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
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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.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

   Hallucinogenics and the Norsemen

   Hallucinogenics and the Norsemen

   How likely is it that the pre-Christian Norsemen use hallucinogenic plants in their rituals, or the gonzo/ HBO version: Did “The Vikings” get high on magic mushrooms? Shamanism both modern and ancient is also a practice which has a great deal of interest among modern western populations. Spiritual traditions of pre-Christian European peoples are of real interest to modern Europeans and the diaspora with much ink shed on the subject.

I am aware that other writers on European traditions have tackled on this issue but I have chosen not to refer to their work in this field relying instead on the source material, archaeology and supporting work done in anthropology and works on shamanism in general.

 What is known about the Pre-Christian (henceforth Heathen) beliefs of Northern Europe? Well enough exists to make evidenced assertions and yet there is so little evidence that most assertions can be reasonably refuted. Both shield maidens and Berserks can be evidenced from sagas and histories yet both can be easily dismissed as embellishments and works of fantasy. Human belief, ritual and spiritual outlook is a slippery enough subject even in modern literate times, we are dealing with a culture which ended a thousand years and more before our time, whose stories were written down by people who did not share their beliefs and lived themselves hundreds of years after the last heathen societies converted.
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There was a pantheon of Aryan (we're taking that word back!) Gods worshipped across the Eurasian world. In the North they are known to us as Odin, Thor, Loki and a host of others. In the Germanic world these “Aesir” gods shared the Pantheon with the gods and goddesses of a fertility cult. How this came to be is beyond the scope of this article but it is sufficient that these beings are attested to in archaeology and poetic devices which attests to their being a real phenomenon in Northern Heathenry. These beings also seem to have been worshipped alongside an animist belief in land spirits, elves and localised spirits in the manner of the more or less common to rural peoples world-wide. Though unlikely to have been so formalised the result may have been something akin to the Shinto-Buddhist spirituality of Japan.
Fairy dance, note mushroom

 Religious practice certainly consisted of rituals marking the stations of the year similar to what we can see today in mainstream society but probably conducted with more sincerity, harvest festivals, the Easter fertility festival Yule and so on. This marks the community bonding aspect of ritual practised by all societies including, dear reader, our postmodern, secular society.

 Alongside this more mainstream religion was witchcraft and a practice called “seidr”. This word seidr was translated by the brothers Grimm to mean “seethe” in the sense of boil. Interestingly the etymology of the word shaman also means seethe or boil. Seidr and witchcraft were seen as being somewhat less official and indeed were subjected to both restriction and then finally violence by later Scandinavian kings. 
  How much interplay with mainstream heathenry and seidr there was is hard to tell at this remove. The Oseberg tapestry found in the famous Norwegian ship burial contains very strong shamanic elements and was almost certainly associated with an elite figure Viking war leaders are known to have held pacts with  “entities” and the myths and legends themselves are filled with strong shamanic themes of shape shifting and “travelling” . A witch or visionary was employed by the entire community in Greenland for her insight. It is also worth noting that both witchcraft and seidr were associated with women though in a later purge a great many “seidrmen” were killed. Seidr was considered unmanly indeed Loki excoriates Odin:

“but once you practised seid on Samsey

and beat the drums as witches do

in the likeness of a wizard you journeyed among mankind

and that I thought the hallmark of a pervert”

It is hard to say whether the Norse thought that this carried the modern sense of being a “pervert” or rather, in those more robust times, it just meant being a bit too clever, not direct and just downright sneaky.  Archaeology has uncovered many pieces of jewellery with shamanic themes, especially of waterfowl, in addition to rattles and other paraphernalia still used in modern shamanic cultures. Combined with the literary sources it is safe to say that some kind of shamanism was practised in Norse communities as it was in neighbouring Sami communities until recent times.
Norse rattles or wands

 Shamanism, as writers like David Lewis Williams and Graham Hancock have argued, is the oldest expression of spirituality known to humanity. Almost certainly the impulse that drove Ice age Europeans to create unspeakably mysterious and incredible works of art deep in the earth was what we might call “shamanic” in origin. Pretty much universal among “primitive” societies the cosmology and practices of shamanism are remarkably consistent. Of course, over great spans of space and time there is divergence but in general the broad outline is shared and indeed there are very specific ideas that are near universally expressed. The role of the shaman themself is regarded as an intermediary between humans and a spirit world, the shaman often functioning as a seer or healer. Often the shaman goes through dreadful ordeals both physically and in the spirit world and  it is certainly not a path for the weak minded or faint hearted. 

