From Papa Stor to Grenoside: A Gathering of Britain’s Traditional Sword Dance Groups

After spending a few extra days in Padstow after the May Day celebrations, I took the train to London (playing banjo and trading songs with a fellow on the train), where I stayed in a rather unfortunate hostel. Luckily, I was only there for about 6 hours, as I got up ridiculously early to take two trains and two buses up to Newcastle, where I stayed over with one of the Kingsmen, unwound, and got to talk about my trip so far. As I mentioned in the last post, I am starting to feel like I can put bits and pieces of this experience together in more interesting ways, and so it was nice to have a moment to just relax and think about it. The moment didn’t last particularly long as the next day I met up with some dancers from Snark Rapper and drove down to Goathland for the first gathering of every traditional hilt-and-point sword dance team left in the UK.

To clarify, these are not reconstructed teams, but groups that have been dancing their village dance, so to speak, and are continuing to do so. In the UK there are only six left: Handsworth Longsword, Flamborough Longsword, Goathland Plough Stots, Grenoside Longsword, High Spen Blue Diamonds Rapper, and The Papa Stor Sword Dancers. This last team I was particularly interested to visit, as they are from the Shetland Islands, and this was one of the first times they have ever performed on the mainland.

We arrived and set up our tents on the cricket pitch before the first dances. I had visited the village of Goathland (famous for its steam railway featured in the Harry Potter movies, its spray painted sheep sheep which have a right to free grazing all around town, and for being in some UK TV show called Heartbeat) when I was dancing with my rapper team Beside the Point at the Sword Spectacular in 2004.

This is what happend to me last time I came to Goathland. I believe I am about to be revived by a virgin’s kiss.

It is a rather small village and the two performance venues were outside the small row of shops and in the parking lot of the garage, which had taken the name of the garage in the TV show Heartbeat. I wanted to mostly follow Papa Stor and so went to the Garage for the first stand of the day, where they were dancing with Grenoside.

I was astonished by just how different it was to every other rendition of the dance I had seen when performed by other groups. The performance started with a series of speeches to introduce the seven dancers, who represent the Seven Champions of Christendom, the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Wales. Interestingly for a dance originating in Shetland, the captain of the dance is St. George, not St. Andrew. All the dancers are introduced and then each is called forward to dance, with sword arched over his head.

I say arched as the swords are made from flexible steel that’s slightly less flexible than typical rapper swords. They also have colored hilts that correspond with the colors of each dancer’s baldric, a new idea which was introduced by the current leader, George Peterson. George, who is now nearly 80, plays fiddle for the group along with a younger woman.The dance itself is performed slowly and solemnly, and everyone involved in it emphasized that it is supposed to be a dignified and solemn dance, and dancers shouldn’t be smiling during the performance. I have usually seen the dance done running or jogging, while they did it walking. The flexible swords allow the dancers to move closer together at times, and during over-the-sword figures, the swords are arched down to the ground.

After the first performances were over I cornered George and we got to talk for a while about his experiences growing up dancing, and collecting various bits of folk culture from Papa Stor. He first learned the dance at 16 and has been instrumental in maintaining the tradition. Since Papa Stor only has 10 people currently living on it, the dancers are now drawn from local schools off the island. Today the dance is going strong, and has a youth team as well. On dancer told me he thought that around 40 people from the community were involved in the sword dancing, which represents a very strong interest in maintaining the dance. One interesting tidbit is that when learning or practicing the dance, the group always refers to the positions by the name of the Saint, not by a numbering system, which I think is cool! The dance is particularly interesting as it is so and far away from the sword dancing from the Yorkshire or Northumberland areas,. George believes that the dance most likely came to Shetland with the servant of an English lord who had a residence in the area and created a sword dance from experiences seeing Yorkshire longsword. It is certainly a topic for more investigation and I am particularly intrigued that, while it has a sword lock (a particularly English figure) many figures that more closely resemble continental sword dances.

