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Tartan Ferret

Highland Weapons

An Armourer's workshop

Here we discuss most of the early Scottish weapons referred to in contemporary literature.

Some of the names are in old Scots or English and further research is underway to identify them.
We are indebted to Master Armourer Thomas Yeudall of the famous Claymore Armoury in Ayrshire for help with this section.


Bowis and dorlochis ~ bows and arrows.
These were in use in Scotland up until the end of the 17th century and were used for hunting and in battles. Bowis is the old spelling of bows and dorlochis means quivers.

Brigantiflis ~ light armour.
This is a corruption of brigantine which was a kind of armour used in the 15th & 16th centuries. Also called jack, it looked a bit like a modern flak jacket and was lined with metal plates. Any lead ball that penetrated it would be flattened like a dumdum bullet and was less likely to cause critical injury.

Broadsword. From the mid 16th century, basket hilt swords were in common use in Scotland. The idea of a basket to protect the hand first came to England and then Scotland from Scandinavian and German sword makers. By the mid 17th century, ribbon baskets were being made in large quantities and by the turn of the 18th century, the Highland basket was reaching its full pattern. With the addition of the final rear wrist guard at the time of Culloden, it had fully matured. All basket hilt swords after 1746 were of military pattern. These were essential weapons for the Highlanders and the favourite fighting method was with a broadsword in one hand and a targe (shield) on the other arm.

The 1881 Ancient Scottish Weapons had this to say: The broadsword first appears in formal record in Scotland in 1643, when, along with the Lochaber axe and the Jedburgh staff, it constitutes part of the equipment of the levies then called out by the Convention of Estates, From 1582 to 1649 a "ribbit gaird" often appears as the " essay" of the armourers of Edinburgh, but in 1649 it was changed to " ane mounted sword, with a new scabbard and an Highland guard."


Many of the Scottish basket-hilted swords have Ferara blades, but this does not necessarily imply that they are older than the period indicated. Nothing is certainly known of the swordsmith originally using the designation of Andrea Ferara, beyond the excellence of the blades that bear his mark by right. He is said to have been an Italian armourer of the last quarter of the sixteenth century, and to have also established an armoury in Spain. But this is probably a mere inference, from the fact that the cognomen of the artificer is by some supposed to have been derived from the town of Ferrara in Italy, and by others from the town of Feraria in the north of Spain.

It may be of some significance that the name of Ferreira is still common in Spain, and that, while Ferara sword-blades are almost unknown in Italy, the largest and finest collection of them in existence is to be found in the Royal Arsenal at Madrid. The name " Andrea Ferara em Lisboa " occurs on a sword in the possession of Brodie of Brodie and there is a sword stamped with the words " O. Cromwell L. Prokter," which also bears the armourer's mark "Andrea Ferara," and the name of the German town Solingen.

The date usually attributed to the original Andrea is too early for the majority of the sword-blades bearing the designation, and the probability is, that the " Ferara " blade was manufactured by various armourers in different places to supply the demand created, in the first instance, by their superior excellence. Picro Ferara, Cosmo Ferara, and Giovanni Fuerara, are signatures occasionally found on sword-blades, and it is quite in accordance with what is known, in other cases, that the original name Andrea should have been continued through several generations of armourers after it had become famous.

Culveringis ~ type of cannon.
This is the old plural for culverin which was a piece of artillery that had the same calibre and fired the same size shot as cannons but was a quarter to a third longer than a cannon. The rate of fire of such guns was very slow, possibly about 10 shots an hour and the gunnery was frequently inaccurate. It's reported that in the English Civil War, a small culverin blasted away "most of the night and day . . . the greatest execution it did . . . was a bullet shot out of it entered into a house and burst the bottom of a fryen pan." After which the Royalists withdrew "that they might eate their Christmas pyes at home . . ." The calibre of a culverin - the internal diameter of its barrel - would be about 13cm and it would weigh a massive 1800 kgs. The weight of the shot - iron or even stone balls - was just under 7 kgs and the weight of the powder needed to propel it was just over 8 kgs. Each cannon needed a team of horses and men to get it into position and operate it and the culverin needed eight horses and up to 50 men.

