Sunday, 5 February 2012

Review of "Highland martial Culture"

Here is my amazon review of the book "Highland Martial Culture". The author Chris Thompson, replied to my review then retracted or deleted his reply after I wrote a rebuttal. I included much of what he had written in my reply but it came out a bit funny due to Amazon's formatting.
I include it here in a better and more spell checked format. I have to admit that I was being restrained when I wrote the review and response.

Christopher Thompson is the founder of the Cateran society, a society dedicated to the study of the martial arts of the Scottish Highlands. He has published several books on the subject and has had articles printed in various publications including his own Cateran Society website. He has developed a system of Highland Broadsword which he has made public through his website and his youtube videos.
With this book he is setting the Highland system of martial arts training in a cultural context. He argues well that establishing an ethical and philosophical context for the historical pursuit of these arts will help in the modern interpretation of them. He further argues that without study of the history of the cultures studied the students will fill the gaps in the knowledge from less than ideal sources e.g. Hollywood and fiction. He goes on to say, that the rational, sceptical paradigm of modern westerners was not shared by historical fight masters who lived with a very different world view.
He then covers his back writing that speculation is inevitable given the sources and the subject matter, and that he has included sources for us to conduct our own research. The sources include a the usual Dewar Mss, Reid, Prebble fencing manuals, Gaelic story collections a few websites and ,surprisingly, references to internet forums. There are no historical primary sources listed save the fencing manuals.
The first Chapter of the book is about the martial training of the Highland Swordsman. This is probably the strongest section of the book. Mr Thompson explains that the Clans were organised in to a martial elite who did most of the fighting and who later in their history were joined by a mostly poorly armed peasantry. He describes the importance of the bard and then describes how duels were conducted in Gaelic society. After a section on prize fighting he ends with a short section on the historical importance and definition of honour.
I'd have quite liked more sources in the first section; there are a number of primary sources describing the entirety of the Highland male populace being armed which would not agree with the view taken by Mr Thompson. He makes a number of small mistakes which may seem insignificant he talks about "English redcoats" and highlanders armed with "rifles" in the Jacobite uprisings. It may seem pedantic these are rather rudimentary errors which the author should not be making. He uses a quote to describe the highland warrior which was actually a quote by Dymock about the galloglaich in Ireland.
He gives a neat description of the Duel in mainland Europe and the purpose of it. He makes quite big error here however in not truly understanding the rise of European duelling. He maintains duelling occurred to protect a man's reputation in a strong interdependent community. He then makes the valid assertion that the Clan society was even more strongly linked and community based. However the rise of the European duel (of honour not judicial) occurs from the renaissance when men had to protect their reputation BECAUSE the society was being coming less community based.
Mr Thompson states that the highland duel was a test of skill as it was in Feudal Japan (I'd have loved a source here). He then gives examples from folklore he also gives some historical anecdotes as illustration. The problem is he has got the anecdotes quite wrong. Cameron of lochiel bit an English officer's throat out in a skirmish not in a duel and the outnumbered fighter challenging single combat for the right to leave was an Englishman at the battle of Worcester not a Gael asking for ancient privilege.
The sections on prize fighting and honour continue on in a similar vein. The section is riddled with unsourced definite statements about the society, errors abound and sources when given are erroneous or misunderstood. There is no discussion on conduct between warriors and between the warrior and society the social position of the swordsman, his duties and obligations.
The second section is about esoteric skills and the martial arts. Mr Thompson begins by giving us his mystic interpretation on some Gaelic folktales he lists the feats of swordsmanship from the Ulster cycle and then how to recreate them in the salle (training hall). He gives some Gaelic spells of protection a discussion on berserkers before a quick section on occult pacts.
Highlanders were certainly a superstitious lot and believed in all sorts of magic charms and mythical beasts. However the main thing missing from this long section is the fact that they were Christians. No mention is made of Christianity though druidism is mentioned several times. This whole section reads not as a discussion of the philosophy and spiritual beliefs of the Highland clans but as a how to for building up mystical powers. He draws very strongly on the old Irish myths (which were popular in the highlands) but deals not at all with the second sight or charm stones etc .From the first chapter we read that Mr Thompson is dealing mostly with the Highland elite and upper echelons (being the martial artists) yet there is no mention of the philosophies prevalent in Europe at the time despite their European educations.
Basically this is not a discussion of the influences and context of the Highland martial artist but a spurious list of tricks from an old source which highland swordsman may or may not have trained in. Annoyingly there are actual descriptions of the training of Gaelic warriors which it appears Mr Thompson has not seen.
The chapter on Diet and health in training is taken from the incredibly unreliable memoirs of Donald MacLeod. Much is known about the (surprisingly healthy) diet of the Highland peoples and of their food prejudices (disliking pork for example) nothing is discussed saved MacLeod's memoirs and a section on bathing in cold water and breathing deeply when training. The whole chapter is incredibly poorly researched. The only redeeming quality of this chapter is its brevity.
The concluding Chapter is some examples of Gaelic poetry. Again the chapter is brief (5 pages) given the importance of poetry to the highlanders it might be thought that not enough is made of this incredibly significant aspect of their society.
The appendices form some instructions and codes of conduct and a list of proverbs.
I have tried very hard to be fair to this book. The premise is a fine one though the execution is very poor. Mr Thompson has missed the richness of the society he was trying to portray by concentrating on extrapolating from the Cuchullain, and other Irish cycles. He seems keen to draw parallels between the highland tradition and the Eastern tradition. Wandering swordsmen= Ronin, duels being test of skill, war cries = kiai etc.
Where sources have been used they are frequently misused or incorrect and small but significant errors plague the text. Spurious and uncertain sources are used such as "Olde rabbit" on "Conjourer Conversation Corner" from an internet forum while no historical primary sources appear to have been consulted.
The sections on Beserkers and the occult were extraneous and no mention was made of the reams of modern research that have been done into the psychological states of soldiers. The omissions made throughout the book can only be down (I hope) to a lack of research. In fact in online discussions with Mr Thompson he does come across as quite poorly researched. When confronted with "lack of evidence" he seems to be happy to use his imagination and to make idle speculations on flimsy evidence. "An enemy's sword flashing in the sunlight in an on guard position has been described by some duellists as being virtually hypnotic" this in a section on hypnotising one's opponent in a fight.
The book starts with the idea that by not studying the context of the historical martial arts the student will fill the gaps with ideas from TV or fiction. The Irony of this book is that it appears Mr Thompson has done just that. He has created a quasi Mystical form of swordsmanship expanded from hints from fairy stories and 19th century romantic sources.
If you want to study the cultural context of the martial arts you pursue don't buy this book, I wish I hadn't.

