Friday, 15 November 2013

Rogart shirt

" Achadh do thearnaidh"

Lets have some music!:

This is my attempt to make a shirt based on the Rogart shirt. This is only the second piece of clothing I have ever made and both garments have been really eye opening. I have had to postpone my Leine order from Dave Swift. As finances have got a bit more interesting over the winter I should be able to commission him to re-start in the spring. It will be better to have a garment made by someone who has a great deal of experience with clothing from this culture and period.Unlike Early Medieval clothing there are very few sources of experience (though some very good sources of information) in this field.
Full length
At first I thought that the dimensions of shirt meant that it was unlikely to have been an actual garment anyone would wear.My measurements had it hanging down to my ankles with what I thought would be impossibly short arms at 18". In fact as I was making it I was pretty sure that it was a burial shift or some such. The under kyrtle I made was from a pattern from the re-enactment group the vikings! Was a pretty sophisticated affair but actually not that hard to construct even with my badger like hands.
I have sadly made it a wee bit tight across the chest and it rubs a little bit. I did not add armpit gores a feature which could possibly help with this. The kyrtle despite this tightness provides a good amount of movement and I have been able to do kettle bell workouts in it with ease. I wore it to work on the farm but my stitching was not up to the task. I stitched it with shoe linen which is a fairly strong thread, I found the stitching to be, tedious and did not do as good a job as I ought. I did much better job on the Rogart shirt. I actually found the process very rewarding and am looking at making some more garments. The underkyrtle worn with a swanni shirt was also shockingly cold on a November day perhaps reflecting that a much thicker weight of linen would have been used. In fairness swannis are next to no good in wind and it is this outdoor workers opinion that they are pretty useless except for Scottish summers and worn with rainproofs in February. American Pendleton shirts are much better, but I digress.
 The sewing is the easy part, it is clear that just the sheer amount of work that goes into making cloth by hand that garments would be incredibly well made and would be highly prized. There are some  Medieval  prices at this site with linen coming in at 8d-1s 3d per yard and wool at 5s. Agriculture was a bit more developed in England and local conditions mean these prices given might not be reflective of prices in Sutherland. At 90" long just for the main body this would give a price around 15 shillings in English money for the Rogart shirt using best wool, which is more than a cow was worth!
 However the Rogart shirt was not made from best wool, far from it, it is is actually made from quite poor quality fabric and interestingly has tufts woven into it. This is quite similar to Icelandic tufted cloaks which is interesting given Sutherland's strong Norse heritage, "the south land!"
That the garment is so inefficient in its use of fabric is interesting that the obvious "conspicuous consumption" argument is pretty much mooted by the poor construction of both the cloth and tunic.
 How reflective the Rogart shirt is of fashions worn further afield is a pretty good question, the shirt looks different from the later Leine worn by the Irish and Highland Scots. Assuming it was worn without trousers it does seem to be a garment in the same vein and does sort of match the clothing worn by the caterans on the Carlisle charter.
I made my version from linen, originally I cut the sleeves longer but the width of the garment meant that the 18" sleeves fit perfectly. This means that my garment is divergent from the patterns given in terms of the sleeves but not drastically so.
 It would appear that the person who wore the Rogart shirt was of similar dimensions to myself. Tall for a 17th century highlander but possibly only slightly taller than average in the 14th century. Hitching the garment up with a belt  as with the later leine means that it provides no resistance to movement and is surprisingly warm. While I still believe that it is an inefficient design it is surprisingly more comfortable and well, wearable than I had thought. Gores would have made a narrower tunic as wearable and have been much more effective with material, but later highland clothing was hardly
conservative with cloth. Possibly it actually was a fashion statement. Though we can only assume that it was a garment worn in life unlike for the bog bodies if it were worn in life it would be quite wearable and even practical.
However my daughter says I look "really stupid" in it, an odd comment from someone who dresses like a colourblind parrot. It is rather a brighter shade of yellow than I wanted though not unachievable in period. It just looks a bit bright to modern eyes. The coat I am wearing is based on 15th century aketons for use under harness. It was not made for me and though comfy the maker has a narrower frame. I quite like the look of it though. It is suprisingly effective against swords at only 10 layers but spears and arrows go striaight though it.

More information on Rogart here. Looks very nice!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

armour antics

 Coming soon will be a post on my reconstruction of the Rogart shirt, I have to replace (yet another!) broken camera.In this post I want to examine some modern assumptions about armour and its effectiveness. This comes from two things 1: In my research into highland history I have come across a number of killings of highland chieftains or senior retainers by arrow which suggests that armour used in the Highlands was less protective than contemporary mainstream harness and 2: perusing the forum at My Armoury led to yet another discussion on the effectiveness of chain armour without a protective under garment.
 I have also included a post I wrote on the armour section at Sword forum as well as some of the more meaningful and informed replies.

  The My Armoury piece on chain defences can be read here as well as a piece on padded armours. This quote from Dan Howard's piece of interest to us in terms of archery "An experiment conducted by the Royal Armouries concluded that a padded jack worn over a mail haubergeon (a common combination during the 15th century) was proof against Mary Rose longbows. Another conducted by Alan Williams concluded that mail worn over quilted padding could resist longbow arrows but not crossbow bolts,but these tests may have underestimated the strength of English longbows. Strickland commented that "there has yet to be a test that uses accurate reconstructions of both armour and bow".
 Tests like this might make it hard to make sense of contemporary quotes such as;  ‘seeking out the entrails of men just as much as those of horses , their armour rarely preventing it (Adam Murimuth)’. ‘caused their arrows to prevail over the armour of the knights (Geoffrey Le Baker)’". Rather elementary mathematics will show however that while the warbow was hugely effective at Crecy it might not have been that lethal. A simple analysis of the statistics given for the battle of Crecy give an effectiveness of 2.8%  that is 7000 archers shooting 60 arrows each and accounting for all 12000 enemy casualties. It would be quite feasible to come up with a casualty rate of 2.8% even if the torso and upper arms of the majority of the French army were completely safe from arrows. A disordered horse, arrow in the foot, face, or leg would be more than enough to remove a soldier from battle and disrupt a charge. 
 A can of worms is opened; I have included the above to demonstrate that effectiveness and lethality are not the same thing and that modern experiment does not necessarily back up contemporary accounts moreover contemporary sources and that which they describe need to be examined in the context of the greater conflict. 
 Bernal Diaz describes the atlatl as being able to penetrate armour something that has not been replicated in modern experiment. This is also from a context of the Aztecs in particular being on the wrong side of a major drubbing. Diaz's casualty figures are amazingly low when facing such "powerful weapons". The wider context of the conflict in meso-america which was almost completely one-sided and modern experiment would suggest that ,at best, Diaz witnessed a rare occurrence. To draw from a rather nice example from the modern world. British American fighter bombers were considered hugely effective by both the Germans and the Allies during the Normandy campaign. However analysis after the campaign showed that in terms of actual damage they had been quite inefficient. The effect of the bombing itself and the consequent affect on the Germans in terms of logistics and psychology were far more important than the actual damage caused. 
 I am lucky that the armour of medieval and Renaissance caterans is fairly well recorded in textual and iconographic sources, and that it was part of a wider European armouring tradition. John Major's manifoldly sewn linen garment or a chain shirt would both be appropriate and effective armours. However it is always wise to check our assumptions particularly about the effectiveness and utility of martial hardware. A lot of truths about the way things were done are on closer examination, best guesses or even just guesses.  Modern experience, our frames of reference, expectations and world view are so different from those we study that we should be very critical and reflective on our approach.

