Taigh Suntais:

Discussion in 'Western Martial Arts' started by Louie, Mar 27, 2008.

  1. Louie

    Louie STUNT DAD Supporter

    It may come as a surprise to the Western reader that Europeans too practiced and developed systems of armed and unarmed combat with dance-like forms or kata, an abdominal shout similar to the Japanese Ki-ai, conditioning exercises and meditation techniques. Many western masters of the late 13th century right through to 19th century, wrote and published treatises of their techniques, styles & theories. They include stick-fighting, swordsmanship, grappling and fist-fighting, many of which are illustrated and now widely available on the internet. These arts were practiced throughout the British Isles and Ireland, although on the surface, little evidence remains today, other than those kept alive in the traditions of morris dancing, sword dancing, country fairs and Highland games.

    In Scotland, Martial art gymnasiums, referred to in Gaelic as Taigh Suntais, were training schools that existed in the Highlands until the British government proscribed the weapons of the Highlander and dismantled the clan system, after the battle of Culloden in 1746. Similar to the martial art dojo's of Asia, the first recorded taigh suntais was erected by Domhnuil Gruamach, Lord of the Isles in 1400 for his strongmen and wrestlers. In later years, sons of successive clan chiefs created their own gymnasiums where training was often held in the open air. “It was a custom in the Highlands of Scotland before the year 1745 that the gentry kept schools to give instruction to youths in sword exercises, and the laird of Ardsheil kept a school for the instruction of the youth of his own district. He stored the


    cudgels behind his house. There were cudgels for the lads, and there were cudgels for the laddies, and the lads and laddies went every day to Ardsheil to receive instruction on the cudgel from the laird. After the laddies had received their day's instruction each got a bannock and lumps of cheese. They were then sent to try who would soonest ascend a mountain and eat the bannock and cheese; and whoeverwas first got another bannock and lumps of cheese home with him."(5)

    Sometimes the laird's champion or a skilled veteran of the European wars was employed to instruct the young men of the clan, who from the age of six, practiced the art of single-stick, wrestling, archery, dancing, swimming, leaping and pitching stones. In time the single-stick would be replaced with the broadsword dirk and targe and as the warrior became proficient in the arts, he could be expected to test his skills by competing against the youth of friendly clans in swordplay, wrestling, throwing the stone or tossing the caber. These contests would be re-created in a fashion in 1826 as the 'Highland Games'.


    Stick fighting, was a popular pastime throughout the whole of the British Isles. In Scotland young men would learn the seven angles of attack and seven guard positions and like the Phillipino systems, training involved the use of the left hand to parry or disarm, and wrestling throws & trips. The weapon typically consisted of a yard-long ash wood stick with a wicker basket guard, which was usually the combatant's only protection. Village fairs and Highland Games often held singlestick or cudgelling matches which began with the short prayer, "God, spare our eyes", after which the object of the game was to break each others heads, "for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten".

    In the western isles of Scotland an old Skye dancing song, Bualidh mi u an sa chean, (I will break your head for you) still survives, which might indicate that this form of stick-fighting was fought to music or 'danced'.

    Training was just as tough as any Eastern martial system, students were not spared the "kiss of the ash plant" and no doubt many suffered fractured skulls, and broken bones. Although there are no records of 'death matches' there are accounts of combatants almost beating each other to death and having to be hospitalised.

    Qualifying as a teacher of single-stick was just as tough, first the student had to fight against three skilled masters of the art (one at a time), then three bouts against three valiant unskilled men and finally three bouts against three half-drunken men. Later, in Victorian times, stickfighters introduced a range of protective equipment including buffalo hide helmets with leather earpieces, stout leather jackets and cricket shin-pads.



    Wrestling was another pastime of the Highlander and carvings dating between the 7th and 9th century depicts the earliest form of unarmed combat in Scotland, the loosehold and backhold styles of wrestling. It's not surprising to find that the oldest forms of Highland dance with it's kicks and sweeping leg movements would seem to imitate many of the wrestling techniques found in Celtic wrestling and the Viking style of "Glima". As in Asian martial arts, combative dances could have been used to train clansmen in the rudiments of unarmed combat to circumvent the laws that prohibited combative training in times of government prohibition. This tradition of militaristic dance has survived into the present day within Highland regiments of the British Army, although the possible combative applications would seem to have been long forgotten.

