The popular image of the Highlander is dominated by the Jacobite clansman: the kilted warrior, brandishing basket-hilted sword and brass-studded targe. However, this tartan-clad romantic icon has had a longer life on shortbread tins than he did in reality.Until the late seventeenth century, Highland chiefs and their gentlemen retainers charged into battle fully armoured. They loosed arrows from bows and cut their enemies down with axes and two-handed swords.

1. Mungo Murray

Tartan icon: Mungo Murray c. 1683. Copyright Ross Cowan

It was not poverty, nor a rejection of modern technology, that made them retain their medieval arsenal. The traditional weapons were brutally effective in close combat, and their use was central to the hierarchical structure and heroic ethos of the Gaelic world. Thus aristocratic warriors put aside their guns and duelled with bows and two-handed swords and their bards sang of the most dreadful and glorious deeds. As the rest of Britain entered the modern era,  Highland Scotland was still in a heroic age.

This His Enemies Confess

This Homeric world was fostered in the halls of lairds and chiefs, where bards, harpists, pipers and other musicians provided entertainment and education. Men like the MacMhuirichs, hereditary bards and historians to the Clanranald, and Iain Lom, bard to MacDonald of Keppoch, were at the top of the bardic tree.

Red Book of Clanranald

The Red Book of Clanranald, a MacMhuirich clan history. Copyright Ross Cowan

MacDonald poets never tired of boasting of their clan’s descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, while the Campbells claimed not only Diarmid of the Fenian cycles as their ancestor, but also King Arthur.

Lacking illustrious forebears from Irish and British myth, the MacLeans invoked heroes from the historic past. ‘Fierce Red Hector of the hard-fought battles’, killed fighting for the Lord of the Isles at Harlaw (1411), was one such exemplar. When Lachlan Mor MacLean of Duart hewed the enemy with a battle-axe at Glen Livet (1594), his choice of weapon was probably influenced by the knowledge that Gilleain, the thirteenth century progenitor of the MacLeans, habitually carried an axe.

12a Jack

16th cent. jack. Copyright Ross Cowan

On account of his plotting and violent expansionism, Lachlan Mor was a divisive character in his own lifetime, but his courage was never in doubt and he figured as a paradigm of valour in later Gaelic and Scots literature. He was one of the few chiefs in Argyll’s army to emerge with distinction from the debacle at Glen Livet (1594), and his deeds were prominent in reports compiled by Robert Bowes, the agent of Elizabeth I in Scotland.

While the rest of the Highland army fled in disarray, Lachlan Mor’s contingent held firm, and he even captured the standard of the Earl of Huntly. According to Calderwood’s history, ‘MacLaine has played one of the most valiant men that ever Highland man played… Having a jack upon him [a fabric coat reinforced with metal plates] and two habergeons [mail shirts], with a morion [helmet] and a Danish axe, he perceived Huntly’s standard, played so valiantly with the axe, that he slew four or five until the time he came to Huntly’s standard, and sticked the horse whereupon the bearer rode, and next cut him in two at the waist and bore the standard away. This his enemies confess.’

4. Glen Livet

The battlefield at Glen Livet. Copyright Ivy Cowan

Bards on the Battlefield

Bards accompanied raiding parties and armies and harangued clan warriors before battle. Martin Martin, a Skye man who toured the Western Isles in the 1690s, explains how a bard would find ‘an eminence from whence he addressed himself to all of then standing about him, putting them in mind of what great things were performed by the valour of their ancestors, raised their hopes with the noble rewards of honour and victory, and dispelled their fears by all the topics that natural courage could suggest.’

It was also the duty of the bard to find a good vantage point from which to observe a battle, and to witness and record the glorious deeds of his clansmen. Iain Lom did so at Inverlochy (1645). His song about the battle elevated Alasdair MacColla (a MacDonald) to the status of a Gaelic demi-god. ‘Alasdair of the sharp cleaving blades’ ensured the slaughter of a despised enemy: ‘well was the ground manured… by the blood of Campbells.’

MacColla’s skill in arms at the subsequent battle of Auldearn resulted in another panegyric, but in 1647 he was killed in Ireland and the hero worship was replaced by lament. Iain Lom was devastated when confirmation of the rumour of Alasdair’s death came from a harpist returning from a tour of the bardic circuit in Ireland.