This forum piece is predominantly about the supposed used of a padded undergarment by early medieval (specifically Viking) warriors.

I am a long time martial artist for a few years I have moved into western martial arts. I co-founded a traditional/primitive archery group in the UK and have been interested recently in the warfare of ancient/early medieval civilisations from this perspective I have approached my armour studies and "tests" from this standpoint.
I do not believe that the Romans/Celts or vikings used specific purpose built padding under their maille. I have experimented with padded armour and have been truly amazed by its effectiveness.
However in the almost total absence of proof that the vikings (or earlier cultures) used padding I won't assume that it was used. (ed. the submarlis often refered to as a roman undergarment is not known to have been used with mail) Phrases on the my armoury thread such as "logical" and "educated guess" are being bandied around but they belie a set of modern assumptions about the purpose of armour.
I believe (yes believe) that the shield was the primary form of defence ( I will discuss all ancient and early medieval cultures as if they are a homogeneous unit for the sake of brevity I am aware that this will lead to generalisations) followed a close second by the helmet. I believe the evidence bears this out with most warriors being armoured chiefly with these two items.I contend that any body armour was worn as a third tier defence and may have provided less than total protection.
Thaer laeg secg manig
garum agieted, guma Northerna
ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,
werig, wiges saed. 

There lay many a warrior
by spears destroyed; Northern men
shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well,
weary, war sated. 

Battle of Brunanburh

One assumption is that armour should provide total protection from event the hardest of blows. I would argue that in a battle line hard blows would not be so common with warriors maintaining a controlled and defensive aspect. Full thrusts or even blows on a pass would leave a man open to counter from many opponents.
 While hard blows would be given I suspect that they would not be that common. Tertiary (body) armour may well then have been designed with this in mind. I suspect that the majority of attacks would be uncommitted or glancing blows with the occasional hate filled thrust when the occasion permitted. The shield covered the body so presumably most attacks were aimed at the head and limbs.
Spears were the most commonly used weapon and I would assume that armour was primarily designed to defeat spear attacks then edged weapons. Spears don't seem to feature much in modern discussions, not cool I suppose. Casualty rates for victors are reported at much lower rates suggesting
that a man defending himself was quite hard to actually drop.
 Blunt force trauma (BFT); It would be nice if I could work out a way to measure this. modern rebated weapons (particularly the cheap ones) are heavier and more solidly constructed than the sharp edged weapons of the past I believe that they (being heavier and often stiffer) cause far greater BFT than sharps. That said I have been hit by uncontrolled blows from blunts a few times when sparring it hurts like hell but luckily if no limbs (or clavicle) breaks you can carry on (unless you want to yell!). As I understand it maille is impossible to cut through (as is the case with textile armours) making the sword far less of a threat. I am not sure about a great axe or spear though of course worn under maille this garment would by itself need to be fairly slight, I'm not sure how much protection it would actually confer.
So why bother with it then, well in a word, survivability. Until very recently the body armour and helmets issued to soldiers would not stop direct gunfire yet were issued as they increased the survivability of soldiers. I contend that a great many of the wounds suffered in battle would effectively be negated by less than total protection.
After the battle: To the modern there is little (perceived) difference between a bad break and a cut. However  in the past the difference was crucial. Cuts were frequently infected causing death, major, or even minor, ligament damage (which can be caused by small cuts) would have long reaching consequences including disability (not much fun for farming folk!) and all this if you survive the blood loss caused by even small cuts. Broken bones while still serious could be mended with more ease if not less pain. To my mind these factors illustrate the effectiveness of maille armour without padding. If it increased your ability to survive you would wear it.
So there we go that's how I see it armour does not need to provide total protection to be effective and worth having. That a great many of the tests done on armour may not reflect the actual experience of battle and that in the earlier periods of history body armour was a part of a defensive system not the defensive system itself (unlike perhaps later medieval history). Often tests involve a very heavy blow against a target braced so as not to move in a convenient cutting position and obviously not fighting back.
I would also not discount the fact that these people held beliefs that may well have led them to pursue actions that would not be the most effective or logical. If I believed I was going to go to warrior heaven if I died in battle I may not spend a good deal of money on some padded garment ("they must have worn something") especially if my place was the third or forth row back in the shield wall.
I am not attached to these theories and I am completely happy to be argued with (politely) and even proven wrong.

 Neal, I think I love you! Almost exactly what I've been trying to convince people of for years.

The only part I might quibble with is helmets being a "close second" to shields--I'd put them as a rather longer second. There are LOTS of graves (Germanic, Saxon, etc.) that have a shield boss but no trace of a helmet. Unless you want to start a new discussion on leather helmets! (And of course it depends much on the culture, as you said.)

About Vikings and/or Romans not wearing purpose-built padding under mail, I certainly agree that you are right about the lack of evidence! Just thought I'd throw in something suggested by someone else (Erik Schmid?), that it's *possible* that mailshirts had a padded lining, hence the edging or borders that we often see in illustrations (I'm thinking mostly Roman illustrations, here). Just like a shirt of scales was assumed to have a backing, *maybe* "shirt of mail" was assumed to have a lining. But that's just a theory!

Like you, I am willing to be flexible, and would LOVE to see more evidence turn up.

Yeah, I think what people don't realise is how little force is needed to wound or kill an unarmored opponent with a spear. You don't HAVE to hit them hard enough to break bones! The blunt force trauma would be equivalent to a friendly slap on the back. A mere "slap on the wrist" with a big knife or small sword will sever tendons and arteries. With no armor, you're dead or maimed, but with just mail, you'd hardly feel it. The presence of armor allows you to ignore all those otherwise-fatal half-hearted jabs, taps, and slices, and forces your opponent to either really wind up and try to hit you really hard (using energy he'd rather save, and possibly exposing himself to more danger), or aim for unarmored places.

Well, we'll keep preaching! Thanks and Vale,


Many ancient and medieval skeletons show signs of healed broken bones. But cuts in the skin can lead to infection, the danger of which is hard to comprehend for people who grow up with readily available antiseptics, antibiotics, and knowledge of germs. Sure, a shattered leg is bad! But if it's a choice between that and a SEVERED leg, with a good 50 percent chance of gangrene, guess which one I'd choose?
  "they had their own geniuses and their own idiots, same as we do. They just didn't have computers and as much knowledge as we do. Point being, they weren't stupid."
 This old line again.... Point is, they did NOT necessarily think the way we do! There are plenty of people on the planet today whose thought processes are very alien to the modern American or European. Don't assume the ancients were a whole lot more like us. If nothing else, their situation included all kinds of factors that we simply don't know enough about.

Tell you what--go to your kitchen and get out a nice big carving knife. Whack yourself with the edge. Hurts and bleeds, doesn't it? In ancient times (heck, right up into the early 20th century!), that cut could kill you. Now put on some mail, without padding, and repeat the experience. Hit a lot harder, in fact, a couple dozen times. See? It works! It prevented potentially lethal wounds many times, without padding. Sure, if a psycho with an axe comes through the window at this point and you are bold enough to stand there and let him hit you 2-handed, you are probably going to die. On the battlefield, however, that's a pretty rare event. And heck, even padding probably won't save you! But little whacks and slices with sharp pointy things are much more common.

