked by competitors or students to be the most trying on energy and cardiovascular

strength of the four main competition dances in the Highland sector, second only to the six-step Sean Triubhas. Each step of the Sword Dance is thirty-two counts and danced in a 2/4 meter. There are different variations of the Sword Dance, meaning that you can be asked to compete a 2 & 2, a 2 & 1 or 3 & 1. The first number refers to the amount of steps performed at the slow tempo, and which precede the last steps indicated by the second number done to a quick tempo; hence the term quick step in reference to the last step(s). The piper will typically play within a range of 104-116 for the slow steps, and 120-144 for the quick steps. On the last eight count of the last set of eight during the final slow step, the dancer will clap both hands together loudly in order to indicate a change in tempo to the piper. The competition Sword Dance of today is a solo dance that is meant to show strength, agility and endurance while still displaying impeccable technical skill. All of the dancers that I have spoken with at competitions and performances have told me either that they love the Sword, or they dread it. Where does this fear come from? The dance is done by dancing around the border of two broadsword blades or one blade and one scabbard of the same, depending on what is available. Initially the blades are sharp; the swords are generally actual swords, and overtime they become dull. It is possible that a large portion of the fear is in anticipation of possible mistakes while dancing over the swords. If the dancer kicks, trips on, bumps, taps, or lands on the sword in any way they are automatically disqualified from being able to place in that dance. For this reason it is important for the dancers to feel comfortable dancing over the broadswords and to know the Sword by heart, because any mistakes are impossible to hide during the solo Sword Dance.

Legends of the Solo Sword Dance There are three main legends that I have heard version of from my instructor, and again from her father who has been in charge of the Wasatch District Pipe Band in Bountiful. These three legends are associated with the modern Solo Sword Dance; in order to confirm that they existed and it went beyond my social circle I looked them up. These legends are in almost every book on the history of Highland Dancing, for this first one in particular I looked to S.O.H.D.A. (Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association) to see what was posted under their Highland Dancing History section. This article by Charlie Mill takes the legend of the Sword being a victory dance one step further. It dates it to about 1054 A.D., a battle between a Celtic Prince, Malcolm Canmore, and one of Macbeths chiefs. After Malcolm defeated the chief he took up both his own sword and the blade of the defeated. He then proceeded to dance over the exposed blades with energy and as a victory dance (Mills). This record is possibly the first recorded instance of the Sword Dance as the Gillie Chalium as a dance and not just as a tune. However, we do not know that this is fact. The most common legend that I have heard is also recorded by Charlie Mills as follows: It was also supposed to have been danced before a battle and, if the dancer completed the dance without touching the swords with his feet, the omens were auspicious! The other half that I have heard is that those who touched the blades were put in the front lines, because they were going to die anyway. How I imagine this legend taking place in my mind is a line-up of crossed broadswords and warriors surrounding those who were dancing, watching anxiously. The last legend that I have heard regarding todays Sword, is that for a period of time it was used as a means of military training and thus a demonstration of male strength. While this is

a more believable legend that may have indeed been fact; especially since all three legends refer to the Solo Sword as having connection to the military, Charlie Mills references it as fact in his history, saying, Until quite recently Highland Dancing was a key part of the physical training programmes for many of the Highland Regiments.[.] the Scots would daily participate in a sustained series of Reels, Flings, and Sword Dances [] a test of endurance for any man. Out of these three legends I would like to note that they all have to do with wartime and either a ritual or a practice for the male dancer. As I explore the tangible history of the Sword I hope to find that the legends held some truth in that the purpose or meaning of the dance was the same in reality as in the legend. Meaning that the Sword dance was ritual, training or victory oriented and regardless of which purpose of the aforementioned it would be classified as a pyrrhic dance. Types of Scottish Sword Dances We have several records of the Sword being mentioned or even the Gillie Chalium being danced. Today the only surviving remnant of the Gillie Chalium is presumed to be the tune. Lady Jane is said to have danced the Gillie Callum well in the Memoirs of a Highland Lady, Diary of Elizabeth Grant. This is however another problem represented, could the Lady Jane dance the Sword in a gown? It would be near to impossible to see the swords beneath all the layers of skirt, and so it is assumed that this account was in fact referring to a step instead of a dance (Thurston 58-59). This is a prime example of one of the problems that is run into with records, over time things change, what is today referred to as a two-step pas de basque in Highland Dancing was once referred to as a slipshod and lazy (Anderson). However, what historians have been able

