A torch for me — let wantons, light of heart,
Tickle the useless rushes with their heels:
For I am proverb’d with a grandsire phrase —
I’ll be a candle-holder, and look on.
Romeo and Juliet.
The youth, says the moralist Johnson, cares not for the boy’s hobbyhorse, nor the man for the youth’s mistress; and therefore the distress of Mordaunt Mertoun, when excluded from the merry dance, may seem trifling to many of my readers, who would, nevertheless, think they did well to be angry if deposed from their usual place in an assembly of a different kind. There lacked not amusement, however, for those whom the dance did not suit, or who were not happy enough to find partners to their liking. Halcro, now completely in his element, had assembled round him an audience, to whom he was declaiming his poetry with all the enthusiasm of glorious John himself, and receiving in return the usual degree of applause allowed to minstrels who recite their own rhymes — so long at least as the author is within hearing of the criticism. Halcro’s poetry might indeed have interested the antiquary as well as the admirer of the Muses, for several of his pieces were translations or imitations from the Scaldic sagas, which continued to be sung by the fishermen of those islands even until a very late period; insomuch, that when Gray’s poems first found their way to Orkney, the old people recognised at once, in the ode of the “Fatal Sisters,” the Runic rhymes which had amused or terrified their infancy under the title of the “Magicians,” and which the fishers of North Ronaldshaw, and other remote isles, used still to sing when asked for a Norse ditty.41
Half listening, half lost in his own reflections, Mordaunt Mertoun stood near the door of the apartment, and in the outer ring of the little circle formed around old Halcro, while the bard chanted to a low, wild, monotonous air, varied only by the efforts of the singer to give interest and emphasis to particular passages, the following imitation of a Northern war-song:
The sun is rising dimly red,
The wind is wailing low and dread;
From his cliff the eagle sallies,
Leaves the wolf his darksome valleys;
In the midst the ravens hover,
Peep the wild-dogs from the cover,
Screaming, croaking, baying, yelling,
Each in his wild accents telling,
“Soon we feast on dead and dying,
Fair-hair’d Harold’s flag is flying.”
Many a crest in air is streaming,
Many a helmet darkly gleaming,
Many an arm the axe uprears,
Doom’d to hew the wood of spears.
All along the crowded ranks,
Horses neigh and armour clanks;
Chiefs are shouting, clarions ringing,
Louder still the bard is singing,
“Gather, footmen — gather, horsemen,
To the field, ye valiant Norsemen!
“Halt ye not for food or slumber,
View not vantage, count not number;
Jolly reapers, forward still;
Grow the crop on vale or hill,
Thick or scatter’d, stiff or lithe,
It shall down before the scythe.
Forward with your sickles bright,
Reap the harvest of the fight —
Onward, footmen — onward, horsemen,
To the charge, ye gallant Norsemen!
“Fatal Choosers of the Slaughter,
O’er you hovers Odin’s daughter;
Hear the voice she spreads before ye —
Victory, and wealth, and glory;
Or old Valhalla’s roaring hail,
Her ever-circling mead and ale,
Where for eternity unite
The joys of wassail and of fight.
Headlong forward, foot and horsemen,
Charge and fight, and die like Norsemen!”
“The poor unhappy blinded heathens!” said Triptolemus, with a sigh deep enough for a groan; “they speak of their eternal cups of ale, and I question if they kend how to manage a croft land of grain!”
“The cleverer fellows they, neighbour Yellowley,” answered the poet, “if they made ale without barley.”
“Barley! — alack-a-day!” replied the more accurate agriculturist, “who ever heard of barley in these parts? Bear, my dearest friend, bear is all they have, and wonderment it is to me that they ever see an awn of it. Ye scart the land with a bit thing ye ca’ a pleugh — ye might as weel give it a ritt with the teeth of a redding-kame. O, to see the sock, and the heel, and the sole-clout of a real steady Scottish pleugh, with a chield like a Samson between the stilts, laying a weight on them would keep down a mountain; twa stately owsen, and as many broad-breasted horse in the traces, going through soil and till, and leaving a fur in the ground would carry off water like a causeyed syver! They that have seen a sight like that, have seen something to crack about in another sort, than those unhappy auld-warld stories of war and slaughter, of which the land has seen even but too mickle, for a’ your singing and soughing awa in praise of such bloodthirsty doings, Master Claud Halcro.”