Here's another: Any logical person would drive a bulldozer or tank on the roads today, right? I mean, there are all those other vehicles to bump into and cause damage, and those nasty sharp concrete curbs and walls and utility poles and other things along the edges. One tiny twitch of the steering wheel at high speed and crunch! So it's only logical that vehicles be built to withstand such impacts, yes? Can you tell me why, then, most modern cars are NOT built like tanks? Many reasons, of course, which somehow override the concerns of collisions--which we KNOW are frequent events!

 Sorry I didn't realise this thread had so many replies. Very interesting replies too.
Until it was made compulsory very few people (including me) wore cycling helmets in the UK, until it was made compulsory few people wore seat belts. Cycling helmets and seat belts greatly reduce the risk of injury or death in accidents, however they are both troublesome, awkward uncomfortable and highly uncool, few would use them (despite it being far more logical to do so) until compelled to do so by law.

It will never happen to me, ever!

What I was really getting at was not that padding wasn't sensible or that it made armour more effective, but that armour could have been used to increase the chances of surviving battle rather than defeating fully committed blows.

A parallel can be found in modern times with soldiers being issued with armour (helmets and flak vests) that would not (until recently) stop direct hits but would increase the overall survivability of the soldier in conflict (and soldiers also have to be compelled to wear this stuff).

I wasn't really assuming people didn't wear padding I was saying that no-one should assume people wore padding until evidence is provided to the contrary and that armour without padding is actually worth having.

The "logically they must have worn something" argument I contend is basically not logical, in addition logic is not usually a determining factor in human behaviour.

Really my point about blunt force trauma is that it's effects are vastly overestimated. Spears and swords are quite unlikely to shatter your leg without a serious "wind up" which will get you timed and out of the fight before you can say "joe dimaggi......ugh".

You cannot prove a negative, and irrefutable proof must be found if we want to argue that padded armour was worn by a specific culture.

Unpadded armour could work just fine in the context of ancient world battles and medicine

Dan Howard

Torso armour itself was a part of a whole system of armour with the shield being the most important piece of defensive equipment. "to abandon your shield is the basest of crimes" "come back with your shield or on it" etc etc.

The effects of Blunt force trauma are over emphasised (ask anyone hit by a cricket ball).


 The assumption that historical people "weren't stupid" or "they must have worn something" are truly astounding. While I may have convinced you with the above comment about seat belts this first idea is simply  refuted by simply observing people around you , or even yourself on occasion. Armies don't tend to be full of bookish middle aged types but rather full of hot-headed macho young men. In an early medieval context warriors could have manufactured hardened gloves to protect their hands as ALL re-enactment societies insist on yet they didn't despite the fact that the "need" for a protected hand has been identified by moderns.This would suggest that the combat engaged in by modern re-enactors is not reflective of that in period or that the priorities of those engaging in re-enactment combat are not the same, though the need for functioning hands probably hasn't changed in a thousand years.
 I contend that the perceived need for an underlying padded garment has been identified by the reality of modern day re-enactment fighting. What follows may seem harsh and actually I am rather a fan of re-enactment societies in general, though as stated am not a re-enactor.
From the (superb) Hurstwic site;
Both before and after the Viking era, fighting men wore padded garments under their mail (nope, a submarlis was not known to be worn under maille) to help absorb the force of a blow. Typically, these garments consisted of two layers of wool or leather stuffed with fleece or animal hair (nope, they were stuffed almost universally with cotton hence the later name, cotun), then sewn together. However, there is no archaeological evidence that such garments were worn during the Viking era, nor any mention of them in the stories. One hopes that the Norsemen were aware of and used such garments. They make a enormous difference in comfort and safety in simulated combat. One assumes that in real combat, they could make the difference between a disabling injury and a minor one.
 From the (also superb) Regia Anglorum site:
Mail worn on its own would stop the cutting edge of most weapons, but did not stop the crushing effects. So some kind of padding would have been worn under the mail. These padded garments, now known as gambesons, were made by sewing fleeces, raw wool or layers of woollen cloth (see above) between two layers of linen, felt or leather. Gambesons were probably very thick (really?) and could offer very good protection against the impact of weapons.

 it is possible they could have been worn on their own by poorer warriors. No gambesons have ever been found, but modern practice in re-enactment shows the validity of such things. The Romans are documented wearing padding under their mailshirts which consisted of two layers of linen either side of a felt inner (see above also note the comment about "thick"). Mailshirts also have a tendency to pull your tunic to pieces and stain the cloth, something which a liner such as a gambeson or leather between would prevent (or wear an old tunic).
 Re-enactment "combat" is a rough game between friends which is (I suppose) meant to give an impression of combat within an historical era. The participants expect to go home with little more than bruises and though accidents do happen they are accidents and the intent is not to harm. The rules of re-enactment societies are there to prevent injuries. Obviously head strikes are out, which means the clear favourite target of medieval combat treatises is off limits. Spears are so dangerous that even blunted and used safely  they cannot be used in an historical manner but are used under arm in a two handed shove.A great many re-enactors can afford swords at about £250 for a good quality  Paul Binns or armour class blunted sword. This is a far cry from the 16 milch cows given in laxdaela saga admittedly a gift from a king but iron then was as expensive as silver is in the modern world. Swords are probably over represented but are considerably more wieldy then spears or axes and are therefore relatively safe. The main threats on a medieval battlefield were from spears and arrows weapons used in lesser numbers and so dangerous that they have had to be neutered to the point where they are almost completely unrepresentative of those used in period.
Safe spear use

 While cheaper Indian maille is readily available it is far inferior to that made in the period as metallurgical tests confirm. Maille made to period standards is beyond the reasonable means of nearly anyone today.  In addition modern re-enactors drive to their short lived events rather than walking or riding. The Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge (1066) considered armour such an impediment that they left it at their ships (what was that about them not being stupid?) when surprised by Harold's army. While wealthier troops could afford servants most warriors carried, lived in and maintained their own kit. In modern times U.S. soldiers marching inland from the landings abandoned great quantities of useful to ease their burden life on campaign produces challenges that less disciplined soldiers solve by ditching kit. Punishments for losing kit were harsh in the extreme in the German army.
"No fine save the galloglasses brain"
 British Marines in the second world war regularly fought in their berets for symbolic reasons and even in the Falklands  British forces (except the Paras with their distinctive helmet) fought without helmets in the actual battles for reasons of comfort and perception.
 While the pre-ceding may seem harsh it should be taken that re-enactment combat has its own merit and doesn't need justifying. It often gives and immediate and impressive demonstration of battles from other eras it is however severely limited in terms of what it can tell us about actual combat in period.
 Lastly the assumption of a need for a padded undergarment,has lead to some pretty interesting interpretations of viking picture stones and a kind of "god of the gaps" argument with regards to the textual evidence. Textile armours are not referred to once, in the sagas or in early medieval law. Indeed they are not mentioned in places where they would be expected. Noridc laws expect a maille shirt per ship and a bow for every six benches, with a helmet and shield for everyman. No mention of other armours is made.Anglo Saxon fyrdmen were expected to provide a byrnie or mail shirt too again there is no mention of other armour. Textile armour is absent from the sagas too indeed  magical armours of reindeer leather are often used to justify some kind of non-metallic defence which neatly misses the point that these armours were, magical,and indeed highlighted the depths the protagonist (Tore Hund) was to sink to. Magic especially the magic of Lapps (where he got the armour from) was considered effeminate and suspicious.
 It is entirely feasible that the vikings or indeed anyone else was able to make a form of undergarment to be specifically worn with maille armour. However there would be a significant limit to how thick any armour could be and indeed the effect could easily be reproduced with a wool tunic or two. Whether the semi-professional (at best) armies of the early medieval period would bother or put up with the discomfort will have to be conjecture but Harald Hadrada's battle hardened army found armour to be troublesome enough to leave behind. The extrapolation however is that early medieval warriors actually wore textile armours as standalone armours. Despite the fact that 1: they are never mentioned or depicted (squiggles and hatching don't count) 2: textiles were expensive and remained so until later in the medieval period 3; Textile armours need to be extremely thick to give any realistic protection and are still vulnerable to thrusts 4; a shield and helmet will protect a warrior from nearly all risks on an early medieval battlefield 5: Nothing has survived of textile armours from this period, though textiles and leathers have. Lastly the social and cultural environment of the early medieval period resulted in men with a very different world view and set of priorities to modern people.
 In conclusion there is no realistic test of medieval combat conditions or equipment.Re-eanctment, martial arts and academic study when used together can be incredibly useful in illuminating what happened. However all disciplines must be open to the others, accept and realise that on their own they can result in a less complete picture. In addition our assumptions about the past are just that, assumptions the evidence must ultimately lead us through the dark past whether we understand or like what it has to say or not.........and I'm spent!

