OT: 5 May 1911 – Keith N. MacDonald “Faroe Isles Dance Songs, or Puirt-a-Beul”

The Oban Times, 5 May 1901

Faroe Isles Dance Songs, or Puirt-a-Beul

In continuation of my remarks (writes Dr. Keith N. McDonald) on the dance songs of the Faroe Islanders being identical with our Highland “Puirt-a-Beul,” my friend, Mr. Martin, of Inverkeithnie, Turriff, has sent me the following translation from a Danish pamphlet on the subject,*as well as specimens of the music to which the dance songs are sung. These resemble some of our “Orain Luaidh,” or waulking songs, and are evidently more primitive than our strathspey music, but the difference is only in degree not in kind.

“Dancing is the best, or rather the only amusement of the Faroe Islanders. Chess playing has indeed been cultivated for many generations in these faraway Isles, and it happens now and then also that the young men of the district practise football and wrestling, but these amusements hold a place far inferior to the national dance, in which all take part, from the oldest to the youngest. On Sundays and holidays throughout the year, at weddings and similar special occasions, but especially in the dark winter nights, the dance goes merrily in the small rooms. When summer is passed and the weather prevents work in the open air the Faroe folk are forced to keep within doors, where there is work both for men and women. Wool must be sorted and nets must be mended. But this sedentary life is utterly opposed to the nature of the Faroe folk. The Faroe man wants free play for his limbs, which in summer he gets plenty of, by working in the infield, in the outfield, by going to sea, or by fowling in the cliffs. It is the dance which in winter supplies him with the exercise he needs, and he does dance most energetically, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days.

The Faroe national dance is danced in a circle with hands joined, and men and women, young and old, arrange themselves promiscuously. If the ring is too large for the room, parts of it are bent inward, so that it often assumes a very irregular form. The steps of the dance present no difficulty. The left foot makes a step forward, the right foot is then brought forward opposite the left, again the left foot makes a step forward, and the right is brought up to it. Then the right foot makes a step sideways or backward, and the left foot is then brought up to the right, after which the steps are repeated from the first. There are thus six movements, and these are always used, though now and then a slight variation is introduced by the more agile persons who occasionally make an upward bound. Instrumental music is not used, and never has been used as an accompaniment. The dance or sing the national “Kvad,” or Danish ballads, and as these songs naturally vary in their time, so does the dance become quicker or slower. At the same time the position of the hands is altered–with those Kvad that are staid and sober in tone they are held parallel to the hips, with those which are more lively they are stretched out level with the shoulders, and the arms are occasionally moved back and forward with short energetic jerks. The Faroe dancers, indeed, attempt to express as far as possible the emotions which the Kvad rows in them.

If, for example, they are dancing to the death song of “Regner Lodbrog” (No. XXII), “We hew with the Sword,” they beat the floor hard with her feet, squeeze each other’s hands, and gesticulating violently, while, on the other hand, they move slowly and sedately to the chanting of such a ballad as “Queen Dagmar’s Death.”

The second chapter treats of the Kvad in its literary aspect. An attempt is made to trace its origin and to show that Norway, Denmark, and even our own Shetland Isles has supplied the themes, if not in all cases, the structure of these ballads. The following paragraph deals with ballads of a jocular and satirical nature–“Besides the more serious ballads the Faroe Islanders had many satirical ballads which for the most part have a purely local bearing. The Faroe man has a deal of humour in his nature, and is by no means destitute of the satirical faculty. It often happens, when someone has made himself specially ridiculous, that a Faroe Islanders feels himself inspired to sing his follies in a “Taat,” an expression which originally meant a subordinate part of some larger Kvad, but which now designates a smaller Kvad of an especially satirical nature. The poet has in general no mercy for his victim, but scorches him and sparingly, and sometimes the author goes so cunningly to work that he produces the ballad for the first time on some occasion when the subject is present. The poet arranges that the satirised party, who suspects no mischief, shall take his place in the dance between a pair of stout fellows. In the midst of the mirth the poet brings out the ballad, and the subject of it must go on dancing and listening to the end of it whether he will or not. If the ballad catches the fancy of the public the victim may expect to hear it at all festal meetings during the winter, and his only revenge is to compose a similar ballad against his assailant!”

On page 30 of the pamphlet the writer relates how careful he had been to obtain the oldest and most authentic form of the melody. While all the ballads that he heard and compared were pretty much alike as regards the melody of the chorus, the ballot itself was rendered with considerable variations. It appears clear that from the oldest times the chorus has been the chief and characteristic part of the music. It was sung by all the dancers, while the singer of the ballad might introduce variations ad libitum. Not the song, but the text, was the important part, and the chief thing was to get its meaning expressed as clearly and significantly as possible, and the musical rendering assumed the character of psalmody (where the music may vary while the text does not.) The verses in the Faroe ballads are at the same time so irregular that the singer had to vary the melody with freedom–the one thing for him was to keep time, for no disorder must come into the dance which was always conducted with remarkable precision.

We shall in a future issue proceed to give samples of the Faroe Isles “Puirt-a Beul.”

*By Dr. Jacob Jacobssen.