Sunday, 5 July 2020

The Targe

The targe and its use.

 With this essay I intend to look at the shield known as the Targe (an Targaid) as it was carried and used by highland forces through the 17th and 18th centuries.
 I have dealt with Targes before both here, and here. Highland targes were small shields between 18-21” in diameter, held with an enarmed grip. That is with the arm thrust through a strap and the fore grip held with the hand. In the manner of a knight or hoplite. They were robust being formed of two plys of conifer wood.  According to some sources oak could be used, in the author’s opinion this would create a needlessly heavy shield which would also be prone to splitting so was unlikely to be common. The shield was covered with leather and set with brass studs and bosses.  The collection from the Royal Armouries features a spread of diameters from 48cm to 53cm with most examples being around 49cm and with a spread of weights from 1.95kg to 3.2kg. Some examples featured extensive embossing and could be very fine pieces indeed. Object v.105  is remarkably plain and it tempting, given its date, to attribute it to Wm Lindsay’s workshop as a targe made for ordinary soldiers.
object v.105

 Some targes feature dismountable spikes to be set in the centre of the shield and while they are described in period as proof against shot this seems quite unlikely. The author has shot modern reproductions with black powder firearms and the shields did not hold up, targes were likely proof against the larger weapons, halberds, two handed swords and so on  that they encountered. From period weapon musters it appears targes were not carried by the entirety of the fighting population. From the 17th century Athol muster it seems 23% of the fighting force carried targes, from Moidart in 1745 (after many disarming acts) 7 men of 80  had targes not including officers which accounts for 8.75% of the force. In the late 16th century a redshank force in Connacht featured 180 targeteers in a force of 600 (30%). If we assume the officers in Moidart were furnished with targes then that percentage comes up to 20% which is more inline with earlier figures.

 We should expect this as the targeteer was a specific combat role and indeed a common one in 16th and early 17th century Europe.  Generally mainstream European shields were slightly larger and were made from steel plates, solid steel, layered wood and leather.  European fencing masters dealt with the target in their fencing manuals which proliferated at this time. I will look at a range of works from fencing masters and see how they discuss using the target in fighting. It must be remembered that in many cases these men were describing implementing weapons within the context of their entire system and philosophy of fighting. It must also be remembered that the fighting described in manuals is by necessity somewhat abstracted and does not, could not reflect the reality of mass combat.

I have rendered what I consider key ideas in bold and offer commentary or clarification where appropriate.
Discourse on Wielding Arms with Safety 1570 Giacomo DiGrasssi
 We start with Digrassis’ section on the sword and round target. Giacommo DiGrassi was a 16th century fencing master whose 1570 treatise “Discourse on Wielding Arms with Safety” was translated into English in 1590.
I have slightly modernized the spelling of this treatise to aid comprehension while trying to maintain the original flavour of Digrassis’ work.
The round Target would require a long & most exquisite consideration because it is of circular form, most capable, and most perfect of all others. But for that my purpose in this my work, is to write that only which I know doth appertain to this Arte, giving leave to every man to busie him self in his own profession. And leaving a great part of this consideration to the Mathematicians & Historiographers to reason of his divers qualities or passions, either who was inventor thereof, either, whether it be a weapon of antiquitie, or of this our age, And coming to discourse of that, wherein it profiteth in this our time, (being a weapon so greatly honoured and esteemed of Princes, Lords, & Gentlemen, that besides those thereof in their affairs, as well by day as by night, they also keep their houses richly decked and beautified therewith,) And considering only that thing, in the round Target, among al other weapons which may either profit or hurt in the handling thereof, I say, that the said round Target round even diversely holden, borne and used, by divers men in divers ages, as well as the other square Target, and other weapons of defence, as well as of offence. And there want not also men in our time, who to the intent they be not wearied, bear it leaning on their thigh as though that in this exercise (in which only travail and pains are available,) a man should only care for rest and quietness. For by means of these two, strength and activity, (parts in the exercise of weapons, both important and necessary) are obtained and gotten.
Other some, holding their whole Arm bowed together, have carried it altogether flat against their body, not regarding either to ward their belly, or utterly to lose the sight of the enemy, but will at any hand stand (as they think) safe behind it, as behind a wall, not knowing what a matter of weight it is, both to see the enemy, and work other effects, which, (by so holding it) may not be brought to pass.

Of the manner how to hold the round Target.

If a man would so bear the round Target, that it may cover the whole body, and yet nothing hinder him from seeing his enemy, which is a matter of great importance, it is requisite, that he bear it towards the enemy, not with the convex or outward parte thereof, altogether equal, plain or even, neither to hold his arm so bowed, that in his elbow there be made (if not a sharp yet) at least a straight corner. For besides that (by so holding it) it wearies the arm: it likewise so hindereth the sight, that if he would see his enemy from the breast downwards, of necessity he must either abase his Target, or bear his head so peeping forwards, that it may be sooner hurt than the Target may come to ward it. And farther it so defendeth, that only so much of the body is warded, as the Target is big, or little more, because it cannot more then the half arm, from the elbow to the shoulder, which is very little, as every man knoweth or may perceive: So that the head shall be warded with great pain, and the thighs shall altogether remain discovered, in such sort, that to save the belly, he shall leave all the rest of the body in jeopardy. Therefore, if he would so hold the said Target, that it may well defend all that part of the body, which is from the knee upwards, and that he may see his enemy, it is requisite that he bear his arm, if not right, yet at least bowed so little, that in the elbow there be framed so blunt an angle or corner, that his eyebeams passing near that part of the circumference of the Target, which is near his hand, may see his enemy from the head to the foot. And by holding the said convex parte in this manner, it shall ward all the left side, and the circumference near the hand shall with the least motion defend all the right side, the head and the thighs. And in this manner he shall keep his enemy in sight & defend all that parte of the body, which is allotted unto the said Target. Therefore the said Target shall be born, the arm in a manner so straight towards the left side, that the eyesight may  to behold the enemy without moving, for this only occasion, either the head, or the Target.

The hurt of the high warde, at sworde and round Target.

Because the round Target containeth in it most great & sure defense, therefore ought not any edgeblowe which may easily warded with the single sword without the help of the Target be delivered. Thrusts also enter very difficultly to strike the body, because the Target, by means of the least motion that is, seemeth to be, as it were a wall before the body. And to thrust at the legge is no sure play. That which remaineth to be done is, to thrust forcibly with the sword: and when one perceives, that the point thereof is entered within the circumference of the enemies Target, it is necessary that he encrease a left pace, and with the circumference of his own Target, to beat off the enemies sword and Target, to the end, it suffer the thrust so given of force to enter in. And (having so beaten & entered) to continue on the thrust in the straight line, with the encrease of a pace of the right foot.
When he findeth himself in the high ward, he shall encrease a half pace with the hinder foot  gathering upon the enemy, as near as he may without danger. And being so nigh that he may drive his sword within the circumference, then as soon as he perceives his sword to be within it, (his arm being stretched out at the uttermost length) he ought suddenly to encrease a left pace, beating off with the circumference of his own Target, the enemies Target: and with the increase of a pace of the right foot, to cause his thrust to enter perforce. This also he may practice when the enemy endevoureth, to withstand the entrance of the thrust, when it is already past, within the circumference of his Target.
But if the enemy (as it may fall out) ward this thrust not with that parte of the circumference, which is near his hand, but with that which is above it (by means whereof his target discovereth his eyes) then he may very commodiously, encreasing his paces as aforesaid, recover his thrust above, and force it underneath, with the increase of a pace of the right foot. And this is a more sure way of thrusting than any other.

The defence of the high ward, at Sword & round Target.

For the defending of the thrust of the high ward, it is most sure standing at the low ward, and to endevour to overcome the enemy, by the same skill by the which he himself would obtain the victory. In the very same time, that he delivereth his thrust, a man must suddenly increase a slope pace with the left foot, beating of the enemies Target with his own, & driving of a thrust perforce with the increase of a pace of the right foot. And with this manner of defence being done with such nimbleness as is required, he doth also safely strike the enemy, who cannot strike him again, because, by means of the said slope pace he is carried out of the line in which the enemy pretended to strike.