Hail, ÆAsir! Hail, Asyniur!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Irish in French service

Possible Irish Kern in French service
Here is a really interesting piece from Ian Heath whose work on the martial history of Ireland is well worth a look at:

Bold is mine and great thanks to Stephen Curtin for doing the digging!

Monstrelet describes Irish foot-soldiers at Rouen in 1418 as 'having only a stocking and shoe on one leg and foot, with the other quite naked, having no trousers. They had targets, short javelins and large knives of a strange sort (Irish Sgian were quite distinctiveNM).' Froissart too records the wearing of trousers as uncommon, but it is worth bearing in mind that they had been commonplace during the Anglo-Norman era and were again in Elizabethan times (not in 16th Century images I have seen NM) , when they are depicted as tight-fitting with a strap under the instep just as they are described in sources several centuries earlier. The business of only wearing one shoe at first seems rather improbable, but we have already seen another instance of this custom in figure 24; in fact having the right foot bare for better purchase on slippery ground had been a relatively common practice amongst many peoples since ancient times (Makes no sense but is referenced and depicted elsewhere NM) The baggy sleeves of the probably saffron-dyed leine worn here were copied from contemporary English civilian dress; a mantle would be worn over this in cold weather, or alternatively a long-sleeved jacket of which the sleeves could be unbuttoned on the outside to allow the leine's baggy sleeves to fall through. Hair was worn long, with a beard or at least a flowing moustache, which was so characteristic that in 1447 it was enacted that 'all who would be taken for English' must shave both lips.

Coming to the arms described by Monstrelet, the knife is a wooden-handled skene, described by Froissart as a pointed, broad-bladed, 2-edged weapon used to cut throats. The javelins or darts he mentions were capable of piercing haubergeons and plates according to one account (very, very unlikely); 3 were normally carried. Curiously, however, one of the most popular Irish weapons of both the preceding and subsequent periods does not occur in any of the principal accounts of the Hundred Years' War era, this being the axe. However, that it did remain in widespread use we know from frequent 14th century references to axes in Scotland being 'Irish' axes.

Shields are apparently not depicted in any Irish source of this era, that shown here being based on 16th century descriptions. They were principally round or oval and convex, and were made of wood or, among the Northern Irish, of basketwork (I've not seen this referenced, it is possible but would be quite a bit less useful). The shields of chieftains were clearly more ornate - a poem of c. 1300 describes one as white with dragons and golden branches painted on it, while a source of 1419 refers to an 'emerald-tinted shield with flowery designs' decorated with variegated pale gold bosses, bronze studs and 'twisted stout chains of old silver'.

One other weapon in limited use among the Irish was the bow. This is described by Juan de Perelhos, a Catalan knight who visited Ireland in 1397, as being 'as short as half a bow of England; but they shoot as far as the English ones.' In the 1360s we even find a certain Donald Gall ("gall" means foreigner, was he Scots? NM) being paid to lead 208 Irish archers in English service. Handguns were later introduced too, but not until the late-15th century, one source recording how in 1489 'a great rarity was sent to the Earl of Kildare, namely 6 handguns out of Germany', these being subsequently used by his bodyguard.

(Ian Heath Armies of the Middle Ages 1982)

Monday, 30 September 2013

Calories and Elizabethan armies

 At the famine village in Doagh, Donegal we were shown the 6.8 kilos of potatoes the average Irish man was eating before the famine.
Icelandic traditional foods
This was by no means a chosen diet but was more the result of British colonial misrule. The potatoes alone resulted in a whopping 5916 calories and provided a fairly robust diet though with major deficiencies, notably in fat 10% and a slew of vitamins B12, A, D etc. Additions of fish, dairy products and some meat (there was quite a bit of wild food eaten in Doagh) would have rounded out the diet make it livable but the average calorie intake must have been higher still. Dr William Short came up with a 10,000 calorie a day figure for his Assessment of Icelandic diets The Icelanders in the 10th century were very healthy by contemporary standards and Icelanders remain some of the healthiest people in the world today. Archaeology shows that 10th century Icelanders did not suffer from nutritional deficiencies. While the RDA of many nutrients and vitamins is based on the minimum to avoid deficiency ,eating the RDA of protein causes muscle loss for example, and doesn't take account of different dietary compositions (the absence of grain/starches greatly reduces the need for vitamins C) intakes at this level meet and exceed the RDA for every nutrient the body requires. Most calculators don't account for the anti-nutrient effect of some foodstuffs particularly whole grain foods but it is clear that according to modern nutritional science Icelandic and Irish farmers could eat a healthy nutritious diet, though they were working at levels which would seem extremely strenuous today. Scaling back this diet to meet modern calorie requirements of just over 2000 calories a day might not result in nutrient demands being met, especially given modern soil depletion and our generally indoor lives.
 This lengthy preamble was a way of getting to some 16th century ration lists I found for English armies sent to fight in Ireland. Ireland was considered a very hard duty and had very low survival rates, sort of a mix of Vietnam and the Eastern front but with far more rain.We should assume that the diet was enough to sustain the men though was probably just enough to do that, armies are not known for overfeeding men, 16th century armies also suffered from serious supply difficulties and dishonesty at every level. The following should be seen as an "ideal" ration, it ran for a long time and was repeated so was probably satisfactory. Also note the absence of alcohol which suggests a complete picture isn't being given as alcohol was drunk in large quantities throughout this period. 
Per day men were issued 1.5 lbs of bread or 1lb of biscuit, butter at 1/2 lb for two days and 1/4lb for two more, supplemented by porridge one day and pease the next. Cheese on two days at 1lb 2lb of salt meat one day a week or fresh meat at 2.5 lb or pork or bacon at 1lb.
 Ten and a half pounds of wholemeal (presumably) bread gives 12624 calories 1.5 lbs of butter gives 4878 calories two pounds of cheese 3171 (surprisingly low!) one pound of salt pork gives 3248 whilst a pound of bacon gives 2454. Another source gives a meat ration of 1.5 lbs per day per man assuming salt pork as a generic and not terribly expensive ration meat gives 4872 calories per day or 34104 per week . A quarter pound of porridge (oats) gives 70 calories and sadly my calorie and nutrition counter doesn't "do" pease so we'll double up the porridge to 140 calories per week. With meat one day a week we have a weekly total of 26525 calories for a low 3787 calories per day. With meat (salt pork) every day gives 54917 per week or 7845 per day closer to levels for Irish farmers in the 19th century. Modern British army rations contain about 4000 calories while the (in)famous K-ration provided less at about 3000 calories. K-rations resulted in malnutrition in troops who relied on them for the bulk of their nutrition and modern military rations are not intended for long term use. So it would seem that the additional meat ration would be required to keep a 16th century army on the move and in reasonable health. With the quantity of grain a salt meat ration would potentially result in scurvy, fresh meat or local vegetables would prevent this.  Given that this food ration weighs in at 15.5 lb per day, with a large army of 3000 men it would take over 23 tons of food A DAY to keep them fed to this level.Even a less exceptional and smaller army of 1483 men such as that which faced Shane O'Neill in 1569 would require over 11 tons of food a day. This figure though minus Kern does not account for the quantities of powder and other materials of war, let alone fodder for horses.While figures lower than this would be both likely and possibly sustainable on the short term much lower figures would seriously affect the army's ability to function. The Minnesota Starvation experiment had a starvation ration of 1500 or so calories a day which resulted in major adverse effects in the subject's performance and even mental health.
Irish cooking without pots
 Figures like this make us realise just how effective scorched earth policies were, or how effective pastoralists such as the Irish/highlanders moving their herds was at limiting the effectiveness of  conventional armies. While English armies carried as much food as possible "on the hoof" the large baggage trains of Elizabethan armies must have seriously hampered their ability to pursue war in Ireland. While it is tempting to believe (as contemporary writers did) that Irish and redshanks were more nimble and physically capable than their lowland or English neighbours a great deal of their manoeuvrability must have come from the lack of supply trains in Gaelic armies. Kern were famously good at raiding and obtained much of their food "off the land" on campaign, an ability put to good use by Henry VIII in France. While operating in their own, friendly or at least not-hostile lands Irish armies could obtain much food locally.
 We must not be too quick to dismiss the cross-country abilities of Gaelic armies, the English could not bring Irish armies to battle and looking at maps or historical reports immediately impresses upon one the shocking speed and manoeuvrability of Gaelic forces. Montroses' famous move to Inverlochy over avalanching mountains being a great example of a feat it being almost impossible to imagine a conventional army performing, feats repeated on an almost weekly basis by the army taken into England by Prince Charles in 1745 during a harsh 18th century winter.
 Succesful Irish viceroys did not commit to the field without specific objectives but with control of the seas and later in Scotland Wade's roads some measure of control was obtained through forts positioned at strategic locations Derry, Inverlochy etc. Burt states clearly that forests and woods were cleared from roadsides to prevent ambush in Scotland a tactic that pre-empts American defoliation programs in Vietnam. Yet even with garrisoned forts it appears that direct control over large areas of Ireland or the highlands was considered impossible and indeed attempts to supply Inverlochy by land were stopped due to the risks involved.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013


