Pete Stewart introduces a newly-uncovered description of the dance that casts a dramatic new light on the traditions attached to it.

As a response to my comments on Gille Callum, the tune and the dance, the indefatigable Keith Sanger sent me the following item from the papers of the family of Stirling Home Drummond Murray of Abercairney, now in the National Archive.1 The original is attached to a letter addressed to James Moray Esq., dated Crieff, 22 April 1824.
“Extracted from the Sterling Journal of date 8th Feb 1824
“Traditional account of the origin of the Scottish Sword Dance
“The origin of the Scottish Sword Dance according to the legends of many parts of the Highlands, is ascribed to the following whimsical circumstances and well worthy of being recorded ere it sink into oblivion, which has been, and is daily, the fate of much that is curious and interesting to the admirers of highland legendary lore. During the reign of Malcom Canmore, a marauding party of the McDonald Clan entered Strathearn for the purpose of retribution for some pretended insult their Clan had received from some Strathearn propritors [sic]. They commenced their depredations according to tradition on the North side of the river Earn, by driving away horses, cattle sheep and everything of value they could lay hands on. At this time King Malcom recided [sic] at Kingcardine Castle, about a mile distant from Aughterarder. The Sovereign was so offended at the temerity of the McDonalds in coming so near his place of residence that he called out his Strathearn vassals and joining them with such of his guards and servants that were at hand, he marched to give them battle, but the McDonalds having learned the force in pursuit of them, by means of their spyes, hastily betook themselves to their inaccessible fastness of the mountains – still bearing with them the booty they had collected, and made no halt till they had crossed the river Tay at Aberfeldie. The Kings Army being unable to take the ford, encamped on the side of the river,exactly opposite to the McDonalds. The marauders holding in contempt the inactivity of the kings forces, sent two of their clansmen to the brink of the river, the one to personate King Malcom and the other, the chief of the McDonalds. These having taken their proper distance, commenced a feight [sic] with their broadswords (which it may be remarked is allways a prelude to the Sword Dance) After a long struggle, in which the attack and defence by the highland broadsword is fully shown, the clansman who personated the King falls and his oponant immediately takes possession of his sword and lays his own and it across each other. A piper plays “Gille Callum da phedhin, Gille Callum boun=se.” The Clansman who personated the Chieftain, after dancing Malcom of Rosse (one of the King’s titles) over the swords then dances around the supposed dead King touching his hands and feet alternatively with the point of his brogue and upon any of them being touched, they become tremolous, and continues so till the body is touched, when his majesty puts his hands to his eyes and forces them open. The piper ceases playing. Mcdonald is surprised to see the King become alive and the King to see McDonald dancing round him. McDonald offers the King his hand at the same time raising him up. McDonald then takes both swords and makes offer of either to his Majesty in case he is inclined to [renter ?] the combat. His majesty accepts of his own sword, gives McDonald the highland Salute and returns his sword to his scabbard. McDonald follows the example and both shake hands as a token of friendship and conclude the Sword Dance by a twosome jig, the piper playing merry national Airs.
- From a Correspondent.”

The NLS does not hold a copy of this issue of the Stirling Journal in which this was first published, but the accompanying letter describes it as being in a ‘dirty state’, hence his making a copy. Quite apart from the extraordinary story it tells, this is, as far as we can tell, the first written description of the dance. Its history had clearly been obscured by 1832, when it was danced at the Highland Society’s piping competition;2 the chairman then saying that it had not been seen in the city since the visit of Charles I in 1633, on which occasion it was danced by eleven brothers from Perth. We now know, of course, that the Perth dance that entertained that monarch was a very different dance indeed. It is also clear that those earlier mentions of ‘sword’ dances often cited in relation to the Gillie Callum are of a similar nature, what in England are referred to as ‘Longsword’ dances. Readers who have experience of these dances will immediately have recognised the significance of the ‘death and resurrection’ described in this article, otherwise unmentioned in  descriptions of Gillie Callum. As our correspondent feared, by 1832 it had indeed sunk into oblivion.
This is not the place to enter into an extended discussion on the implications of this story.  It is enough for now to have rescued the tradition from oblivion.
1. NAS02024 GD24-1-425-00003
2. Caledonian Mercury, 25 July, 1832. Much the same was repeated at the 1835 competition
3. New Statistical Account of Scotland Edinb. 1845 x, pp. 44-45