Biodag ~ Dirk.
The Biodag (pr: beedak ) or dirk was a long stabbing knife up to 50cms long which was ideal for close quarter fighting and would be held behind the targe as mentioned above. The more affluent Highlanders would keep the dirk in a sheath often with one or more smaller knives or a knife and fork held by smaller sheathes. After the 1745 uprising, many broadswords were cut down and made into dirks. The sheath would often be hung round the Highlander's waist or attached to a special dirk belt - the criosan biodag (pr: creeshan beedak).



The 1881 Ancient Scottish Weapons had this to say: The Highland Dirk is distinguished from all other weapons of the same kind by its long triangular blade, single-edged and thick-barked; and by its peculiar handle, cylindrical, without a guard, but shouldered at the junction with the blade, the grip swelling in the middle, and the pommel circular and flat-topped.

The fashion of carrying a knife and fork in the side sheaths is at least as old as the time of Charles I. Mr Boutell instances "a beautiful dagger, now the property of Mr Kerstake, that appears to have been worn by King Charles I. when he was Prince of Wales; the hilt has the plume of three ostrich feathers, and a knife and fork are inserted in the sheath."

The earliest mention of the dirk as a customary part of the Highland equipment, occurs in John Major's notice of the dress and armour of the Highlanders, written in 1512, in which he says that they carry a large dagger, sharpened on one side only, but very sharp, under the belt. In the previous century Blind Harry refers to the custom of carrying a Scots Whittle under the belt. Describing the meeting of Wallace with the son of the English Constable of Dundee, he makes the Englishman address him thus:-

" He callyt on him and said Thou Scot abyde
Quha dewill the grathis in so gay a gyde
Ane Ersche manttll it war the kynd to wer
A Scottis thewtill undyr the belt to ber
Houch rewlyngis upon the harlot fete."

Dirk with knife and fork.

General Wade mentions the custom of swearing on the dirk, which came to his notice among the Clan Cameron and others who followed their example in putting down the practice of taking Tascall money, or a reward given in secret for information regarding stolen cattle. " To put a stop to this practice which they thought an injury to the tribe, the whole clan of the Camerons (and others since by their example) bound themselves by oath never to take Tascall money. This oath they take upon a drawn dagger, which they kiss in a solemn manner, and the penalty declared to be due to the breach of the said oath is to be stabbed with the same dagger; this manner of swearing is much in practice on all other occasions to bind themselves to one another."

The halberd or battle-axe was a Swiss invention which was a combination of spear and axe on a long handle. It was a direct descendant of the old Gallowglass two-handed, 12 inch bladed axe and was particularly effective against horsemen since the foot soldier could cut and thrust with it.

The 1881 Ancient Scottish Weapons had this to say on axes: The Axe is one of the earliest of weapons. The war-axe of iron, in its earlier forms, differed in no respect from the same implement used as a tool. The earliest form of the weapon-tool is a common axe-head longer and narrower in the shank than those now in use. Such axes are depicted as weapons in the Bayeux tapestry. War-axes of a later time were furnished with prolongations in the line of the shaft and hammers or spikes on the hack of the blade. The Jedhurgh Staff was a long-handled axe with a curved or crescentic blade, with or without a back-spike. The Lochaber Axe had an elongated blade usually rounded at the upper end, and the staff was furnished with a hook on the end.

The axe and "broggit staff" appeared in 1425 as the equipment of those who were not archers. In the weaponshaws of 1535 halberts appear along with two-handed swords. The Lochaber Axe and the Jeddard Staff appear in 1643 in company with the broadsword. In 1647 it was appointed that seventy-two men in each regiment should carry halbards, and in 1650 Lord Lorne requests a supply of partisans, from the store at Aberdeen, for the equipment of his regiment of Life Guards.