to gather is that there are different types of the Sword dance that came before the Solo Sword that we know today. Below I will discuss two other Swords that I was able to find record of.

The Argyll Broadswords is a rare military dance performed by a group. Four swords are placed on the ground to create a large cross, presumably with each point touching in the center. One dancer stands at the hilt of each sword. This dance was apparently taught to William Maclennans dancers, one of which being a soldier. This soldier found the Argyll Broadswords a good method of training and so he taught it to his regiment in the late eighteen-hundreds. William Maclennan was supposed to have taken this older form of Sword and re-arranged it, setting it on his dancers (Thurston 68-69). How accurate his choreography is we dont know, but witnessing this dance is a rare event indeed. Another form of Sword that I was able to find preceding the Solo Sword of today is the Lochaber Broadswords. There isnt very much information that is for certain on this dance, although it seems to be said to be danced by either two dancers or eight. One theory on this is that the dance would involve eight dancers, two starting on the swords and the other dancers holding swords surrounding the two in the center. One letter accounts that there was a dance witnessed that may have been the Lochaber, where two dancers began in the middle surrounded by swordsman, dancing over swords. When one dancer became fatigued he replaced a swordsman in the circle until all eight of the dancers had gone. The last in the center was to represent a sacrificial victim with swords at his throat (Thurston 70-71). It is hard to say if this record was truly describing the Lochaber or if it was a pagan ritual or even the eightsome reel which is a country dance (Thurston 70-71). According to Milligan, the Swords like the Argyll and Lochaber were for two to four men and would begin with the dancers dancing the whole first segment holding the swords above their heads in a horizontal position before continuing the dance with the swords on the ground much like the Gillie Callum (Milligan 10). In truth the Lochaber is a dance that has died. Among the sources I have read there are variances in the

descriptions of the dance and what it looked like, except that it involved more than one dancer and the use of swords on the ground at some point during the dance. Todays Solo Sword seems to be a modern creation from about 1831 (Thurston 70-71). While the principles and basic idea may be similar to these ancient Argyll and Lochaber Swords, to my knowledge it cannot be directly linked to them except by commonality in the swords being placed on the ground in the shape of a crosseither crossing or meeting in the middleand the process of dancing around or over the blades. It is unfortunate that there are not better records of these dances and how they developed. Academic Theories on the Origin of the Scottish Sword Dances Currently the Sword is competed by woman and men alike, however, in the nineteenth century it was competed in the highland games, and only men participated. This is how it was viewed and considered a mens tradition. Beyond this the most concrete evidence that we have of when it first was created is also in the 1800s. The presence of the records indicates that the dance as it is performed today would have been created approximately around this time. Queen Victoria mentions the Sword several times in her journal. One of the instances in which it was mentioned was the seventh of September, 1842; where she refers to it as the Gillie Callum. As discussed earlier, the tune Gillie Callum (Gillie Chalium) is thought to date back to the eleventh century, and is presumably much older than the dance that is performed to the tune today (Thurston 62). The Sword dance of today is most probably a compilation of dances taken from the country and the mountain styles and refined by dancing masters into competition dances (Milligan 10). I personally believe that the Solo Sword that we know today existed in some form previous to the 1800s, but that it wasnt well recorded or the records have since been lost of the details.

