Friday, 7 December 2012

Highlanders Physical culture 2

"Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skillful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in gymnastics but their lives in nature." Georges Herbert
 The Highlander may be characterised a short dexterous individual with reddish or dark hair and fair skin. Tacitus describes the Caledonians as "The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin" an origin perhaps confirmed by the BBC programme "blood of the Vikings" in its DNA testing of the British population. Jordanes wrote too that the Caledonians had red hair and "loose jointed bodies"(dexterous) the idea of nimble red heads has some pedigree.

 Highland prisoners from Culloden averaged at 5'4" a figure confirmed by recruits joining the British army for the seven years war some 10 years later. With a range from 5'1" to 5'10" the recruits were described as "healthy, young, and well built, but not tall. Highlanders seldom are".These men would not be drawn from the upper ranks of the society and we may expect tacksmen etc to have been taller and indeed some of these men were true giants over 6', though Rob Roy was of this class and was no taller than average though apparently thickly muscled and with Harry Grebb length arms.
 The terrible climate and increased economic inequality in the highlands of the 17th-18th century surely stunted the growth of the highland people as it did across Europe. Male average height decreased by two inches from earlier periods so we may expect to see the heights of medieval highlanders being closer to an average of 5'6". Documentation for women's heights remains elusive but we would expect women's heights to follow the same general trend as men.
 From Tacitus we learn that the highlanders' Caledonian ancestors have big limbs writers through to the 17th century confirm that later generations were also well built, "I generally observed the men to be large-bodied, stout, subtle, active, patient of cold and hunger." but in general the physical attributes which impressed their contemporaries were their dexterity, their endurance and their tolerance of cold.
 In the Culloden campaign armies comprised mostly of highlanders continually out marched and out manoeuvred British armies,  this ability could be exploited by commanders like Montrose or Dundee to allow armies of highlanders to defeat conventional armies with an advantage in materiel or numbers. Even the dispassionate Edmund Burt notes that highlanders were graceful in their movements echoing the earlier more enthusiastic travelogue by William Schaverell "in all their actions a certain generous air of freedom". Such skill and natural athleticism has been noted in many "primitive people" across the world and seems to be a consequence of living in hostile or wild environments, the highlanders made little attempt to "improve" their environment much to the disgust and dismay of English and Lowland Scots and the mountains are still famously taxing to traverse today. Transhumance and fishing would require greater cross country travel than the average farming European lifestyle and probably led to a higher degree of physical fitness and prowess than a plough pushing pig farmer in Denmark, Germany. or Suffolk. In addition in a world dominated by a warrior ethic martial training was not an option but a necessity. Certainly this was what attracted the attention of early writers and those who met highlanders abroad inevitably met mercenaries resulting in something of a selection bias, that said all men were obliged to fight and all in the society faced the very real prospect of violence particularly after the collapse of the Lordship of the Isles. 