Lochaber Axe


War axe

Dag ~ Pistol.
Pistol - dag (pr: daag) - was much handier than the long flintlock musket of the time which was too large and cumbersome for war. Scottish flintlock pistols were unique in that they were all steel and they were very popular weapons with the Highlanders. Many drawings of Highlanders show a couple of pistols tucked into their belt and a powder horn hanging round their neck. They also carried a leather pouch which contained the lead shot. With the old pistols you could only fire one shot and then the gun had to be reloaded. If you were in a battle, you couldn't ask your enemy to hang on whilst you reloaded, so the Highlanders would throw them away as soon as they'd fired them and then charged with their other weapons - broadsword, dirk and targe. Their reasons for throwing them away rather then tucking them back in their belts were very practical - if they won the battle they could always come back and find them. If they lost the battle, they could run away a lot quicker without being weighed down by them.

1881 Ancient Scottish Weapons: Highland Pistols are wholly formed of metal, usually of steel, sometimes of brass, and occasionally in part of both these metals. Like most other portions of the Highland equipment they arc always remarkable for the excellence of their manufacture and the beauty of their decoration.

A Mr Glen has a wheel-lock pistol of the time of Charles I on which the armourer's mark is a pair of bagpipes and the initials C. L.
Logan states that the manufacture of pistols was commenced at Doune about 1646 by Thomas Guide who had learned his trade at Muthil. One of his apprentices, John Campbell, also became a famous maker. John Murdoch succeeded him. Campbell's and Murdoch's pistols are more common than Caddell's. Bissett occurs frequently on Highland pistols in the Tower Armoury. A less known maker is Jo. Chrystie.

A brace of his pistols are in the collection of Sir J. Noel Paton, U.S.A. They have ram's horn butts, and are of such extraordinary beauty of design, delicacy of workmanship, and perfection of condition, that Sir Noel says of them in his " Private Catalogue " (so often quoted in the pages of this work), " I have nowhere seen pistols more, or indeed so, beautiful as these." Another maker whose work is not widely known is Alexander Shireff, or Shiress of Old Meldrum.
In 1650 the horseman's equipment consisted of pistols, lance, broadsword, and steel cap, and the price of a pair of pistols with holster and spanner was fixed at £14, The price of a pair of Doune pistols according to Logan, varied from four to twenty-four guineas.

Typical Scottish pistol.

Slevis of plate or mailye ~ Armoured sleeves of steel plate or chain mail.
Speris of sex elnis land. Spears of six elns long. Eln was another name for the old measurement an ell. An English ell was 45" long (1.1m) whereas the Scottish ell was four fifths of that - 91cm. That makes the spears almost 5½ m long.

Powder horns (from the 1881 Ancient Scotish Weapons)
The Highland Powder Horn is distinguished from all others by its peculiarities of form and ornament. It is made from a neat's horn, flattened, and fitted with a wooden bottom, and a plug for the mouth, which is frequently also encircled with a mounting of lead.  No portion of the Highlander's equipment appears to have been more prized or more beautifully decorated, and no example of the beauty and grace of the prevailing style of decoration is more effective than that of King Charles's " Master of the Game,"  shown below.

The estimation in which these highly decorated objects of home manufacture, - the designing and engraving of which was wholly of individual effort - may be inferred from the mottoes they bear, if not from the careful work and original character of the designs. One commemorates a friendly gift, another records the owner's declaration :-

" I love the As my Wyfle
I'll keip the As my Lyffe." 

and adds the sententious motto:-

" A man his mynd should never sett
Wpon A thing he can not gett."

Powder Horn

Tua handit swerdis ~ the Claymore.
The famous two-handed sword, the Claymore, (claidheamohmor - great sword) first made its appearance around 1490 and was developed by the Hebridean Gallowglass warriors. This early Highland version measured between 53 and 60 inches overall. About 90 years later came a new version with a slightly shorter blade of between 51 and 57 inches. This was developed by the Redshanke mercenaries who fought throughout Europe, but by then, musket power was becoming the new weapon of war. The overall length of the Lowland two-handed sword was between 53 and a massive 75 inches . This sword was developed by Gallowglass and Lowland mercenaries serving in Europe with the Swiss and Landsknechts mercenaries of the 15th & 16th centuries.