The Goathland Plough Stots organized the weekend and put on a fine performance. They have several dances that use six (or occasionally eight) dancers who dance with inflexible metal swords and dress in blue and pink, which represent the old political parties of Torys and Whigs. In January they still celebrate Plough Monday by taking the Plough around the village and performing the sword dance. They also have a strong youth tradition and were able to field three teams simultaneously during the weekend!

It was time for lunch, and all the groups ate together and socialized for a bit before resuming dancing. For the next stand I continued to follow Papa Stor, and saw the team from Grenoside as well. I had seen them a few times before, and they didn’t dissapoint.

Grenoside certainly is up there for cool costumes! It also has the distinction of dancing with swords from 1933 which were given to them by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which had adopted the sword lock as their logo. Grenoside performs on Boxing day with the captain singing a song and being beheaded in quick order! While it may date back to 1750 or earlier, the earliest written record of the Grenoside sword dance is 1895.

The Handsworth Sword Dancers dance in big rubber boots and strange looking caps with eight dancers. They also dance on Boxing Day, although if that is a Sunday they will postpone until Monday. (I forgot to say in my last post on Padstow May Day that postponing Sunday May Days to Monday is also the custom) Interestingly enough, the dance was able to continue through WWII (unlike many others) as the dancers were all working with steel or mining, which were deemed essential industries, and thus not called to serve in the military. Both Grenoside and Handsworth face uncertain futures, as they have yet to be successful involving younger people in the dances. I hope that both teams will be able to recruit youth into the dance and will continue to thrive.

On the other hand, the Flamborough team has a flourishing youth team, who performed at the weekend alongside their older counterparts. There have been kids teams off and on as far back as 1934, and children helped keep the dance alive during the world wars. The distinctive kit of the team is the navy blue ganseys (sweaters) used by fishermen of the village and grey caps (for adults) or red hats (children) The sword are made from wood, and there is certain speculation that they may have originally been derived from a tool used to repair fishing nets.

While the adult team is all male, the youth section of the Flamborough sword dancers (and the Goathland sword team for that mater!) includes girls. While at first I assumed that this was a recent development, it actually has an older basis in tradition, as a “Girl Guides” team kept the dance going from about 1928-1938!

Photo by: Richard Traves

That night there was a big party, complete with dancing, singing, jamming, food, drink, and general merrymaking! George Patterson received the Gold Badge from EFDSS (Equivelent to CDSS’s Lifetime Achievement Award) in a wonderful ceremony. There was even a mini concert by Eliza Carthy, who grew up playing for the Goathland Plough Stots and still comes and plays for them! We stayed up far to late singing bawdy songs before finally going back and shivering through the night (Frost? In May? WHY??) in our tents.

I had breakfast at the Goathland Inn the next day with some of the members of Snark Rapper, the only non-traditional team to be invited to the weekend.

Even if they aren’t traditional they certainly are a lot of fun, and contributed in songs what they lacked in history. As the High Spen Blue Diamonds were unfortunately unable to perform at the weekend, they contributed the rapper for the event.We had a May pole performance by the school children of Goathland which was great. The men had dug a big hole for the pole and they performed around 5 different patterns of dances, which was impressive!  I think it is so cool how this type of dance pops up in so many different countries and cultures!

I also got to try out the Papa Stor sword dance after convincing one of the dancers to teach a bit! It definitely is a different feeling dancing with the flexible swords.

After a bit more dancing it was time to head down to Beck Hole, a hamlet of Goathland with the smallest pub you can imagine! Obviously, Snark insisted upon dancing in it, which was entertaining to say the least, as the dancers had to step up onto chairs and other obstacles as they did a moving ring! Beck Hole is also a place with fond memories of 2004, as GMMS and Sallyport joined forces to make “The World’s Biggest Sword Lock” I am on the far left with the hair that looks like my hair.

