Scottish Sword Dances

Most British people, on hearing mention of sword dancing, think of Scottish Highland sword dancing, which involves intricate stepping between the blades of two crossed swords on the floor. This is completely unrelated to rapper, but Scotland does have some linked sword dances.

The best-known of the Scottish linked-sword dances is the Papa Stour dance, from the Shetland Islands. There was also a dance traditionally performed by the Guild of Glovers in Perth as well as a sword dance from Elgin, in the north-east of Scotland, mentioned in local records in 1623.

Papa Stour sword dance

The small island of Papa Stour, just off the Mainland of Shetland, has a linked sword dance first recorded locally in 1788, and fairly comprehensively described in the second edition (1863) of The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott. A notation of the dance is included in Ivor Allsop's book Longsword Dances.

“At Scalloway my curiosity was gratified by an account of the sword dance, now almost lost, but still practiced on the Island of Papa Stour, belonging to Mr Scott. There are eight performers, seven of whom represent the Seven Champions of Christendom, who enter one by one with their swords drawn, and are presented to the eighth personage, who is not named.”

Sir Walter Scott's diary,

The “swords” used were fashioned by straightening hoops from herring barrels and were thus partially flexible, although the form of the dance had more in common with longsword than rapper. Like the early forms of both English traditions, the Papa Stour dance started with a play to introduce the seven dancers.

The dance started by forming a hilt-and-point ring, then they each passed in turn under No. 1's sword, each adding his sword to the previous ones to gradually form a tunnel. In the second figure they went around each stepping over the neighbour's sword. Further figures followed before finally a lock was tied to finish the dance. It can thus be seen to be very similar to Longsword dances in structure, and must surely have a common origin.

Photo of Papa Stour sword dancers

As a remote island, Papa Stour was subject to depopulation and by the 1880s became unable to support a team to continue the tradition, although there have been frequent attempts at revival. The first revival was in 1892, and another revival was attempted, in 1920 by a team led by Alex Henderson, who learnt the dance from the basic notation in The Pirate. One the dancers, Alex Johnson, moved to Lerwick on the Shetland Mainland, and founded a revival team there, which was initially successful until membership dwindled in the 1930s as islanders moved away, some emigrating to Australia and New Zealand. When Alex Johnson returned to Papa Stour in 1934 to run the island's post office, he revived the dance on Papa Stour itself. The last performance by a team based on the island was in 1962, but there have been revival teams on the Mainland of Shetland, founded by George Peterson, a native of Papa Stour who moved to the mainland.

The Perth Glovers' Dance

An interesting sword dance of yesteryear was the Glovers' Dance from Perth, which was recorded in the Guild records as being performed in 1617, 1625 and 1633. It seems to have been performed on a variety of special occasions. A contemporary description of the dance performed for Charles I in 1633 is as follows:

“His Majestie's chair being set upon the wall next the Tay, whereupon was a flat stage of timber, clad about with birks, upon the which for his Majestie's welcome and entry thirteen of our brethren of this our calling of the Glovers, with green caps, strings, red ribbons, white shoes, with bells about their legs, shering rappers in their hands, with all other abulzement, danced our sword dance with many difficult knots and allafallajessa, five being under and five above their shoulders, three of them dancing through their feet, drink of wine, and breaking of glasses about them, which (God be praised) was acted without hurt or skaith to any, which drew in to great charges and expenses to the sum of three hundred and fifty merks (yet not to be remembered), because we were graciously accepted by our sovereign and both estates, to our honour and great commendation.”

The exact form of the dance is unknown, and while it was almost certainly unlike rapper, the description of the swords as “shering rappers,” suggests a possible origin for the word ‘rapper’ if nothing else.

Elgin sword dance

There are records of a sword dancing having occurred in the town of Elgin, in the northeastern county of Moray, between Inverness and Aberdeen. These were researched by Andrew Kennedy, at the time with Clydeside Rapper, who reconstructed the dance including a borrowed figure from Papa Stour; the reconstruction was an invention, as there is no detailed record of the Elgin sword dance itself. The local records detail the names of the dancers, as well as the sanctions taken against them:

“7th January 1623: James Bonnyman, Alex Petrie, Johne Petrie, Robt. Dunbar, Archibald Law. Theas past in an sword dance in Paul Dunbar his closs and in the kirkyeard with maskis and wissoris on their faces. Each ‘gwysser’ was fined 40s.”

Minutes of the Elgin Kirk Session
in Cramond's The Records of Elgin, v2, p177

The Kirk Session is the body of elected elders who govern each parish in the Church of Scotland, and although today their role is mainly involved with the election of the minister and maintenance of church property, in the early post-Reformation era they had a much wider role in local government as well.

In his research, Andrew Kennedy noted multiple resolutions of the Kirk Session from 1581 into the early 1600s prohibiting guising specifically, as well as activities forming part of the guising, such as dancing, having blacked or masked faces, men wearing women's coats (and vice versa), and using the churchyard for any pastime. This was an era of extremely strict protestant doctrine in the Church of Scotland, rejecting any pagan or Roman Catholic influences, including the banning of Christmas celebrations (Christmas Day was not even a public holiday in Scotland until 1957, and my father can recall mail being delivered on Christmas Day in the 1950s); the prevailing conditions in Protestant Scotland were similar to those in England during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, or in Massachussetts at the time of the Salem witch trials.

Local records also provide more information about the individual dancers, young people who seem to have come from the educated merchants of the town, and many of whom subsequently ended up as elders in the Kirk Session!


  • Longsword Dances: from traditional and manuscript sources Brattleboro: Northern Harmony Publishing Company, 1996
  • The Perth Glovers' Sword-Dance Dress of 1633 Costume 1985; 19:40-57
  • The Elgin Sword Dancers Rattle Up My Boys 1998; 7(1):1-4
  • Traditions of Perth Perth: Messrs Dewar, Sidey, Morison, Peat and Drummond,
  • The Sword Dance of Papa Stour Rattle Up My Boys 1990; 2(5):1-7
  • Visit to the Shetland Isles - an interview with George Peterson Rattle Up My Boys 1991; 3(1):1-8