“It is a heresy,” said the animated little poet, bridling and drawing himself up, as if the whole defence of the Orcadian Archipelago rested on his single arm —“It is a heresy so much as to name one’s native country, if a man is not prepared when and how to defend himself — ay, and to annoy another. The time has been, that if we made not good ale and aquavitæ, we knew well enough where to find that which was ready made to our hand; but now the descendants of Sea-kings, and Champions, and Berserkars, are become as incapable of using their swords, as if they were so many women. Ye may praise them for a strong pull on an oar, or a sure foot on a skerry; but what else could glorious John himself say of ye, my good Hialtlanders, that any man would listen to?”
“Spoken like an angel, most noble poet,” said Cleveland, who, during an interval of the dance, stood near the party in which this conversation was held. “The old champions you talked to us about yesternight, were the men to make a harp ring — gallant fellows, that were friends to the sea, and enemies to all that sailed on it. Their ships, I suppose, were clumsy enough; but if it is true that they went upon the account as far as the Levant, I scarce believe that ever better fellows unloosed a topsail.”
“Ay,” replied Halcro, “there you spoke them right. In those days none could call their life and means of living their own, unless they dwelt twenty miles out of sight of the blue sea. Why, they had public prayers put up in every church in Europe, for deliverance from the ire of the Northmen. In France and England, ay, and in Scotland too, for as high as they hold their head now-a-days, there was not a bay or a haven, but it was freer to our forefathers than to the poor devils of natives; and now we cannot, forsooth, so much as grow our own barley without Scottish help”—(here he darted a sarcastic glance at the factor)—“I would I saw the time we were to measure arms with them again!”
“Spoken like a hero once more,” said Cleveland.
“Ah!” continued the little bard, “I would it were possible to see our barks, once the water-dragons of the world, swimming with the black raven standard waving at the topmast, and their decks glimmering with arms, instead of being heaped up with stockfish — winning with our fearless hands what the niggard soil denies — paying back all old scorn and modern injury — reaping where we never sowed, and felling what we never planted — living and laughing through the world, and smiling when we were summoned to quit it!”
So spoke Claud Halcro, in no serious, or at least most certainly in no sober mood, his brain (never the most stable) whizzing under the influence of fifty well-remembered sagas, besides five bumpers of usquebaugh and brandy; and Cleveland, between jest and earnest, clapped him on the shoulder, and again repeated, “Spoken like a hero!”
“Spoken like a fool, I think,” said Magnus Troil, whose attention had been also attracted by the vehemence of the little bard —“where would you cruize upon, or against whom? — we are all subjects of one realm, I trow, and I would have you to remember, that your voyage may bring up at Execution-dock. — I like not the Scots — no offence, Mr. Yellowley — that is, I would like them well enough if they would stay quiet in their own land, and leave us at peace with our own people, and manners, and fashions; and if they would but abide there till I went to harry them like a mad old Berserkar, I would leave them in peace till the day of judgment. With what the sea sends us, and the land lends us, as the proverb says, and a set of honest neighbourly folks to help us to consume it, so help me, Saint Magnus, as I think we are even but too happy!”
“I know what war is,” said an old man, “and I would as soon sail through Sumburgh-roost in a cockle-shell, or in a worse loom, as I would venture there again.”
“And, pray, what wars knew your valour?” said Halcro, who, though forbearing to contradict his landlord from a sense of respect, was not a whit inclined to abandon his argument to any meaner authority.
“I was pressed,” answered the old Triton, “to serve under Montrose, when he came here about the sixteen hundred and fifty-one, and carried a sort of us off, will ye nill ye, to get our throats cut in the wilds of Strathnavern42(k)— I shall never forget it — we had been hard put to it for victuals — what would I have given for a luncheon of Burgh-Westra beef — ay, or a mess of sour sillocks? — When our Highlandmen brought in a dainty drove of kyloes, much ceremony there was not, for we shot and felled, and flayed, and roasted, and broiled, as it came to every man’s hand; till, just as our beards were at the greasiest, we heard — God preserve us — a tramp of horse, then twa or three drapping shots — then came a full salvo — and then, when the officers were crying on us to stand, and maist of us looking which way we might run away, down they broke, horse and foot, with old John Urry, or Hurry,43 or whatever they called him — he hurried us that day, and worried us to boot — and we began to fall as thick as the stots that we were felling five minutes before.”
“And Montrose,” said the soft voice of the graceful Minna; “what became of Montrose, or how looked he?”
“Like a lion with the hunters before him,” answered the old gentleman; “but I looked not twice his way, for my own lay right over the hill.”
“And so you left him?” said Minna, in a tone of the deepest contempt.
“It was no fault of mine, Mistress Minna,” answered the old man, somewhat out of countenance; “but I was there with no choice of my own; and, besides, what good could I have done? — all the rest were running like sheep, and why should I have staid?”
“You might have died with him,” said Minna.
“And lived with him to all eternity, in immortal verse!” added Claud Halcro.
“I thank you, Mistress Minna,” replied the plain-dealing Zetlander; “and I thank you, my old friend Claud; — but I would rather drink both your healths in this good bicker of ale, like a living man as I am, than that you should be making songs in my honour, for having died forty or fifty years agone. But what signified it — run or fight, ’twas all one; — they took Montrose, poor fellow, for all his doughty deeds, and they took me that did no doughty deeds at all; and they hanged him, poor man, and as for me”——
“I trust in Heaven they flogged and pickled you,” said Cleveland, worn out of patience with the dull narrative of the peaceful Zetlander’s poltroonery, of which he seemed so wondrous little ashamed.
“Flog horses, and pickle beef,” said Magnus; “Why, you have not the vanity to think, that, with all your quarterdeck airs, you will make poor old neighbour Haagen ashamed that he was not killed some scores of years since? You have looked on death yourself, my doughty young friend, but it was with the eyes of a young man who wishes to be thought of; but we are a peaceful people — peaceful, that is, as long as any one should be peaceful, and that is till some one has the impudence to wrong us, or our neighbours; and then, perhaps, they may not find our northern blood much cooler in our veins than was that of the old Scandinavians that gave us our names and lineage. — Get ye along, get ye along to the sword-dance,44 that the strangers that are amongst us may see that our hands and our weapons are not altogether unacquainted even yet.”
The Sword Dance
A dozen cutlasses, selected hastily from an old arm-chest, and whose rusted hue bespoke how seldom they left the sheath, armed the same number of young Zetlanders, with whom mingled six maidens, led by Minna Troil; and the minstrelsy instantly commenced a tune appropriate to the ancient Norwegian war-dance, the evolutions of which are perhaps still practised in those remote islands.
The first movement was graceful and majestic, the youths holding their swords erect, and without much gesture; but the tune, and the corresponding motions of the dancers, became gradually more and more rapid — they clashed their swords together, in measured time, with a spirit which gave the exercise a dangerous appearance in the eye of the spectator, though the firmness, justice, and accuracy, with which the dancers kept time with the stroke of their weapons, did, in truth, ensure its safety. The most singular part of the exhibition was the courage exhibited by the female performers, who now, surrounded by the swordsmen, seemed like the Sabine maidens in the hands of their Roman lovers; now, moving under the arch of steel which the young men had formed, by crossing their weapons over the heads of their fair partners, resembled the band of Amazons when they first joined in the Pyrrhic dance with the followers of Theseus. But by far the most striking and appropriate figure was that of Minna Troil, whom Halcro had long since entitled the Queen of Swords, and who, indeed, moved amidst the swordsmen with an air, which seemed to hold all the drawn blades as the proper accompaniments of her person, and the implements of her pleasure. And when the mazes of the dance became more intricate, when the close and continuous clash of the weapons made some of her companions shrink, and show signs of fear, her cheek, her lip, and her eye, seemed rather to announce, that, at the moment when the weapons flashed fastest, and rung sharpest around her, she was most completely self-possessed, and in her own element. Last of all, when the music had ceased, and she remained for an instant upon the floor by herself, as the rule of the dance required, the swordsmen and maidens, who departed from around her, seemed the guards and the train of some princess, who, dismissed by her signal, were leaving her for a time to solitude. Her own look and attitude, wrapped, as she probably was, in some vision of the imagination, corresponded admirably with the ideal dignity which the spectators ascribed to her; but, almost immediately recollecting herself, she blushed, as if conscious she had been, though but for an instant, the object of undivided attention, and gave her hand gracefully to Cleveland, who, though he had not joined in the dance, assumed the duty of conducting her to her seat.