    Highland dance was also performed with weapons including the Lochaber axe, the broadsword, targe & dirk and the flail. The Highland Dirk Dance, which resembles a combative dance similar to those of Indonesian Penjak Silat, has the performer-executing knife techniques combined with kicks, trips and sweeps. One version of the dance involved attacking and defensive techniques with single-sticks and targe shields and was last performed in Britain in 1850 by two brothers named MacLennan. Another version that still survives was recovered in Canada by renowned dance researchers Tom and Joan Flett, back in the 1950's. (Interestingly the dance was passed to Mr Flett only on the condition that it was taught only to a relation, or favourite pupil).

    The origins of Scottish combative dances with swords, cudgels or unarmed fighting techniques, are impossible to trace, the ancient custom of dancing over crossed swords as in the Ghillie Callum has long been linked with an ancient victory or battle dance but just like the Filipino Escrimador, who steps over crossed swords laid out on the ground to develop angular footwork, side stepping and evasion, the concept of crossed swords could well have been used as a training aid in the Highlands. In another version of Scottish sword dancing, the Highlander danced on his targe shield, this has similarities with an ancient Roman exercise in which the man standing on a shield had to defend himself and stay upright while others tried to pull it out from under him.

    Although many of the combative techniques of the Taigh Suntais went unrecorded, it is possible to piece together training methods & fighting skills of this period from a variety of sources including historical accounts, language, folklore and the still living traditions of Highland wrestling and dance. These included kicks, punches, elbows, knees, sweeps & throws. Gaelic & Scots dictionaries containing words that were in use during or just after this period in Scottish history reveal the names of many combative techniques:
    • Bacag, -aig, f. a trip in wrestling.
    • Buckie; A smart blow, especially on the jaw.
    • Ceig, -eadh, av. kick, strike with the foot
    • Dòrn, -te, adh, a.v. thump with the fists.
    • Dump; Beat, Thump, Kick.
    • Fling; To throw in wrestling, A stroke or blow, The act of kicking.
    • Fung / Funk; A blow from the hand or foot, A cuff, A kick.
    • Gardy / Gairdy; The arm; perhaps specifically the forearm. The hands or fist; especially when raised to fight.
    • Glùineag, -eig, -an, f. a blow with the knee.
    • Hert / Heart Up; Strike in the region of the heart so as to wind or knock out.
    • Kep; Catch; Parry, Ward off (a blow).
    • Melt; Fell (a person or animal) with a blow near the spleen.
    • Mint; A pretended blow, A feint.
    • Nevel; A sharp blow with the fist or elbow, A punch, Punch, Pummel, Batter.
    • Pailleart, -eirt, -an, m. a box on the ear, a blow.
    • Poss; Strike or hit with the knees or feet, Knee, Kick, Trample.
    • Purr, -te, -adh, a.v. push, butt with the head.
    • Sclaffert; A blow with the palm of the hand or with something flat.
    • Scult; Strike with the palm of the hand, slap, smack.
    • Scum; Strike with the hand (across the cheek), Slap (someone’s face).
    • Shake / Shak a Fa’; Try a fall, Have a wrestling bout or tussle.
    • Skelp / Skilp; Hit; Strike with blows, kicks etc; Beat, Hammer.
    • Tak Up; Raise or lift (one’s foot) to kick.
    • Thud; Thump, Blow with the fist.
    • Yank; A sudden and severe blow, especially with the hand.
    • Yerk Aff / Out / Up; A blow, A hard knock, A slap.
    • Yoke / Yokin Time; A fight, contest, Scuffle.
    Author, Louie Pastore, a black sash in Ch'iang Shou Fa Kung Fu, has been a student of Scottish Kung Fu master James Watson since the mid-80's. Louie now runs a small research group in Greenock, Scotland, re-creating the Highland Dirk Dance, single-stick, cudgel, broadsword, dirk & targe, Highland wrestling and unarmed combat techniques of the 17th-18th Century.
  2. SaintToad

    SaintToad New Member

    "finally three bouts against three half-drunken men" Excellent idea! Should be reintroduced into modern Scottish dojos! :)
  3. embra

    embra Valued Member

    Great stuff. Caledonians forever. It kept the Romans at bay in an earlier epoch!
  4. SMMA

    SMMA Mind-Body-Sprit

    This is very interesting, i have learnt something new thankyou louie :)
  5. Kat12

    Kat12 Valued Member

    Thanks for this! I'm a Highland dancer, so of course I was aware that HD started out as military training and that the legends of some of the dances include militaristic origins (and it was the Highland Fling said to be danced on the targe, hence why the aim is to perform the dance on one exact spot, unlike the other Highland dances in which the dancer moves around to an extent), but it's nifty to be able to tie it into MA as well.

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