 Hunting is frequently given as an activity engaged in by highlanders for the deer and the wolf, on the islands and coasts seals and whales provided dangerous hunting, "but also in rynninge, leapinge, swymmynge, shootynge, and thrawinge of dartis (compare with this from Leslie "with the sleeves open below for the convenience of throwing their darts"):...wrestling,swimming,jumping,dancing,shooting with bows and arrows". Tossing logs (oh alright, cabers) throwing and lifting of stones and other pursuits built strong, ready bodies as did wrestling.  Camanachd or shinty was and is popular in the highlands, a similar game to Hurley it was considered superb for training the body for war, and was known as shinty for the amount of cracked shins the game produced.Boys could learn the art of the sword with cudgels and numerous tests and trials of martial ability can be found in the folklore of Celtic peoples. Boys raced from their sword schools up to the tops of nearby hills the winner rewarded with an extra lump of bannock, in a competition which has parallels with Apache warrior training.Martial training was provided by local gentry for the boys but not much is really known about the forms in which it took. It was presumably performed outside and in armed combat ash saplings were used no thicker than a thumb to provide reasonably safe tools for sparring. There is no known method or organisations as existed in mainstream European society such as the marxbruder of Germany and much of what is known of highland training is uncomfortably close to mythology and folktales.In later periods training and techniques seem to have mirrored other European (certainly British) styles  though because of the paramount place of melee prowess and the endemic nature of violence in the highlands, many techniques may have seemed more brutal or expedient than what was practised south of the highland line. Certainly contemporary sword masters such as Sir William Hope and Thomas Page note that Highlanders differed somewhat in technique.
 " all their care was to excel in glory of warfare and victory" with such an ethos and in such a rugged physically challenging environment  a dexterity and highly developed physical awareness would be a natural consequence of such a background.
 So what might we see if we walked through a medieval highland village? Supposing we haven't arrived during a famine people would look more or less the same as they do now in term of colouration and facial features. We would note a great deal of children and indeed people might seem younger in general as the demographic features of the population would be skewed to the young. Highlanders were noted not only for their good health but also (barring accident) for living to a ripe old age, so we should expect to see a few older people but less than we might see today.. Faces would be broad and teeth straight and white. Bad teeth are very much a modern phenomenon. The people would certainly seem shorter though they would be much, much slimmer than the modern British population, in fact overweight or obese people would stand out markedly. Obese people are know from archaeology and contrary to what some obesity researchers might say a traditional diet a plenty of farm chores is not an automatic defence against this condition. Men and caterans may well have been muscular though more in the manner of old prize fighters than modern crossfit athletes it is likely however that most people wold just look, well, like people. The grace and dexterity that contemporary writers spoke of I would have thought would be manifest rather than a romanticism of exotic flavour this is spoken of almost universally and from writers enthusiastic to indifferent (to hostile). It is difficult to imagine how this would have looked, I interview a man who had spent time in the Kalahari bushmen and he told me that he had never felt so physically incompetent.  

Monday, 3 December 2012

Highlander's physical culture 1

"Men bred in the rough bounds" while their clothing culture and arms were considered distinct from mainstream European culture, the physicality of the highlanders was also remarked upon by contemporaries. The following is a general view. Much changed over the centuries in Agriculture and culture but is factual in general. Changes in climate (especially severe in the 16th-17th centuries) will also have affected practices.
 The Highlands while not entirely homogeneous can be characterised as rough mountains with unpredictable weather (to say the least) and a land not particularly suitable to arable farming. Pastoralism and fishing were the mainstays of the culture though wherever possible crops were grown. Lazy beds, that is fields made from sea weed were also used to increase crop land.
 Cattle, sheep chickens and goats were the domesticated animals of choice Highland cattle are still famous for the quality of their meat and at the time were famous for their marbling. I have read contradictory things about deer in Scotland, both that deer were hunted exclusively by the clan elite and conversely that they were free to be hunted by all men. I suspect the former to be true as my sources for this are older and it makes more sense in a feudal system. Whether this protection would extend to the smaller Roe deer (it didn't in England) or other smaller game I can't say. Poaching and gamekeeping are attested to in period sources Martin Martin states that deer "licenses" had to be applied for on Lewis but does not mention any social distinction in their allocation, tracts were set aside exclusively for the Chieftain's hunting.
Fish trap Torridon
 Sea food was a major source of nutrition to those in reach of the sea, Scotland is  famous for the quality of its sea food, in the 16th century Scotland provided much of the fish for England and the Low Countries. Herring were a staple of most Europeans and salted and hung in the rafters could provide (pretty tasty) calories during the "hungry gaps of the year" "The natives preserve and dry their herring without salt, for the space of eight months, provided they be taken after the tenth of September, they use no other art in it but take out their guts, and then tying a rush about their necks, hang them by pairs upon a rope made of heath cross a house; and they eat well, and free from putrefaction, after eight months keeping in this manner."

