The Goathland Plough Stots

Northern Traditions


"Here they cum, tidaay seea grand,
Runnin', lowpin', sooards i' hand !
Rooases, ribbins coaats sea sthraange,
Hoose ti hoose they're gahin' ti raange."

(Frank Dowson 1936)

 The Goathland Plough Stots are a rare example of a once widespread rural tradition that acknowledged the importance of the plough and celebrated it with sword dancing, music and folk plays. Similar traditions are known to have existed in other parts of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Northumberland, where they were known as the  'Plough Boys', 'Bullock Lads', 'Ploo Jags' (plough Jacks) and the 'Fond or Fool Plough'. For a variety of reasons these traditions died out in most areas towards the end of the 1800's and this fate almost befell the Goathland Plough Stots. 

 Luckily Cecil Sharp (president of the English Folk Dance and Song Society) visited Goathland in July 1913, in the hope of recording any surviving details of the sword dance and its associated music and songs. He also made enquiries about the 'lost' Goathland Folk Play, and found that a manuscript of the play had existed, along with details of the sword dance figures, but they had been destroyed around 1900, as it was thought to be no longer of any use  and so it was burnt as rubbish! Fortunately Mr Sharp found there were villagers who remembered the traditions or had actually been involved in them and from these people he was able to record most of the details regarding the sword dances and music. Mr Sharp's visit led to a renewed interest in the old tradition and so a local man called Frank Dowson organised a meeting in the village which led to the sword dance team being reformed in 1922, and so the tradition has continued until the present day.

 Mr Dowson (1) was also able to gather local information and found that originally the Goathland tradition had consisted of two parts, with a group of men who practiced and performed the sword dances, and another group (the Plough Stots) who pulled the plough, sang songs, and performed the folk play. The number of people involved might vary each year (as many as 40 or 50 men on some occasions) and when sufficient numbers were available there would be more than one sword dance team (six men including a 'king') and enough strong lads to drag the plough around with the group. These men were called the Plough Stots (a 'stot' being the name for a bullock,- which were widely used to pull ploughs before the introduction of heavy horses) and a Teamster who 'controlled' the Stots with a whip-lash which had a bladder full of dried peas tied to the end of it, which he would rattle on the backs of the Stots to drive them on - much to the amusement of onlookers.

 The group of men and young lads would form up into a procession led by two characters known as the 'Lady and Gentlemen' or 'king and Queen' (as in similar traditions, men also played the female characters) behind this pair were a group of 'Toms' wearing grotesque or humorous disguises, and whose job it was to collect any donations. Following the Tom's were the teams of Sword dancers with the fiddle players, and behind them came the Plough Stots pulling the plough and driven on by the Teamster. At the rear of the procession were two characters called 'Old Isaac and Betty' or the 'Aud Man and Woman' these two ragged figures being a contrast to the smartly dressed  Lady and Gentleman at the front.

 In most areas the plough traditions took place over the winter season, (in the 'agriculturally quiet' period between autumn and spring ploughing). they generally started on Plough monday (1st Monday after Epiphany/12th Night) in January, which is said to commemorate the first ploughing of the land after the biblical flood had receded and so this day was marked by a church service to bless the plough and the labours of the year ahead. In the following days the plough would be dragged in a procession around the village where the sword dancers and musicians entertained the locals in return for a few coins or some food and drink. If donations were not forthcoming from households able to afford it, they might receive a noisy barracking and ran the risk of having their garden turned over by the plough.

 Sometimes the men also set out to visit nearby villages and market towns, where they performed the Sword dances and songs, with a collection to pay for food and lodgings. This could continue for several days and on at least one occasion the Goathland Plough Stots had a two week tour of the Pickering/ Scarborough district. Whitby also appears to have been a popular destination for the Plough Stot teams from the surrounding villages such as Staithes, Aislaby and Sleights. but in the 1870's one writer in the Whitby Gazette took a dim view of their activities because the men appeared to be having rather a good time in the local pubs. However the Goathland Plough Stots were praised because the money they collected went towards the more charitable aim of organising a village supper.

 In the early 1800's Revd. George Young (2) described the annual visit by the local Plough Stots to Whitby, with the "rustic youths" dragging the plough through the streets. He records a quite detailed description of the sword dancers performance and any one who has seen the Goathland Plough Stots in recent times will easily recognise Dr Young's description, which shows that the custom has changed little over the past two centuries.

