The Sword Dance (Ghillie Callum)

The Scottish sword dance is found in Scottish folklore, recorded as early as the 15th century, back to King Malcolm Canmore (Shakespeare’s MacBeth).  The Sword Dance, or Ghillie Callum is the most well known of all Highland Dances. It is an ancient dance of war of the Scottish Gael.  There are a number of sources that mention it was performed by two performers in a duelling form.

In the Scottish sword dance the dancer crosses two swords on the ground in an “X” shape, dances around and within the 4 quarters of it.  There are different versions of this dance including  the ‘Highland Fling’ which involves a fast dance steps atop a targe, and the Dirk dance involves either one or two dancers, each holding a single Dirk.  Also The Argyll Broadswords, The Jacobite Sword Dance, The Clansmen Sword Dance, The Broadswords of Lochiel and the Lochaber Broadswords to name but a few.

The Sword Dance

The Sword Dance


Legend tells that Ghillie Callum was a Celtic prince, the anglacized version of this name is Malcolm Canmore.  It is said that the prince crossed his sword over that of a defeated enemy one of the MacBeth’s Chiefs at the Battle of Dunsinane in 1054 and danced round and over the naked blades in triumph at the defeat of the chief.

Malcolm was the son of King Duncan of Scotland whom Macbeth, the Earl of Moray, defeated and killed in the year 1040 and took the crown of Scotland. This is the same Macbeth about whom William Shakespeare wrote his famous play.  Malcolm had been in hiding in England, dreaming of returning to Scotland and reclaiming his fathers throne.  It was after his return when he won the battle that this dance of triumph took place.

From here the sword dance evolved into a traditional battle dance performed by Highland warriors, to a test of skill and agility.  To do the sword dance the back is straight and shoulders square. The arms when raised in 3rd position are curved and held steady. The wrists are held firm at Akimbo with elbows square.  All of this shows and takes great strength and control, then there is the precision needed with the footwork as the person moves between the blades, which must not be touched.  To touch or displace the swords was a bad omen and was indicative of losses or even defeat.

There is another origin to the sword dance which dates back to he Norwegian invasion of Northern Scotland and the Hebrides, is The Sword Dance of Papa Stour – a small island off the west coast of Shetland.

“This dance is performed by seven dancers representing the seven champions of Christendom – St Andrew of Scotland, St George of England, St David of Wales, St Patrick of Ireland, St Dennis of France, St James of Spain and St Anthony of Italy.

Each champion carries a sword at his side. The dance is preceded by an exhortation to each champion, with Scotland’s champion being called thus –

Thou kindly Scotsman come thou here,
Thy name is Andrew of fair Scotland,
Draw out thy sword that is most clear,
And fight for the King with thy right hand.

There follows an intricate dance in which the champions move in circles, forming arches and patterns with their swords, holding the hilt in their right hand and the point of the next sword in their left. Eventually they are all intertwined to form a seven-pointed star, which is held aloft. The wonderful colour of the sashes worn by the champions coupled with their intricate movements, agility and grace makes this dance a wonderful spectacle.”
The above article is attributed to the late Charlie Mill 1940 – 2004

Today the sword dance can be performed with 1 or 2 (maybe more) dancers and can be seen performed at Highland Games.

Beside the sword dance, there were the combative dances. Traditionally, these dances were taught to boys from a young age, along with other Highland weapons

Beside the sword dance, there were the combative dances. Traditionally, these dances were taught to boys from a young age, along with other Highland weapons

About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

View all posts by Amanda Moffet →

4 thoughts on “The Sword Dance (Ghillie Callum)

  1. Pingback: What Sam and Graham Taught Us About Scotland | Zaika

  2. Pingback: What Have We Learned from Men in Kilts? – Shinbun

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *