Thursday, 28 June 2012

Highland arms before the 18th century

Swords and arms before the ‘45
From Agrippa's Rotella section
 Right so we discussed the arms of a highland army in the chaotic years of the early 18th century. We will cast further back now to see if we can shed any light on the murky middle ages. After the fall of the lordship of the Isles the Highlands descended into what was known as the age of the “creach” or raid, a period of intensified internecine conflict. The great houses of the mountains vied for power in the vacuum increasingly using (and being used by) the Southern government. It was an increasingly trying time amid a background of worsening weather in already marginal lands.
 The 16th century saw heavy involvement of Highland mercenaries in the wars in Ireland with big national conflicts with England including the defeats of Flodden, Pinkie and Solway. Into the 17th century Scotland and the Highlands were massively involved in the war of the three kingdoms and the continental wars. Before the Jacobite conflicts took over at the end of the century and on into the 18th.
  One of the most useful pieces of information over this period is a military census taken before the Bishop’s wars.  A roll of Athol men in three parishes in 1638 shows the proportions of weapons available: 523 men had 110 "guns" and two "hagbuts" to 149 bows. There were also 11 pistols, 11 long axes and halberds. There were 448 'swords' to only three two-handed swords. Only 11 men had helmets and mail, 125 had targes. Stuart Reid states that the bows and guns belonged to the same men a curious arrangement which is confirmed in at least one case by one copy of the contemporary Stettin Prints. Reid says that the “swords” possessed by the ordinary men were dirks which is saying that men in the 17th century thought 12” knives counted as or were the same as swords. This laughable assertion of course chimes in rather well with his unfounded point of view that the majority of highland society was unarmed. Edmund Burt is clear in his letters that Highlanders did not consider dirks to be arms in the 18th century. Trying this line with the authorities today is not going to work!
  The spear is the weapon par excellence of humanity, used by every culture on earth since before we were even human (the earliest spears found were hunting weapons used by homo heidelbergensis about 500,000 years ago. The spear in its current improvised form of the bayonet is still being used today. Spears were used by the highest to the lowest and though morphing slowly over the years the basic form has remained the same, a spike on a stick. Spear even came to mean soldier.  Naturally many of the Isles effigies depict men holding spears and we should expect all or most caterans to have carried a spear or other polearm especially for major conflicts.
Yours with a lovely longsword!
 The written accounts do not agree with this however, there are mentions of spears and lances (for throwing) but overwhelmingly the description of highlanders is of bow armed troops carrying swords. Earlier sources talk of  "armed in the Highland fashion, with habergions, bows and axes", (1344)  and from the 16th century the sources usually tell of predominantly archers with some specializing in two handed swords “Some of them with horn-hafted swords, large and military, over their shoulders” “a large sword, with a single-edged dagger”broad two-handed swords”. The troops sent to fight in the Ulster rising at the end of the 16th century included 100 longsword men.  A few claymores (two handed, I refuse to use the clumsy “Claidheamh da laimh” as there are no contemporary sources using this phrase.) exist and in the main they are wieldy weapons with a broad flexible blade suited more for cutting. They tend to be slightly shorter than mainland European sword being just slightly longer than the langeschwert or longsword of the 15th century fencing masters. They fit very nicely with English fencer George silvers dimensions for a two handed sword. Friends who have handled originals have told me that they are surprisingly heavy. I have handled continental doppelswords and biden handers and they too were considerably heavier than I had expected.
Later periods still place the primacy on the bow but the longer weapons fall by the wayside as sword and target become the most commonly described arms of the highlanders. An interesting thing to note is the division between the expected armaments of the yeoman class of the lowlands and the highlands (1578)
Lawland Arms.—Brigantinis, jakkis, steilbonettis, slevis of plate or mailye, swerdis, pikkis, or speris of sex elnis lang, culveringis, halbertis or tua handit swerdis.
Highland Arms.—Habirschonis, steilbonettis, hektonis, swerdis, bowls and tiorlochis or culveringis.
We can see from this that the lowlanders were expected to not only be more heavily armoured. But also to provide themselves with pikes spears or two handed swords. Highlanders were not only required to bring less armour but also to be armed in a lighter fashion.
 Taking 1411 as the year we will arm our hypothetical cateran it would seem from the sources that he would be armed with a bow as his primary arm this would continue to be his main weapon until the late 17th century. Spears and axes would follow in importance though may have only been used in larger engagements. It is hard to imagine a warrior carrying a bow, arrows and another large weapon especially on raids over the mountains. A sword or shorter axe may be carried as a side arm. 