The hurt of the broad warde, at Sworde & round Target.
Broad ward on left

It is very difficult to strike in this broad ward, if first with much compassing & gathering of the enemy, a man do not assay with the circumference of his Target near his hand, to beat off the enemies sword. And being so beaten, to encrease a left pace, and farther by adding there unto the increase of a pace of the right foot, to discharge a thrust. But it shall happily be better in the handling of these weapons, not to use this broad ward: for the hand is borne out of the straight line, in the which he may strike both safely and readily: And before it return into the said line, there is much time spent.
And farther, a man is not then in case with his Target to beat off the enemies sword: But if happily he be, yet (though he be very ready, as well with the hand as foot) his thrust shall never enter so far that it may hit home: For the enemy, with a very small motion of his Target forwards, may very easily drive the enemies sword out of the strait line. Therefore, he that would change or shift out of this ward, to the intent to strike, must of necessity be passing nimble & ready, and before he delivereth his blow, must beat the enemies sword with his Target.

The defence of the broad warde, at Sword & round Target.

Because in every occasion or accident a man standeth safe in the low ward, I will endevour in this case, to place him also in the same ward, for the encountering of the hurt of the broad ward. That therefore which by mine advice he shall do, is that he take great heed, not to suffer his sword to be beaten off any manner of way. And when the enemy without this beating presumeth to enter, he must in the selfesame time increase a left pace & safely deliver a thrust underneath with the increase of the right foot. And farther, when the enemy shall perfourme, that is, first find the sword and beat it off, (seeing of necessity if he would enter and hit home, his sword must pass by the circumference of the Target near the hand) then, to withstand the entry, it is requisite that he drive the enemies sword outwards on the right side with his Target and with the increase of the said pace, that he enter and strike him.

The hurt of the lowe warde, at Sword & round Target.

A man may strike in this ward, the right foot being behind, and before, & in both ways, he may bear his sword either within or without. If therefore he find himself to stand with the right foot behind and without, he shall assay at any hand, before he determine to strike, to find the enemies sword with his own, and as soon as he finds it shall clap to his Target, and strike perforce with a low thrust, increasing with the right foot. But finding himself to stand within, no more with his sword, then he doth with his Target, he shall prove whether he can find the enemies sword, and having found it, shall straine it fast between his own sword and Target, & then shall deliver a thrust with the increase of a pace of the right foot, the which thrust of force speedeth: This being performed, he shall settle himself in this, or in either of these ways in the low ward with the right foot before. And as he so standeth in this arde, he may after the same sort strike either within or without.
Therefore finding himself within, he shall provide to meet with the enemies sword, and with the increase of a left pace, shall clap to his Target, for the more safety, and then drive on a forcible thrust, with the increase of a pace of the right foot. And finding himself to bear his sword within the said ward, and with his right foot behind, he shall indevour to find the enemies sword with the Target, and having found it, shall close it in between his own sword and Target, & with the increase of a a left pace, shall perforce hurt the enemy, with the increase of a pace of the right foot.
Now, all these thrusts, no doubt shall speed every time that the enemy either makes no traverse motion with his body, either as he striketh, commeth directly forwards, or else being fearful, goeth directly backwards, for it is not possible that one man go so fast directly backwards, as an other may forwards. Yt is therefore diligently to be observed in this ward, never to determine to strike, either in the handling of these, or of any other kind of weapons, if (with one of them) he shall not first find the enemies sword. The which redowneth to the great profit of every man, but especially of those, who have strong arms, for that they are the better able to beat back the enemies weapon.

Of the defence of the lowe warde, at Sword and round Target.

All the foresaid thrusts are warded, by not suffering the sword to be found by the enemy with either of his weapons. For the enemy (not finding it, will not sasure himself, or presume to enter, without first finding of the sword) may most easily be stroke and not strike, if a man increase a slope pace, (to the end he may void his body from hurt,) and with the increase of a straight pace of the right foot, do also discharge a thrust beneath. And after this order he may strike safely, (not only when his sword is not found by the enemy, but also when it chances to be found) if he be ready and nimble to make his slope pace, and to beat off, as forcible as he may, the enemies Target with his own sword and Target, thereby forcing a low thrust to enter in, with the increase of a pace with the right foot. And thus much concerning the true striking & defending of the sword and round Target.

Comments..... It’s not the easiest read but there is good information on how to hold the shield to effect the best defence while avoiding obstructing one’s view. DiGrassi presents a very active use of the shield controlling the opponents sword while out manoeuvring them.

Brief instructions upon my Paradoxes of Defence (Unpublished but written between 1599 and 1605) george Silver.

This work  was a draft of a piece to follow up George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defence (1599). Silver wrote a piece denouncing “itallianated” rapiers and continental fencing systems and challenged fencing master Vincento Saviolo to a public duel to settle the difference. While Saviolo declined the offer the dispute created a real sensation in London society even influcing Shakespeare’s work.

The sword & target has the advantage against the sword and dagger, or the rapier and poniard.
The sword and buckler has advantage against the sword and target, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.
The two handed sword has the vantage against the sword and target, the sword and buckler, the sword and dagger, or rapier and poniard.

That the sword and buckler has the vantage against the sword and target. The sword & target together has but two fights (wards or positions), that is the variable fight, & the close fight, for the close fight, the number of his feet are too many to take against any man of skill having the sword & buckler, & for the variable fight although not so many in number, yet too many to win the place with his foot and strike home. The sword & buckler man out of his variable, open & guardant fight can come bravely off & on, false & double, strike & thrust home, & make a true cross (a solid parry with the sword) upon every occasion at his pleasure. If the sword & target man will fly to his guardant fight, the breadth of the target will not suffer it, if to his open fight, then has the sword & buckler man in effect the sword and buckler to the single, for in that fight by reason of the breadth, the target can do little good or none at all.

Comments........Silver here is arguing that the target is less versatile than the buckler and that a targeteer has to make too many moves and is too slow compared to other weapons. He appears to be discussing the target in the context of a duel or private fight which is ironic given that he was arguing against duelling.

The Expert swordmans companion (1728) Donald McBane

Donald McBane was a career soldier who served in the British army in Scotland and the low countries. He fought against highlanders twice at Mulroy (1688) and Killekrankie (1689) and fought with Malrborough’s army at Blenheim (1704) and Malplaquet (1709). He claims to have fought over 100 duels and fought as a stage gladiator in London. His work is principally concerned with the small sword

If you meet with a Man with Sword and Target, and you with your small sword, take off your Coat and Roll it around your Left Hand, and take a wet Napkin and put it under your Hat, and that will prevent his, in case he hits you either on the Arm or Head. Save the Blade of your Sword as much as possible, by slipping his Blows, and your Sword Hand making always high Feints to his Face, he will raise his Targe and blind his sight, that you may have an easy Opportunity to take  him in the Belly; I reckon a Man that does not understand a Target, better to want it, than to have it, it would have been better for him to have a cane or Scabbard in his Left Hand, to parie a small sword, than a target to blind him: and when a Man with a Broad Sword, draws against a Man with a small sword, let him stand upon a high hanging Guard at great length, and then he can Parie by the way of Quart or Tierce by Moving his Hand,, and as he Paries let him make a small stroak constantly to his Sword hand, or making a back stroak or under stroak to keep him off, and in Constant Motion, for he will soon be tired, because his Sword is heavier, and have the Left hand always before his Breast to Defend, an if he understands to parie he may change to a Medium, and slip and throw; But still the small sword hath great odds of the broad, for the small Sword Kills, and you may Receive Forty Cuts and not be Disabled.

The target is of great use to those who rightly understand it. But to inexperienced people it is often very fatal, by blinding themselves with it, for want of rightly understanding it. Therefore who has a mind to use it must take care to have it on an edge (compare with Digrassi) so as to cover his left side, from which it is a defence against ball or any weapon.

Comments.....McBane clearly understands the targe, he certainly fought highlanders armed with targes in his earlier career. He mentions avoiding the sword of his opponent and accords generally with DiGrassi in that the targe is held on edge and that control of the opponents sword is desired. As regards lethality it might be noted that every British soldier who was wounded with a sword at Culloden was saved. Smallswords are often seen as effete weapons carried by dandies an fops but in the author’s opinion based on many handling sessions, small sword are terrifying, a very dangerous weapon.

The use of the broad sword. In which is shown, the true method of fighting with that weapon, as it is now in use among the highlanders; Thomas Page (1746)

Thomas Page was a sword seller and possible fencing master operating in Norwich. I have dealt with the authenticity arguments around this work in this article here.  I have illustrated these pieces with images from Camillo Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms with Philosophical Dialogue (1553) as these images appear to illustrate the techniques Page is describing nearly two centuries later. This may imply a Europe wide tradition that Page was relaying or perhaps that Thomas Page had read Agrippa.