 Consistent to all shamanic cultures is a belief in a multiple world cosmos, the imagery of the double helix, entopic phenomena, spinning tunnels, hatchings and so on and at deeper levels meetings with therianthropes, that is half human half animal creatures, and conscious though ambivalent entities . Shamanism as practiced by indigenous peoples is most certainly not a postmodern neo-religion of kumbayah and platitudes. Indeed the meetings with “spirits” are often terrifying and exercise a great deal of mental, even physical torment on shamans.

 The experiences that a shamanic practitioner encounters can be induced by a number of means, drumming, fasting, painful ordeals isolation and through chemicals. Lewis Williams and other researchers have managed to induce the experiences in laboratories using a variety of methods. All methods are caused by stimulating the brain to produce its own endogenous hallucinogen DiMethylTryptamine.

 Paul Bahn centred his argument against Lewis Williams “shamanic hypothesis” for the origin of cave art on the purported absence of suitable psychedelics in Ice Age Europe. While Lewis Williams reacted to claims that he had not “experienced” a shamanic journey by claiming that he “didn't want to fry his brain”. It is interesting that both men overlook the wide range of methods employed to incite this phenomenon and perhaps speaks to our own culture's obsession with “the drug war” and the quick-fix nature of this pharmacological age. Despite what many proponents of hallucinogens say few indigenous groups do actually use plants to induce shamanic trances and instead use isolation, drumming and other techniques.

 We have stated the case that there was likely a shamanic aspect to the Heathen religion of the Norse cultures, an argument that is widely accepted and not too controversial.  Sadly we are lacking both the archaeological evidence of a bowl full of magic mushroom tea and the saga “Ragnar ate a mushroom and visited the clockwork elves”, so what is available?

In Njal's saga the decision about whether to adopt Christianity was taken by a man who went into isolation and wrapped himself in a blanket to achieve a kind of “isolation tank” effect. This was a technique also used later in Scotland and Ireland for inspiration. Devoid of outside stimulation the brain creates entopic phenomenon, shapes and lights before the eyes, these can morph into tunnel like effects and at deeper levels lead to powerful hallucinations.

There was an “animal” dance performed by Varangian guards in Byzantium which was thought to be linked to an animal-warrior cult, archaeological finds of burnt bear claws and other iconography also hint at animal-warrior cultic practices. Odin is attested to have suffered many agonising ordeals for wisdom, hanging himself for the runes (lit.mysteries) and drumming with the witches on Samsey. As stated, rattles and shamanic effects are also known in archaeology. So there is some evidence for the physical methods of shamanism, as for plants there is a dramatic image of a mushroom on the Oseberg tapestry among much shamanic imagery and I have read that the Icelandic word for the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria ) mushroom is “berserker”, though this has proven very hard to confirm.

Oseberg detail with mushroom

 It is widely believed that the Greek Elusinian mystery was based on an hallucinogenic drink, but hallucinogenic use in Europe is more implied and suspected until recent times. Certainly Siberians used agaric mushrooms though through most of Europe grow safer Psylocbin mushrooms. The first recorded “use” of psylocybin mushrooms in modern times was the accidental poisoning of a family in Green Park London in 1799. It is interesting that this use took place in a major city during the industrial revolution. It is unlikely that a rural family would have made such a mistake.

 In addition to the continued association with agarics with fairies throughout European art history, I have heard that agaric mushrooms can be quite potent and when used as a smoke or shamanic smudge their more noxious effects can be controlled. This put me in mind of the lines from Grimnir's sayings:

 May he have Ull's protection and that of all the Gods

whoever first quenches the flames

for the worlds lie open for the sons of Gods

when they lift the lid off the kettles.

