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Tartan Ferret

Highland Ornaments and Weapons

by Ian Findlay who was - in 1952 - Keeper of the Department of Art and Ethnography of the Royal Scottish Museum.


May 1952

'The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne'

The truth about the ornaments and weapons which accompanied the Highland dress in its heyday has been obscured for more than a century by a mist of romantic enthusiasm. We not want to disperse the enthusiasm; but the truth - how often it is so! - is so much more interesting and exciting than the fiction which hides it.

The few authorities on the subject have to go like men picking their way over a peat bog fear of expostulations of this clan-chief or that when they imply his proudest family heirloom is quite two hundred years later in date than Bannockburn or could ever have been carried at Culloden. Indeed there are times when the correspondence columns of our newspapers suggest that the furor Scotorum is now largely spent in fighting about what our ancestors wore and how and when they wore it. It is a pity that greatest of authorities on Highland ornaments and weapons, Charles Whitelaw, died before he could write the book which would at once have become the standard one. It would have set out the whole story, documented beyond argument, and for ever shamed the spurious by the beauty of the real thing.

Let us begin with the sword. It epitomises all the misconceptions. I was passing through Speyside a few weeks ago when some charming little girls got into the train on their way to dance at a Highland games. They had with them a case of swords which - to my dismay - turned out to be cavalry officers' dress-swords. Now there is nothing more pleasant on a fine afternoon than a green, grassy meadow on which brawny, kilted men toss the caber against a background of dark pines and purple hills; but if those occasions are not to be the means of keeping up the true customs and traditions of that lovely countryside, then I see no purpose in them at all. The proper weapon for the sword-dance is, of course, the basket-hilted blade which Walter Scott speaks of as an Andrew Ferara, the sword which - again quite wrongly - is now generally called a claymore.

The story of the Highland sword opens with the claymore, the real claymore. The real claymore is a great, double-handed weapon which takes its name from the Gaelic claidheamh-mor, meaning "great sword." Its quillons are depressed: that is, the guard or crosspieces drop slightly towards the point of the blade. There is no
ornament except a small quatrefoil at the end of each quillon. This type of sword must have come into use about the beginning of the sixteenth century, and those who know the collection of tomb slabs at the Priory on the island of Oransay may remember one slab carved with a fully-developed claymore, dated 1539. The carved slabs on Oransay and Iona supply us, too, with some hints about the origin of the claymore. They depict numbers of smaller, probably earlier swords with drooping quillons which have a Norse look about them, and a single one of the earlier swords survives in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh. Those beautiful sword portraits - Whitelaw was convinced they were portraits of actual weapons - suggest that the claymore came into being in the domain of the Lords of the Isles.

It is just possible it was common to the whole of the Celtic west, for several fine claymores have been found in Ireland; but whether they really are Irish or were brought in by marauding Scots is an open question. The typical claymore seems to have gone out of use about the middle of the seventeenth century. Survivors are exceedingly rare now, and the appearance of a genuine one in a sale room causes a stir among connoisseurs of arms and armour.

The well-known basket-hilted swords, on the other hand, survive in considerable numbers. Even quite good swords are within the reach of modest collectors. Many hundreds must have been picked up as loot on the field of Culloden, and for a long time the blades of some of them formed a railing at Twickenham House near London. They appear in Scotland probably about the time Jamie the Saxt moved south to occupy the throne of Elizabeth; but the Scots cannot claim to have invented them, because basket-hilted swords were in use on the Continent perhaps half a century earlier. The English also used them a good deal. Both English and Scots must have got the idea from the Germans, because a big proportion of English and Scottish blades carry the famous Wolf of Passau and other marks of German bladesmiths. On the other hand, one who is perhaps the most popular of all eighteenth-century Gaelic poets, Alexander Macdonald, hints at another source:

Gu'm beannaich Dia ar claidhean, 'S ar lannan Spainteach geur ghlas.

This, in Sheriff Nicolson's translation, reads: God's blessing be upon our swords, Our keen gray brands of Spain.

Whether or no the Scots made any great proportion of their own blades - and by 1600 the armourer's essay-piece had become ane mounted braid sword sufficiently wrought - the distinctively Scottish contribution to the development of this fine weapon was the basket hilt itself, and it is mainly by the hilts that specimens can now be dated. The earliest hilts are built up from ribbon metal. Then comes a type in which the iron is forged into thin bars welded together with a small junction-plate at the meeting-place of the crossed counter-guards. From about the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth centuries occurs a more ornamental, pierced basket with notched and incised designs. Some rare baskets of this sort are of brass, or are inlaid with brass or silver. Rarest of all are the silver baskets. His Majesty the King possesses two broadswords with such silver baskets, pieces made for presentation to winners of race meetings. William Scott the Elder, the Elgin silversmith, is the maker of one of them, which is inscribed:

"Win at King Charles fair at Huntly Castell the secured Tusday
of September 1713 all horsess not Exciding one hundred
Marks of price ar admited to rune the rideres staking Crounes
a peace, Which ar givin to the poor who may Pray that
Monarchic and Royall Family my be lasting And glorious in thes Kingdomes."

