Sunday, 26 December 2010

The Five Champions

The Five Champions

Based on remembered fragments of traditional Mumming plays, with additions from my own imagination.

Father Christmas:
In come I, old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not,
I pray old Father Christmas will never be forgot.
Room , room, good people give us room to sport,
For to this place we intend to resort
Five Champions never seen on stage before,
But we’ll do our best – the best can do no more!
Step forward King of Scots.

King of Scots:
Here come I, King of Scots, a soldier brave
Who’s traveled over hill and ocean wave.
I’ve fought Russians, Prussians, French, and Portuguese.
I made Old Boney tremble at the knees.
I’ve come here to challenge the bold Turkish Knight –
Who dares stand up with me and fight?
Step forward Turkish Knight.

Turkish Knight:
Next come I, Bold Turkey is my name,
I’m a warrior of great renown and fame.
I’ve fought the mighty Saracens of Syria,
And bloodied the nose of Venetians in Illyria,
I’ve been to Spain and fought King Ferdinand –
Now against the King of Scots I’ll stand.
Have at you, sir!

King of Scots:
Nay, have at you, sir!

They fight, and the Turkish knight is cut through and falls.

See now the valiant Turkish Knight fall!
See me, King of Scots, I conquer all!

Turkish Knight:
Alas, King of Scots, you have wounded me direly,
And I believe I am killed entirely!
Step forward Molly Turket.

Molly Turket:
Next come I, Molly Turket the bonny lass,
My hair black as jet, my eyes green as glass.
I have been wandering the world, or rather
Searching for the Turkish Knight, my father.
But oh, Alas! What is this I have found?
My dear father’s corpse here upon the ground!
Oh who is the villain who has cruelly slain him?
And who will cure the wounds that sorely pain him?
Step forward Doctor.

Next come I, the Doctor.

Doctor Who?

No – Doctor Black
With my staff in my hand and my bag on my back.
I can cure the itch, the stitch, the palsy, and the gout,
Every pain that’s within, every pain that’s without.
I cured Harry of a hangnail a hundred yards long!
To raise Turkey from the dead will not take long.
Take a little of my bottle,
Let it run down your throttle.

The Turkish knight rises

Turkish Knight:
What miracle is this? I am no longer slain,
I rise, I see and breathe, I walk again!
No more will I come out warlike from my nation
But live in peace and pious contemplation.
Thank you, good Doctor Black, for restoring my life-
King of Scots, you shall have my daughter to wife!
Take my hand, sir!

King of Scots:
Aye, that’s grand, sir!

Father Christmas:
Now good people our little play is almost done,
You have seen a great battle fought and won,
You have seen a man slain and brought to life,
A king without a queen gain a dear wife,
Two bitter enemies now are best of friends,
For peace shall reign when all warfare ends!

All (sing):
We are five champions bold
Never were on stage before,
But we have done our best
And the best can do no more

You have seen us all march round,
Think of us as you will.
Come fill the flowing bowl,
Drink up, and drink your fill.

We ask you for no reward
For our poor guising here
Save for six silver pence
And a glass of spicy beer!

Father Christmas:
Good mistresses, good masters, may your bounty never fail.
We wish you all good night, good fortune, and…



I wrote the play above, based on fragments of remembered mumming plays, first thing this morning and placed it on a poetry site, as a kind of Boxing Day present for all and sundry. Before I knew it, someone in Minnesota was offering to get her more enterprising nephews and nieces to perform it! I hope she does.

As I was writing it, an idea was already beginning to take shape in my mind about offering it to the annual Winter Words Festival at Pitlochry, as a kind of "interval entertainment". Performers do not have to be professionals, in fact mumming and guising (as it should be called in Scotland and Northern England) has always been an amateur thing - more ritual than theatrical.

Anyhow, I have always been in England a champion of things Scottish, and in Scotland a champion of things English. Let's face it, I'm bloody awkward. So when I read an article written by fellow Scot Magnus Linklater (actually an Orcadian and son of Eric Linklater, one of my favourite writers) celebrating the fact that morris dancing is dying, and using words like "feebleness", "mimsy", "wimpish", "wet", "anodyne to the point of narcosis", and "several clogs short of a fertility offensive" (Timesonline, Jan 6th 2009), I wonder how far my fellow-countrymen are prepared to push the more stupid manifestations of their anglophopbia. How such sniping sounds like a humdinger of an inferiority complex! Here's how wee Mansie finishes off:

There is hope, however. As morris dancing dips below the horizon of history, another national dance is ready to be claimed - full-blooded, sexually charged, competitive and deeply antagonistic. I refer of course to Strictly Come Dancing.