I have just finished the first draft of the first chapter. I am going to reproduce the conclusion such as it is here. This was the most difficult to write as the information I needed simply wasn' t there for the most part. I owe a great deal of thanks to David Colter who really pointed me in the right direction with the sling material. This is very much from the "get it down not get it right" phase but I am very glad I have moved on to areas where 1; there is more evidence and 2: I know more about the evidence.

 Conclusions are hard to draw from the small amount of evidence from the dark past. The light produced gives exciting hints but is rarely illuminating. It would seem fair to say that the cultures of Celtic Europe were not interested to any great extent in ranged warfare. This would fit with an heroic vision of conflict in which small warrior bands competed for prestige and glory.
 Barry Cunliffe states that intensifying conflict gave rise to the complex hillforts of Southern England.
These hillforts with their great hoards of slingstones appear to have been designed to make great
Clay sling bullets
advantage of the effectiveness of the sling. Modern experiment has shown that attacking troops would be placed under a massive barrage of “fire” from defending slingers, making assaults on these hillforts a serious and difficult undertaking. Complex hillforts such as Danebury
Danebury entrance
are not really known further North in Britain and in modern Scotland the building style was quite divergent which suggests a very different approach to conflict. Prof. Cunliffe and others state that an identifiable increase in prestige goods from the Mediterranean act as a kind of “bow wave” of Roman imperialism. With petty kings consolidating their territories through a more expansionist kind of warfare. Whether by accident or design (I suspect the latter) these embryonic states could then be assimilated much more readily by the Roman machine.
  Though hard to determine archaeologically it does appear that the North of Britain was at relative peace at this time, conjecturally it may be that intense use of missile troops reflects a far more ruthless and political use of martial force than was the cultural “norm” for  pre-roman Britain. While the Irish cycles may seem to undermine this hypothesis it should be noted that slings are used by heroes against anonymous armies, supernatural enemies, or a vilified enemy such as a lying charioteer or the rather villainous Queen Medb. Fighting between heroes of rank is by spear or sword.
 If this hypothesis is true why then did the sling not come back into use in harder times such as the bitter conflicts with the Vikings?  The bow seems to have but one advantage over the sling in that it can be shot more accurately. Modern Balearic Islanders have been  hosting slinging competitions for several years, the smallest target zone is a full 50cm across. A size which would completely encompass many archery targets at similar ranges. Sling stones can be thrown by modern slingers over 400m with lead shot being used to out-range stone shot in antiquity. Xenephon notes that slingers were out ranging archers in the retreat from Persia and the deadly efficacy of the sling was noted by many classical writers; “ Soldiers, despite their defensive armor, are often more aggravated by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood.” (Vegetius) or “But when Hamilcar saw that his men were being overpowered and that the Greeks in constantly increasing number were making their way into the camp, he brought up his slingers, who came from the Balearic Islands and numbered at least a thousand. By hurling a shower of great stones, they wounded many and even killed not a few of those who were attacking, and they shattered the defensive armour of most of them. For these men, who are accustomed to sling stones weighing a mina (approximately 600g), contribute a great deal toward victory in battle [...] In this way they drove the Greeks from the camp and defeated them.” (Diodorus Siculus).
 The words of the classic authors are given weight by the presence of Roman Army surgical probes for removing sling bullets. Slings can also be used to give a similar rate of shot as a good archer though the off hand can also be used to hold a shield giving more protection to the slinger with only a small reduction in rate of shot.
Sling bullets are readily available and where made from clay or lead are very simply fabricated. Slings themselves are readily fashioned from any fabric or leather and would be easily within the means of any person who wanted one. The bullets are easily transported and in dire emergency rocks can be picked up from the ground and used. Arrows are longer and both arrows and bows require considerable time and material to make. Indeed in the context of large armies and sieges a sling actually seems to have no disadvantage compared to a bow. Note however that classical armies used both slingers and archers.
 In a combat of smaller groups of men perhaps more spread out as part of raiding, skirmishing or piratical groups a greater degree of accuracy might be required or at least be advantageous. A bow would have the advantage of a slinger in such a situation the bow can also be shot from a kneeling or crouching position and requires far less movement from the shooter. This potentially makes a bow a better choice for ambushes.