Now my response with Mr Thompson's statements in bold.

Inaccurate and amateurish.

Firstly may I thank Mr Thompson for replying. I have read his reply and have found nothing in it to make me revise my review. However I will concede that the Dewar Mss counts as primary source. I will re-write the below review to say “historical primary courses” Though he has clarified his intent in writing the book. I would still recommend that my original review is read.

I write reviews chiefly to help people make choices when buying books. Frequently when I have been thinking of buying a book I look through the reviews to see how it has been received by others. Reviews are invaluable when using an online service such as amazon. I have thought about what purpose any rebuttal of Mr Thompson’s counter-review would serve. In this case I think it will strengthen the position of my original review. I am also keen to confirm reputation as a reviewer and fencer.

I have no personal axe to grind against Mr Thompson, the article he refers to is an aide memoir for students at the school I fence at. It is not a scholarly article and I make no claims to be a scholar. Why is this relevant to a criticism of my review?

I don't view Gaelic oral tradition with the kind of contempt” As I have mentioned in my comment I take great exception to this. I have a deep love of Gaelic oral tradition and, if we are discussing the martial culture of the highlanders, it was an intrinsic part of their lives. I do however question the fact that it is not tempered with historical sources. We would not accept a book on the martial culture of medieval knights to be solely (or overly) concerned with medieval romances.

