The Music at the Heart of Teesdale (M@HoT) project celebrated the award of funding from the Arts Council through its ‘G4A Grants for All’ scheme with a unique, Teesdale historical theme to one of the attractions at a recent Teesdale village fair.
People who were on Gainford village green on Saturday 17th June for the Gainford Fun Day celebrations saw a group of children from the local primary school performing a Longsword dance, with live music from musicians from Music at the Heart of Teesdale.
“Thanks to our new funding, an old Teesdale village dance tradition has been revived, to music we know was played here in Queen Victoria’s time, by Teesdale musicians one of whom was playing a very rare Teesdale instrument. On top of all that, the children were dancing with a new set of wooden swords made for us by Nixons of Barnard Castle, better known as makers of fine furniture. This was surely a unique event; M@HoT doesn’t get any better than this!” enthused project co-ordinator Neil Diment.
Longsword? What’s Longsword Dancing?
Longsword dances are ritual dances, which were once commonly performed in this area. There are records of Longsword dances having been performed in around 70 places in Yorkshire and the Tees Valley, but virtually nowhere else in Britain. Our Teesdale Mercury archives contain reports of Longsword dancers in Barnard Castle in the late 1800s.
The Gainford Connection
There is a remarkably detailed record of Longsword dancing in Gainford in about 1860. Alice Edleston, who was the daughter of the vicar at Gainford in the late 1800s, was in correspondence with a man called Thomas Ordish, an English gentleman who was interested in old English customs and traditions. A letter from Alice to Ordish dated May 1894 has survived. In it she writes that Gainford ‘was not so well known for its Longsword dancing as were Piercebridge and Eppleby’.
So we know Longsword dancing must have been common in Teesdale at that time. A Longsword dance on Gainford village green may have been not unusual 150 years ago, but it is fairly unusual these days. However, it wasn’t just the dancing alone that made this occasion particularly remarkable; it was the musical accompaniment for the dancing as well.
The musicians were Mike Bettison, and two sisters, Kirsty McLachlan and Heather McLachlan, playing respectively a melodeon, fiddle and flutina alongside their Mum, Gainford school teacher Jill McLachlan on the cajon, a more modern instrument, a kind of box-shaped drum.
“In Victorian times, flutinas were fairly common in Teesdale. It was an instrument favoured by the miners and quarry workers in Teesdale,” explained M@HoT researcher and musician, Mike Bettison. “Nowadays however it is very rare. But a year ago we were very fortunate when a local man, who had read about us in the Mercury, offered to give us a flutina! We were amazed to see it was generally in good condition, but it needed quite a bit of expert repair work to make it playable again. Now it is back repaired and retuned, and on loan to Heather, who is learning to play it.”
“Again, thanks to Alice Edleston, we even know the music that was played when Longsword dancing was being performed in the village in the 1800s,” Mike continued. “She wrote out the music used for the dance in Gainford and we can see it in the letter she wrote to Thomas Ordish. It sounds very much like the traditional north east tune, ‘Bobby Shaftoe’.”
But even with traditional instruments and good local musicians, both young and old, there would be no Longsword dance revival without any dancers. This is where the children from Gainford primary school stepped in. They practised enthusiastically in the school for several weeks as part of their music education thanks to a Longsword dance programme that M@HoT were able to offer having secured the G4A funding.
“I have been really surprised, in fact I am most impressed at the way the youngsters have learned the dance. They find it is a fun activity they are pleased to be doing,” said Patrick Langdon, who taught them the dance, working alongside Jill and Mike.
“When we started doing this programme it was to revive an ancient local dance that was performed in Victorian times – and almost certainly long before that,” said Howard Blindt, who is leaving after 15 years as headteacher of the high performing village primary school. “Longsword dancing has now become part of the school’s tradition, thanks to the work of Patrick, Mike and the M@HoT project. We are especially grateful to them and their funders for giving the children in Gainford primary school this fabulous opportunity. Long may it continue!”
For more information about the Music at Heart of Teesdale (or ‘M@HoT’ for short) project, please contact M@HoT project coordinator, Neil Diment, at firstname.lastname@example.org or tel. 01833 638263.
The historic records about Longsword dancing in Gainford are in the Ordish Archive in Oxford, and can be viewed online. A great deal of research into the folk traditions of Teesdale has been done by Mike Bettison, as part of the M@HoT project. Mike may be contacted by telephone on 01833 628343 or via e-mail on email@example.com.