Iain Lom was not merely an observer of combat. He fought in the skirmish at Sron a Clachain (1640), where he saw  Angus MacDonald, the Keppoch chief, mortally wounded. Lom’s grief was intense, but he never lost his appreciation for the glory of victorious combat. His poems and songs revel in the graphic details of sword fighting. Limbs are severed and sinews are cut, skulls are cleaved and crushed. Blood flows copiously and marrow leaks from broken bones.

5. Sron a Clachain

Sron a Clachain, Killin. Copyright Ross Cowan

Poetry was not the preserve of professional bards. Donald MacIain (another MacDonald) was a noted warrior-poet. Victor of the skirmish at Carinish and participant in the resulting full-scale battle between the MacDonalds and MacLeods at Coire na Creiche (1601), MacIain commemorated the latter engagement in verse: ‘Ill-luck befell the men of long locks… Clan Donald was responsible for their overwhelming.’ In another composition he regrets having gifted ‘three heroes’ to his unworthy son-in-law – a MacLeod! The three heroes were a coat of mail, helmet and sword. The sword was probably of the two-handed variety. Gaelic tradition recalls that MacIain’s own blade was called The Brindled Peregrine.

Warriors and Clowns

This was a warrior’s world, but only the well-born could be warriors. The glory of combat and profits of plunder were for chiefs, fine and daoin-uaisle (clan gentry), and their retainers.

The Highland straths and glens sustained considerable populations, but the majority of manpower was tied to the land. The militarism of some clans was underpinned by a servile class known as bodaich (serfs or, pejoratively, clowns). The contempt of the daoin-uaisle class for the bodaich was expressed in Gaelic poetry, which is virtually the only source for their existence. Iain Lom noted that the noble line of Angus Og of Glengarry was not tainted by bodaich ancestry. As late as 1746, the fugitive Jacobite officer Iain Roy Stewart was appalled that Strathspey bodaich were involved in the hunt for him. They were ‘evil serfs without honour or worth’. Hector MacLeod, another Jacobite, depicted bodaich as fit only to cleanse the battlefield and bury the dead.

The contempt of the clan gentry extended to their Lowland Scottish opponents. Angus MacAlasdair Roy, the bard of Glen Coe, was dispirited that well-born Highland warriors were ‘felled by bullets fired by cowherds’ at the battle of Dunkeld (1689). The lowly ‘cowherds’ were soldiers of the Earl of Angus’ regiment, later known as the Cameronians.

Warbands and Armies

EPSON scanner image

Grey Colin Campbell from The Black Book of Taymouth

‘Grey’ Colin Campbell of Glenorchy, was a powerful chieftain. With lands extending from Lorn on the West Coast to the east end of Loch Tay at the very heart of Scotland, he could have raised a large army from his tenants and dependents, but when conducting a war against rebellious MacGregor vassals in 1570, he preferred to reinforce his daoin-uaisle and retainers (a corps greatly diminished by the revolt of the highly militarised Clan Gregor) with Cameron mercenaries.

The Camerons proved impossible to control, spending more time plundering the estates of Grey Colin’s neighbours than in hunting MacGregors. The command of proud and arrogant gentlemen from disparate clans was always difficult; they tended to obey only the captain nominated by their chief and were quick to take offence from outsiders. However, ‘broken men’, that is outlaws and those exiled or runaway from clans (perhaps including the normally despised bodaich), were easier to cajole. In 1669, MacLeod of Assynt recruited 400 broken men and formed them into a regiment.

Difficulties of command and the desire to have forces composed of the ‘right sort’ of men, meant that most clan battles were small-scale affairs involving scores or hundreds of warriors. The battle of Glen Fruin (1603), where 400 MacGregors and allies outmanoeuvred and defeated 800 or 900 Colquhouns, Buchanans and Dumbarton burgesses, was a notably large engagement. In 1604, Robert Campbell of Glen Falloch (a grandson of Grey Colin) cornered a band of MacGregors on the slopes of Ben Toig. The forces involved in this skirmish were more typical: 60 MacGregors against Robert’s 200 ‘chosen men’, drawn from the gentlemen of the Campbells, MacNabs, Camerons and Clanranald. Sometimes, however, a great chief could raise a large army from his clan, feudal vassals and those obliged to serve him by bonds of manrent.