Reluctant as I may be to give any support to Linklater's racist sneering, he's right about this much - and I have said as much myself - more people are aware of things on the Haunted Fish Tank (the TV) than of their own folklore. Apart from that, Mansie - get over Flodden!


Now, where was I?

Oh yes, while I have Mansie Linklater's attention I would like to show my readers a link between a couple of traditions. Firstly, from Papa Stour, Shetland (further north than Linklater's birthplace) there is the Seven Champions sword dance. It is very unlike what you might imagine Scottish sword dancing to be - you probably immediately think of a person in Highland dress step dancing over a pair of crossed swords, such as in the picture below.
In fact it belongs more to a style of ritual dancing which has now died out elsewhere in Scotland, in which a group of dancers would link swords and weave around in and out of each other. As such, for the nearest-related ritual you would have to go to the English county of Yorkshire. Here is a link to the Papa Stour dance. You will notice how staid and prosaic it seems. The link I have given you is to a longish recording which includes the "calling-on" ritual, in which the master dancer introduces the other dancers one by one. They represent the "Seven Champions of Christendom", the master dancer being St George of England, and the others being St James (Spain), St David (Wales), St Dennis (France), St Patrick (Ireland), St Anthony (Italy), and St Andrew (Scotland). One reason why I looked for a complete clip is that so you will be able to hear the Shetland dialect of English spoken (I can cope with Orcadian myself, but find Shetland at its deepest a bit of an earful, but if you listen carefully you can hear nuances which a much more Scandinavian than Scottish). There is no further obvious link to mumming, no plot or action beyond the actual dance. But take a look at the Grenoside Sword Dancers from Yorkshire. Just as staid as their Shetland cousins, but with a ritual "death" in the dance.

It is not too fanciful to suppose a common origin for these two rituals and for the mumming plays as well. By the way, in many parts of Northern England and Scotland mummers are known as "Guisers" or "Guisards" ("guising" is still the term used in Scotland when kids dress up for Halloween or Bonfire Night). Amongst the papers of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford was found a manuscript bearing words from the local Guisards' play.

After I had written my "Five Champions" play I went looking for some old photographs of mummers and guisers, and I turned up some more examples of black facepaint.
These children are from Castleton in the county of Derbyshire in Central Northern England. They were known as "guisers", and went round singing the song about the "Old Tup" (also known as the "Derby Ram"), and their routine included the "killing" of the tup - usually a youngster in and upturned sack with its corners tied to look like sheep's ears. The photo below is a group of mummers, location unknown.
The characters are (as far as I know) from left to right: Scots & Scars, the Doctor, St George, Bold Slasher, Grandfather Christmas, Johnny Jack, and the Turkish Knight. As you can see, the Turkish Knight is wearing facepaint - this is the only example I have seen in an old photograph where the facepaint intentionally represents the complexion of a non-European, but I dare say there would have been other examples. The mummers in the two pictures below do not employ facepaint, although the character of the Turkish Knight is common to most ritual plays.
The Marshfield Mummers, also known as the "Paperboys", wore costumes decked with ribbons or strips of coloured paper. 
As can be seen from the troupe above, the presence of one or more characters where a man dresses as a woman were also common (hence the presence of "Molly Turket" in my play).

The origin of mumming is problematic. No documentary evidence exists for these rituals exists earlier than the 18c, although the word itself is very old and probably has a Viking origin. Comparisons can be drawn with death-and-rebirth beliefs all over Europe and the Middle East (Osiris, Balder, Christ - Balder or Baldur would have been known in England in Saxon and Viking times), but there is a later correlation to European commemorations of the Aragonese "reconquest" of Spain from the moors.

To Mansie Linklater all this might seem "mimsy", but then where does he get off snipping at other folk's culture? To me, it has recently become an endless source of fascination.


  1. Brava! I enjoyed reading this entry. You should definitely offer the play to the Winter Words Festival (and then let us know how they respond!)


  2. Will do. It was Dani who started me on this folklore quest...