Sea birds and their eggs were also consumed sometimes in vast numbers. I have seen fish traps in the Western Lochs which work by stranding fish at low tide in artificial rock pools this must have provided a some pretty easy meals for communities on sea lochs. A friend from Lewis also taught me how to make salmon weirs which work in a similar fashion. Mesolithic middens attest to the importance of shellfish in the diet going back beyond agriculture,  I have also read that silverweed and other wild plant foods were important starch sources for upland peoples before the introduction of the potato.
 Dairy products are of incredible importance to a pastoralist people. Highlanders practised transhumance and lived in sheilings with their herds in the summer months butter and cheeses would be made to preserve the milk which was presumably not drunk in any quantity.
 I have eaten wild blueberries on the tops of Glencoe, hazel trees grow in the sheltered valleys and honey was also produced however sugar would presumably not be eaten at all by anyone save the very rich or connected . So we can see that Highlanders had access to a fairly wide range of food stuffs but we must be aware that life was hard and getting enough to fuel a life spent farming in a marginal environment must have been a struggle the year marked with a feast/famine cycle without the amelioration of an established market system or extensive grain storage.
Martin Martin was a highlander, and was in a position better than most writers to tell of the Islands in which he lived. He was a sober writer though his work deals often with mysteries and miracles. Of the highland middle class ,he was a Tacksman, he has been accused of not understanding the differences between the clans system and mainstream European society  he wrote in the 17th century.
 Martin describes an Island economy which was rich in corn  and made great use of the rich seas the common people ate a great deal of meat from marine mammals "This I have been assured of by several persons, but particularly by some poor meagre people, who became plump and lusty by this food in the space of a week: they call it Seapork, for so it signifies in their language. The bigger whales are more purgative than these lesser ones, but the latter are better for nourishment........The amphibia here are seals and otters; the former are eaten by the vulgar, who find them to be as nourishing as beef and mutton........The natives salt the seals with the ashes of burnt sea-ware, and say they are good food: the vulgar eat them commonly in the springtime with a long pointed stick instead of a fork, to prevent the strong smell which their hands would otherwise have for several hours after. The flesh and broth of fresh young seals is by experience known to be pectoral; the meat is astringent, and used as an effectual remedy against the diarrhoea and dysentery; the liver of a seal being dried and pulverized, and afterwards a little of it drunk with milk, aquavitæ, or red wine, is also good against fluxes."
   Froissart in his 14th Century chronicle written from his own and others travels writes that the Scots were hardy and simple, able to march 20-24 miles in a  day, they used no baggage train but lived off the land eating only sodden meat and drinking river water. He states that they used no pan but cooked animals in their skins. They carried bags of oats with which they made oatcakes cooked on small metal griddles. He adds that they were capable of outmarching and outmanoeuvring any army.  He makes no distinction between Highlanders and lowlanders but we can easily recognise this description in descriptions of later Jacobite "hill skippers", perhaps Froissart is describing only Highlanders or perhaps all Scots marched this way in the medieval period. Cooking animals in their skins is seen in many depictions (such as Derricks images of Ireland)  of Irish armies and described in the Dewar Mss.
 Silvius states that the Scots lived on a diet of fish and flesh whereas bread was a luxury. His account of the highlands being a land of woods possessing no tilled land reads like hearsay and we should treat his reference to Highlanders eating wood with suspicion. Pine cambium has been used by other cultures to make a starchy flour though. Indeed the meaty ways of the Highlanders are related by a few period writers with one writer maintaining that Highlanders ate meat raw after squeezing the blood from it. Blood was also drained from living animals and mixed with oats to make puddings by drovers on the move.
 Cattle and other livestock were slaughtered in the autumn and salted for preservation cattle were wintered within the house and were frequently too weak to stand in the spring despite the toughness of highland breeds.
 Pork was spurned, in the French Indian war Highland troops threw away their salted pork rations on patrol. This probably stems from a religious proscription (And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be cloven footed, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.Leviticus) though these soldiers at least were "happy" to eat pork when they realised they had no choice.
 There was a dog-like pig raised in the Highlands though now extinct. I cannot find reference to this animal being used for food. Cattle were rarely eaten especially after the concentration on ranching in the 17th Century. Sheep were eaten frequently and theft of sheep (unlike of cattle) was a capital offence. Goats were also kept.
 It is hard to talk with any certainty about the ratios and make up of meals from the choices available. Certainly in coastal communities the fecundity of the oceans would make fish at every meal a real possibility but as with nearly every other society in Europe cereal grains presumably made up the single greatest intake of calories with declining importance up the social scale. This could well have lead to problems with scurvy and iron deficiency problems when the supply of meat fish or vegetables ran out. Local wild foods certainly were used to help with these agricultural problems, nettles ,for example, are an excellent source of both iron and vitamin C.
Kailyards
Plant sources are discussed less commonly than animal foods in the period sources, perhaps displaying a bias to more "noble" foods or areas of male preserve or that animals foods were considered to be more useful/important. Alternatively vegetables and plant foods were eaten less commonly as is the case in many Northern cultures.Boswell noted in the late 18th century that a poor family "  will live all the spring without meat upon milk and curd, etc.., alone. " but he also noted a garden "gooseberries, raspberries, currant, strawberries, apple-trees." he also describes eating turnips, greens (probably kale) though by far the main repast is flesh.
 On the Islands seaweed was eaten and kale has a long and famous association with the highlands with kale yards (walled gardens to protect the kale from the wind) featuring in many folk stories. Onions were also mockingly associated with highlander penury in the 17th-18th centuries.
From W.Price
 The highlands themselves are a hostile environment in which to farm while there were many sources of food shortage and hunger must have been endemic at points of the year and famine or bad harvests making life hard for those wresting a living from the hills. Highlanders were (and are) shorter than other Europeans but were healthy in comparison according to contemporary sources and though the Scottish diet is today synonymous with tunnocks tea cakes and clogged arteries it was in recent history wonderfully healthy, Indeed in the 1930's residents of Lewis were used as examples of healthy living by the Dentist Weston Price in his exemplary work. 