Scottish swords of this time had a particularly beautiful aesthetic with depressed quillons sometimes ending with wide “spatulate” terminals. Some earlier Islesmen’s swords retained the lobate pommels of their Viking ancestors. Thought the rat tail tang and depressed quillons appear to have been common to Scottish swords in general. One is carried by Gilbert de Greenlaw in his effigy raised after his death at Harlaw.
 In the 16th century Scottish swords has a good reputation for quality but these earlier swords are often described as being quite crude with some notable exceptions. By the 15th century swords were expensive but within the means of most soldiers. Given the versatility and practicality of the sword it would be quite reasonable to see them in the hands of many caterans. In some early depictions of highlanders fringed and square ended scabbards are in evidence as is potentially a lack of baldric. This would be a cultural similarity with Ireland where numerous depictions of kerns show similar scabbards “worn” in similar fashion. I have heard from reliable sources that the claymore was worn on the back like some awful Hollywood sword. I suspect this is a mis-understanding of the “comment made by Peregrine O’Clery “Some of them with horn-hafted swords, large and military, over their shoulders”.  The majority of great swords and longswords were either carried like polearms or worn from the belt. The impracticalities of drawing a sword from the shoulder make wearing it this way quite unlikely.

 Into the 16th century highlanders adopt the two handed sword from the continent, axes are occasionally mentioned “. Some of them fight with broad swords and axes.” But swords are typically described as a back up to the bow. Daggers are also described as being part of the war paraphernalia, De Heeres redshank is a good study of a highland warrior from this time. Thought the majority of caterans would be largely indistinguishable from Irish kern. At the very end of the 16th for the first time in descriptions of the highlanders we have references to shields “round leather targets coloured after the Spanish fashions”.
Shields…….. Tacitus described the Caledonians at Mons Graupius as using small shields and large swords. In 1746 fighting the last battle on their own terms the descendents of the Caledonians charged using small shields and large swords.  Many believe that the 18th century targe is part of a tradition dating back at least to the Picts but also before that to the Iron Age tribes of Caledonia.
 The problem is that for most of the medieval period targes that is an enarmed round shield made of leather and wood do not appear to have been used in the highlands of Scotland. The Isles gravestones overwhelmingly depict warriors using heaters as does the charter of Carlisle. The Gaelic for target 'an targaid' is a loan word with the Gaelic for shield being sgiath suggesting that the target was an import.(please note that “Bow” in Gaelic is also a loan word) As does their absence from descriptions and portraits before the very end of the 16th century and their near ubiquity thereafter.
 Targes are mentioned in Scottish law back to the 13th century though as laws were written in Latin and targe is a Latin word for shield they may just be describing generic shields. In the 15th century we have this from the Scottish government;
19 October 1455 Legislation
…if he can not shoot that he shall have an axe and a targe either of leather or of board with two hands on the back.

6 May 1471 Legislation
…each yeoman who cannot handle a bow should have a good axe and a targe of leather to resist the shot of England, which is of no cost but the value of a hide.