Stirling and Glasgow, however, seem to have been the chief centres of hilt-making. The blades, of course, at once conjure up the legend of Andrea Ferara, whose name became synonymous with the best of the swords themselves. It will be found, in various spellings, on many a blade which has lost none of its whip or temper or keen edge, and most of those associated with the great Jacobite champions bear it. There is no doubt it is a hallmark of excellence. There is also no doubt it is not in the nature of a signature. According to the legend, Andrea was a celebrated blade-smith of Ferara who slew an apprentice because the young man spied upon him and discovered his secret for tempering steel, and his wanderings are supposed to have brought him to Scotland. He would, however, have had to be a phenomenally long-lived and energetic craftsman to have made all the blades which carry his name, and there is no evidence that he ever came to the country.
A cut-down blade of a back-sword - that is, a sword with one cutting edge instead of two - was often adapted to form a dirk. But the Highland dirk is a weapon with a history of its own. Its progenitors are the knives and daggers in use throughout Europe, more precisely the dagger-knife with hilt of heather or ivy root used in Scotland in medieval times. This may be called a dirk as soon as the craftsman began to carve the hilt with Celtic knotwork, which happened some time in the seventeenth century. Such decoration appears first as two bands of simple interlaced work, one above and one below the grip. Dirks of this kind are very rare indeed, and difficult to date; but the Colville Collection in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh possesses one carved with the date 1696.

It must have been just about this time that the fully-formed dirk came into use. At first the carved decoration covers the grip only, and has the functional purpose of insuring a firm grasp. The carving finishes on the haunches with a neat triquetra. The pommel is surmounted by a flat plate, and the tang - the extension of the blade which passes up through the hilt and pommel - is secured above by an iron nut. In time, the entire hilt was given to decoration, and the strands of the knotwork tend to become narrower as the eighteenth century progresses. The patterns show consider- able variety, but, as a rule-of-thumb method of assessing age, the simpler and more workmanlike the form of the hilt, the older the weapon is likely to be. The notion of mounting Scotch pebbles on it arrived about 1800, and this developed into the crystal and cairngorm-stone elaborations which have since prevailed; while the simple grip eventually took on an extraordinary baluster form which not even the most powerful fist could grasp with confidence, and the final absurdity has been to make the pommel a mere setting for a vulgar display of semiprecious stones.

The biodag, the dirk, was a general-purpose implement, used for domestic as well as military occasions. There is a tale told that the Bruce first had his resentment roused against the English by a taunt that he used the same knife to carve his beef and his countrymen, against whom he had just been fighting. Later dirks have sheaths fitted with knife and fork. The celebrated little knife known as a sgian dubh, now worn in the stocking, was formerly concealed under the armpit. It was a weapon made for strictly practical use rather than for show, but the hilt was carved with some semblance of Celtic knotwork. Blade and hilt were generally about equal in length, and the pommel might be mounted in some such metal as pewter. Genuine sgian dubh are now very rare. It is commonly the case that plainer relics from the past were less treasured and less carefully preserved than more ornamental ones, and so they have now become collectors' prizes. It is not altogether easy to translate Gaelic sounds into English letters but sgian dubh is very nearly pronounced skee-an-doo.

The clansman probably used his broadsword and his dirk in right and left hands, as the Italian of the seventeenth century used his long rapier and his main gauche dagger; but on his left arm he carried the targe, a light but tough shield which served him well in parrying cut and thrust. The targe and dirk were used together, the dirk held point down to prevent an enemy from closing. Targes are invariably circular, about twenty inches across, and they weigh on an average about six-and-a-half pounds. They are built up of two plies of oak or fir boards. One ply crosses the other at right angles, and the boards are pegged together with considerable numbers of wooden pegs. The front is covered with cowhide, bent in over the edge, while deerskin is stretched over the inside, which is fitted with a hand-grip and a loop for the fore- arm. The beauty of the targe lies in its outer face. This may be ornamented with metal studs arranged to form a pattern, and the central boss is sometimes fitted to take a long spike. The surface of the leather is often beautifully tooled with a Celtic design. Heraldic emblems of the owner may be incorporated, as in the case of the superb targe of Macdonald of Keppoch, who fell at Culloden. This is now in the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh. Few targes are dated, but the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow possesses one of 1623 - nearly a century earlier than most surviving pieces of its kind.