We come now to the Method us’d by the modern Highlanders, Fighting with the Sword which is founded upon the Rules and Lessons already given; from which it differs only by making use of a Target upon the Left Arm, as was before observ’d; by the Addition of which, the Guards made by the Sword are often omitted, except the Outside, and the Blow is received upon the Target, and several Throws that are dangerous in the single Sword are here us’d with Safety as every Throw on the Inside, below the Middle of the Body; all which at the single Sword will lay entirely Open to be cut whilst here you lie cover’d under a Target, the use of which is the following Manner.
Arm’d with a Sword and a Target being upon the Left Arm, advance to your Enemy with a square Body, and always under an Outside Guard, with your Target advanc’d a little before your Sword, and in a Direction levell with your Adversary’s Breast, ready to receive any Throw that he shall think fit to give; but wait not for it, it being safer to attack than be attacked, let your first Throw be an Inside betwixt your Adversary’s Target and the Sword; which if he receives upon the Target, recover an Outside, and pitch immediately to a Hanging, but dwell not a Moment upon it, but from that (which here is design’d only to give a Swing to your Arm) throw home an Inside at his Left Ribs underneath his Left Elbow, which will be open’d by your pitching to a Hanging, and by his raising a Target to cover his Head which will otherwise be expos’d to be cut.

With the Target the cuts at the Leg are differently made than without it, for under Cover of that it is safe to go down to either Outside or Inside, without receiving a Throw first.
When two or three Throws have been made without Success, with your Body still square (that is your Legs crossing the Line of Defence at right Angles) and full facing your Adversary, drop both your Target and Sword as low as your Waste, your Sword still within your Target,and in that Posture lay your self open and wait for your Adversary’s Throw, which when he makes, receive it not upon the Target, but upon the Fort of your Sword; and at the same Moment by pushing your Target against his Hilt, drive his Sword sideways and downwards out of the Line, by which his Head will be expos’d defenceless; at which you may safely Throw, because his Sword will be held down by your Target, and his Left Arm and Target will be held down by his own Blade.

Another infallible Method both of Defence and Offence is, advancing briskly to your Adversary under an Inside Guard, receive his Outside upon your Fort, and at the same Moment instead of throwing an Inside, step briskly about with your Left Foot as in the Traverse (half a Circle at least) which will bring you under his Fort; and with your Target, which will be then under his Hilt, throw up his Sword and Arm, that you may have a free Passage for your own Sword, which you have lower’d and shortned in your coming about; and with a sudden Push slanting upwards, thrust in the Point between the Ribs on the Right Side, which commonly finishes the Affair.
These are the Principle destructive Methods of Wounding in Modern Use; and when executed with a quick and a strong Arm, and directed with a sharp and steady Eye, seldom fail of Success, except where an alert Adversary is more steady at Defence than your Hand at Throwing: In the last two Cases indeed, no Defence is practicable, if you suffer your self to be lock’d in the first, or to be clos’d upon the last; but how easy is the Defence in either, when in the first, only by stepping into the Back Traverse, you at once free your Sword, and by returning to your Posture may wound your Adversary, and be cover’d under your Target; and in the last Case, by retreating as he comes about with his Left, you put your self out of the Reach of his Target, and much more out of that his Sword, whilst he lies wholly expos’d on his Left Side to your Inside Throw, how artfully soever, or how strongly soever it be made; but the same Weapon which makes the Attack, is capable of preventing the Wound.

Comments..... Page gives us some techniques to try here in common with DiGrassi the opponent is controlled with the target and sword and how techniques that are risky with a single sword are possible with the defence of the target.

Memoirs of the Rebellion in 1745 and 146 Chevalier De Johnston
When within reach of their enemies bayonets bending their left knee, they, by their attitude cover their bodies with their targets, that receivee the thrusts of the bayonets which they contrive to parry while at the same time they raise their sword arm and strike their adversary. Having got within the bayonets and in the ranks of the enemy the solders no longer have any means of defending themselves, the fate of the battle is decided in an instant and the carnage follows. the Highlanders bring down two men at one time with their dirk in the left hand and another with the sword.

Comments.....The chevalier was an eyewitness to  three charges the method described here accords with the treatises quoted above. The opponents weapon is controlled and a single time attack is made, that is an attack at the same instant as the opponents attack which is possible because of the target. There are other accounts describing the sword being used to cut aside bayonets and pikes which makes a bit more sense to me given the small size of the shield.

 The treatises warn of the hazards of blinding ones’s self with the shield, agree that the opponents weapons must be controlled with the target and sword before an attack is made and that the target limits the options of the fighter. Silver notes this as a disadvantage while Page states that it is because of the advantage the shield gives.  The target is frequently described as “a wall” and the treatises state that a fighter must manoeuvre into position in order to launch attacks.  The targe is feinted in both McBane and Page being drawn up high to defend the head before the true attack is made on the body.
The treatises are remarkably consistent over a few hundred years and hundreds of miles to the extent that I have been able to illustrate Page’s work with Agrippas.  Would a highlander recognise the techniques listed here....? Given the consistency of the treatises I’d have to say likely yes. Would they agree with the opinions of the authors....well given that it’s martial arts I think we can definitely say a big NO!


Some truly beautiful targes can be found at this site

Fandabidozi recently made a superb video on targes 

The Cateran society have done sterling work bringing many of these treatise to life

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Highland Charge

The highland charge is the name of a famed tactic used  by highland clans during  the 17th and 18th centuries. These centuries saw a series of signal victories by armies largely comprised of highlanders during the wars that raged through the British Isles throughout this turbulent time. The tactic has received a fair amount of attention, discussion and revision.  In this article I will look at the tactic’s origins, its successes and drawbacks. I will look at how it fitted in with the warfare of the time, and examine whether any generalisations can be drawn about Gaelic martial culture. I was also look at the mechanics (as it were) of the charge itself.

 It would be best to start with a description of a “classic” highland charge. Having manoeuvred into a favourable position, that is protected from cavalry and cannon, with a field free of obstruction and preferably with the highland army attacking from height or with another advantage as at Killekrankie (1689) or Inverlochy (1645). Ordered into ranks with the chief and his retainers occupying forward positions with successive ranks conforming to the social hierarchy. Men took position with their kin so that they could observe one another’s conduct, to inspire, encourage and perhaps, shame. At the command  the highland army advances rapidly up to musket range and fires a volley. Some sources state that this was at a longish range hoping to tempt their opponents to give fire at the same range, which others state that they held their fire until at about 50 yards. In either case this will be their sole volley as afterwards the highlanders cast aside their muskets and move speedily into close combat. Some sources also state that the highlanders would avoid their opponents counter fire by dropping to the ground. With their opponents struggling to reload, or in the late 17th century fix bayonets, the highlanders use the shock of rapid contact and their superior hand to hand training and weaponry to drive their opponents from the field in a matter of minutes.
Musket with plug bayonet

  Casualty figures for battles often come across as somewhat unlikely but it certainly seems that in many cases casualties for the successful army could be considerably lower than the losers, the notable exception being Killekrankie where 800 Jacobites died comprising about a third of the total force. This can be contrasted with Prestonpans (1745) where the lost 100 total casualties about a 25th of the whole force. A successful highland charge would invariably lead to a bloody chase over many miles with commanders finding controlling their army difficult to impossible once the pursuit had begun.

  As is often the case with Gaelic  martial culture, the Highland charge is often seen in the light of being an ancient Celtic practice, maintained and cherished by a hyper-conservative culture. However modern authors such as Stuart Reid  have stated that the charge is more the consequence of amateurish enthusiasm and a response to undisciplined armies with chronic supply problems. Others find that the tactic was a canny response to the shortcomings of the  military technology of the time and a shrewd exploitation of Gaelic martial characteristics.

 The Ancient way of fighting......