I would like to go through some of the points and deal with them in turn. I will point out that I no longer own this book.

“there are a number of primary sources describing the entirety of the Highland male populace being armed which would not agree with the view taken by Mr Thompson." Be that as it may, the current consensus of both military historians and Gaelic scholars on this question does support the view that the "daoine uaisle" or Highland elite were much more heavily armed than the common clansmen.”

I didn’t argue that the highland elite weren’t more heavily armed. I stated that the there are a number of primary sources that describe the vast majority of the population being armed and openly armed.

The weapons recovered from the Culloden battlefield, for instance, support the view that only 20-25% of a typical clan regiment carried the broadsword.

The highlands had been garrisoned for some time by 1746 and subject to numerous disarming acts. The Penicuick sketches show two thirds of the highlanders armed with swords (where armed). Earlier military census show that swords were quite common. Only one knife was retrieved from the battle field are we to draw from this that only one knife was carried in the army and that the highlands were bereft of knives? The numbers of arms (of all types) recovered from the battle field is fascinatingly low but even though I’d like to expand on this but there isn’t the space.

By the mid eighteenth century the clan system was in terminal decline and under incredible pressure I would contend that the Culloden campaign is not reflective of the highland martial culture of the previous century (centuries)

the Highland Regiments in the French and Indian Wars," makes the point that the average recruit to a Highland regiment in the 1760s did not come from a warrior tradition as this tradition was specific to the Highland elite.

I would be surprised if any military aspect of the clan system would have survived the British Government’s cultural dismantling after 1746. I don’t think that there is any evidence that the highland gentlemen’s training survived either. Ordinary highlanders didn’t much wear the great or little kilt after the proscription, does this mean they weren’t worn before?

Indeed, and is it not the case that the far majority of the galloglaich were either Highlanders or of Highland descent

The quote comes from the late 16th century, highland descent? Yes but that still means the quote is incorrect. In addition the quote gives quite a different image to the historical image of highlanders being relatively quite short and sinewy.

despite the fact that the charms I included in the book are explicitly Christian,

This isn’t good enough, as Christianity was the dominant moral and cultural force in Europe and will have provide a significant portion of the culture that these men grew up in. Christianity deserved a far more thorough study than was given.

If he has access to interesting new information on the training of Gaelic warriors, perhaps Mr Matheson should write something useful to share this information with the WMA community.

In due time…….

He also complains that I do not reference the second sight, although I cannot think of what relevance this is supposed to have for a book on martial practices.

Isn’t this a book about the culture of the highland warriors? Second sight and visions before battle were not unusual at all. “Why has my captain a stream of blood?” asked a Campbell before the battle of Culloden. His Captain (long exposed to the rational, military mind of the south) laughed it off but was naturally killed in the battle. There a description of this event in one of the books listed in the reference section. I would say that such premonitions were hugely significant to a warrior culture.

This chapter was initially much longer, but when I discovered a record from Chelsea Hospital bringing MacLeod's story into question, I cut it down to its current size in order to retain only the information I thought was most reliable.

The chapter (if memory serves) was very short. If more sources had been referred to it may have been longer. Was there a deadline that had to be met which meant that there was no time for further research? The McCulloch book on the French Indian war contained information on recruit heights in the 1760s and the dietary peculiarities of the highlanders. The subject is vast and merited a lot more work.

I don't recall ever having a discussion with Mr Matheson, although I'm sure I did at some point. His personal opinion that I am "poorly researched" based on an email conversation seems a little sweeping if not malicious

Utterly without malice. In email conversations with you and ones that I have read you have come across as poorly researched. I stand by that statement and I believe the book and your response validate it.

I would encourage anyone to check out the Cateran Society's 100+ videos of broadsword training on Youtube

As would I they are well worth watching for those interested in historical swordsmanship.

I would contend that that does not make it a book about Highland Martial culture but rather a book about an element of highland culture.

I stand by my original review, I bear Mr. Thompson no ill will but this book is not in my opinion worth buying for the majority of martial artists.

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