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Issue 39 - Everything you need to know about Highland Weaponary

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 39
June 2008


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Everything you need to know about Highland Weaponary

In an age when governments are doing their best to clamp down on the carrying of knives, it is perhaps apposite to reflect on the lawless times of long ago when individuals were obliged to carry some sort of weapon in order to defend themselves against attack. But there was more to this than self-protection. In medieval times, the sword and its accessories were seen as symbols of knightly chivalry.

Following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the newly crowned King Robert I of Scotland bestowed weaponry as gifts upon his supporters. For example, to his loyal follower Sir Henry St Clair of Herdmanstone, he gave a sword which was inscribed with the words Le Roi me donne, St Clair me porte – ‘The King gave me, St Clair wields me.’ Robert the Bruce’s own four-handed, five foot long broadsword remains in the possession of his kinsman, the 11th Earl of Elgin. Another sword – a Claymore with four ‘quillons’, or cross-guards on the handle, is housed in the National Museum of Scotland and, despite its appearance of dating from a later period, also claims to have belonged to King Robert.

Of course, it is important to remember that during the reign of Robert the Bruce, Highland dress did not exist as we know it today. Medieval battles such as Bannockburn were fought wearing body armour, chain mail and helmets with visors – a very different image from the line-up of prancing kilts depicted in the Hollywood film Braveheart. As the centuries passed, however, the tunic and tartan accessories of the Highlander did begin to evolve and, by the Jacobite Uprising of the 18th century, most certainly fell into line with the romanticism that we have all come to expect from it today.

Weaponry evolved in a similar fashion, and by the 16th century the hand-and-ahalf Highland broadsword, known as the Claymore, was in everyday use. Shorter and lighter that the continental two-hander, the average Claymore was about 55 inches in overall length, with a 13 inch grip and 36 to 38 inch blade. The length of a sword tended to be dictated by the height of its owner and whether or not he was on foot or on horseback. Relatively uniform in style, these swords were set with a wheel pommel sometimes capped by a crescent-shaped nut and a guard with straight, down- sloping arms ending in quatrefoils and langets running down the centre of the blade from the guard.

Unlike the double-edged European dagger, the single edged dirk (pictured), being heavier, enabled its employment when necessary as a short sword.

Scabbards, particularly those dating from the 18th century, were similarly embellished, and sometimes adapted to carry a knife and fork in the manner of Highland Regimental Officers.

The Highland knife, known as the sgian dubh, secreted in the wearer’s hose, was employed for such diverse uses as carving wood, gutting fish and, of course, closehand fighting.

Targes, circular shields approximately19 inches in diameter, their fronts covered in tough hide and the back with deerskin, were another essential on the battlefield.

Some had a lethal spike in the central boss.

There can be little dispute that a charge of well-armed Highlanders wielding their swords and pikes must have been a terrifying sight. At the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, that the Government troops were decimated within 15 minutes. Was it any wonder then that after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army at the Battle of Culloden the following year, it became illegal for anyone other than government soldiers north of the Highland line to carry arms?

Naturally, this did not prevent weaponry from being hoarded illicitly but by the time the Act of Proscription was appealed in 1782, the fighting tools of the Highland men were largely considered obsolete and, by the 19th century, had become purely ornamental. It was left to the Victorians to transform them with silver and Cairngorm embellishments into accessories.

Particularly fine collections of Scotland’s fighting past, however, can be seen on display at Inveraray Castle in Argyll, and Blair Castle in Perthshire.