“ They then ran down to the river with such incredible speed that it seemed to us as if they were at the edge of the wood, in the river, and on top of us almost all in the same moment. Then with the same speed they swarmed up the opposite hill towards our camp and attacked the men who were busy fortifying it.” Julius Caesar describing the Battle of the Sambre (57 b.c.)
“ After their custom gave vent thrice to a yell of horrible sound and attacked the southerns in such an onslaught that they compelled the first spearmen to forsake their post; but they were driven off again by the strength of the knights” The Galweigan attack at the Battle of the Standard 1138 as given by Ailred of Rievaulx

 There are simply too many historical inconsistencies to accept the idea of a headlong reckless charge as being an especially long lived  “Celtic” tactic.  Gauls, Britons and assorted Celts were certainly described as rushing  into battle by early writers but even if we choose to take those accounts at face value, dark age and medieval Gaels and Picts are rarely discussed in these terms. While medieval Gaels may have been idiosyncratic in the way they made war, there is no real evidence to base the later tactic of the highland charge as a development from a kind of  proto-charge with firearms taking the place of bows and “speeding things up”. In fact as we have seen in previous articles medieval and renaissance highlanders used a wide variety of sophisticated tactics and while charges are described they are not especially common or unique. While we cannot emphatically dismiss the idea of massed infantry charges being used by Scottish Gaels in earlier periods, evidence for the tactic is reduced to phrases such as “rushed to war”, “assault” etc, the use of a charge being inferred by modern writers. A good example of this is the Battle of Harlaw (1411) a major battle fought in the east of Scotland between Gaels and lowlanders. The battle itself has few contemporary sources yet the highlanders are frequently described by modern writers as assaulting the better-armed Lowlanders in a series of charges yet there are  no contemporary accounts which describe this.  It would certainly be an eccentric way of doing things according to the standards of the times. Despite being present in nearly every Hollywood film the idea of rushing headlong into an enemy formation was not at all usual for ancient and medieval armies instead armies advanced slowly to contact maintaining cohesion was paramount with even cavalry charges being tightly controlled until the final moments.
 While it would be nice to dismiss the idea of charges being an ancient practice this has proven hard, for example the MacDonalds are said to have charged into the government forces at the battle of Inverlochy (1431). However, it is very clear from the sources that rather than being tactically naive the Gaels ,if they charged at all,  used charges as a minor element of a range of tactics used. On examination of primary sources it is hard to find anything resembling the tactic which would later become known as “The Highland Charge”. Indeed the famed Irish Galloglass of highland provenance were heavy infantry through and through and the depictions and contemporaneous descriptions of highland troops are totally consistent with descriptions of the Galloglass. Moreover Scots highlanders in Irish service appear to have operated consistently with the Irish way of conducting warfare but with more use of archers. 
Galloglass in action
The charge itself took at least some of its effect from the exploitation of the slowness of re-loading period firearms As Gen Hawley states “you’ll never get a chance to fire a second”. The utility of making a speedy advance through bow shot or indeed at an enemy who is  standing waiting for you in formation is questionable. loss how to proceed 

“Be sparing of your powder, we have none to throw away. Let not a musket be fired except in the very face of the enemy. Give but a single discharge, and then at them with the claymore, in the name of God and the King”
“Gentlemen: it is true you have no arms; your enemy, however, to all appearance, have plenty. My advice to you therefore is that as there happens to be a great abundance of stones upon this moor, every man should provide himself, in the first place, with as stout a one as he can manage, rush up to the first Covenanter he meets, beat out his brains, take his sword, and then I believe he will be at no loss how to proceed!”
Quotes attributed to Alistair MacColla at the battle of Tippermuir (1644)
MacColla at Auldearn

 It is not until the early modern period, well into the age of gunpowder that a tactic like the “charge” began to be practiced on a large and consistent scale . During the wars of the three kingdoms armies largely comprised of highland troops fought regular armies operating in a thoroughly modern mainstream European manner. Alistair MacColla  is sometimes credited with “inventing” the charge during this period in Ireland with his veteran Irish forces then bringing this successful tactic to Scotland with him and introducing it to the clan armies that were led by the Marquis of Montrose.
 Another explanation of the development of the charge is that it was way of coping with the amateur nature of Highland armies, both in terms of their lack of training, discipline and the lack of ammunition in their armies.  Highlanders serving in the 18th century British army  performed well,  but clan levies certainly would not have had the training to keep pace with modern European armies. Indeed Lord Murray noted that ; “they don’t like to be exposed to the enemy’s fire, nor can they resist it, not being trained to charge as fast as regular troops, especially the English wch are the troops in the world yt fires best” 
 The lack of ammunition could certainly have been a factor, Highland armies did not often successfully engage regular forces in firefights in the conventional manner though in later campaigns were provisioned well enough to be capable of engaging in firefights. It should also be remembered that the clansmen encountered by MacColla would have contained large numbers of archers who would have had no real ammunition shortages.

 Highlanders were by no means the only forces to adapt to the limitations of muskets by giving a volley as a prelude to moving rapidly to close combat. English forces in the civil war also would give a volley before closing with clubbed muskets, the veteran Swedish yellow brigade would also advance rapidly to contact. Neither the English nor Swedes could be described as enthusiastic amateurs with supply problems, moreover given the low level of close combat training in both countries or lack of “heroic martial culture”  we cannot really ascribe the rush to close combat as being a consequence of a desire to “get to grips” in the ancient manner. Perhaps they felt as the later British General Burgoyne was to say in 1777  “The officers will take all proper opportunities to inculcate in the mens’ minds a reliance on the bayonet; men of their bodily strength and even a coward may be their match in firing. But the bayonet in the hands of the valiant is irresistible.”.  It should be noted that many of MacColla’s Irish men (and many of the Scots too) are likely to have served in the international brigades of the continental armies during the thirty years war so may have seen this tactic developed there.

Necessity being the mother of invention, we can imagine perhaps a determined group of experienced soldiers on seeing their desperate supply problems but keenly aware of their own ability deciding to speed up their already fast advance to contact, or thinking to try out something they saw on the continent. When this way of dealing with powder supply problems reaches a culture with a strong tradition of hand to hand personal combat it’s not hard to see it being enthusiastically and universally adopted particularly as the tactic proved so successful.

 So how and why did it work?

At first blush advancing over a field of even moderate length into the fire of thousands of firearms seems to be a recipe for disaster. We might expect outcomes similar to the Somme (1916) or the Zulu war (1879). However, firearms of the period were very inaccurate. In a recent test in Austria period firearms were tested for accuracy. This was under laboratory conditions with firearms shot from a rest, detonated electrically and using modern, superior, powder. Despite these advantages the best result was 50% accuracy at 100 metres at a roughly man shaped target with follow up shots being even less successful. In period armies including the British, French and Prussians tested the potential accuracy of their soldiers and achieved even lower accuracy. Many commanders of the time held fire until well less than 50 metres. English commanders of the civil war recommended giving fire at two pike lengths as did the Duke of Alba, this is a stunning 10-15 metres. Training and standardisation improved through the 17th-18th centuries but quality of firearms, ammunition and training remained at fairly low levels.  While a close range volley was part of the tactic from the charge’s inception the British Army also began to employ a single devastating volley at close range  “even that rank not to fire till they are within 10 or 12 paces, but if the fire is given at a distance you probably will be broke for you never get time to load a second cartridge,” Gen. Henry Hawley. This in place of the continuous roll of “platooning” fire normally employed by contemporary armies.The horrific Jacobite casualties at Killekrankie, 600 or so coming from musketry, are unusual and from analysis of 17th-18th century battles musketry alone does not seem capable of stopping a determined charging force.

“we left our guns, drew our swords and targets like lions , yet we were obliged to draw our pistols to break the first ranks; then they broke, and we hashed and slaughtered at them like fury” Captain James Mor describing the fight at Prestonpans
 Author Stuart Reid claimed that without a general panic in opponents lines a charge would not be driven home . He goes onto interpret the pause in the left-hand flank charge at Culloden as being caused by an unfleeing Government line, he also claims that the bitter fight of the Macraes on the left flank at Sherrifmuir was caused by the stubborn resistance of Government troops to flee. General Hugh MacKay the government commander at Killiekrankie also stated that highlanders would be repulsed if infantry lines remained firm. It seems redundant to point out that a fleeing enemy is preferable to one interested in giving you a fight however, even if we allow that the examples above are correct interpretations there are numerous accounts of  hand to hand fighting in accounts of highland battles in this period.
“At last they cast away their musquets, drew their broadswords, and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots a-piece; broke us, and obliged us to retreat”. Donald McBane.