7. Glen Fruin

Glen Fruin. Copyright Ross Cowan

In 1594, acting on behalf of James VI, the young Earl of Argyll mustered an exceptional army of 8,000 footmen. Many were heavily armed and armoured in the classic Highland style, but the host proved unwieldy and was put to flight by a much smaller force of cavalry led by the rebellious Catholic Earls of Huntly and Errol.

Ewen Cameron of Lochiel, chief of a smaller clan but an influential man on account of his personal charisma and all-important feats of valour (such as using his teeth to tear out the throat of a Cromwellian officer in 1654), was able to gather 1,200 men to oppose the MacIntoshes at the Fords of Arkaig in 1665. Even at this late date, one quarter of Cameron’s force was armed with bows.

The weapon still had the edge over muskets in ‘rate of fire’. Donald MacIain’s famous destruction of a larger force of MacLeod raiders at Carinish (1601), and the successful withdrawal of the MacDonalds from the slopes of Sron a Clachain (1640), was accomplished by superior archery, and Cromwellian soldiers were greatly troubled by Royalist Highland archers directed by Ewen Cameron at the battle of Tullich (1652). The use of the bow in this late period was also influenced by its manly and heroic associations. It was a key weapon in what scholars now call the Gaelic panegyric code. It seems that Archibald Campbell of Craignish, was well-aware of that code.

Heroic Weapons

‘Expert at breaking castles asunder’ was one of the many epithets bestowed on Alasdair MacColla by Iain Lom. However, MacColla’s success in capturing Covenanter and Campbell strongholds was mixed and when unable to take Craignish Castle by storm, he abandoned the siege (1646). Throughout the three week siege, Archibald Campbell, tutor (acting laird) of Craignish, conducted a spirited defence. He led numerous sorties against the besiegers and challenged MacColla to single combat.

MacColla declined. He perhaps recalled how the morale of a Highland force collapsed when its commander, Alasdair MacDonald (son of the famous Sorley Boy), was seriously wounded in single combat against Captian Merriman, the renowned English officer (Dunluce, 1585).

2. Longbow carrier

Highland archer, late 17th cent. Copyright Ross Cowan

Unable to tempt Alasdair MacColla into a battle of champions, Archibald Campbell determined to kill him from a distance. While MacColla was directing an assault against the castle, Archibald appeared on the battlements and loosed an arrow from a bow. It struck Alasdair in the lower body and, according to a Gaelic tale about the siege, ‘caused greater laceration coming out than going in’. Alasdair then decided to abandon the siege, memorably declaring, ‘That is the sharp castle of whelks, the wind itself is the only thing that will keep up a constant fight with it.’

After three weeks of siege, Archibald may have exhausted his supply of powder and shot, but it seems likely that his use of the bow was influenced by the heroic ethos of the Gaelic world. Similarly, when Hector MacLean of Lochbuie hurled a javelin at dragoons at Knockbrecht (1689), it was probably a symbolic gesture intended to attract bardic attention. His men fired muskets prior to following their chief in running charge with drawn swords.

Highlanders adapted quickly to firearms and Lowland Scottish gunsmiths developed distinctive weapons to appeal to Gaelic gentlemen. Some sixteenth chiefs even deployed light artillery in battle, but the gun was never considered a truly heroic weapon. Mastery of the musket did not require the same levels of skill and strength demanded by the bow, and unlike swordsmen, musketeers did not fight ‘breast to breast’ (Iain Lom). This explains why in the famous Highland charges at Killiecrankie (1689) and Prestonpans (1745), the clan gentry dropped their expensive firearms after firing a single volley and then set-to the more glorious form of combat with their swords. One suspects, however, that the armour-bearers who customarily attended clan gentry immediately gathered up the discarded guns.