Sword dances of Scotland in general are broken up into different categories: The hilt-andpoint, or crossed-swords, or pyrrhic dances. Hilt-and-point dances seems to have been made up of weaving and dancing mostly around the swords. Crossed-swords seemed to be dances similar to that of today in which the dancers nimbly danced over the blades and within the space made by the swords. Pyrrhic dances often included picking up the swords and imitating battles or fights (Thurston, Milligan). During the 1600s the Hilt-and-point sword dances were fairly popular. Another record that we have outside of Queen Victorias journal is that of an occurrence in which the Edinburgh municipality (even though it was outlawed) dared to organize a Sword dance and a Highland dance for Anne of Denmark in the year 1590 (Milligan 7). It appears that the Gillie Chalium during this time had not only 4 sections or steps, but instead had 8. This would have been an incredible test of endurance and technique (Milligan 9). In the year 1633 at Perth, there was recorded a Sword called An Baiteal performed before King Charles. This dance was written to include thirteen dancers and that the dance would be broken if but one dancer touched the swords. The dance would finish with the dancers picking up the swords and imitating a battle. While this sounds similar to the Gillie Chalium, it is actually a hilt-and-point dance (Thurston 60-61). While it is important to note that crossed-sword dances are not often the topic of Swords in records we do have, the hilt-and-point variants most likely had a hand in influencing other forms of sword dances. Most of the records of Swords being performed are then most likely hiltand-point in variety (Thurston 12). The hilt-and-point sword dances are loosely tied to Scandinavian or Viking rituals that were later incorporated into miracle plays. The Papastour Sword dance is one of these dances that is from the Shetland, which had a long history of Viking presence. If this is correct this would make sword dances of a Scandinavian origin a pagan

relic from rituals most likely concerned with the cycle of the seasons (Thurston 11). These Swords would have been pagan and not highly respected or understood by the Christians of the time. Viking Origin Due to language barriers and limited resources and time I was unable to delve as deeply as I wanted to into the Scandinavian pagan dances and any evidence that we might have of their sword dancing. However, it makes sense that the Vikings had an influence on the Scots previous to the time of the earliest record which was that of the Celtic Prince dancing over the swords after having slain one of Macbeths chiefs. There were several influences that could have carried the Scandinavian Sword to Scotland that I can piece together in my mind. First, that the Vikings both raided and settled in England and other parts of what is now the United Kingdom, during the Anglo-Saxon period of Englands history. If they didnt influence them directly, then it would have been easy to influence them through what is now England. A less plausible influence would be from Normandy, France when the Normans (who had Viking heritage) invaded England with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Unfortunately most of the sources of Viking religious practice available in English would be from the early-Christian perspective or in other words biased and often times misunderstood. What can be said is that weaponry played a large role in their society due to their habit of raiding and conquering other cultures. It is shown through archaeological evidence that Anglo-Saxon (Vikings in England) identity was closely tied to their societal identity or cultural identity. An example would be a burial found in Derbyshire adjacent to the Mercian royal shrine at Repton. This burial contained a member of the Viking Great Army and he was buried in his full war

gear (Oxford 55). I would like to continue my research on this topic and find more solid evidence and form new conclusions going forward.

Works Cited
Emmerson, George S. A Handbook of Traditional Scottish Dance. Ontario: Galt House Publications, 1995. Print. Flett, J. F. Traditional Dancing in Scotland. London: Routledge and Paul, 1964. Print. Milligan, Jean C. Dances of Scotland. 2nd ed. London: Parrish, 1953. Print. Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (S.O.B.H.D.). Highland Dancing: The Official Textbook of the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. 7th ed. Glasgow: Lindsay Publications, 2008. Print. Thurston, H. A. Scotland's Dances. Kitchener, Ont.: Teachers' Association (Canada), 1984. Print. D., Anderson. Universal Ballroom Guide. 1890. Print. Mills, Charlie. "Highland Dancing History." S.O.H.D.A., Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. < icle.htm>. The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology. Ed. Hamerow, Hinton, and Crawford. Oxford ;: New York, 2011. Print.