Indeed the pause in the charge at Culloden was likely caused by multiple factors including murderous grapeshot fire, the charge crashing into itself due to the “wedges” swerving to avoid the cannons and the  topography of the ground ahead of the government positions. The left flank of the fight at Sherrifmuir was obstinate but rather than caused by a lack of Jacobite drive to engage an unfleeing enemy was more a bitter fight of rallying and chasing troops with the Jacobites continuing  to be broken then rallying under assault by Government cavalry. Highlanders certainly never seemed to show reticence in engaging troops in other contexts and it seems unlikely that they would be relying on fear to break an enemy before they closed on them.

 The hand to hand fight.

 In the ‘45-’46 campaign Government troops made several efforts to overcome, or at least stand up to,  highlanders in hand to hand combat. This implies that hand to hand combat was actually expected and that the government forces did not consider their training or equipment up to the task. As at Killekrankie steel skull caps after the type sometimes worn by cavalry were issued to be worn under soft hats, which certainly dented more than a few highland swords, while evidence for the Duke Cumberland’s famous drilling of soldiers to bayonet to the right may not exist what is certain is that soldiers were far more confident in their abilities after Falkirk implying perhaps that drilling in bayonet fighting was happening. Mutual defence was always part of bayonet drill and while improvised, a long musket with a fierce blade wielded en-masse was a formidable obstacle.To say nothing of earlier pike formations. 
From Donald McBane's fencing treatise

 Donald McBane a 17th-18th century British soldier had to pay for fencing tuition receiving none from the army. While issued with swords it would seem that British soldiers were expected to rely on their bayonets and their mates. Clubbing muskets, that is swinging the musket from the barrel with both hands, was common in the age of  pike and shot but continued on in later periods and McBane describes doing just that when facing highland forces at Mulroy (1688);
 “I was sadly affrighted, never having seen the like before, a Highlander attacked me with sword and targe, and cut mt wouden handled bayonet out of the muzel of my gun; I then clubbed my gun and gave him a stroke with it, which made the butt-end to fly off; seeing the Highland men to come fast upon me, I took to my heels and run thirty miles before I looked behind me, every person I saw or met, I took for my enemy...”
Throughout this period mainstream European armies were filled with a mix of some volunteers, conscripts, impressed men, desperados and the lowest stratas of society. This resulted in an uneven psychological make up of the military ranks with motivation being provided by camaraderie, fear of punishment and sometimes genuine conviction. As I have noted before it is a miracle that early modern armies performed as well as they did. We can easily apprehend that it would be a challenge to motivate such soldiers to stand and fight in the face of an onslaught of charging “barbarians”.
  The feudal nature of highland armies also featured their fair share of impressed men who may have had absolutely no desire to go anywhere near a battle. The Jacobites did not impose fearsome punishments on their army in the name of discipline but as the army reflected the social structure of the men’s home communities social pressure would be a more compelling motivator to fight, or at least act like one is fighting. While we cannot say that everyone in highland society was a warrior, we can say that it was a warrior society and that martial values, heroism even, were held paramount.  It was the front ranks of the highland charge that bore the initial brunt of the fighting and in those brief minutes were where the battle was won or lost. Our front rank was comprised of the chief or proxy, his immediate retainers, the tacksmen and in earlier periods his luchd tagh or bodyguard and others forming the top stratas of the society. In an honour based society they  had much to gain and much to lose from their conduct in battle. They were profoundly aware of their place in the society of the deeds of their ancestors and their obligations to the chief, their precedents and their posterity.

 By the mid 17th century the highland elite were armed for close combat with the target and broadsword they would carry for the whole of the period of the charge. The Chevalier de Johnston describes the highlanders using the shield to knock aside bayonet points whist bringing the broadsword down at the same moment. Once into the press the dirk held in the left hand, the shield rim, or targe spike and the sword would be used until the weight of following up clansmen broke the enemy formation. Presumably two handed swords and polearms carried in earlier periods would have been used to push aside pike points as in mainstream European armies. Training schools ensured that young men were well versed in the use of these weapons and a culture of cattle raiding and private warfare ensured that the culture had a weight of experience behind it. 
Highland weapons

By the 18th century this was a society that was in a state of profound change. The cattle raiding culture that produced young men familiar with and inured to the hazards of war was effectively over. The last clan battle was in 1688 and the sense of being a warrior in a warrior society was becoming more and more theoretical. Despite this the charge remained highly effective until the last desperate and a-typical fight on Drummossie moor.

 When the charge worked it worked with spectacular success. By the use of this tactic, smaller less well supplied forces could defeat armies they could not possibly hope to beat by normal means. The obvious drawback was that  it was hard if not impossible to prevent the army from taking off in pursuit of a flying enemy potentially leaving the field to the enemy. The inherent disorder of a charge once committed was potentially hazardous with the confused order “STOP” leading to serious disruption during the battle of Falkirk (1746). That battle gives the lie to Wade’s comment that the highlanders could not withstand cavalry though commanders were keen to operate on ground that was hard for cavalry and only came up against well deployed, manned and utilised cannon fire at Culloden (1746).

While the charge was highly effective in battle the tactic itself was not  war winning. Highland armies has the potential to engage in a more or less conventional manner, as seen at Auldearn (1645), Clifton (1745) and Glenshiel (1719) but this was a rarity and generally highland forces were disappointing in such circumstances moreover they struggled with sieges against determined defenders.  It must be said that the development of the tactic led to an incredible ability to leverage the strengths of highland armies and exploit the weaknesses of their enemies which lead to a string of some of the most extraordinary victories against almost overwhelming odds in European military history.



There follows some contemporary descriptions of the Highland charge.

Martin Martin of Skye
“THE ancient way of fighting was by set battles; and for arms some had broad two-handed swords and head pieces, and others bows and arrows. When all their arrows were spent they attacked one another with sword in hand. Since the invention of guns they are very early accustomed to use them, and carry their pieces with them wherever they go. They likewise learn to handle the broad sword and target. The chief of each tribe advances with his followers within shot of the enemy, having first laid aside their upper garments; and after one general discharge they attack them with sword in hand, having their target on their left hand (as they did at Killiecrankie), which soon brings the matter to an issue, and verifies the observation made of them by our historians: Aut mors cito, aut victoria læta. “

General Henry Hawley
"They commonly form their front rank of what they call their best men, or true Highlanders, the number of which being always but few , when they form in battalions they commonly form four deep and these Highlander’s form the front of the four, the rest being lowlanders and arrant scum. When these battalions come within a large musket shot or three score yards (50m) this front rank gives their fire and immediately throw down their firelocks and come down in a cluster with their swords and targets, making a noise and endeavouring to pierce the body or battalion before them - becoming 12 or 14 deep by the time they come up to the people they attack. The sure way to demolish them is at three deep to fire by ranks diagonally to the centre were they come, the rear rank first; and even that rank not to fire till they are within 10 or 12 paces, but if the fire is given at a distance you probably will be broke for you never get time to load a second cartridge, and if you give way you may give up your foot for dead, they being without a firelock or any load, no man with his arms, accoutrements etc, can escape them, and they give no quarters but if you will observe the above directions, they are the most despicable enemy that are"

Donald McBane
“The sun going down caused the Highlanders to advance on us like madmen, without shoe or stocking, covering themselves from our fire with their targes. At last they cast away their muskets, drew their broad swords and advanced furiously upon us, and were in the middle of us before we could fire three shots apiece, broke us and obliged us to retreat” 

Field Marshal George Wade
“ When in sight of the enemy they endeavour to possess themselves of the highest ground, believing they descend on them with greater force. They generally give their fire at a distance, they lay down their arms on the ground and make a vigorous attack with their broad swords, but if repulsed, seldom or never rally again. They dread engaging with the cavalry and seldom venture to descend from the mountains when apprehensive of being charged by them” 

Lord George Murray
“Any man yt ever served with the Highlanders yt they fire but one shot and abandon their firelocks after. If there be any obstruction that hinders them of going on the enemy all is lost; they don’t like to be exposed to the enemy’s fire, nor can they resist it, not being trained to charge as fast as regular troops, especially the English wch are the troops in the world yt fires best” 

For more on the accuracy of muskets please see these excellent blogs

Saturday, 4 November 2017

“Revenge, Revenge tomorrow for mourning today for revenge!”[1]

Battles in the Scottish Highlands

 The history of the Scottish Gael can be told as an arc of gradual cultural estrangement to the South followed by increasingly hostile and bitter conflicts aimed at resisting the domination of the Scottish Crown. In a strange quirk an ever decreasing number of clans pinned their fortunes to the then British House of Stuart which formed the cultural background for the last century or so before Culloden. Why the Clans of the West would follow the house of Stuart to destruction is a puzzle given the outright, genocidal hatred the Stuart crown had shown to the Gael. It must I suppose be remembered that the clans looked to their own fortunes rather than the national interest and that other enmities, religious or feud based (the Campbells were famously allied to both the anti-Stuart covenanters and Hanoverians) were uppermost in the minds of chieftains and senior clan retainers.

