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Scottish sword dances

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Title: Scottish sword dances  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Scottish highland dance, Scottish folk music, Highland Fling, Puirt à beul, Reel (dance)
Collection: European Folk Dances, Mock Combat, Scottish Culture, Scottish Dances, War Dances
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Scottish sword dances

Beginner highland dancer competes in the third step of the 2/1 sword dance at a competition in Salado, Texas, USA. 2004

Performance of sword dances in the folklore of Scotland is recorded from as early as the 15th century.

Related customs are found in the Welsh and English Morris dance, in Austria, Germany, Flanders, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Romania.

  • In Gillie Callum or "Scottish sword dance" the dancer crosses two swords on the ground in an "X" shape, dances around and within the 4 quarters of it.
  • The Highland Fling involves a fast dance steps atop a targe
  • The Dirk dance involves either one or two dancers, each holding a single Dirk.[1][2]


  • History of the Scottish sword dance 1
  • Types of sword dance 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4

History of the Scottish sword dance

The earliest reference to these dances in Scotland is mentioned in the Scotichronicon, compiled in Scotland by Walter Bower in the 1440s. The passage regards Alexander III and his second marriage to the French lady Yolande de Dreux at Jedburgh in Roxburghshire on 14 October 1285.

At the head of this procession were the skilled musicians with many sorts of pipe music including the wailing music of bagpipes, and behind them others splendidly performing a war-dance with intricate weaving in and out. Bringing up the rear was a figure regarding whom it was difficult to decide whether it was a man or an apparition. It seemed to glide like a ghost rather than walk on feet. When it looked as if he would disappear from everyone's sight, the whole frenzied procession halted, the song died away, the music faded, and the dancing contingent froze suddenly and unexpectedly.

In 1573 Scottish mercenaries are said to have performed a Scottish Sword dance before the Swedish King, John III, at a banquet held in Stockholm Castle. The dance, "a natural feature of the festivities," was used as part of a plot to assassinate the King, where the conspirators were able to bare their weapons without arousing suspicion. Fortunately for the King, at the decisive moment the agreed signal was never given.

"Sword dance and Hieland Dances" were included at a reception for Anne of Denmark at Edinburgh in 1589 and a mixture of sword dance and acrobatics was performed before James VI in 1617 [3] and again for Charles I in 1633, by the Incorporation of Skinners and Glovers of Perth,

His Majesty’s chair being set upon the wall next to the Water of Tay whereupon was a floating stage of timber clad about with birks, upon the which for His Majesty’s welcome and entry thirteen of our brethren of this calling of Glovers with green caps, silver strings, red ribbons, white shoes and bells upon their legs, shearing rapiers in their hands and all other abulzements, danced our sword dance with many difficult knots and allapallajesse, five being under and five above upon their shoulders, three of them dancing through their feet and about them, drinking wine and breaking glasses. Which (God be praised) was acted and done without hurt or skaith to any.

Types of sword dance

A performer of the Scottish sword dance, the "Gillie Callum", in Inverness, c. 1900

Many of the Highland dances now lost were once performed with traditional weapons that included the Lochaber axe, the broadsword, a combination of targe and dirk, and the flail.

The old Skye dancing song, Bualidh mi u an sa chean (Buailidh mi thu anns a' cheann "I will break your head"), may indicate some form of weapon play to music, 'breaking the head' was the winning blow in cudgelling matches throughout Britain, "for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop."

A combative sword dance called the Highland Dirk Dance still exists and is often linked to the sword dance or dances called "Macinorsair" (Mac an Fhòrsair), the "Broad Sword Exercise" or the "Bruicheath" (Battle Dance). These dances are mentioned in a number of sources, and may have been performed in a variety of different forms, by two performers in a duelling form and as a solo routine.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Traditional Step-Dancing in Scotland, by J. F. & T. M. Flett
  3. ^ (New Statistical Account of Scotland Edinb. 1845 x, pp. 44-45)
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