There is certainly nothing as explicit as the Central American depiction of mushroom cults. A small scale private mystery cult is implied in the sources pertaining to Norse culture and in common with many such societies the mysteries would be jealously guarded. While a plant agent would not be required I suspect that mushrooms were used by at least some pre-Christian groups although the practice was probably not all that widespread and may indeed have been contained within a select religious group. Knowledge of and probably use of some kind of hallucinogen, likely mushrooms makes the most sense in the context of elements of the sagas and archaeology but as is so common with much of the past the mysteries that they knew they kept to the grave.

Friday, 26 August 2016

New site

All new content will be posted here:

Please join me.  Selected old content will be posted there over the next week or two and then this blog will be closed.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Discussions with the bowyer Mike Roberts.

Here are some excerpts from a  series of emails I conducted over a few months with bowyer Mike Roberts. It concerns some of the paradoxes and questions raised by the sources concerning Gaelic archery. 

want a bowyer's opinion on some historical descriptions of Irish/Gaelic bows. 
we have three written descriptions one hostile, one friendly and one neutral they all describe a similar bow and we have pictorial evidence that agrees. In short it looks like we have to accept that the bows described are what people were using in period. I am unsure whether the wood would be able to take the strain of the design at high poundages.

 First question: What British reed would be usable as an arrow? 
Second: How would the described bows stand up to use, how hard would they be to make. It looks to me like the historical bows have a "D" section but this would seem to me to place a phenomenal strain on the wood and produce an appalling shooting bow. How high in poundage would it be possible to go?
Third: sinew string? In Western Europe, this sounds off to me. Have you an experience with waxed sinew strings in our climate. 
 So this looks like bows about 60-90 cm with a sinew(?) string shooting 55cm long reed arrows about 240 odd meters.


Also and unrelated I remember reading that the bow from Stellmoor was made of pine, any ideas. I would have thought a wider bow made from the heartwood would possibly make a bow capable of killing reindeer. 

Hi Neal,
umm reeds....I suspect it would have to be reed mace if native. Maybe somebody traded for some psuedosasa japonica at some point! Other than that I'm really don't know.
As you say if you try to make a wooden bow to those dimensions something has to give and if dimensions are set that short then draw weight would be the obvious answer. However the American Indians made plenty of very short but serviceable bows once the horse arrived in America but they were limited to short draws,wide limbs and maximum draw weight of around 60#. However they had started development of hornbows because that is really the only way to make short bows with a decent draw weight. Remember that cattle back then had much bigger horns, I've seen various hornbows made with cow horn and if you can get a piece to stay together (eg. not delaminate between layers) it is every bit as good as water buffalo. I would probably be tempted to hypothesize that a hornbow is the most likely way they built these short bows if their effectiveness isn't being exaggerated. After all Robin Hood had a Turkish bow  from the Crusades...didn't he!? Most people would say 'they can't be used in the rain/humidity of our climate' but I have been shooting one I made repeatedly for about two years with no loss of performance and it is finished with shellac varnish. Also people may say that they are too complicated to make and yes whilst you have to get every step perfect they can be made with very simple tools.
Finally sinew strings....well I've made a few and whilst not a master at making them and there being plenty of room for improvement they are still very effective.....when it's dry.....rain and sinew strings do not mix but that's not to say that they couldn't be water proofed. However back then nettle, hemp or flax would have been my bet as they all make excellent strings, grow very well here and would have been durable in the rain.
So there are my thoughts, I hope you can get something from them but if you have anymore questions feel free to fire away. 
I could make a simple hornbow that would meet the criteria and I think I know where there is a patch of reedmace...there is nothing like a working example :)

 Thanks Mike, I think that if they had used horn it would have been remarked on. Well it would be interesting to shoot some reed arrows, dangerous I would have thought. So what do you think laminated bows or that the descriptions are wrong? I wonder if the bows weren't built as described but shot at about 60#.
 There are laminated bows known from Scotland and Scandinavia, Horn bows are mentioned in Kings Mirror (from Norway) and Beowulf. Definitely  a possibility. Would it be a layer of horn on a yew bow or made from different materials?