The Life of a Long Sword: the blade would be commissioned from Solingen in Germany by a particular Gallowglass warrior. Solingen blades were very expensive but a blade of such quality could last 250 years. After its arrival in Scotland, the blade would be given to one of the many sword cutlers of The Isles and assembled with a Scottish made hilt to the old specification. After its use as a long sword, probably by about the mid 17th century, it would have been ground down and fitted with a basket. When its life as a broad sword was over it would have been further modified and would probably have ended up as a dirk. The blade lengths would have been as follows: Long sword - 40 inches. Broad sword - 32". Dirk - 17"

From the 1881 Ancient Scottish Weapons:   The great two-handed swords of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, also appear to have been popular in the Highlands and it is these swords, and not the basket-hilted broadswords, that are the true Highland swords to which the poetical name of claymore may be fitly applied.

Gordon of Rothiemay refers to them in the middle of the seventeenth century, as still used by some of the Highlanders of Aberdeenshire, while others used the broadsword. The pictures of the Campbells of Glenurchy in the " Black Book of Taymouth," drawn about the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century, represent them and their followers with two-handed swords. In the inventory of the "geir" left by Sir Colin Campbell at Balloch and Finlarig in 1640, there is :-

"Ane two-bandit sword, the hand quhairof is overlaycd with velvet. "Ane uther two-handit sword with ane loose hand to be eikit thairto."

And in another inventory of 1605 there is a two-handed sword specified as "gilt with gold," The swords represented in the pictures of the " Black Book" were probably drawn from the originals in the armoury at the time. They all have straight guards except the two which the artist has placed in the hands of the first Colin of Glenurchy and the first Earl of Argyle, which have the guards curved towards the point. The two-handed sword first appears in the weapon-shaws of the first-half of the sixteenth century.


Sghian Dubh.
Black in name and black in purpose, the sghian dubh (pr: skeean dew) was a killing knife secreted in a small holster up a sleeve or near an oxter (armpit). Four to six inches in length, this close-quarter knife was for use when no other weapons were to hand and it is believed that it became more commonly used in the late 18th century between 1746 and 1782 when the Hanoverian Government banned weapons throughout Scotland.

If a Highlander felt in danger in the company he was in, he would sit with his arms folded with one hand on the sghian dubh so that he could pull it out in a flash Dubh is the Gaelic for black and traditionally the handle and scabbard were made from dark coloured woods and leather. After the raising of the proscription (the ban) on weapons and Highland Dress, the sghian dubh came out of hiding as it were and was then worn mainly in the stocking, right or left side, depending on the individual's preference. In the 19th century when the wearing of the sghian dubh became more decorative and less functional, the hilt for daytime would be made from stag horn and the one worn in the evening from ebony and decorated with jewels.

Muskets though exhibiting less of the peculiar decoration of the dirk, the powder-horn, and the pistol, are nevertheless distinguished by their ornate character. They are fewer in number because they were more costly weapons, and their use was confined to the comparatively wealthy. The inventories of the Houses of Balloch and Finlarig show that they were made in Dundee, and that their ornamentation consisted of engraved work and inlaid work in bone and mother-of-pearl. The details of the ornamentation of the three specimens figured on Plate XXX. will show how rich and beautiful the decoration occasionally was. The inscription on the barrel of one shows that it was made in Germany to the order of John Grant, Sheriff of Inverness, but the date, 1434, is much too early for the piece as it now exists.


The Highland Targe or Target (Shield) (from the 1881 Ancient Scotish Weapons)

The form of the Highland Target is round, usually from 19 to 21 inches diameter. It is constructed of two layers of some light wood, often of fir, the grain of the one layer crossing that of the other angularly, and the pieces dowelled together. Over the wood, a covering of leather is lightly stretched for the front of the target, and a piece of hide, often of calf-skin, with a stuffing for the back. A handle, sometimes of leather or iron and an arm-strap were fixed at the back, near the opposite sides of the circumference of the target. Occasionally there were two arm-straps and sometimes instead of arm-straps, a sleeve of leather was fastened to the back of the target.