It is a solemn thought that the instinct or impulse behind the beautiful Celtic decorations on weapons little more than two centuries old is the same which inspired the ornament of the West Highland crosses, of the magnificent jewellery and relics in the National Museum in Dublin, and of the great treasures of pre-Roman Britain such as the Battersea Shield and the Torrs Champfrein. How the continuity persisted is largely a mystery. This mystery is less baffling in the West Highlands, where the tomb slabs which have been described bring the traditions of the early Christian monuments right down to the sixteenth century; and it may be that in other parts of the Highlands, such as Perthshire, Pictish monuments served as inspiration for the clan armourers and other craftsmen.

Powder-horns provide some of the best pieces of this late Celtic decoration. They are a useful index to the development of the strange renaissance, because many are dated. They are made of cow-horn flattened under the influence of heat, and the decoration is sometimes carved, but more usually engraved. In a very few instances the engraving is ambitious and some attempt at representation is made, the most notable case of this being the charming hunting-scene, reminiscent of Pictish animal carvings, on the horn identified with Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat, now in the National Museum of Antiquities. This, like so much of the best Highland equipment, is pictured by Drummond in his " Ancient Scottish Weapons," a volume which is itself now a collector's piece. The engraving of powder-horns was, of course, an art found in many European countries, but the only foreign horns which resemble the Highland ones at all closely, are some from Scandinavia.

The one branch of Highland weapons about which there is much authoritative published material is firearms. Whitelaw happily published some of his researches as a chapter in the beautiful book by Herbert J. Jackson, called European Hand Firearms. Before that, in 1907, appeared an essay by a French scholar with the unlikely name of Georges Stalin. It was called Notes sur un Pistolet Ecossais, and was printed in Beauvais. It is pleasant to know that the other partner in the Auld Alliance was the first to make a systematic study of the Highland pistol. M. Stalin was keenly appreciative. He says of the Highland pistol: C'est une arme de luxe, un petit chef-d'ceuvre de precision et de bon gout . . .

Pistols of Highland type were made in Scotland over a period of about two centuries. The earliest known pieces are a pair of "dags" dated 1598 which - until 1939 at least - were in the Dresden Museum; but the records of the Incorporation of Hammermen show that a firearms industry was in being in 1587, which means firearms were being made in Scotland perhaps as early as the middle of the sixteenth century. The cumbersome, expensive wheel-lock was never fitted to Scottish pistols, and the type of lock employed until late in the seventeenth century was the snaphaunce, a variety of flintlock believed to take its name from the similarity of its action to the head of a pecking hen. In the earlier weapons, stock and butt are generally of brass, sometimes of wood. There is a beautiful wooden-stocked example with silver mounts in the Royal Scottish Museum. In later pieces, butt and stock are of iron. The typically Highland form has a butt which ends in a double scroll, or "ram's horns," and this begins to appear about the middle of the seventeenth century and is perfected in the second quarter of the eighteenth. In this period nearly all the surface of the pistol is beautifully engraved and stock and butt are inlaid with designs in silver wire, while the trigger and pricker knobs are of silver. As the iron parts of the pistol were originally blued, the contrasting effect was rich and full of appeal for the Celt with his love of colour and brilliance. Indeed the appeal went far beyond Scotland. Several of these pistols are preserved in the armouries of the Continent, and although some of them may have been left behind by Scottish adventurers the Curator of the Royal Armoury in Stockholm recently assured the present writer that he believed them to be presentation pieces. A very few of the pistols are inlaid and mounted not in silver, but in gold, among them a superb pair in the Royal collection at Windsor.
It is all the more astonishing that the chief centre of manufacture of those little masterpieces was the village of Doune, in Perthshire. Here, right on the Highland Line, worked several families of pistol-smiths, who passed on their skills from father to son. Their names can be read on the lock-plates of the weapons: Robert and Thomas Caddell, John and Alexander Campbell, John Christie. The last of them all is that John Murdoch who is mentioned in the " Statistical Account of Scotland," with a note that with his passing the old craft will be at an end. The factor which killed it was competition from London and Birmingham, where some clumsy but gorgeous imitations of Highland pistols were made in the early nineteenth century, the most interesting of them being the pistols worn by Macdonell of Glengarry in Raeburn's famous portrait, the originals of which still exist in perfect condition. But the Sassenach who must have profited above all others by his imitations of Highland pistols was a man called Bissell, whose crude, mass-produced weapons seem at one time to have been issued as a regulation arm to Highland regiments. Many hang on the walls of the Banqueting Hall in Edinburgh Castle.

The musket, too, was carried by the clansman. It is strange that hardly more than a score survive of the true Highland musket, a lovely weapon with lines rather like those of an Afghan gun. J. G. Mackay attributed some of them to Spanish manufacture, and called to mind the ill-fated Spanish expedition which met its end in Glenshiel during the rising of 1719. Some of the finest are much earlier than that - a superb one in the Seafield collection is dated 1667- but the locks in themselves point to foreign influence and strongly suggest a type used on the shores of the Mediterranean. The carving of the butts and the engraving of the metal parts, give the guns their chief beauty.