Hi Neal, 
our best wood for hornbow cores would be yew or hornbeam. They simply have to be backed with sinew. A laminated wood bow doesn't really have any significant advantage over a selfbow, maybe 10 fps maximum if made to very exacting standards. If a reed can be found that is stiff enough there would be no problem in shooting it.

Hi Mike, so what do you think is the maximum draw weight we could expect for a self bow made to the dimensions given #60? I don't think laminated horn bows could have been at all common in Ireland or Scotland, it would be just too hard to keep them dry. The examples I know were used in forts so are possibly not representative and could have received lots of attention and care. We've only really got the reports of non military, non archers to go on and then it's only anecdotal. Despite hating the Gaels, Spencer's account seems plausible to me, he lived in Ireland and was intimately involved with the English administration. 

 "Shot forth weakly" compared to a warbow #60 or thereabouts would seem weak. Personally I don;t really see why warbows were so powerful experiment and historical accounts attest that armoured men were unharmed (but perhaps not unaffected) by arrows while #60 will wound an unarmoured man at 100 meters. I have recently seen estimates of English warbows as high as #200 draw weight, this seems excessive to me, sadly the discussion is so heated and emotional its quite hard to get a decent dialogue going. 

When we talk about what draw weights were used 'back in the day'  what we have to realize is that most people nowadays are a really poor example of what a human being is like....over weight, weak, not in the least fit etc etc As an example I can do at least 10 straight arm pull ups with two fingers purely because i go climbing lots. I don't even train specifically other than going climbing. Your average joe nowadays can barely do a full pull up with all their fingers it doesn't take much to transpose that example back a few hundred years and swop climbing for archery. IF you train specifically for something that is really important to you the sky is the limit. I can quite easily draw 100# with zero specific training for heavy bows I know that if I trained properly and it really meant a lot to me to keep it up I could draw a heavier weight still. When I was learning how to make hornbows i got Adam Karpowzi's book on Ottoman Turkish bows, in it he lists the dimensions of many hornbows that are in the Topaki Palace museum, i'm not 100% on the actual number without checking in the text but the avberage draw weight is around 140# (the weights can be worked out accurately by examining the draw weights of similar modern bows and comparing the dimensions of bending sections etc). Some of these bows are pushing 200#, there is also a monster 'double' bow that is estimated to be around 300# draw weight and there are records of it being drawn. also the distances that the Turks shot in flight are disputed but again Adam shows that it certainly is possible to get those sort of distances but you would need about 180# draw weight. When it comes to the English bows of yesteryear we have all the Mary Rose bows....IF you've actually made enough elb's to get real world experience of them then you quickly realize that with the unchanged dimensions of these bows you are talking about heavy weights, that is a fact. Those bows in my estimation would range from around 100# to around 200#. Like I say though the real problem when we talk about draw weights is a) most people nowadays are weak b)most people haven't made lots of bows for that real world experience c) most people have never trained specifically and for a long time for anything...and therefore have no real comprehension of what they are capable of!
Anyway enough rambling from me! If you have anymore questions I'll reply a bit quicker this time!
All the best

Lovely stuff, here are the dimensions : not past three quarters of a Yard long, with a String of wreathed Hemp slackly bent, and whose Arrows are not much above half an Ell long, tipped with steel Heads

so half an ell is 57cm (22") from a bow  68cm (27") long, we'll be generous and say this is strung. If the bow was a self re-curve in good quality yew what would be a reasonable upper limited on draw weight? 