 In the next post I will go on to look at the exercises, martial arts and physicality of the Gaelic culture.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Highland arms before the 18th century




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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, 29 February 2012

more on the '45

I'm still writing a post on highland arms before the '45 but here is something I found from the '45 before any battles or arms shipments.
it is from this book
MacDonald, C. Moidart Among the Clanranalds. 1997 Birlinn

16 of the 80 are described as wanting weapons
15 of the 80 have a sword only
15 of the 80 have a gun only
26 of the 80 have sword AND gun
7 of the 80 have gun sword and targe
1 of the 80 has gun and pistol

The muster (especially when compared with the athol muster) again demonstrates that the top tier of society were armed with what I call the holy trinity of dirk, sword and target. These were also armed with guns and were probably the clan gentry. Most men were armed in some fashion and most men were armed with swords though 31 men weren;t.
This was the state of the forces after heavy arms embargos and disarmings and before the re-arming later in the campaign.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Review of "Highland martial Culture"


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


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

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

Inaccurate and amateurish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In due time…….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Highlanders in the '45





There is at present a bit of a trend among writers of highland history to reform the old sword and targe armed highlander, as with most revision it seems to be based more on a desire to denounce past interpretations (in the old academic tradition) and paints an equally skewed picture. Mostly this is in response to ‘shortbread tin’ Jacobitism and deals with the chaotic events of the 18th century. Of course I am dealing with an earlier period but I think it might be worth going forward in time a bit to see if the “unarmed” peasantry argument stands up to scrutiny.

The argument is mostly based on revising the old 19th century image of tartan clad paladins leaping from the heather, sword in hand in a desperate bid to put their bonnie lad on the throne, or indeed modern neo-barbarians who view the Highlands as a kind of aboriginal backwater with Highlanders clinging to their “medieval” fighting styles. The revision states that instead of using backsword and targe, highlanders were mostly unarmed save a small military elite and, given the poverty of the area in the 18th century, ordinary highlanders were pressed into service and were armed with agricultural implements before being equipped with muskets and drilled to fight in an almost conventional fashion.

Certainly the hostile witnesses of Edinburgh give much ammunition to this interpretation as does the famous weapon count from the field of Culloden in which 2320 muskets were found to 190 broadswords (with 1000-1500 casualties). The perceived lack of melee weapons in the ’45 highlanders is then cast back into the past to reflect the situation among all highlanders in history.

With “Tuchman’s law” fully in our minds let’s look at the evidence for a poorly armed ’45 rebellion; certainly the Jacobite army that captured Edinburgh and trounced Cope’s army were a poorly armed bunch which, frankly, we should expect. The Highlands had been cracked by Wade’s roads and had been garrisoned for more than a generation. The Royal navy patrolled the waters and numerous disarmings had taken place with varying degrees of success. I cannot and would not argue that the army that assembled in Glenfinnan in 1745 wasn’t a shadow of previous Highland armies. I would however argue that swords were probably present in some number and across all classes of society. This indeed is my main point; it is the argument that it was the highland elite that alone were armed that I think is not supported by the evidence.

