From time to time around Cornwall, you might see posters advertising something called a troyl. Today, more often than not, the Cornish dialect word troyl is used instead of the Gaelic word ceilidh or the English barn dance if the music and dancing on the night is to be Cornish.
Equally, from time to time, I hear people saying that the idea of a troyl was made up, and dismissed as ‘nationalistic nonsense’. So what is the evidence for the use of the word troyl and what kind of event were they? Let’s dig in.
Dances in fish cellars and sail lofts
The first stopping point is the book Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats – The Cornish Dance Tradition, by Merv, Alison and Jowdy Davey (Francis Boutle: 1998). The book begins with a quote from the diary of Edward Veale, Merv Davey’s grandfather who lived in Newquay during the late 19th and into the 20th centuries. In his notebook he described a memory of attending an event he described as a ‘troyl’ in the Unity Fish Cellars in Newquay as a young boy in 1885. His mother, Philippa, and uncle Ed Murrish played the concertina that night, and “a man from Truro played the fiddle”. He remembered the event involving dancing, music, and feasting on roasted herring, with the fun going on “until the early hours of the morning”. He described one of the dances, the ‘Lattapouch’, as it was a challenge dance that invariably ended up with people falling on their backs – the kind of memory that sticks in minds of children. Edward Veale summarised a troyl as “dancing held in fish cellars at the end of the season” (p.19).
The authors go on to describe other events called ‘troyls’ in the Newquay area, usually in sail lofts with a fiddler for the dancing. They present examples from other books that refer to troyls (or troils/troyles) as a “feast or tinner’s feast” (Jago’s The Ancient Language and the Dialect of Cornwall, 1882, and Margaret Courtenay’s Cornish Feasts and Feasten Customs, 1886). On following up the referent to Margaret Courtenay’s work, she says “Troil is Old-Cornish for a feast” (Cornish Feasts and Folk-Lore, Penzance, 1890, p.42).
Dictionaries and Cornish language
Cornish language expert Robert Morton Nance in his 1938 A New Cornish-English Dictionary defined the word troyl as meaning “a circuit, whirl, spiral, or a spin”. By the time we get to Ken George’s Gerlyver Kernewek Kemmyn – Cornish Dictionary (2000), the word ‘troyll’ is defined as “spin, ceilidh, fest-noz” (p.138). The authors suggest that the root of the word “ceili” is very different from “troyl” in that “the original meaning of ceili is an informal social gathering” (p.20) first used in relation to an Irish dance in London in 1897, and not used for set dance events until the 1930s. They suggest that troyl may be one of the oldest terms in the Celtic nations for community dancing (ibid).
19th century newspapers
So what other sources do we have to understand what a troyl was in the past? For that, we can turn to the newspapers of 19th century Cornwall.
Margaret Courtenay’s definition is generic. It is a term for a feast, which can encompass many types of event. Eating large quantities of food certainly seems to be one of them. The Royal Cornwall Gazette of 11 May 1838 contains a short story about two miners, having done rather well for themselves, “met in the best room of an Inn to have a “troil” on pork” (p.3). The event, if real, was newsworthy as the two were cheated out of their celebratory meal.
In the Royal Cornwall Gazette from 9th November 1849 (p.5) is a story covering the good fortunes of South Basset mine, south of Camborne. A feast was held for 280 workmen including “large joints of prime beef and mutton” alongside plenty of beer and rum. It was an especially good day for one of the workers:
One of the workmen being determined to give full swing to his enjoyment, was early in the morning wedded to the lass of his choice, thus ensuring himself a good “troil” for his wedding dinner. Whether his comrades out of compliment, further supplied him with their share of the grog, or not, he became so elated by 8p.m., – that strutting into town, fancying himself a Goliath he proclaimed himself ready to “thrash any ten-score man, that would meet him,” which consequently supplied him with some deserving thumps, and nearly separated him for the night from his lady love;Royal Cornwall Gazette – Friday 09 November 1849 p.5
So in these contexts, “troil” is used to describe a feast or celebration, with no dancing or music reported in the article.
The Western Morning News of Thursday 3rd January 1867 (p.4) contains an article about the robbery of a ship at Newquay. A suspect’s alibi was that he could not be guilty, as he was at a “fish troyl” when the alleged crime took place.
The case, he said, hung entirely on the question of identity, and as the prisoner was at a fish troyl on the night of the robbery he contended that Trethewey must have mistaken Somerville for another man. – Mr. George Burt, a resident of Newquay, said he remembered the fish troyl – a jollification after a good catch of fish – on the night of the 20th Dec., and he saw Somerville there up to half past eleven o’clock.Western Morning News – Thursday 03 January 1867 p.4
Here, a troyl seems very much the kind of event described by Edward Veale in 1885.