 Rarely did the Scottish Gael fight conventional forces before the mid 17th Century save in Ireland where Scottish Gaels fought alongside their Irish cousins. There are few descriptions of how Scottish Gaels fought by outsiders before this point though later accounts match very closely with what was said of combat in Ireland. Irish sources do not note any differences between Irish and Scottish forces excepting that “redshanks” were much harder to beat. It would seem safe to describe Scottish tactics as being the same or similar to those of the Irish. That is an elite of heavy infantry armoured in mail and carrying large axes or similar weapons supported by lightly armoured caterans though there is more evidence that the bow was far more widely carried in Scotland and that the heavy infantry featured far more in Irish warfare.

 In Ireland the Gael was reckoned a “flying enemy[2]” “do what we can we shall never fight with them unless they have a will to fight us[3]” as Fynes Morryson said “(they) fight upon bogs and passes of skirts of woods where the foot being very nimble come off and on at pleasure….exceeding swift and terrible executioners”[4]. Even Lord Mountjoy reckoned that the Irish were the better at hand to hand combat. To press their own advantage and attempt to negate the English advantage in missile weapons, the Irish would use the land, rivers, woods, fords and man-made obstacles (“where to the natural strength of the place is added the art of interlacing the low bowes, and casting the bodies of trees acrosse the way[5]” to create situations to their advantage but upon resolution of the enemy would not press the matter “their common souldiers are too hard for our new men, yet are they not able to stand before such gallant men as will charge them[6]

 I will be looking at how history describes bows in use during the battles fought by highlanders through the early modern to medieval period. I will only be looking at battles where bows were used and will be using these notes to develop my powers of narrative and description.  The list is not exhaustive by any stretch though I have selected battles that I believe are representative. All (or at least most) clan conflicts before the mid 17th Century featured bows though not all the histories make mention of archers or how they were employed.

 Let’s start at the end………

The Stand-off at Arkaig 1665

 This was not really a battle but represents the last time archers were used in strength in highland warfare.  The long simmering feud between the Clans of Cameron and Macintosh came to a head in June 1665. The Scottish Privy Council ordered the clans to settle the disputed lands around Arkaig. There was much bad blood between these clans and the negotiated settlement was to no one’s taste.  Soon enough Cameron scouts reported that 1500 men of the Clan Chattan confederation, headed by Macintosh were on the move through Lochaber.

 Ewan Cameron chief of the clan Cameron sent round the fiery cross and was aided by his allies among the MacDonalds and MacGregors. Outnumbered they gave ground to the Macintosh confederation and withdrew to hold the only ford over the river Arkaig. For two days the armies sullenly watched each other over the waters. Confident of victory and frustrated that the fords were held; Macintosh moved his forces along to the loch to look for another crossing place.

  Ewan Cameron was a wily and highly experienced warrior. Seeing his enemies movement he ordered a trench dug at the ford, leaving 50 picked men at the trench he moved his main force to oppose Macintosh. He also secretly dispatched Cameron of Erracht with a strong body of men across the river in boats. Lochiel’s plan was to move through forced marches and offset his opponent’s numerical superiority with surprise attacks from two directions. The main body would be moving 18 miles and presumably this would be done at night to prevent Macintosh re-acting to the move.

 Lochiel had much experience moving bodies of men in this fashion and his troops were more than adequate to the task, baring poor luck it is safe to assume that Cameron would have made a good fight of it, however warriors from the Campbells of Argyll managed to use the threat of intervention to bring the warring parties to a peaceful settlement.

 So the last use of archers in the highlands ends in nary a shot being loosed, no mention is made of how the forces were disposed but 50 “doughty” men with bows in an entrenched position over a ford would be a very difficult proposition.

Inverlochy 1431

The battle site today

 Gaelic armies were very fast and frequently chose when and where to fight. They used their superior mobility to seize the best positions on the battlefield.

 The conflict between Alexander Lord of the Isles and James I reached a head when James I both humiliated and imprisoned Alexander during their long running dispute over the sovereignty of the Isles.

 Humiliating a proud and powerful Gaelic chieftain proved to be a major mistake. Alexander’s followers converged from all over the Islands of Scotland landing their birlinns (a ship derived from the Norse Longship) in the great glen. Full of furious indignation they swiftly moved up to engage the Royal army. The Royal army of James I was commanded by the inept Earl of Mar who on being told of the advancing host laughed it off and returned to playing cards. With such inspiring leadership it is no wonder that a warrior named Alasdair Carrach managed to infiltrate a force of 220 archers onto a hill flanking the Royal position.

  Mar’s decision caused a rift between the royal leaders the Lord of Huntly responded to Mar’s recklessly casual attitude “I know full well the doings of the big-bellied carles of the Isles” by drawing his men off to spectate rather than fight.

 Unprepared with a divided and careless leadership the Royal army was thrown into chaos as Carrach advanced down the hill, his men shooting volleys as they came. Stung by the impact of volleys of arrows and taking heavy casualties the royal army fled when the bulk of Alexander’s men crashed into their front.

The resulting slaughter cost the royal army 900 dead. Mar was grievously wounded with an arrow in the thigh; The Earl of Caithness was also killed along with over 900 of his army. The MacDonalds it is said lost no more than thirty men.

Blar na Leine 1544

Graham Turner's study of Blar na Leine

 While on one level this battle was the result of clan rivalries the main instigator, as was the case through much of 16th century, was the Scottish Crown. John of Moidart along with many clan chiefs was abducted under trust. A puppet leader, Ranald Gallda, was installed by the Frasers of Lovat. Ranald better known as Raonuill nan cearc or Ranald of the hens due to his parsimony was a deeply unpopular figure for the three years of his leadership. Ranald was deposed and slunk back to Lovat as soon as John returned in 1543.

 Fraser of Lovat prepared to assert his right but was cut of by the fierce John of Moidart. True to the ways of his fathers John led a great harrying east into the lands of the Frasers and the Grants. His fierce nature and the possibility of booty inspired not only other septs of the MacDonalds but also the Clan Cameron.

 Taken as provocation by the government the coalition of the Frasers and feudal levies of the Grants advanced on John’s forces.  A cunning warrior John of Moidart retreated into rough and broken country around his home territories. Crown forces increasingly worried about being isolated in hostile mountainous territory called off their pursuit.  As they withdrew John shadowed them keeping his forces well hidden patiently waiting for the right moment to strike. The Crown forces split into two factions, Huntly and Clan Fraser, as they headed for home.  This was the moment John had been waiting for, his forces now raced to intercept the smaller force of Frasers. Alerted to John’s pursuit and seeing he had no choice but to fight Fraser arranged his men to face Moidart. Perhaps due to caution or lack of confidence Fraser sent a small group of clansmen to secure a pass and thus a means of escape. The battle began with a ferocious exchange of arrows mingled with insults. The exchange of missiles lasted for quite along time, until the archers had exhausted their stocks. Then as the “opening ceremony” closed the warriors moved up to engage with each other THE ancient way of fighting was by set battles; and for arms some had broad two-handed swords and head pieces, and others bows and arrows. When all their arrows were spent they attacked one another with sword in hand.”[7]. As both sides closed, archers continued shooting using spent arrows at extremely close range before resorting to swords and axes. Fought in the heat of July this “battle of the shirts” resulted in a pitiless slaughter leaving only a handful of men alive on either side.

 However…… is the Fraser tradition that the Macdonalds also took heavy casualties. Battles fought with hand weapons traditionally resulted in a much higher casualty rate for the losers than the winners, most casualties being inflicted on defenseless, fleeing troops. Effectively backed into a corner the Frasers may well have fought to the last man but heroic last stands were not a part of Gaelic tradition and in fact flight in the face of defeat was common place.  Moreover in the guerilla style combat that typifies the Gaelic tradition frequently resulted in very one-sided battles with battle not being risked unless a decisive advantage was perceived. It would seem strange for John of Moidart to so effectively arrange things to his advantage only to then discard that advantage. Considered a major victory by the Macdonalds I suspect that they did not in fact take particularly high casualties and that this is a fabrication by the Frasers to protect a wounded pride. Certainly the men commanded by John of Moidart were able to use the victory to successfully mount raids into the lands of the Frasers.

