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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Gille Calum


Gille Calum

THIS dance so popular in the Highlands is more properly the Sword Dance, a performance which requires great agility and admits of considerable grace in its execution.

Dancing is one of those beautiful exercises and agreeable amusements in which all nations indulge. The savage, with whom it is either a matter of enjoyment, a defiance to the foe, or incentive to fight, enters into the wonted evolutions with the same spirit, and threads its maddening mazes, with as much punctilio, as the accomplished performer of the grave minuet and the more exhilarating waltz.

It is deemed by many of the more austere to be unbecoming the composure and good sense of civilized mankind, if not morally reprehensible, to engage in dancing; but we have the example of no less a personage than Socrates, who in his advanced life addicted himself to the practice, and to one who, having found him so engaged, expressed surprise at the philosopher’s levity, he answered, that, were his friend to know how much pleasure and advantage in point of health were derived from the pastime, he also would learn the art.

Dancing was a part of religious worship among ancient nations, and it is introduced in the ceremonials of some modern people. We find King David dancing with joy and gladness before the ark of the Lord. On the escape of the Israelites from Pharaoh, Miriam, the sister of Aaron, went out, followed by all the women chaunting with timbrels and with Dances, a solemn song of praise for their deliverance, and the daughters of Shiloh danced in an yearly feast of the Lord.

With the Greeks and Romans it was a principal part of worship, and the Welsh were accustomed to form a dance in the churchyard on the conclusion of service.

There is, perhaps, no people who take more delight in dancing than the Gaël, both of Scotland and Ireland. It is indicative of a strong musical genius and buoyancy of spirits, for they will resort to it as a recreation after the hard labours of the day. The figures and steps are admirably adapted to the national music; the Jigs of the one, and the Reels and Strathspeys of the other being well known characteristics of the two countries.

The effect of Scottish dancing is very much heightened by the picturesque costume, as well as the manner of using the arms by the men, and knacking the finger and thumb, with an occasional shout of exhilaration in unison with the notes, which we think peculiar to Scotland. The steps and passes are varied, and in many cases elegant, generally requiring great agility to be well performed.

In variety, they are a contrast to those of Ireland. George IV. on witnessing some of the reeling, at the Ball given in the palace of Holyrood, 1822, repeatedly expressed his applause by clapping his hands; and our excellent Queen orders the native dances to be gone through, not only in her visits to the Highlands, but at all Court Balls.

Military dances have been in practice among most nations of antiquity, and are found with those who still retain their primitive manners. The Indians exhibit with fervent enthusiasm that striking scene in savage life, the wild war dance, and the Greeks, so highly refined, joyed in the Pyrrhic, in which the actors clashed their swords and bucklers in imitation of a combat.

The Gauls and their descendants, the Caledonians, doubtless, had similar warlike excitements. The Highlanders have the Dirk Dance now almost forgotten, and the Sword Dance, known all over the country, as ‘Gille Calum,’ from the name of the tune by which the movements of the performer are regulated, but it has no relation to the performance itself, being simply the name of a man, about whom some unimportant verses are repeated.

The air played to the dancer does not appear to have been uniformly the same, different districts having had particular compositions; in Perthshire, the tune was called ‘Mac an Rosaich,’ being of that grave description called ‘Port.’ Its original name, it would appear, was ‘Mac an’ orsair,’ which, with the mode of dancing, General Stewart of Garth tells us, has disappeared; but he had seen it executed by some old men.

As now performed, two naked swords are laid across each other on the floor, and the person who dances, moves nimbly around them, dextrously placing his feet by a peculiar step in the intervals between the blades, at first by a single step, but as he proceeds the movement becomes rapid and complicated, exciting a dread in spectators lest he may wound his ancles. The object is to avoid the blades, as the dance is broken should either be touched ever so slightly.

This is the Sword Dance as now performed, which does little more than shew, like those of several other nations, its martial origin. As danced by old men, according to descriptions I have received, it was more in character, for in the course of the dance they took up the swords and made certain flourishes as if engaged in fighting or defying an enemy.

It was also appropriately called ‘ an Baiteal,’ or the Battle Dance, and was performed by thirteen persons at Perth in 1633, before King Charles. In Rolt’s life of the Earl of Crauford, Colonel of the 42nd Highlanders in 1739, we are told, that "he performed in a noble way the Highland dance habited in that dress, and flourished a naked broad sword, similar to the Pyrrhic dance. He performed before the King and full court, also before a grand assembly at Cormorra, in Hungary, in the costume of that country."

‘Gille Calum’ has not certainly been improved by the loss of this variation, which would give so much effect and character to an interesting relic of the ancient Gaelic manners.

The figure in the illustration dances to the music of the Jew’s-harp, a simple instrument which the Highlanders play with great effect, and for excellence in which prizes were formerly bestowed. An old man whistles as an accompaniment.


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