Roman employed slinger from Trajan's column
A sling is particularly difficult to shoot well, while archers can be effective with far less training. This is determined by modern use of these weapons and the accuracy capable by inexperienced shots. It might be that even a short period of time without using the weapon might be enough for the knowledge to be lost to a culture. The sling was an agricultural tool with limited hunting potential, being mostly used for small game (note the accuracy issues above).  Balearic slingers were specialist troops and classical slingers were drawn from classes and societies that used the sling as an agricultural tool.  The sling was used by shepherds for controlling predators such as wolves and pests such as birds and even for herding sheep by Mediterranean communities. This agricultural use would give a wide talent pool of use for a military to draw on. Even where the sling was still in use such as Anglo Saxon England it may not have been in wide enough use to fulfil a military need.  Southern England in the Iron Age was decidedly agricultural with wild food representing a tiny proportion of the faunal remains at Danebury in an area with high population levels. Ireland was also densely populated until the “Dark Age" during the Roman occupation of Britannia.
Balaeric target plans (from

 The last point is that in Europe at least archers also doubled as light infantry; after expending their ammunition archers would then engage in hand to hand combat. This was decidedly not the case in the ancient world where specialist slinging troops were not used for melee. Battles in the ancient and medieval world always (except in very unique conditions) ended up in at least some kind of hand to hand fighting. It may well be that specialist troops were too logistically expensive for dark age and later societies and that it was better to get lighter troops to bring along bows rather than employ specialist types.
 Ultimately all these points are conjecture and it is enough for this work to say that slingers were not used in any number by the Gaelic world in a military context. I suspect that the sling fell out of favour as agricultural practises changed and the sling became little more than a bird scarer or a toy for bored shepherds rather than an essential agericultural tool. While the bow ,a more user-friendly technology,  was recalled when missile troops began to be used more in combat the knowledge base for the sling was lost and it made only sporadic appearances in history thereafter.

Friday, 13 September 2013


Albion Claymore
A post is slowly coming on Northern Ireland and some more assumptions and myths about armour. In the meantime watch this great film of my friend and once fencing teacher Lyell Drummond using his claymore. While many of the extant claymores are described as bearing swords, longswords or two handed swords are frequently referenced in 16th century sources, especially in relation to household troops. They are also widely represented on tomb slabs, it would seem that from at least the 16th century onwards they were widely used among highland warriors.
 The "Book of True Highlanders" gives wards for the claymore that roughly corresponding to the four main wards found in the German and Italian system of longsword fighting. Namely Tag, pflug, alber and Ochs. Nicely remembered in this mnemonic "the day is above the ox who pulls the plough while the fool rests in the shade.......

 Lyell told me that the depressed quillons are particularly useful in trapping and generally fouling the opponent's blade. Originals had thin flexible blades more suited to cutting than mainland European longswords suggesting that they were used more for cutting though armours in use in the highlands at that time would generally resist cuts quite well. Claymores were both longer than longswords and shorter than two handed swords found on the continent., I think the claymore in the film is slightly shorter than most originals but it is nice to see a longsword bout that doesn't degenerate into a fist fight or wrestling match for once.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Archery in the Scottish Highlands

  "they drink bloud out of the wounds of men slaine: they establish leagues among themselves by drinking one anothers bloud and suppose, that the greater numbers of slaughter they commit, the more honour they winne: and so did the Scythians in old time. To this we may adde, that these [wild] Scots like as the Scythians, had for their principall weapons, bowes and arrows." (Camden)