Tullich 1652

 One of the later battles to feature archery (but by no means the last) was fought between The Earl of Glencairn and The occupying army of Cromwell’s England. In bitter spring weather Ewan Cameron of Lochiel was charged with holding a pass against the English General Lilburn. Lochiel’s force was one half formed of archers and he positioned them among rocks and broken ground against the English cavalry. Using their superior knowledge of their own country the highlanders held off the cavalry for many hours “galling them severely[8]” with arrows. The cavalry could not make their way over the snowy, rocky landscape in the teeth of the arrows. Eventually after having suffered many casualties the English called off their attack frustrated at being unable to make contact with Lochiel’s forces. Being under an aggressive and enterprising commander Lochiel’s archers shadowed them the whole way back keeping up a demoralizing and harassing rain of arrows as they made their way over bitter mountain paths.

 Ewan Cameron was astute at using the rough country of the highlands and the particular abilities of his clansmen, especially archers, to effect victories against larger, or more well equipped foes. In the dying days of the 16th Century a youthful Lochiel found himself at odds with the Laird of Ardkinglass. Ardkinglass commanded 800 men and had retired them into a secure position for a night’s rest. Undaunted by the number Lochiel went to harass the foe with a handful of men. Using both the cover of land and the night he maneuvered his forces around the enemy army. Spaced so as to accentuate their number, they “fired” from concealment then lying flat moved to a new position to shoot again. The forces of Ardkinglass were naturally discomfited by this and were thrown into some confusion. Expecting attack from any quarter and greatly unnerved they left for their own lands at daybreak taking their few casualties with them. While Lochiels’ memoirs don’t mention whether the “fire“ was from muskets or bows, both were in use in the highlands at this time, with bows being more common. In addition the handful of men with Lochilel are described as servants and so are unlikely to have been armed with muskets.

 While the noise and fire of muskets would have been horribly amplified by fear and the night, the dark whizzing of arrows would effectively conceal the paltry number Lochiel had with him and present a far more insidious and unnerving threat.

Curlew Pass 1599 Blar na Pairc 1491
Add caption

These two battles though separated by 100 years show cunning use of missile troops by Gaelic armies.  In both cases missiles were use to full advantage to destroy an experienced enemy with major advantages in size or equipment.

 Alexander Lord of the isles pushed a large force of Islemens, Macdonalds and allies such as the Camerons hard into Mackenzie country. They raided so comprehensively that they needed to send parties back to their home territories as they becoming weighed down with spoil. This force committed severe atrocities in one instance burning a congregation alive in a church. (This is known from other instances in highland history, it is to be wondered with such ideal country for hiding and with good local knowledge anyone would chose to hide up in a church and count on their enemies mercy, or respect for sanctuary).

 Stung by this outrage Coinneach of Kintail mustered the Mackenzie warriors and sped across country to surprise the host of the Lord of the Isles. Coinneach, on seeing the size of the host yet thirsting for revenge chose to exercise guile. He split off a force of archers and maneuvered them into the open, wild moorland.  They remained concealed in ambush overlooking a marsh, as Coinneach led his warriors forward hoping to lure Alexander forward into bow range.

 Alexander was only too happy to oblige despite his brother, Gilespic’s wise advice that so small a force as faced them was suspicious. Calling his brother a coward, Alexander ordered a charge. His vanguard crashed into Coinneach’s small force and engaged in a stiff fight before driving the Mackenzies back. Their blood up the Islesmen pursued them hard, but Coinneach had performed a very difficult maneuver, the feigned retreat.

 Alexander’s Islemen came under a withering crossfire from Coinneach’s archers stung by hundreds of shafts which sliced  into their flank as they became bogged down in the marsh the “fleeing” Mackenzies had led them into. A seeming easy victory was turned instantly into defeat as Coinneach spun his forces round and charged the wavering, confused and stumbling flank of Alexander’s army.

 Gillespic sought payment for his wounded pride by seeking out Mackenzie. He got his wish but was killed in the following single combat thus he paid the price for his brothers’ hot-headedness. Those Macdonald’s not killed in the battle or in the rout were slaughtered by the Mackenzies and the people of the country as they were caught up on the steep banks of the river Conan.

 Horror at  chaos that led to this battle and the destruction Coinneach himself wrought as he punished the MacDonald’s was instrumental in setting in motion the movement to break the Lordship of the Isles.

 The battle of Curlew pass was fought in the west of Ireland during the long drawn out conflict between the English state and the Gaelic chiefdoms of Ireland. This “9 years war” ended well for the English but featured many serious reverses and defeats for their cause.  Robert Devereaux the Earl of Essex returned to England after negotiating a controversial truce with Hugh O’Neill. Essex maintained he was poorly supported and indeed there is good evidence that he was being undermined by the powerful Cecil family in his absence from the English Court. However this seasoned soldier fought a poorly executed campaign which featured many defeats. His replacement brought the war to a successful conclusion at Kinsale aided by the uncanny Gaelic ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The 9 years war ended with the Flight of the Earls, the plantation of Ulster and set the political and cultural map of Ireland which continues to the present day.

 The English force at Curlew was commanded by the experienced Connyers Clifford who was ordered by Essex, again outmaneuvered by O’Neill, to re-take Collooney castle. Clifford marched close to 2000 men over the hills while the smaller Irish force under Red Hugh O’Donnell set an ambush on their line of advance as had been done to great success at the Yellow ford the year before.

 One of  the differences between Gaelic forces in Scotland and Ireland is that the Irish made extensive use of prepared positions. The Irish in general fought against conventionally armed and equipped English armies. While in Scotland the Crown sanctioned other clans or less well financed lowland armies to enforce its will. The superiority of the English in missiles and often in number meant that the Irish had long restricted themselves to ambushing and raiding, while in Scotland Gaels could try to fight more or less on equal terms, especially as lowland armies do not appear to have used archers or musketeers in such overwhelming numbers as the English.

 The Irish would dig entrenchments used felled logs or “plash” together living trees in order to funnel English armies into prepared killing grounds. Without an advantage or if the English didn’t take the bait the Irish would not offer battle. Unsurprisingly given that English armies were mostly filled with conscripts with often little to no training in personal combat the English usually came off second best as soon as close combat was joined.

 The Curlew is interesting as it is a battle where the Irish made sophisticated but a-typical use of the bow. Irish kern and even Galloglas are depicted with bows (which match the type used by Highlanders) yet the bow does not appear to have been used extensively in Irish combat. Given the large numbers of “new scots” mercenaries many of whom were archers in Ulster for the 9 years war I am inclined to believe that O’Donnell was using Gaelic Scots as archers for this engagement though I will admit this is a supposition.

 Connyers Clifford and his army made their way through the hills on the way to Sligo very much aware that they were in enemy country. This was an army on its way to war against an elusive enemy that specialized in lightning fast raids and ambush tension must have been very high. This poorly supplied force marched through hot August weather the 45 miles (over two hard days) to Boyle. At Boyle Clifford offered his men a good beef supper if they postponed their rest until they had passed through the Curlew hills. He had suspected the passes in these hills to be defended but had received information that they were clear. By the time his men reached the first barricade and found out that their commander had been tricked they must have been exhausted, famished and dispirited. It is very hard not to feel a great deal of sympathy for the soldiers of Elizabeth’s conscript armies.

 Under gunfire, javelin and heavy arrow shot, the English had to dismantle barricades, rock screens and plashed trees as they struggled up the hill. Stumbling and exhausted unnerved by the screams of the men around them and possibly with memories of the disaster at the Yellow ford in their minds, soldiers began to flee.

  The English had to force Irish missile troops out of the thin woods beyond the barricades before the vanguard was able to engage the Irish main force in the bog at the top of the pass. Fatigued and fraught after their battle up the hill and fighting on ground the Irish had chosen, the battle went against the vanguard. After their commander was killed and on Irish reinforcements arriving were finally thrown back into their own troops causing total mayhem. Despite heroic (and occasionally murderous) attempts to rally the troops the defeat was total. Connyers Clifford was killed attempting a counter attack and only the cavalry saved the English from a widespread rout. After finally rallying their broken formations they retired to Athalone leaving hundreds of their dead.

