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Updated 08/28/2017


Gillie Callum

Ghillie Callum - also known as Ghillie Callum, Ghillie Challum, Gille Calium, Gille Callum, Gille Callum Da Pheighinn, Gille Calum, Gillie Callam, Gillie Callam Da Pheithein, Keelum Kallum, Keelum Kallum Taa Fein, The Lad Malcolm, Lasses Gar Your Tails Todle, Sword Dance, The Sword Dance, Tail Toddle, Tail Todle - is one of the oldest and most famous traditional Scottish dances. This ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael is said to date back to King Malcolm Canmore.

The name “Ghillie Callum” means “Servant of Malcolm.” Originally, ghillie was the name given to the young man [the literal and original meaning of "gille" is "youth" or "lad." It is cognate with (and derived from) the Irish "giolla."] who would guide the Highland chiefs on hunting and fishing expeditions. It was later generalized and used in a derogatory way by lowlanders to describe the men servants who always accompanied Highland chiefs.

After defeating one of MacBeth’s generals at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054, Malcolm placed his sword over that of his enemy and performed a dance over and atop them symbolizing both his victory and his martial dexterity, a quality admired in leaders at this period.

Since, in addition to being a test of skill and agility, this dance of exultation in triumph became a dance of prophesy among the highland warriors. The legend says that warriors would perform the dance over them in order to predict the outcome of the next day’s battle. If the dancer finished without touching the swords, he was assured of victory, but touching the swords could forecast defeat and death.

The tune Ghillie Callum can be traced back to 1768 and is probably connected to an old kissing dance - "Babbity Bowster". This courting ritual dance, almost always performed as the last dance of the evening, shows the substitution of a magic wand or a stick for a sword. In the Central and West Highlands and the Western Isles, the leader would twist a handkerchief into a rope, lay it on the floor like a sword, and do a few steps of the Gille Calum sword dance in a clockwise direction. The words of the dance-song Gille Calum, about getting a sweetheart and a wife, apply more aptly to a kissing dance than to a combat dance. The tune is replaced by “The White Cockade” when a white handkerchief replaced an actual sword or by “The Blue Bonnet” when a blue bonnet was substituted for the handkerchief.

Records of this dance are obscure until the late Sixteenth Century where male dancing proficiency was as much esteemed as male athletic prowess, in Scottish Highland community.  Ghillie Callum is first recorded as a competition dance in 1832.

The dance performed at the Highland Games today typically comprises one dancer performing over two crossed swords and includes two or three slow steps followed by one or two quick steps (the dancer claps to give her a boost and to tell the bagpiper to speed up the tempo) and focuses on technical accuracy and the precise placing of the feet.

Because the dancer is representing a warrior, the head must be proud and poised and the steps executed to give an appearance of strength, control and conviction.

In the first step the dancer performs the steps outside the sword or "addresses" the sword (It infers that the swords have 'personality'. So the dancer is requesting permission to dance within the swords by executing the first step correctly without disturbing the swords). Subsequent steps are danced over the crossed blades, but notice that once inside the blades, the dancer never dances with his back turned to the swords - only a fool would turn his back on a weapon.

It requires tremendous dexterity not to displace the swords.  But nowadays, nevertheless following the tradition, if the dancer touched the sword he would not be wounded the next day but disqualified or 5 points penalized (depending of the dancer level) if the sword is touched but not displaced.

The dancer progresses in an anticlockwise direction ("widdershins" or the way of the witches) around the swords but the direction of travel as late as 1880 was clockwise. A description of the clockwise dance is given in "Book of the Club of the True Highlander", 1881. One example of a "clockwise" step can be found in the form of the Third Step of "The Jacobite Sword Dance" collected by Mrs. M. I. MacNab.

The origins of the convention of progressing anticlockwise lie in the fact the men were wearing a sword on their left hip (the normal scabbard position for right-handed person). To move in this way was easier as they were less encumbered. The same occurs in couples where the male dancer holds his partner with the right hand to prevent her dress caught in the scabbard, and stands in the center of the circle when dancing round the ballroom dance floor to avoid his scabbard clashing with spectators. So the only possible move for such position (as Ladies can’t promenade backwards as the length of their dress would become caught beneath their feet) is an anticlockwise one.

The earliest record of the tune is in David Young’s 1734 Drummond Castle Manuscript “Gillie Callum” which retained its popularity into the next century, and J.S. Skinner, who was a dancing master as well as a celebrated violinist, taught the dance at such places as Elgin and Balmoral. He included the tune later in his collection The Scottish Violinist, under the title "Sword Dance." The first definite reference in print appears in 1804.  This version of the tune comes from a collection dated 1848.