A boss of brass usually occupies the centre of the front of the target. The boss was occasionally pierced for a spike which screwed into a socket at the base of the boss. When not in use the spike was carried in a sheath at the back of the target.

The ornamentation of these targets is peculiar and highly effective. The central boss is frequently surrounded by other bosses placed in the centres of contiguous circles defined by rows of nail-heads. The spaces between the circles are decorated by studs, or by segmental plates of brass, fastened with studs in the centre, and with nails round the borders, and ornamented with pierced or engraved work.

These plates, when of pierced work, were placed over a lining of scarlet cloth, which showed through the openings and sometimes the bosses themselves were thus pierced and lined. Occasionally the decoration is confined to the formation of simple geometric patterns, on the face of the target, by the disposition of the studs and nail-heads. Sometimes this simple form of decoration is conjoined with the use of nails and studs but more frequently, the surface of the leather covering is tooled with a variety of patterns, disposed in symmetrical spaces.

The style of this ornament corresponds to that engraved on the Powder Horns and Brooches; and the designs in general have a close affinity with those of the later stone and metal work of the Celtic school of art, as exemplified in the West Highland Crosses, the Crosier of St Fillan, and the Bell-shrine of Kirkmichael Glassary.

The use of the target in Scotland was not confined to the Highlands. The statutory equipment appointed by the Act of 1425, for such yeomen or burgesses as were not archers, was "sword and buckler, and a good axe or broggit staff;" and in 1481 the axemen who had neither spear nor bow were required to provide themselves with targes "of tree "or leather, according to patterns which were sent to each of the sheriffs. The watchers of the burgh of Peebles, in 1569, were armed with jack and spear, sword and buckler. In an account of Queen Mary's journey to Inverness in 1562, the English Ambassador, Randolph, writing to Cecil * describes her cheerful behaviour in the midst of troubles, and says that " she repented nothing but (when the lords and others at Inverness came in the morning from the watch) that she was not a man to know what life it was to lie all night in the fields, or to walk on the causeway with a jack and knapschalle, a Glasgow buckler and a broadsword." It may be inferred from this incidental expression that such bucklers as were then used at Inverness, by the " lords and others," were manufactured in Glasgow. But the probability is, that the manufacture of the Highland targets, as we now know them, was not confined to any particular locality.

That they were made in large numbers, on short notice, in 1745, is shown by the following entries in the accounts of Laurence Oliphant of Gask as paymaster for Prince Charles at Perth :-

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

It appears from this that the cost of two officer's targets, made to order, was but 10 shillings each and the cost of the others about 5 shillings each. It appears also that targets were made in Edinburgh in 1745. In the orders for the Highland Army of l0th and 11h October 1745, given at Holyrood House, Colonel Lord Ogilvy orders that all the officers of his regiment shall " provide themselves in targes from the armourers in Edinburgh."* These, however, were probably made to order like those at Perth. The older targets fared badly after the Disarming Acts, Boswell, describing the weapons in Dunvegan Castle in 1773, says there is hardly a target now to be found in the Highlands; after the Disarming Acts they made them serve as covers to their buttermilk barrels. In the case of two of the finest of those figured by Mr Drummond only the ornamented leather remained. Another of the finer specimens was rescued from a coal-cellar in 1870.

Targets were carried by some of the men of the Black Watch when first embodied in 1740, and Grose mentions that he remembered "many private men of the old Highland Regiment in Flanders, in the years 1747 and 1748, armed with targets which, though no part of their uniform, they were permitted to carry."

Highland Targe

Back of targe.



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All these excellent drawings were by James Drummond RSA in 1881 and reproduced in a book entitled Ancient Scottish Weapons of which only 500 were ever printed. A CD of it is available (D-642) from Unicorn Ltd of Auburn, Alabama - www.scotpress.com

Our knowledge at the STA on exactly how these weapons were employed, is by necessity, rather sketchy. If any of you readers have a more detailed knowledge of this era of warfare, then we would be very pleased to hear from you.









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