 We have looked at the forms and context of Gaelic archery in this post. Now I want to address some of the ways in which the bow was used North of the highland line. For this I am using contemporary or near contemporary sources, Froissart,Boece Martin Martin, the Dewar Manuscripts etc.
 Earlier medieval sources rarely dealt with the highlands, an area considered too dangerous for travel. The highlands remained an area of speculation, myth and rumour. However some of what was related in these earlier texts is corroborated by other evidence and sometimes the accounts can be verified through their own merit, often (and most amusingly) when the information is discordant with the politics of the time. Examples would be cooking techniques which are referenced in Boece and in the Dewar manuscripts or the rather odd description of highlanders serving as guards to a particularly Gael-unfriendly  King of Scotland.
 Early texts frequently talk of highlanders living by the hunt which probably reflects lowland ignorance more than mundane agricultural reality. Hunting was a part of the highland economy both as a leisure pursuit of the Clan nobility and as a subsistence activity by ordinary clans people. Hunting licences were issued by MacLeod's forester and poaching is also attested to. The wolf was also hunted up to its extinction, probably in the mid 1740s.
 Leslie talked of highlanders being able to hit a "deer in his speede" and the famous woodcut of highlanders hunting has them drawing up on fleeing stags.Spears and dogs were also probably used for boars and dogs were probably used for deer hunting either for bringing an animal to bay or for tracking. Dogs are still used for both these practises today. Poaching may well have looked a bit more like modern bow hunting but the ethical paradigm of the past would possibly mean that hunting was more visceral and drawn out than we would be comfortable with, or indeed it needed to be. Pre-christian warrior bands in Ireland were supposed to live entirely from the hunt a practise we might well expect to see in Scotland given their cultural closeness.Modern traditional bow hunters using recurved bows without sights have success rates of about 1/20 compared to 1/3 for rifle hunters. While they are "hampered" by modern restrictions, seasons etc this still reflects the Gaelic idiom that "the chase is a poor livelihood".
Primitive bow kill in North America
Indeed the bow would seem an obvious choice for the hunt, not so in the dark ages where the Pictish stones show the bow in use for war and the crossbow for the hunt, as was the case later in other European countries. Quarry could also be driven into pens and killed with bows or even swords. In addition highlanders seem to have been more than capable of running deer down in  persistence hunts (a practise very unlikely to work with wolves). 
 On the Islands whales could be driven ashore in efforts that involved whole communities, the whales were killed with the bow or with other weapons such as swords. The meat was preserved with seaweed ash and subsistence whaling was quite an important source of food for poorer islanders.
Modern whale hunt in Faroe
 In addition to providing families with meat or seeing off predators bows were also used for fighting, and naturally it is in this use that a far more reliable and lively record has been kept. At Auldearn in 1645 the Covenanters were "shot onto" target by archers brought to the battle by Lord Seaforth. While highlanders are frequently discussed as carrying bows it has proven hard to find sources relating how they were organised in pitched battle. Certainly at Auldearn as part of a mainstream(ish) army they were used to provide covering "fire" for advancing troops.Though described as archers when working as mercenaries highland units seem to have operated as discrete wholes, archers being an element in a mix of "darts, guns, bows and gallowglass axes" with main forces being longswords and targeteers (in the 16th century at least). At the battle of curlew pass in 1599 the Irish used bows and other missiles to pepper English troops negotiating prepared ambush positions. The Irish were not particularly keen on archery and the archers here may have been Highlanders or re-organised Irish troops. The English noted that Irish rarely used bows unlike Scots.
 There was presumably some way of organising clan armies so that archers could make effective use of their weapons before re-organising in their traditional way (with ranks being ordered along social lines). Bows though not often found in the hands of chieftains appear to have been fairly evenly distributed through the society, it would make sense to use the bow in an organised way shooting controlled volleys at an enemy for maximum psychological impact. Moreover while bows were used by Nordic and English armies of the early medieval period. no specific missile troops were named so it may well be that warriors brought bows along to be used in specific circumstances.
Modern "Viking" archer
"Nor might any one of them injure the other
Except where from arrow's flight one had his death.
The flood went out - the pirates stood ready.
Full many of the Vikings, eager for battle." (Battle of Maldon 991)
 At the battle of Glen Fruin in 1603 MacGregor archers were held in reserve;
"The story continues that the MacGregors ran the three and a half miles back to Allt a’ chlèith where they passed out of the Laird of Luss’s lands. The stream, we are told, was full of holes and deep pools.
Only at a few points was it easily forded and on the north side was a small embankment. Here the MacGregors made their stand. Soon the Colquhouns, packed together and knee deep in the stream, were taking casualties but having little effect on Clan Gregor.
At this point the MacGregor bowmen left in reserve and stationed behind a craig next to the ford began to shoot down on the Colquhouns. They killed a number of them, including Lindsay of Bonhill and the sons of the laird of Camstradden.
At this the Colquhouns began their flight back down the road. The MacGregors followed, keeping to the higher ground. A stand was made at an unidentified site called Toman an Fhòlaich, where more of the Colquhouns were killed.......Sir Humphrey’s remaining men still outnumbered the MacGregors. There is a large level field at Auchengaich, where Sir Humphrey set his men in battle formation, supported by horsemen.........This stage of the fight lasted only three minutes, whereupon, the Colquhouns took to panicked flight down both sides of Glen Fruin. Near the lower end of the glen the MacGregors attacked an armed band of the freemen of Dumbarton, killing some of them.
The second MacGregor casualty, and the last man killed that day, was shot by an arrow shot by a Colquhoun that he had pursued to a place called Eas Fhionnglais, or Finlas waterfall."
 Well sited  MacDonald Bowmen were used en masse at the battle of Inverlochy in 1431 a force of 220 archers was led by Alasdiar Carrach. He maneuvered his force past the lacklustre security of The Earl of Mar's camp then sited his troops on a hill and waited for further MacDonalds to arrive. The MacDonalds were mounting a rather chaotic defence of Lochaber after the imprisonment of their chief by James I. Donald Balloch arrived with a second force of MacDonalds and engaged Mar. Carrach's archers charged off the hill and "shot their arrows so thick on the flank of the Earl's army that they were forced to give ground". The MacDonald's claimed 27 casualties to 990 and the Earl of Mar himself got an arrow in the thigh. The battle is of special interest as Alasdair Carrach arrived with "archers" not "caterans","men" or followers".
 At Blar-na-Leine or the battle of the shirts in 1544 armies of the Camerons and MacDonalds fought an affiliation headed by Lord Lovat. The battle started with both sides exchanging arrows for sometime until they exhausted their stocks and charged. The Cameron archers charged recovering spent arrows which they used at point-blank ranges.
 In 1625 the giant MacMhicEoin raised the visor of his helmet contemptuously while advancing on an inferior enemy and was shot in the face for his pains, receiving a mortal wound.
 The latest I can place bows in the hands of a highland army is in the stand off at the ford of Arkaig in 1665 where Ewan Cameron's biographer lists the army as; " 900 men armed with guns, broadswords and targes, and an additional 300 with bows in place of guns." Bows in place of guns not in place of swords!" I have read that bows were used at the final clan battle at Mulroy in 1688 but have been unable to find evidence to support this, it is certainly possible. Cameron tradition places a bow in the hands of a Government highlander at KillieKrankie in 1689.
 Bows feature in many of the Nordic sagas and were used extensively by vikings especially in sea battles. Like the later famed English bowman "archers" were warriors who used bows rather than technically limited troops. It may well be that highland archers followed this pattern rather than being troops who only used bows unlike the slingers of the ancient world who only engaged in slinging.
 However pitched battles were not all that common in the Gaelic world, far more common was the raid or ,as in Ireland, the running battle and ambush. Fighting seems to have been a chaotic and bewildering (to modern minds) mix of extreme brutality and incredible displays of compassion with a liberal sprinkling of often insane-seeming heroics. The smouldering fire of tribal warfare was fanned to a furious blaze by the well-intentioned (a generous reading)  meddling by the Scottish Crown and the age of the creach or raid meant that feud and conflict were intensified in a bitter cycle of bloodshed.
 The folklore and surviving stories from that time feature much archery, often in  a similar vein to the use of the bow in the Icelandic Sagas. Gunnar's famous defence of his home in Njal's saga has a nice parallel with a story about Little John MacAndrew;
 Iain Beg, or little John was a small (puny) man who was a fierce shot. He accompanied a party pursuing some caterans of Keppoch who had lifted some cattle. Catching the caterans in a hut Little John placed himself by the entrance with his arrows at his feet. As the caterans rushed out  Little John shot them all save one known as the "black lad" who cut his way out of the back of the hut.. The headman praised MacAndrew's archery in hearing of the black lad using his name, Little John now knew he would not know peace as his name was known to his enemies.
 The Laird of Achluauchrach  who lived in Keppoch went searching for Little John, offering rewards for informants, he met Little John but not knowing of his stature considered him a herd boy. Little John offered to take him to Little John's bed for a reward deep in the woods John revealed his ruse "There is the bed of little John now and take a look at it..." Achluachrach went forward to examine it before John cried "deliver your soul to God" and shot him. A while later a band of vengeful Keppoch men came came looking for Little John. Little John was in his house one night cutting withies he was dressed in his shirt which was apparently a common custom, especially indoors. This led the Keppoch men to assume that he was a herd boy, Little John's canny wife ordered the "herd boy" to fetch his master and sent him off with a bannock. MacAndrew left while his wife passed his bow and arrows out to him through a window, setting up to shoot he cried out "whoever wants Little John MacAndrew let him come out here he will find him". The Keppoch men rushed out whereupon Little John shot them as they exited.
 "Mischevous" Duncan MacFarlane also used guile to outwit a marauding band of caterans, this time  from Athol, Duncan had a group of "big boys from the mill" unemployed, enthusiastic youngsters but fairly poorly equipped. The boys and MacFarlane dressed some tree stumps (higher in those axe-using days) and managed to trick the Athol men into discharging their arrows at these stumps in the poor light just past the gloaming. Interestingly the text reads that the Athol men were trying to "drive them back from the ford" indicating that there is a possibility that bows could be used to deny or clear ground before the hand to hand fighting started. The Boys from the mill were then able to return these arrows and engage in a "fire fight" at no expense to their own meagre stocks.This was a common enough idea in the highlands and indeed was done by English armies too (notably at Towton 1461)and is probably a very old idea.
 This kept the Athol men in the woods where mischievous Duncan burnt them all in a hunting booth (as well as miles of woodland). Sixty swords axe heads and a creel full of arrow heads were found in the ashes, this was some raiding party!
 After all that trickery let's have some heroics; in 1654 Ewan Cameron of Lochiel decided to "take a bite" (literally true as things turned out) out of the Cromwellian soldiers every time they emerged from their fort at Inverlochy. 32 Camerons led by their chief ambushed and charged a much larger force of Government soldiers at Achdalieu in what was described as a "stiff fight". One Cameron shot an English soldier but it did not pierce deeply enough to kill ("not withstanding that they are shot forth weakly" spencer) Lochiel called out that the shot "came from a weak arm". The clansman took the words to heart and rushed forward grabbing the soldier and forcing the rest of the shaft in up to the fletchings. Naturally impressed Lochiel ordered men forward to save the archer who had rather exposed himself.
 Big Archie MacPhail was an almost exemplary cateran big, brave, strong and an expert swordsman. Though foolish and rash the men of Glencoe would rarely go raiding without him. During the wedding of Menzies of Appin and a daughter of Breadalbane the Glencoe and Keppoch MacDonalds decided to take advantage of the celebrations to make a great prey of Breadalbane, Archie MacPhail was with them. The Campbells of Breadalbane not too affected by the "whisky in their heads" were soon off after them and at Stronachlachain the MacDonalds made their stand. MacPhail moved by the great odds against them prayed to god in a speech worthy of a Conan film "God of the elements (!)...I did not propose to Thee so much in all my life but once before.....if Thou wilt not be with us, be not against us, but let it be between ourselves and the carls". He rose seized his bow and aimed at the pursuers. There was a great slaughter of the Breadalbane men and MacPhail chased the Menzies bridegroom who tried to escape over a river, MacPhail shot him in the groin.
 James MacFarlane smoked out the Laird of Luss from his fortified house in a jealous struggle over MacFarlane's wife. Green branches were burnt to produce great quantities of smoke, as the Laird of Luss, until then safe in his house moved to a window to escape the fumes he was shot dead by a MacFarlane archer. That James Macfarlane served his wife Luss's genitals shows us what kind of husband he was!
 A man named MacAuley ambushed his son hiding on the path he knew he must take. He shot him from ambush and inflicted a deadly wound upon him.Naturally the community were very angry at this behaviour and sent a man named Big Malcolm MacIlvain , the best fighter in the area to get him. MacIlvain was not too interested in catching MacAuley feeling that hiding in the hills and killing his own son was punishment enough (MacAley found out he had been mistaken through his son's last words).MacAuley,who seems to have had an interesting ability for not thinking things through, thought that by shooting MacIlvain he would be so feared as to be left alone.
 Waiting in a wood Macauley ambushed  MacIlvain as he was coming home with a goat on his back, brilliantly MacAuley hit the goat (we've all been there) MacIlvain cried aloud "you shoot from over there/you cause damage here/If I go o'er from here/ I will cause damage there." MacAuley realised from this that MacIlvain was not interested in seizing him and slunk off in shame  MacIlvain was later again almost killed by arrows...years later he was overtaken by pursuers in a bog, stuck up to his hips he broke his sword while defending himself. he decided to yield "here is my sword I know that I must yield at all events" the commander stepping forward to take his sword was ,of course struck with the broken bit and killed. The men decided to shoot him from safety, somehow MacIlvain survived and made a decent break for freedom before being wounded and realising he must yield.
 While much of this is is by necessity drawn from folktales it does relate how highlanders themselves used bows or at least thought they did. Information that would satisfy a modern historian is pretty thin so as is often the case we have to rely on folktales or as I would prefer to call it "folk history" and a certain amount of conjecture based on historical documentary sources. However it is apparent that we can get a very lively and interesting picture of the Highlanders' use of the bow from the sources available to us. What is interesting is that while even heroic(ish) figures such as Archie MacPhail used the bow, the bow is often used as a ruse of war or in straight out dishonest ways, though to be fair ambush and deception was commonplace and swords (as above) were just as likely to be used. Interestingly MacMhicEoin after having been felled by an archer attempted to skewer the Cameron chief after having asked for his sword to be returned.
  From the histories we can see that archers were used in tactically competent ways and sometimes to great effect. Some credence is lent to the idea of commoners armed with bows, yet the remaining musters don't support this view what is clear is that archers could be and often were assembled into units in at least some clan battles, it is also clear that they continued shooting even when the opposing sides had joined in hand to hand combat and indeed continued to carry and use their bows at very close ranges.

