Back in the days of sail, life for your average mariner was a harsh existence.
Long periods away from home, were punctuated by disease, brutality and the constant risk of injury and death. Coastal communities didn’t have it much better. Dependent on the sea for their means of survival, life was precarious to say the least.
Perhaps that’s why the fishing reels and sea shanties of the day were so lively; folk making the most of any and every chance to lighten the load with music and dance.
Manx salmon leap
During the 18th century, a wave of strict Calvinist religious fervour swept the Isle of Man. Enjoying yourself was out, and frivolities frowned upon – to admit to knowing how to dance the traditional Manx reels, became a source of shame. But few can tell a fishermen what to do. The men of the sea helped keep the old songs and dances alive – performing in the pub, in return for a pint of ale.
One of the trickiest dances of all was called the ‘salmon leap.’ In one fluid movement, the performer had to lie flat on his back, then leap to his feet. Sadly this is one dance that has passed into history – and no one now knows how this feat of flexibility was achieved.
The Cornish pilchard reel
At the peak of the Cornish pilchard industry, in the early 1800s, as many as 40,000 barrels of pilchards were processed each year. The fish were first put in baulk – gutted, then layered with salt, into walls several feet high. After a month, they would be put into barrels, and pressed to remove excess oil, which was used to fuel lamps. The pilchard season must have been immensely smelly.
When the work was finally over, the festivities began in earnest with a ‘troyl’, or Cornish ceilidh held in every cellar. Often the music, dancing and drinking would continue into the small hours.
The Lang Reel
We journey from one end of the country to the other for this staple of wedding festivities. In the fishing villages of North East of Scotland, the whole community used to dance from the harbour, through the streets of the town. As each house was passed, the occupants would break off from the reel, until only the bride and groom were left to enjoy the last dance by themselves.
The fish slapping dance
When it comes to our favourite fishing reel, it can only be this monumentally silly offering from the immortal, Monty Python. John Cleese and Michael Palin dressed in safari outfits and pith hats, perform the mightily ridiculous ‘Fish slapping dance.’