 This defeat led in Part to Essex’s notorious truce with O’Neill, his illegal return to England, rebellion and death.

Glen Fruin 1603

 This was a battle immortalized and no doubt “improved” By Sir Walter Scott. The origins of the battle lie in the dreech dispiriting mist of accusation and counter accusation. The Colquhouns occupied the rich fertile valleys which mark the transition to the lowlands and indeed maybe regarded as a lowland family, while the MacGregors had been marginalized by the powerful Campbell clan and occupied the barren valleys to the North. Surrounded by powerful and ruthless neighbours the MacGregors were slowly squeezed into near oblivion, rather than submit meekly they fought back and as such bore the full wrath of power denied its privilege.

 Generously we can say that both clans were providing for themselves and their hungry children as best they could in difficult circumstances, at worse we could say that both sides were locked in a bitter, hate-fueled tit for tat conflict using economic hardship as a pretext for indulging in near senseless violence which exacerbated difficulties for both communities.

 The battle may be regarded as a clan battle, or as a battle between two cultures the Gael and the Gall. The 17th century marked the escalation of the deepening enmity between the cultures that resulted in the massacre of Glencoe in 1692[9]. The Colquhouns raised a strong body of cavalry for this conflict and while the highlander were described in the usual terms; "halberschois, powaixes, twa-handit swordies, bowis and arrowis, andwith hagbutia and pistoletis."[10] The Colquhouns may likely have been armed in a more conventional 17th century manner, swords muskets pikes and so forth, bows were certainly seen as “odd” only a few decades later by lowlanders[11].

The story[12] goes that two young MacGregors denied hospitality killed and ate a sheep in the land of the Colquhouns. They were caught and hung for this (sheep stealing unlike cattle was considered a capital offence, highlanders mostly ate sheep). Naturally aggrieved at such summary justice the MacGregors responded and in the winter of 1603 both sides met to parley and agree compensation. Alistair Ruadh the chief of the Glenstrae MacGregors took 200 men but in accordance with agreement left 100 about three miles away from the meeting point by a stream called Allt a Chlèith.

 In this Alastair was wise, as the leader of the Colquhouns; Sir Humphrey had set 300 of his men in ambush. The parley went well but forewarned or just paranoid Alastair made his way back to his home territory via a different route, foiling the ambush.

 Sir Humphrey ordered his men to give chase and the MacGregors ran the three miles back to Allt a chlèith. The river itself could be forded only in a few places as it was wild and pitted with deep holes. The MacGregors managed to hold the Colquhouns off for a while until the men they had left in reserve, who were mostly archers arrived and started shooting down on the Colquhouns who were hemmed in by the banks of the stream in deep and freezing water.

 A number of Colquhouns died including several minor nobles, the rest took to their heels hotly pursued by the clan MacGregor. They rallied by a small hill but again broke after more of their number were killed. The jubilant MacGregors pursued them into the ordered conventional lines of soldiers that Sir Humphrey was dressing to meet them. The ensuing chaos as the differing bands collided resulted in a total defeat for clan Colquhoun while the MacGregors lost only a few men though the brother of Alastair Ruadh was among them. A MacGregor was also killed by an arrow by Eas Fhionnglais so at least some Colquhouns had bows.

 This victory did not actually do the clan any favours defeated in the field the Colquhouns took to the state for support. Using the powerful emotional prop of the “bluidy sarks” of the slain and a (possibly true) tale of murdered civilians the Crown acted with remarkable ruthlessness. James VI despite (or because of)his famous squeamishness was certainly no stranger to genocidal plans and the MacGregors were dealt with in a speedy and brutal manner “that unhappie and detestable race be extirpat and ruttit out” men were hunted down, bloodhounds being used on occasions. The clan name was forbidden and all became outlaws, their heads even fetching a reward.

 Alastair was finally apprehended and executed, even suffering the humiliation of being quartered. Many other MacGregors who fought were also captured and killed. The idiom “Winning the battle but loosing the war” has rarely been more apposite. 

 The battle though rather hasty does reveal certain traits. The speed and maneuverability of Gaelic armies is well demonstrated as is the desire to fight from ambush. The MacGregors made skillful use of the land and quickly took the initiative and kept it, the consistently fought from the best position and had the initiative and maneuverability to fully utilize the environment, archers were skillfully used and were positioned in a concealed ambush position for most effect. Bows were one of the weapons proscribed by James VI[13] and it is interesting that the archers were held back from the negotiations being concealed in case things got heated. It is possible that forces of archers were considered too aggressive, more overtly hostile than a protective or personal weapon.

 These battles awful, spectacular glorious and sordid demonstrate how archers were used by Gaelic armies in the medieval through to early modern periods. Gaelic armies specialized in fast moving guerilla like combat. Unencumbered by large supply trains and inured to the hard conditions of their native territories they were able to run rings round conventional armies and very rarely fought on ground that wasn’t of their choosing.

 Traditionally an archery barrage signaled the start of the larger pitched battles however companies of archers were frequently detached to provide cross or flanking “fires”. Shooting from concealed ambush was also a favoured tactic. Bows do appear to have been considered a tool of war rather than a personal weapon unlike a sword for example which could be worn with more or less impunity and would not excite interest let alone suspicion.  Ambushes could be hurried or executed with considerable planning, as was the case elsewhere the bow itself was never enough and could only really be used to deter or weaken an enemy before hand to hand combat finished the affair. While most warriors would be wearing armour strong enough to stop arrows “not withstanding that they are sent forth weakly”[14] armour was not Cap a pie as it was elsewhere in contemporary Europe and the general mustering of the clan would have been very lightly armoured indeed. Interestingly senior figures were killed by archers on a fairly routine basis.

 Gaelic war leaders made effective and intelligent use of the forces available to them, they well understood the potential of the bow and utilized it in ways to optimize its potential providing history with some tactically fascinating and skillful use of archery forces.

“You can’t take the glamour out of war” so said Tim Page the war photographer when asked to do just that. Through imagination one can build a rounded picture of the personalities involved in these conflicts. From a modern perspective they can appear lacking and indeed it is tempting to “psycho-analyse” them based on their actions and purported intent. In our mind’s eye we can replace the beautiful lines of the bow and the glamour of the sword with the soulless and tawdry aspect of the assault rifle. To do so immediately strips these men of the romance and thrusts them into the harsh glare of the modern world, where they immediately become little more than Afghan hill men or mafia gangsters.

 I often find that be staring too hard at men from the past I become appalled by them. In awareness of the outcome it can all seem futile, sons and fathers bones stretched out in the mud for nothing more than the vanity of “nobles” or distant governments.

 This is of course my modern view, these men were not psychopaths, they just lived in psychopathic times (which we still do we have just outsourced our neurosis) they knew the consequences and importantly bore them themselves. For Gaelic armies conflict meant an opportunity for enrichment, obligation to community and standing in the world. An expression of masculinity that the modern world simply can’t provide, and which I believe adds to the sense of purposelessness and emptiness felt by many men today.

 Historians and especially military historians are often too easy to gloss over the acts of past commanders, battles and wars are treated as little more than a rough game or an exciting “man ennobling” pursuit. It is hard not to fall into this trap especially when trying to introduce colour and drama to dry facts. I have tried to be dramatic but not enthusiastic. I have to admit for all my modernity the rain filled wind pulling at the plaid, the naked blade and the quite lilt of spoken Gaelic are hugely powerful images to me; it is hard not to be carried away with them.

    For the English soldier taken under threat of force from his community or family given a gun or pike and sent to the rain soaked fields of Ireland it is hard to feel anything but a deep sense of pity and incredulity that they fought as well as they did.

[1] A quote attributed to GlenGarry at the battle of Sherrifmuir 1715 The Jacobite Rising of 1715 by John Baynes
[2] Spenser
[3] John Zouche 1580
[4] Fynes Morrison 1617
[5] Moryson
[6] idem
[7] Martin martin
[8] Memoirs of Ewan Cameron

[9] Glencoe John Prebble penguin  1973
[10] Clan Cameron History
[11] Stevenson David  Highland warrior Alasdair MacColla and the Civil wars John Donald 2003
[12] Dewar manuscripts but also see tne clan Cameron history and this website;
[13] Donald Gregory
[14] Spenser.