The Goathland Play.
 Few details have survived about this Folk Play, which seems to have been enacted mainly at Easter time and appears to have been performed for the last time at the Cross Pipes Inn at Goathland in the 1850's. Frank Dowson attempted to trace any surviving details of it, and from the recollections of older residents he concluded that the play was broadly similar to the Ampleforth "Pace Egg" play, which was rescued and reconstructed by Cecil Sharp. Ampleforth is a village about 20 miles southwest of Goathland and Dowson suspected the plays differed mainly by the the addition of humorous references, allusions and dances local to Goathland.
 The memories of old Goathlanders allowed Dowson to sketch out the format of the play, which was accompanied by a fiddler and had a number of characters including a Miller, Doctor, Clown, and King (brandishing a sword) who entered and boasted of their talents and deeds. During the play one of characters would die and so the doctor was called for, who then appeared riding a pantomime type horse (two men covered by a sheet with a wooden horses head and moving jaws). The doctor proceeded to revive the body, but this was done in such a crude and comic way, along with course language, leading Frank Dowson to believe that it was edited out of the Ampleforth version by Cecil Sharp.
Because of the similarities between the plays, Dowson also suggested the it may have been brought from Ampleforth through the activities of a man called John Robinson or "Dandy John" ,a colourful music master who lived at Egton in the first half of 1800's and who taught dancing in the villages around Egton and further afield in the Pickering and Malton areas.

 As noted above the Revd. Young described a visit to Whitby by a Plough Stot team in the early 1800's and this may have been the men from Goathland as he appears to mentions the folk play as being part of the sword dancers repertoire ".......some times the sword dance is performed differently ; a kind of farce, in which songs are introduced, being acted along with the dance, .........the principle characters in the farce are the King, the Miller, the Clown, and the Doctor."

The Fond Plough.
 The Revd. William Smith (3), writing in the early 1900's, records how the tradition of Plough Monday sword dancing had died out in his village during his time as rector of Catwick in East Yorkshire. It had originally consisted of a dozen "Plough lads" dressed up in various guises with blackened faces and carrying wooden swords or sticks. They would tour the village, pulling a decorated plough, stopping at farmhouses to dance and sing songs such as "Speed the plough". The Plough Monday tradition was continued for a while by a local man who carried a small model of a 'Fools Plough' around the village and received hospitality at the houses he visited. The plough's were 'fond' (meaning daft or foolish) because the mould board was fitted in the wrong place, which in practice would have turned the soil the wrong way.

The Lady and Gentleman & The 'Awd Man and Woman'
 May Day processions during the Middle Ages often included a line up of characters similar to the Goathland parade, but with the addition of a Robin Hood and Maid Marian leading the way. However by the end of the17th century the 'lord and lady' figures had taken over the lead role, and a clown or jester became a popular addition to such parades. It is interesting to note that there is a strong tradition of Robin Hood around the Whitby area, with place names and stories, so it may be possible that he appeared in the Goathland procession in the distant past.
 The Old Man and Woman characters may have been included as comic figures or they may represent another tradition from around the North York Moors area, where there are a number of place names such as Old Wife's well, Old Wife Stones and Old Wife's Trod etc plus an Old Man's Mouth well and Old Mans Knoll, and Yedmandale (old man dale).
 Frank Dowson noted that as part of the Goathland custom, Awd Isaac 'looses his head' when he gets the urge to have a jig of his own, and joins the circle of sword dancers. They continue to circle around Isaac and splice the swords together to form the 'Lock' which is then placed over Isaac's head. In this precarious position with the swords only inches from his neck, Isaac nervously continues his jig, but as the music abruptly stops, the dancers stop and each one pulls their sword swiftly from the lock, creating the illusion that they have executed poor Isaac.
A similar old woman character took part in the Catwick Plough Lad's custom (3) where she was called Besom Bet, and entertained onlookers with her frantic brushing, and attempts to sweep bystanders away as she passed, (perhaps in more superstitious times her broom was thought to sweep away bad luck). Her companion was a fool character called 'Blether Dick', who had strips of coloured rags stitched to his hat and cloths, and also carried a stick with a bladder (blether) tied to the end, with which he would hit any one who came within reach.

Although the Old Man and Woman appear to have been traditional characters in the plough and sword dance customs, the Awd Isaac's name at Goathland may have some connection with a poem that was well known around the area in the mid 1800's. This poem called 'Awd Isaac' was written by John Castillo who lived at Lealholm (6 miles to northwest of Goathland) where he worked as a stone mason, as well as a being a Methodist preacher and writing a collection of dialect verse and poetry. These poems became popular around the North Riding and among the farming communities, where some worker knew the verses 'off by heart'.  
The Awd Isaac poem describes an old man whose strong religious faith led him to berate his neighbours for their lax behaviour and generally lament the moral and religious decline of his times. Such a character would  no doubt have frowned upon the Plough Stots activities and so the Goathland men may has used the name (for the character who loses his head) as a way of poking a bit of fun at the 'old Isaac' types who tutted disapprovingly at them.

(1) Transactions of the Yorkshire dialect Society. 1936.
(2)History of Whitby. Revd. George Young. 1817.
(3)Brazzock. Revd. William Smith. 1905.
(4)History of the Vale of Goathland, F.W. Peirson. 1985.

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