The seemingly irresistible Highland charge was finally halted at Culloden (1746) by a combination of rough terrain, artillery, musket volleys and disciplined bayonet drill. ‘The Lowlanders’ fire / Showered shot around our faces / That spoiled the swordplay, more’s the pity.’ Such was the lament of Iain Roy Stewart, Jacobite, poet, despiser of the bodaich, and last of the lairds of battle.

Appendix: Arming for War in the Age of Forays

From the collapse of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles in 1493, to the skirmish between Athollmen and Frasers at Aultnagoire in 1698, some part of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland was embroiled in clan warfare. James IV could have been the man to fully integrate the Gaelic-speaking regions into the Kingdom of Scotland, but he and his principal Highland allies were slaughtered at Flodden in 1513. The power-vacuum left by the dissolution of the Lordship, James’ death and succession by a minor, propelled the Highlands into the Age of Forays.

With no effective central authority, Campbells, MacLeans, MacKenzies, the feuding branches of the once mighty Clan Donald, and a host of lesser clans sought to expand their lands and influence. Political and religious discord in the rest of Scotland (acute since the Reformation of 1559-60) allowed the Highlanders to conduct their affairs with little interference. James VI’s attempts to disarm and demilitarise the clans had limited effect. High casualties in the British Civil Wars of 1637-50, and the Cromwellian occupation of Scotland (1650-60), did hinder military activity within the Highlands, but a generation of recovery allowed the clans to reassert their strength.

Highland hunters

Highlanders, c. 1660. Copyright Ross Cowan

The battle of Mulroy (1688) and the first Jacobite Rebellion (1689-90) were the last hurrahs of the medieval-modes of Highland warfare. MacDonald gentlemen brought their yew bows to Mulroy and MacLeod bowmen mustered at Dalcomera (1689). Many of the notable chiefs and lairds at Killiecrankie, including Cameron of Lochiel, fought in armour. Some still used two-handed swords and battle axes. The efficacy of ‘archaic’ arms and armour is demonstrated by the subsequent battle at Dunkeld: Lowland soldiers found that halberds were more effective than muskets against the armour and targes of Highland gentlemen.

The distinctive two-handed sword popularly, but erroneously, known as the claymore, appeared in the 1490s and remained the principal weapon of the Highland gentleman until the early seventeenth century. Combat with the two-handed sword was fast and fluid. Relatively light and well-balanced (weights of surviving examples range from 1.8 to 2.6 kg), it was sometimes used in conjunction with a small round shield (targe or buckler).

13. Two-handed sword

Two-handed Highland sword, early 16th cent. Copyright Ross Cowan

The English, who had much experience of fighting Highland and Hebridean mercenaries in Ireland, knew the two-hander as the ‘slaughter sword’. Clan historians took great pleasure in recording – and no doubt exaggerating – the number of kills achieved with the weapon. The Manuscript History of Craignish recounts how Ronald Campbell of Barrichbeyan avenged his brother’s by slaying 16 Shaws with his two-handed sword (1602). Another Campbell tradition accorded no less than 23 kills to the two-handed sword (albeit of Continental rather than Highland pattern) of Patrick Campbell of Inverneill in a skirmish against the MacGregors at Killin (1623).

The slaughter sword was superseded in the 1630s by the basket-hilted broad- or backsword (the latter being the favourite of Alasdair MacColla), but Rory MacLennan, the Bannerman of Kintail, bravely defended his standard at Auldearn with a two-handed sword in 1645. Some of MacLeod of Assynt’s broken men carried bows and two-handed swords in 1669. Along with bascinet helmets and full plate armour, the two-handed sword was noted among the unusual equipment of Charles II’s ‘Highland Host’ militia in 1678, and the weapon reappears in the hands of some chiefs in the Killiecrankie campaign of 1689.

Some two-handed swords were converted into basket-hilted swords. For example, a MacGregor two-hander used in the rout of the Colquhouns at Glen Fruin (1603), was cut-down and re-hilted in 1745 for a MacGregor who joined Bonnie Prince Charlie. Other two-handed swords were retained as heirlooms. When Richard Pococke visited the Isle of Tiree in 1760, he discovered that the inhabitants still handed down ‘from father to son the large two handed sword and the helmet of the family.’

Originally published in Military History Monthly. Click here for a pdf.

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