Right I have had to do 10 straight arm pull ups off my stairs....phew I am still a man! I had to use all my fingers but then I'm not a rock climber. But I agree modern post industrial humans don't stand well next to our ancestors. You may have seen the post I did about runners in Scotland, it is shocking what people would do just as a normal part of their activities. I think Hardy puts the decline of the warbow down to (in part) the shift from heavy agriculture to more livestock pasturing producing people who found it hard to pull bows to the required standard. I'm not sure but it is interesting, I also think the environmental collapse in temperatures and concomitant reduction in physical build could also have had a part. Though in truth I think that the manifest superiority of firearms against heavily armoured troops was the deciding factor. 
 I agree that the sky is the limit in terms of the physical ability of the archer and would have thought that the bow/bowyer would be the limting factor. I have read that beyond a certain draw weight there is a marked trade off between accuracy and continued increased in power. The result being that beyond 170#(?) there is little benefit in increasing the draw weight. Modern archers shooting in the mid 150s seem to shoot as far as historical archers so I would guess most bows would be around that draw weight.  That said how the English warbow was actually effective is a bit of a disputed point. Armies were clearly not expecting arrows to kill with every shot or even that often so there was another factor of the weapon being exploited, probably the distruptive power of the volleys. A long winded way of saying a really high draw weight may have been required but without actually staging real medieval battles we can't actually know. 
 Did you manage to find a stave suitable for a warbow type bow?

honestly with those dimensions you couldn't make much more than a kids bow....The normal rule of thumb is that your bow should be double the drawlength you require from it and that's a bow that bends in the handle area (doesn't narrow here). If it has a rigid handle then you would double your drawlength and add the length of the handle/fades.
Even hornbows lengths are held to drawlength x 1.5. So a 22 inch draw would require a wooden bow of 44 inches (bendy handle), 44 + 8 = 52 inches (stiff handle), a hornbow with a stiff handle could be made to about 33 inches. Making a hornbow without a stiff handle would be possible and that bow might get you close to 27 inches.
You see I know that a wooden bow can't be made to those dimensions for that drawlength and not either break or take so much set that you wouldn't have to bend it to put the string on! However, just cruising my memory banks here, the Kalahari Bushmen use mega short bows with super light arrows and short draws, i'm not certain of what wood they use but I do know that it's super dense.....dunno maybe it's worth you googling them to see the gear they use if you don't already have an idea. The yuse poisoned arrows and don't really need any penetration, a super light and ease to carry archery set is their main priority. They use their superb tracking/trailing skills to get close enough.
What's know as Ultra' running is becoming more and more popular as people rediscover the capabilities of the human body. Every one of us who is born with all the bits we need working can run close to 200 miles a day. There are many examples of great distances being run in history but people tend to just dismiss them as fanciful! The thing that stops us doing it now are - modern shoes and laziness! I've been trying my hand at persistence hunting and have definitely got the deer tried but the ones i've got near to tiring out have given 'last gasp efforts' as if they knew the game was almost over and managed to lose me. Honestly i'm sure they know what i'm trying to do. Anyway that's another discussion. 
Yes there is a whole load of nonsense talked about draw weights.....I think testing armor of the period against arrows is more or less a waste of time as we weren't necessarily trying to put down armored men what we were trying to do is stop the other army advancing close enough to us to have to engage in hand to hand fighting - we were trying to take the horses out of the equation. Most horses don't like being shot by arrows.....even the best, most solidly trained horse will start misbehaving, to put it mildly, if you stab it with an arrow.....once a heavily armoured knight is without his horse he is immediately next to useless. Look at the arrows we were using big and heavy with a point designed for pure penetration - these arrows were designed to give a bloody good wallop to whatever they hit, they weren't designed to cause bleeding like a broadhead is. A broadhead will kill in minutes if it hits something vital but a bodkin won't necessarily do the same - we were trying to disrupt the 'common well known tactics' of the French. We knew how they would try to fight a battle so we designed our weapons accordingly. So these big, heavy arrows need quite some horsepower behind they to make them go far enough to be effective. We design a bow style that is relatively easy to make, gives you good yield from the yew logs you can get, you make it long enough so that you can draw it a long way to increase efficiency and of course you make the draw weight close to the upper limit that your men can use. As with the running distances there are examples of heavy bows in use in history and people dismiss them as too powerful because they can only just shoot a 50# bow themselves.......not a great basis for any meaningful conclusion to be drawn! As I mentioned before probably the most solid proof of the draw weights used is Adam Karpowzi's book on Turkish Hornbows and the bows of the Topaki Palace museum, it cannot be disputed that these were actual bows in use and his equations for determining draw weight cannot be dismissed as fanciful. If you can't get hold of a copy I could send you mine for a loan.
Yes I do have a couple of suitable staves for a heavy bow.