As they passed, Mordaunt Mertoun might observe that Cleveland whispered into Minna’s ear, and that her brief reply was accompanied with even more discomposure of countenance than she had manifested when encountering the gaze of the whole assembly. Mordaunt’s suspicions were strongly awakened by what he observed, for he knew Minna’s character well, and with what equanimity and indifference she was in the custom of receiving the usual compliments and gallantries with which her beauty and her situation rendered her sufficiently familiar.
“Can it be possible she really loves this stranger?” was the unpleasant thought that instantly shot across Mordaunt’s mind; —“And if she does, what is my interest in the matter?” was the second; and which was quickly followed by the reflection, that though he claimed no interest at any time but as a friend, and though that interest was now withdrawn, he was still, in consideration of their former intimacy, entitled both to be sorry and angry at her for throwing away her affections on one he judged unworthy of her. In this process of reasoning, it is probable that a little mortified vanity, or some indescribable shade of selfish regret, might be endeavouring to assume the disguise of disinterested generosity; but there is so much of base alloy in our very best (unassisted) thoughts, that it is melancholy work to criticise too closely the motives of our most worthy actions; at least we would recommend to every one to let those of his neighbours pass current, however narrowly he may examine the purity of his own.
The sword-dance was succeeded by various other specimens of the same exercise, and by songs, to which the singers lent their whole soul, while the audience were sure, as occasion offered, to unite in some favourite chorus. It is upon such occasions that music, though of a simple and even rude character, finds its natural empire over the generous bosom, and produces that strong excitement which cannot be attained by the most learned compositions of the first masters, which are caviare to the common ear, although, doubtless, they afford a delight, exquisite in its kind, to those whose natural capacity and education have enabled them to comprehend and relish those difficult and complicated combinations of harmony.
It was about midnight when a knocking at the door of the mansion, with the sound of the Gue and the Langspiel, announced, by their tinkling chime, the arrival of fresh revellers, to whom, according to the hospitable custom of the country, the apartments were instantly thrown open.
42 Montrose, in his last and ill-advised attempt to invade Scotland, augmented his small army of Danes and Scottish Royalists, by some bands of raw troops, hastily levied, or rather pressed into his service, in the Orkney and Zetland Isles, who, having little heart either to the cause or manner of service, behaved but indifferently when they came into action.
k p. 231. “The wilds of Strathnavern.” Montrose met his final defeat at Strathoykel, at a steep rounded hill, still called the Rock of Lament. His men were driven into the Kyle, which there is deep and wide. Montrose fled up the Oykel, into Assynt. The Naver flows due north, the Oykel from west to east. — A.L.
43 Here, as afterwards remarked in the text, the Zetlander’s memory deceived him grossly. Sir John Urry, a brave soldier of fortune, was at that time in Montrose’s army, and made prisoner along with him. He had changed so often that the mistake is pardonable. After the action, he was executed by the Covenanters; and
“Wind-changing Warwick then could change no more”
Strachan commanded the body by which Montrose was routed.
The Sword-Dance is celebrated in general terms by Olaus Magnus. He seems to have considered it as peculiar to the Norwegians, from whom it may have passed to the Orkneymen and Zetlanders, with other northern customs.
