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).


  1. What a fantastic read. Balanced and obviously well researched. This a great blog getting better all the time. Surely this must be turned into a book?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Why can I not edit coments?
    Thanks for your generous comment. A book is a hopeful outcome, getting the time to do the research is a bit tricky though!

  4. Do you have any information as to the style of bows used? By this I mean were they like the 'Longbows' as found on the Mary Rose, or were they shorter or were they flat bows or even recurved?

    1. Hello Jean Paul, try this article
      The evidence from the 16th century is strongly in favour of recurved bows. There is more scant evidence for longbow type weapons used in earlier periods. Weapons as powerful as mary rose type bows would be beyond the requirements of Gaelic fighters. I suspect that recurved bows were used for a long time in the highlands but evidence is very slight until later.