Woodhouselee’s scathing description of highlanders in Edinburgh is often cited as evidence for the poverty of the highlanders arms leaving aside his obvious Lowland bias it is clear that many highlanders were of indifferent quality but even among the reluctant and uninterested there were swords “ a boy stood with a rusty drawen sword”. A “volunteer” for the Jacobite army was released when it became clear he was too infirm however his sword was taken from him, a 14 year old sword armed boy was presented to Prince Charles after the battle of Prestonpans, having killed 14 with a sword. Having roundly defeated the Government forces the Jacobites could have availed themselves of their muskets, bayonets and swords. Swords were indeed worn by all soldiers in the early 18th century and it is likely that the French supply drops also included swords.

After Prestonpans it would appear that most highlanders could have been armed with swords (and muskets) if they so desired ordinary highlanders are often described as being armed with swords and their lack is not mentioned after this point. However the Jacobites certainly did have an absence of targes. Targes were discarded on the infamous night march which suggests that this archaic weapon was in short supply or unwanted by the highlanders in 1745. In the words of the 18th century fencing master “I reckon a Man that does not understand a Target, better to want it, than to have it” Targes were hastily ordered from craftsmen in both 1745 and 1746

1745 Nov. 15. To Wmn. Lindsay, wright, for six score targets , £30.14.6
1746 Jan. 16. To Win. Lindsay for 242 targets-
To 24 Hyds leather from the tannage, £16.16.0
To Goat skins, wood, nails, &c,, , £15.10.0
To two Officers targets pr. order, ... £1
Feb. 3. To Wm. Lindsay for paying leather of 200 targes, £16.16.0

Colonel Olgivy ordered his officers to supply themselves with targes. It would appear that even the upper ranks of the clan system were poorly equipped with targes though presumably well furnished with swords.

So we have some accounts that describe the highlanders being poorly armed but even the lower ranks having some melee weapons before having the pickings of the battle field. Accounts of the composition of the Jacobite army and some of the grotesque ways in which it was formed also place swords in the hands of ordinary folk. The famous sketches from Penicuick are also available to give us an idea of the composition of the highland army. Of 32 highlanders clearly depicted at least 24 (75%) are armed with swords. This includes Highlanders from the top of clan society to bundles of rags with rotting, ripped scabbards. Targes appear in fewer cases (13 or 40%) and often where the subject is clearly a person of some standing (I.e. named) or wealthy.

Earlier in the 18th century the road building Edmund Burt says that drovers (clearly not gentlemen) were given permission to carry arms and did so, dirks were rather disingenuously not considered to be arms.

Hopefully I have managed to start to persuade you that the modern idea of a gentry armed in the full highland fashion leading a mob wielding sticks and stones is not what is presented in the contemporary sources, nor is an army entirely comprised of bearded, sword and shield wielding berserkers. Indeed while the rich would obviously have been armed in a better fashion it would seem that those lower in the clan system could be armed at least as well.

I cannot account for the 190 broadswords recovered from Culloden field. Overall the number of arms gathered appears to be in low with 2300 odd muskets being shared among 7000 (33 %). Contemporary accounts of the battle tell of muskets being discarded still charged, swords being gathered off the field and buried and what are we to make of the one knife listed among the arms? Given that archaeology has revealed that mortars were present on the field (unlisted among the Government army inventory) maybe we should be aware that people were not perhaps as concerned with the details in the 18th century. Some finds from the field show weapons being damaged by the massive volume of fire directed at the highlanders it may be that only saleable items were counted I honestly don’t know. The figures throw up an interesting question in light of the other sources but are not (as is so often done) the basis for determining the composition of the army, and certainly can’t be used to arm Highland forces retrospectively.

I will look at earlier forces in my next post……


I will back this up with sources if asked, please do not use my photos without permission. I won't use the commonly seen penicuick sketches as they are quite poor copies buy the book by Iain Gordon Brown and Hugh Cheape