In the Cornishman of 21 December 1893 is a Cornish dialect piece called “Aunt Keziah chats about Christmas” (p.6) written by W. Herbert Thomas (writer of the song “Pasties and Cream” later recorded by Brenda Wooton). “I wud ruther go hungry an work like a trigger fur a fortnight aforehand than go without a bit ave troil an jollification pon Christmas time” (ibid).
Herbert Thomas uses the term again a few months later in the dialect piece “Aunt Keziah’s Shiners” (Cornishman – Thursday 15 March 1894, p.6). “He spawk all sa semple-like that I nearly bust out laffen in es face, but ee waddun a bad looken chap, so we took es gooseberries an had some troil, an addun fur a shiner that ebenin”.
Here, “troil” is used in the context of having a joke about, to have a laugh and some fun (in this tale, at someone else’s expense).
The Royal Cornwall Gazette of 15th November 1906 has a short piece entitled The “Troil” or Feast (p.8).
“Troil,” a “tinner’s feast,” says an old commentator on old Cornish words and their meanings. Profitable mining in the old days was always associated with holiday fare; thus at the account days at the mines a good dinner for the officials and adventurers was always provided and enjoyed, followed by the “St. Aubyn” day, when the mine officials welcomed their private acquaintances, while for the mine pay-day a good dinner was also expected and provided for all the officials.Royal Cornwall Gazette – Thursday 15 November 1906 p.8
Separate from this, on pay-days the working miners had their “troil,” when dividing their money at the various refreshment houses, which were known to make large provision in steaks tripe and “mutton pie broth,” etc. It is pleasing to find that the old custom has not quite gone out.
Is there a pattern between the spelling of troil to mean feast versus the spelling of troyl to mean a dance? The newspaper examples shown so far seem to suggest a difference. However, the Cornishman of Thursday 3rd July 1879 (p.7) has a wonderful piece on the midsummer festivities at St Just. One of the activities that people looked forward to when the entire town decamped to Priest’s Cove and Cape Cornwall were boat trips.
No more are young maidens carried into the boats, by the penny-a-trollers, or carried from the boat to the shore, or ducked by those who undertook to carry them, when the troll, or troyl as it was called, was ended. And no more are those grassy slopes along the Cape animated by the movements and mirth, the music and laughter, of the living throng.Cornishman – Thursday 03 July 1879 p.7
So here is the term and spelling of troyl in the context of fun and celebration. Boat trips, mischief, music and laughter as part of a festival at midsummer.
I had my first experience of a troyl earlier in September this year (2019). I was playing as a guest musician with the Penzance Guizers for the Gorsedh Esedhvos troyl held at the Town Hall in St Just. The music had to be played much more slowly than I am used to, as the troyl has a ‘caller’ who instructs people how to do the dances before the music, then continues to instruct whilst the music is played. It was a strange and unnatural experience for me, to have someone talking constantly through a microphone throughout. I gather that this is perfectly normal, but I could see a fair few people having less than fun, and a few comments like “you need a PhD to do this” were thrown at the caller. But there wasn’t any opportunity to be free and ‘let your hair down’ like the jollifications of old. I’m sure that plenty had a great time, but it wasn’t for me.
So typically today, a troyl is as the Daveys suggest in Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats:
“Troyl is currently used interchangeably with barn dance, ceili, or ceilidh, to describe a social dance typically with a caller to explain or lead the dances. Nos Lowen is an expression coined more recently to describe less structured events where very simple arrangements of dances are used without a caller.”Scoot Dances, Troyls, Furrys and Tea Treats. 2009. p.19
I have been to a few Nos Lowen events, where the dances tend to be ‘serpent’ or ‘circle’ dances with simple steps. They are very simple to copy, and after a pint or two, fun to join in with. Nos Lowens are a modern creation, apparently to be the opposite of troyls, and they’re great fun, and I will doubtless go to many more. But there is no room for those that do know some of the traditional Cornish dances to dance them to traditional tunes. I do wonder if there is room for a ‘middle way’? A new kind of troyl that allows spontaneous fun, yet serving the music and dance traditions at the same time.
I can’t help but think whether the Penzance Cornish session is a good representation of a troyl as indicated by the newspaper extracts above. It isn’t to celebrate anything specific, but people come along spontaneously, there is often Cornish dancing by people who know the steps, such as furries, there is drinking, laughter, chat, even people eating dinner, all to near-continuous Cornish music. Concertinas and fiddles included! It’s completely informal and everyone leaves happy.
I think Aunt Keziah would approve.