11 April 1481 Legislation
..that every axe man who has neither spear nor bow shall have a wooden or leather targe according to the fashion of the example that shall be sent to each sheriff.
 Given that they had to send out examples I wonder whether this was not an attempt to protect Scottish pike formations from English arrows in the manner of Charles the bold. Here is a description of Scottish “targes” from Pinkie Cleugh (1547);
"they were new boards' ends cut off being about a foot in breadth and half a yard in length; having on the inside handles made very cunningly of two cord lengths". At the siege of Haddington in 1548 Jean de Beaugue describes Scots Highlanders using shields similar to the lowlanders.
Dutch Targeteer
 These seemingly crude shields “no cost but the value of a hide” do not seem to be the same as the beautiful and well made weapons of the 17-18th centuries and certainly don’t speak of any kind of indigenous shield design. Though to be fair the Government was mostly concerned with Lowlanders. There are examples of circular enarmed shield from many parts of Europe over the medieval period though they were certainly not amazingly common, and definitely not as popular as heater type shields or pavises. Some say that references to targes and targets in medieval English sources refer to bucklers and pavises rather than the shield we refer to as target. I would contend that the rise in use of targes in the Scottish Highlands was part of a change in weaponry and tactics across Europe rather than a local tradition.
This would accord with the rise of the rotella in continental Europe, like the two handed sword the sword and shield were developed to deal with pike block and for use in shock troop style assaults. Indeed by the Elizabethan period targeteers were a common enough type of soldier even being armed with several pistols. Targets and rotella were substantial shields made from wood and steel, continental gun shields also exist which included guns within the boss of the shield. These shields were all held with an enarmed grip that is held with the forearm thrust though carrying straps not held by hand alone in the style of Saxon or Viking shields. Rotellas and targets are featured in the 16th century works of fencing masters such as DiGrassi and Agrippa and were quite popular among troops such as the Spanish and the Dutch.
 This ramble brings me to my point about targes, that they are weapons of targeteers. If you army has no targeteers then it will have very few targes.  The targe itself is hardly unique among European weaponry, though its continued use well into the age of gunpowder is. From the muster rolls we can see that the targe was used by about a fifth of the clans fighting force. This would compromise the front line, which would need some protection to get them past the point of the pikes and later bayonets; these would be the targeteers pistol armed line breakers as used in all militaries of 16th century Europe. Rather than a medieval throwback the target armed highlanders of 1746 were “out of date” by about 100 years. The commitment to come to blows quickly and inability or unwillingness to engage in prolonged musketry were the true anachronisms. As for modern assertions that their sword styles were medieval in nature this seems little more than a slightly racist caricature. The slim evidence available shows that highland sword fighting was roughly similar to that practiced throughout Europe. Governor Hill of Fort William noted that highlanders caused more grievous blows due to sophisticated slicing technique rather than any kind of “medieval raking”.
 It would be best in any interpretation of a 15th century cateran to omit a shield, they are not mentioned with any regularity by written sources until the late 16th century and are only sometimes depicted in contemporary art. The strongest evidence is for heaters and, for the early medieval period, kite shields. The Norwegians at the battle of Largs did note that the Scottish infantry were not very well equipped and did not carry shields. "mostly with spears or sparth axes, or bows"
swords and shields (and a nice axe!)
 The heaters on the grave slabs may well be armourial though in the absence of any other evidence shields we have to assume would be emblazoned with the devises of the houses, clans or knights (and retinues) who would wield them. There is one slab I have seen with a shield that looks very much like a targe, though it is depicted as being quite a bit smaller. There is also yet another legislation from the Scots government requiring archers to carry bucklers, as was the standard practice in Europe. A buckler might be a suitable weapon for a lower class cateran; some have said that a bow may be shot with the bow hand still holding the shield as depicted in one of the McIain sketches. I am unsure about this as I would have thought the shield would affect the flight of the arrow and shall have a bit of an experiment. 

Any design for a buckler or targe should follow the depiction from the grave slab similar bucklers are known for Norway, but as with quite a bit from the Highlands there are many, many unknowns.


  1. Hi, great article, really enjoyed it. Just wondering, the 100 longswordsmen among the contingent sent to fight in Ulster in the 16th century, was that out of the reportedly 4,000 Scottish mercenaries in Ulster in 1584, which included 200 lowland Scorts veteran of the Dutch Wars? So out of 4,000 Redshanks only 100 carried claymores? Do you have the original source for this?

    1. Hello John, Thank you for your comment. I believe my source for that is Hayes McCoy "Scots mercenary forces in Ireland"