  (sources on request, please don't use orginal material here without consent or at  least acknowledgement).

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Long Distance running among the Highlanders

 I have just finished the extraordinary "Terra Incognita" by Martin Rackwitz. A truly superb resource which deals with travellers accounts of Scotland and particulalrly the highlands through the medieval and early modern periods. The level of research is very high and the work has provided a much richer picture of the highlands through this period, and given much context to the works I was already familiar with.
 I had not known that cancer became quite common in the later period (18th-19th century) thanks in large part to the Highlanders' love of tobacco, this is interesting in light of the fact that some other "primitive societies" can have high levels of smoking and non-existent cancer rates. I suspect we could find a hypothesis for this in the phytic acids of oats vitamin D and insulin. Frankly causes and rates of cancer appear to be pretty much a mystery but it does suggest that lots of oatmeal, fish and exercise is not so protective of cancer as many would have us believe. Highlanders used seabird oil as a cure.
 I was also surprised at the level of grain import to the highlands. The agriculture of the mountains does not appear to have been self sufficient. Beef exports were vast and the highlanders ate little themselves, the majority of beef was exported to England, a trade which increased through the 16-17th centuries. Cash generated by this trade was used to provide grain to see highlanders through the gaps of the year.It was presumably also used to procure wine, weapons, possibly linen and other items difficult to obtain or produce north of the highland line. Highlanders themselves focused more on herding and despite using every suitable piece of ground for grain agriculture do not appear to have spent too much effort on the practise.Visitors report that men had little to do with agriculture feeling it was beneath them, and that fields once sown were left alone to become choked with weeds.  That grain was a precious commodity used to ameliorate agricultural shortfalls in a marginal environment it is worth noting that a great deal must have been used for brewing and distilling.
 It is always of interest to me how much effort and time humans put into religion, alcohol and other non-essential activities. Maybe it is the post industrial enlightenment society I have grown up in but it is interesting that the spiritual and the recreational are more often the priority of humans indeed we could say that these "needs" will be met before many others we might meet first, not to mention that the inefficiencies of a parasitic landowner class and their hangers-on often passes without mention.
 In a previous post I have written about what is known of the physicality of historical highlanders in addition the throwing and leaping swimming etc we will have to add long distance running. Their speed in travel is well attested to and in the 1745 Jacobite rising Highland armies ran rings round the British armies sent to engage them.In the lowlands of Scotland were coaches were not at all common "footmen" were sent out with horses hired from inns and returned with them the following day. They kept up with the patrons at the jog over many miles and were a fairly common part of the lowland inn network."Here (Dundee) we took a footman along with us as a guide, it being the custom in these parts to travel upon hired horses, and they send a footman along with them to bring them back again.....they will undertake to run down the best horse you can buy in seven or eight days; they run by the horses side all the way, and travel thirty and forty miles a day with ease."(kirk 1677)
 In the highlands a British traveller called William Mildmay was provided an armed escort of five men by Lord Lovett. They travelled fully armed and in their plaids. They ran by the six horse coach the entire way from Fort Augustus to Crieff in three days. While the route may have changed somewhat it is unlikely to have been too dissimilar to the modern route which is 118 miles. This gives us about 39 miles a day or 3.9mph on a 10 hour day with no breaks. "any of our people would think this hard duty,& hardly be able to compass it, but these highlanders do it with great ease,& when they are dry don't want to swig down great draughts of ale or strong beer, but will take off their bonnets& dip up a little water at a spring and run on with great spirits. they are used to fare hard & great exercise" (Mildmay 1736). Mildmay further described the highlanders "They are Strong, well looking Handsome people....very nimble &can walk or run, faster & farther, than any people whatever, and being inured to hardship in their infancys, can live harder&bear more fatigue".
 Horses were of great importance to the traditional economy but were left to range freely being herded up when needed. Garron was a small tough animal more donkey sized " they are so small that a middle sized man must keep his legs in lines parallel to their sides when carried over stony ways (Burt). Horse were captured by being driven into bogs, driven up steep hills or chased over heath and rocks until the horses laid down for weariness and want of breath (Burt).

Running gear
As with the native American moccasin the highland  curran was a fairly light weight shoe with no support which would wear out quickly on paved surfaces though probably far more suited for long distance running than the military shoes of the time.I'm sure Mildmay would have mentioned if the highlanders ran barefoot but going barefoot was very common in the mountains and for women in the lowlands. Burt noted that highlanders avoided walking on modern roads. Though I am not especially a fan of the "born to run hypothesis"  long distance running in minimalist footwear has historical precedent at least in the Scottish highlands until very recent times.