“Moreover, the northern Goths and Swedes had another sport to exercise youth withall, that they will dance and skip amongst naked swords and dangerous weapons. And this they do after the manner of masters of defence, as they are taught from their youth by skilful teachers, that dance before them, and sing to it. And this play is showed especially about Shrovetide, called in Italian Macchararum. For, before carnivals, all the youth dance for eight days together, holding their swords up, but within the scabbards, for three times turning about; and then they do it with their naked swords lifted up. After this, turning more moderately, taking the points and pummels one of the other, they change ranks, and place themselves in an triagonal figure, and this they call Rosam; and presently they dissolve it by drawing back their swords and lifting them up, that upon every one’s head there may be made a square Rosa, and then by a most nimbly whisking their swords about collaterally, they quickly leap back, and end the sport, which they guide with pipes or songs, or both together; first by a more heavy, then by a more vehement, and lastly, by a most vehement dancing. But this speculation is scarce to be understood but by those who look on, how comely and decent it is, when at one word, or one commanding, the whole armed multitude is directed to fall to fight, and clergymen may exercise themselves, and mingle themselves amongst others at this sport, because it is all guided by most wise reason.”
To the Primate’s account of the sword-dance, I am able to add the words sung or chanted, on occasion of this dance, as it is still performed in Papa Stour, a remote island of Zetland, where alone the custom keeps its ground. It is, it will be observed by antiquaries, a species of play or mystery, in which the Seven Champions of Christendom make their appearance, as in the interlude presented in “All’s Well that Ends Well.” This dramatic curiosity was most kindly procured for my use by Dr. Scott of Hazlar Hospital, son of my friend Mr. Scott of Mewbie, Zetland. Mr. Hibbert has, in his Description of the Zetland Islands, given an account of the sword-dance, but somewhat less full than the following:
(Enter Master, in the character of St. George.)
Brave gentles all within this boor,62
If ye delight in any sport,
Come see me dance upon this floor,
Which to you all shall yield comfort.
Then shall I dance in such a sort,
As possible I may or can;
You, minstrel man, play me a Porte,63
That I on this floor may prove a man.
(He bows, and dances in a line.)
Now have I danced with heart and hand,
Brave gentles all, as you may see,
For I have been tried in many a land,
As yet the truth can testify;
In England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain,
Have I been tried with that good sword of steel.
(Draws, and flourishes.)
Yet, I deny that ever a man did make me yield;
For in my body there is strength,
As by my manhood may be seen;
And I, with that good sword of length,
Have oftentimes in perils been,
And over champions I was king.
And by the strength of this right hand,
Once on a day I kill’d fifteen,
And left them dead upon the land.
Therefore, brave minstrel, do not care,
But play to me a Porte most light,
That I no longer do forbear,
But dance in all these gentles’ sight;
Although my strength makes you abased,
Brave gentles all, be not afraid,
For here are six champions, with me, staid,
All by my manhood I have raised.
Since I have danced, I think it best
To call my brethren in your sight,
That I may have a little rest,
And they may dance with all their might;
With heart and hand as they are knights,
And shake their swords of steel so bright,
And show their main strength on this floor,
For we shall have another bout
Before we pass out of this boor.
Therefore, brave minstrel, do not care
To play to me a Porte most light,
That I no longer do forbear,
But dance in all these gentles’ sight.
(He dances, and then introduces his knights, as under.)
Stout James of Spain, both tried and stour,64
Thine acts are known full well indeed;
And champion Dennis, a French knight,
Who stout and bold is to be seen;
And David, a Welshman born,
Who is come of noble blood;
And Patrick also, who blew the horn,
An Irish knight, amongst the wood.
Of Italy, brave Anthony the good,
And Andrew of Scotland King;
St. George of England, brave indeed,
Who to the Jews wrought muckle tinte.65
Away with this! — Let us come to sport,
Since that ye have a mind to war,
Since that ye have this bargain sought,
Come let us fight and do not fear.
Therefore, brave minstrel, do not care
To play to me a Porte most light,
That I no longer do forbear,
But dance in all these gentles’ sight.
(He dances, and advances to James of Spain.)
Stout James of Spain, both tried and stour,
Thine acts are known full well indeed,
Present thyself within our sight,
Without either fear or dread.
Count not for favour or for feid,
Since of thy acts thou hast been sure;
Brave James of Spain, I will thee lead,
To prove thy manhood on this floor.
