sword dance
Stacks Image 7

Carlisle Sword performing the Cumberland Dance at Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

There are several references to Sword Dancing in Cumbria in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The earliest reference to a Cumberland Sword Dance is in The Cumberland Pacquet (an eighteenth century newspaper) in March, 1788, giving news of the Morris Dancers' recent trip to London. There is little evidence of the nature of the dance they performed, but “Bessy”, “Jack”, and his master all appear in the account, and re-appear in most other sources. The irreverent tone of the handbill is a characteristic which also appears consistently.
Copy of an ADDRESS distributed by the CUMBERLAND Morris Dancers, at the Last MASQUERADE in the PANTHEON, Oxford-Street, LONDON.
At the late masquerade-ball in the Pantheon, London, a team of young Cumbrians performed the Cumberland Sword Dance, in stile and character as a company of maskers. The novelty of the spectacle was productive of much entertainment.  Jack and his Master were of the groupe; nor was Old Bessy forgotten, whose quaint, Northern dialect was the life of the scene.  They delivered an humorous hand-bill, written for the occasion, a copy of which is inserted in the last page.
from the foot of Skiddaw. Jan.31, 1788.
N.B. For the Information of Gentlemen unacquainted with North Country Diversions, an Interpreter, who can speak a little English, attends the Dancers, to answer all Questions; an Interpretress for the Ladies.
...If either Interpreter cannot be understood Ladies and Gentlemen, for their further satisfaction are desired to repeat the inexplicable Words to the other.
Cumberland Pacquet, March 5th, 1788
The Upshot at Great Orton
Th'Upshot is a dialect poem written by Mark Lonsdale in 1811. The poem contains a fictional account of a performance of a sword dance at a “merry neet” (merry night, or party). The story runs as follows.
In the spring of 1780 a group of young men from Great Orton organised an upshot, a party to be financed by a whip-round. They held it in the loft of Wilson's barn one Thursday night, and were packed out. There were people from villages all along the Solway plain: Burgh, Bowness, Kirkandrews and Kirkbride, Thurstonfield and Thursby, and even as far inland as Caldbeck. They had a fiddler to play for dances, and room for a carding party, while the serious drinking and quarrelling went on in the chimney nook.
At about ten o'clock the party was gatecrashed by a party of maskers. They announced their arrival by firing a shot, and came in, as was the custom, without paying...
Oal! Bessey swurlt an' skew't about,
Whell fwoke to th' skemmels brattl't,
And lasses whilly-liltit out,
As they had been betrattl't: -
But th' maister in amang them lap
Just like a deevel ranty -
And brought man Jack, wi' Busy Gapp,
And Neddy Tarn, and Lanty.
Reeght unkat' figures did they cut,
And ay they skipp‘d and chantit, -
Their spangs and vapours pass'd for wut,
An' that was aw' they wantit: -
Jack out wa' mony a menseless word,
But lasses bude his mockin',
And whateer he spak, criet never ak!
Sea lang as he is but jwoakin.
Bessy, and Jack and his "maister" were common figures in the maskers' play, and the partygoers were more interested in trying to recognise the disguised actors. A slipped mask revealed them as "Banton weavers" (from Kirkbampton, or Little Bampton, both nearby villages).
After the play, the sword dance came on: the poet describes, "several antic dances, skipping around Hector, flurishing their swords, and executing with them several manoeuvres.."  Things started to go wrong when they tried to make the sword lock (or Nut):
They lockt an' meade a bummel,                                                                                
For Wulliam Strang, girt gammerstang!
Ran foul o' Jacob Trummel…
And "when they cott off Hector' heed"  (a mock decapitation), one of the women in the audience fainted clean away. The sword dancers immediately headed off to the bar.
We get a similar picture of winter evening entertainments being enlivened by the sword dancers from this account written a few years later:
"At this period (Christmas) ... festivity became general and every table was decorated in succession with a profusion of dishes, including all the pies and puddings then in use...
... The aged sat down to cards and conversation for the better part of the night, while the young men amused the company with exhibitions of maskers, or parties of rapier dancers displayed their dexterity in the sportive use of the small sword.
The performance of the rapier-dancers is the same with the well-known sword-dance, which is still remembered in some parts of Cumberland."
John Gough: Manners and Customs of Westmorland in the 18th Century (1827)
The "parties of rapier dancers" sound as if they were specially organised groups who would, like the Bampton weavers, visit the house to give their performance. The pencilled notes of John Lawson of Wetheral in the Cumbria Archives give further information which suggests that the dancers were indeed specialists:
"At this time the sword dance was sometimes performed at those merry nights. In order to perform in this dance properly the dancers took a great deal of training and practice. This dance took about ten or a dozen dancers and there was a great many parts to go through. Some took the part of running, some of singing, and some acting. In fact, it was a very difficult dance to perform efficiently."
Most of the more recent accounts come from Yorkshire, where several whole sword dances have a long history of decline and revival. We get a clear picture of the sword dance from this letter, written by the Rev. John Tinkler to C.J.Sharp in 1926, and quoted by Maud Karpeles in the EFDS Journal for 1928. Rev.Tinkler describes a visit by a sword-dance team to the vicarage of Arkengarthdale, near Swaledale, on New Year's Eve, 1869.
" As soon as this introductory recitation was ended, and the clown went on one side, there came in one by one five dancers, in morris costume, each with a long sword, and each in order singing a verse and dancing the while until a circle was formed, the dancing going on without intermission. Then ensued a remarkable performance of skilful and graceful dancing, in and out of their interlaced swords, forming figures of pentagon, &c. This was at length broken by the clown, who had been mocking their movements, rushing into the ring, when the dancers encircled his neck with interlaced swords, and he fell down as one dead."
He describes a calling-on song, a linked circle, interlacing dance figures, a five-sword lock, and a mock decapitation. These are our best indications of the nature and spirit, and some of the movements of the dance performed at the upshot at Great Orton.