This time around was lots of fun too, but unfortunately we had to rush back home to Newcastle for a big party at the Cumberland Arms, where the Kingsmen were performing. I said my farewells and with that I was heading back to Newcastle! Ahm gannin back te the toon agyen!

Edit (June 2014): John Atkinson, the Honorary Secretary of the Goathland Plough Stots was the driving force behind the weekend, which was held as a wish of the late Michael Atkinson MBE, who was the team president and dance with the Plough Stots  for 70 years. Bravo to the team for putting together such an amazing weekend!

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About Jeremy Carter-Gordon

My blog of a year studying point-and-hilt sword dancing on a Watson Fellowship. Enjoy reading, tell me your thoughts and leave me a comment, or visit my website at JeremyCarterGordon.com
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3 Responses to From Papa Stor to Grenoside: A Gathering of Britain’s Traditional Sword Dance Groups

  1. Hi Jeremy
    Great Blog and a fair synopsis of the legendary weekend. Nice to have met you – keep in touch!

  2. Moira Ruff says:

    Hi Jeremy
    I saw your name on the ICTM symposium programme and was interested in your topic – enjoy Limerick! I did my MA in Ethnochoreology there in 1997-98 and loved it. Before I did that, I did a small study about clog dancing (I have been a step clog dancer for 29 yrs) for my BA degree at Sheffield Hallam University and was given permission to use the, then, dedicated archive and library at Sheffield Uni of the now defunct Centre for Culture, Tradition and Language (CECTAL, later NACTECT) and had a wonderful discussion with the director and founder, Prof John Widdowson (long retired). He told me that when Tom Flett (who was also a maths prof there) was researching dance (especially in Scotland and the Lake District – see his publications) they both went to observe a Grenoside Sword “dance out” to record the dances and the performance – probably in the 1950s or early 1960s, I think (haven’t kept my notes)? Prof Widdowson told me that the team did some “stepping” in their performance, similar to simple clog steps (shuffles?), he said, and that these were done by individuals, not by the whole team, and inserted as they wished or where appropriate – as extempore and seemingly unchoreographed additions, it seems. He said these insertions didn’t disrupt the pattern or performance at all. The group they were noting were the dancers that had direct links to the pre-WWII side, so perhaps were imbued and confident in the tradition. They did do step and clog dancing around the Grenoside/Yorkshire region, although apart from one dancer from Halifax, nothing got recorded – but I saw a clog step dancer in Barnsley, a town “up the road”, back in the early 1960s, before the real clog “revival” got under way in the early 1970s – so perhaps these old hands adding to the performance were “steppers” also, doing a bit of showing off!? Who knows? Prof Widdowson was interested that the side no longer did that but could provide no more information and sadly Tom Flett had died in the 1970s. He suggested I contact one of the post-war dancer’s daughter, but I was unable to locate her, and neither Tom Flett’s wife, Joan, nor Trevor Monson of Grenoside Sword could provide further information. In fact when I asked the side about it when I met with them at some dance event years ago (late 1990s?) they were adamant that they had not been taught any impromptu/extra stepping at all and never seen any. I was interested in that I used to do Irish ceili dancing in London in the 1950-60s and us young dancers were quite happy to add flourishes, twirls, jumps,or a bit of fancy stepping into the social dances just for the fun of it, having been brought up in that culture (and none of the regulars minded!) – but those that learnt from the later-published texts wouldn’t dream of doing such things or possibly wouldn’t know how to or how acceptable it might be to meddle with the written version? Same difference, I think? Tom Flett was an accomplished Scottish and clog dancer, so if there were any steps to record, I think they might be somewhere in his old archives. I didn’t locate anything more re his recording of Grenoside in CECTAL library nor in any of his publications – but his documents and records were still meticulously kept by his wife when I last visited her some years ago in Sheffield. Thought you might be interested?
    Good luck with your studies!
    Cheers, Moira Ruff (Dukes Dandy Step Clog and Rattlejag Morris of Retford, Notts)

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