 Hmm funnily enough that description fits nicely with some drawings, what do you think 30#? I found the Royal Armouries tests on armour penetration very rewarding. They are less involved (shall we say) than some on the subject. They found chain mail alone was enough to stop any attack from a medieval weapon. This accords with contemporary sources. They also stated that these tests are incredibly difficult to do as medieval armour was made to an incredibly high standard which is almost unrepeatable (an colossally expensive) today. So as you write the effect of the heavy arrows was highly effective against armies rather than individual soldiers. England's greatest warbow victories were against the lightly armoured Scots again contemporary chroniclers state explicitly that it was the poor armour of the Scots that made them vulnerable. I think it was this factor that lead to the English in Ireland employing archers on such a massive scale. Now that said it looks alot like "Viking" bows were also way up in the mid 100 pound draw weights despite the vast majority of combatants wearing little armour and all carrying effectively arrow proof shields. As you mention a broadheaded arrow will kill an armoured animal in short order so in terms of lethality the Scandinavian bows were over built.  So it would seem the sheer physical impact of thousands of heavy arrows crashing into an army may by itself have been the desired outcome with any casualties being a welcome bonus, a bit like artillery barrages, though modern analogies are not too useful.

I have a bushman bow, it's a hypodermic needle for injecting poison. I have done some bow hunting here in France I think hunting with a rifle spoiled me! It's also quite a bit more visceral yet seemingly painless. 

 For my research project this is interesting at it seems that Gaelic bows were smaller and weaker but also employed somewhat differently, with an emphasis on dropping individuals or killing members of a rival group. This is why I am trying to work out potential draw weight of depicted or described bows.
 As for running , DO YOU KNOW wIM hOF (effing caps lock) yes I absolutely agree that humans are capable of physical feats of truly stupendous achievement. I am not at all convinced of persistence hunting being an evolved niche for humanity. I personally think that for hunter gatherers it is a technique that comes more out of the right circumstances (suitable prey and high temperatures) and I also think it is worth noting that the hunting success rate for chimps is as high as for industrial humans and way higher than persistence hunting. 

More thoughts here:

Also and unrelated have you ever put up a climbing wall? I am thinking of putting in a bouldering/traversing  area on the barn.

Hi Neal, 
Yes 30# would be possible but the wood with anything over a 13 - 14 inch drawlength would be breaking down fast. Yes you can draw bows past this 'ideal' drawlength but the belly wood cells lose their elasticity and the bow as a whole will become a much less efficient spring. The problem with this is that if you look at virtually every cultures different bows from around the world every one of them is the best bow that could be made with the materials available to them and the conditions it had to be used in. We just don't go wasting our time making 'rubbish' unless we can look at the whole situation  the bows in question would have been used in , tools, wood, weather etc it's hard to draw any real conclusions? 
Have a good Christmas.

 Yes I absolutely agree, spencer's measurement's make no sense at all. That;s a great way to look at it too. I would have thought anything less than a high hunting weight would have no utility at all and a minimum of 60# would be required. dRAW LEGTHS WOULD PROBABLY BE LOWER  as heights in the medieval period were lower than at present, but this is sadly conjecture. 
 It was certainly possible for Gaelic people to make warbow type bows they encountered them regularly too. It does look that it was a bow type they did not use in favour of a recurved and smaller type bow. Probably reflecting the raiding type warfare that predominated.

 I was thinking of taking a similar look at scandinavian archery, ever made an ovoid section warbow?

Have you read this, it's a useful document as (I assume) Native Americans were using bows of a far lighter poundage than warbows.

 The next post will be on some thoughts concerning the above article...I'm also ruminating over some points raised in a Thomas Sowell Essay on some of the Gaelic origins of Modern American "black" culture.