Brave champion Dennis, a French knight,
Who stout and bold is to be seen,
Present thyself here in our sight,
Thou brave French knight,
Who bold hast been;
Since thou such valiant acts hast done,
Come let us see some of them now
With courtesy, thou brave French knight,
Draw out thy sword of noble hue.
(Dennis dances, while the others retire to a side.)
Brave David a bow must string, and with awe
Set up a wand upon a stand,
And that brave David will cleave in twa.66
(David dances solus.)
Here is, I think, an Irish knight,
Who does not fear, or does not fright,
To prove thyself a valiant man,
As thou hast done full often bright;
Brave Patrick, dance, if that thou can.
Thou stout Italian, come thou here;
Thy name is Anthony, most stout;
Draw out thy sword that is most clear,
And do thou fight without any doubt;
Thy leg thou shake, thy neck thou lout,67
And show some courtesy on this floor,
For we shall have another bout,
Before we pass out of this boor.
Thou kindly Scotsman, come thou here;
Thy name is Andrew of Fair Scotland;
Draw out thy sword that is most clear,
Fight for thy king with thy right hand;
And aye as long as thou canst stand,
Fight for thy king with all thy heart;
And then, for to confirm his band,
Make all his enemies for to smart. —(He dances.)
“The six stand in rank with their swords reclining on their shoulders. The Master (St. George) dances, and then strikes the sword of James of Spain, who follows George, then dances, strikes the sword of Dennis, who follows behind James. In like manner the rest — the music playing — swords as before. After the six are brought out of rank, they and the master form a circle, and hold the swords point and hilt. This circle is danced round twice. The whole, headed by the master, pass under the swords held in a vaulted manner. They jump over the swords. This naturally places the swords across, which they disentangle by passing under their right sword. They take up the seven swords, and form a circle, in which they dance round.
“The master runs under the sword opposite, which he jumps over backwards. The others do the same. He then passes under the right-hand sword, which the others follow, in which position they dance, until commanded by the master, when they form into a circle, and dance round as before. They then jump over the right-hand sword, by which means their backs are to the circle, and their hands across their backs. They dance round in that form until the master calls ‘Loose,’ when they pass under the right sword, and are in a perfect circle.
“The master lays down his sword, and lays hold of the point of James’s sword. He then turns himself, James, and the others, into a clew. When so formed, he passes under out of the midst of the circle; the others follow; they vault as before. After several other evolutions, they throw themselves into a circle, with their arms across the breast. They afterwards form such figures as to form a shield of their swords, and the shield is so compact that the master and his knights dance alternately with this shield upon their heads. It is then laid down upon the floor. Each knight lays hold of their former points and hilts with their hands across, which disentangle by figuirs directly contrary to those that formed the shield. This finishes the Ballet.
Mars does rule, he bends his brows,
He makes us all agast;69
After the few hours that we stay here,
Venus will rule at last.
Farewell, farewell, brave gentles all,
That herein do remain,
I wish you health and happiness
Till we return again. [Exeunt.”
The manuscript from which the above was copied was transcribed from a very old one, by Mr. William Henderson, Jun., of Papa Stour, in Zetland. Mr. Henderson’s copy is not dated, but bears his own signature, and, from various circumstances, it is known to have been written about the year 1788.
61 So placed in the old MS.
62 Boor— so spelt, to accord with the vulgar pronunciation of the word bower.
63 Porte— so spelt in the original. The word is known as indicating a piece of music on the bagpipe, to which ancient instrument, which is of Scandinavian origin, the sword-dance may have been originally composed.
64 Stour, great.
65 Muckle tinte, much loss or harm; so in MS.
66 Something is evidently amiss or omitted here. David probably exhibited some feat of archery.
67 Lout— to bend or bow down, pronounced loot, as doubt is doot in Scotland.
68 Figuir— so spelt in MS.
69 Agast— so spelt in MS.
l p. 234. Sword Dance. Scott can hardly have escaped being familiar with the degradation of this dance as played at Christmas by the Guizards. They are lads who go round acting and dancing in kitchens. Their songs may be found in Chambers’s “Popular Rhymes of Scotland.” Guizards performed at the Folk-Lore Congress in London 1891. — A.L.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00