To wearers of the Highland dress today the most important accoutrements are not weapons at all - for the dirk and Sgian, after all, no longer have a function. The articles which have still some sort of practical use are the sporran and the brooch. The sporran is, of course, simply the Highlander's pouch or purse, and in the early days it was worn on the waist-belt, together with the dirk. Whitelaw dated the wearing of it on a separate strap at no earlier than the end of the eighteenth century, when the quite fantastic long-haired, tasselled sporrans first came into use. Originally, the sporran was nothing more than a bag of leather gathered together at the neck with thongs, and the only decorative features were the small tassels which terminated the loose ends of the thongs. A leather flap covered the mouth of the bag. The material from which the leather was made is generally deerskin, but otter, badger, seal, wildcat, goat, or any other wild animal would serve. Sporrans with metal clasps were certainly in use as early as 1700, and there is one with a silver clasp dated 1706. Normally, however, the clasp is of cast brass. It may be semicircular, semi-octagonal, or rectangular. Decoration is extremely simple, even crude. Sometimes a running leaf-scroll is introduced, but the commonest motif is a small concentric circle repeated. Whitelaw suggested this might be traced back to prehistoric times, but it is such an easy and tempting device for the craftsman's punch that there seems to be no need to look for special significance in it. Simplicity was the keynote of the genuine old sporran; and to those today who argue that gaudiness is in keeping with the Highland temperament one might well quote the verse of Donnachadh Ban, cited by Mackay:

We got a hat and a cloak,
The sort did not belong to us;
A buckle to close our brogues -
The thong was neater by far.

Even the brooch in its finest periods was never gaudy. The extraordinary articles contrived from cairngorms and Scotch pebbles date only from the Romantic Revival of the nineteenth century, and are in keeping with the great fiction it produced. The only real basis for the use of semiprecious stones in this manner is the small group of reliquary brooches now generally accepted as belonging to the sixteenth century. Their centrepiece is a big rock-crystal, and it is mounted in silver in various designs. The Lochbuy Brooch, which found its way from the Bemal Collection into the British Museum, is typical, and the tradition is that it was made by a tinker from silver found on the Lochbuy estate in Mull and handed down by generations of Macleans. The crystals used had a special significance and were probably regarded with superstitious awe. The Clach Dearg of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich won a reputation for curing cattle disease. It is quite possible that some of those crystals were venerated before they were made into brooches, and this may account for legends claiming that certain of the brooches were in existence centuries earlier than any authority would admit.

The typical Highland brooch of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is annular: that is, ring-shaped. The travelling tinkers, or ceards, who seem to have made it hammered an ingot of metal into the flattened ring shape, or cast it and finished it with the hammer. Brass is the usual metal, although silver is not uncommon. The diameter may be anything from an inch or two up to eight inches. The pins were of the metal of the brooch and iron ones should be regarded as replacements. The decoration of the surface is simple and consists of engraved panels filled with Celtic interlacing and sometimes with strange animals which might have come out of a medieval bestiary but are probably conventionalised deer or wild cats. A few seventeenth-century brooches are dated. Silver examples are often enhanced by the use of niello. Niello is an amalgam made from silver, copper, lead, and sulphur which, finely powdered, is spread over a surface on which a design has been worked with a graving tool, the surface having been carefully brushed over with a flux such as borax in solution. When the metal is heated over a charcoal fire the powder fuses and fills up the design. When the surplus is removed and the surface polished, the design shows up in greyish-black against the bright silver. It is not known whether the makers of Highland brooches used precisely this method. Those silver-and-niello brooches were sometimes called Glasgow brooches, in the belief that they were made in that city; but there is no reason to think the tinkers did not have the skill, and one sort is known to have been made by a tinker called Ross, near Killin. It is not until the end of the eighteenth century that the making of such Highland brooches came into the hands of city silversmiths, and from then on the elusive charm of the unsophisticated pieces was lost. The finest of the Highland brooches are early ones, and Whitelaw records that they come from Aberdeenshire and the neighbouring counties. Such brooches were, of course, used to fasten the plaid, but by the women, not by the men, who used a pin for this purpose. Evidently they were often given as tokens of betrothal, for a number of them are inscribed with two sets of initials and a date.

It is difficult to describe the accoutrements and arms of the Highlanders without leaving an impression that the clansman in battle array had some resemblance to the White Knight.

With durk and snapwork and snuff-mill,
A bag which they with onions fill,
And, as their strict observers say,
A tupe horn fili'd with usquebay;
A slasht out coat beneath their plaides,
A targe of timber, nails and hides;
With a long two-handed sword,
As good's the country can affoord;
Had they not need of bulk and bones
Who fight with all these arms at once ?

So runs a contemporary satire, quoted by Mackay, on the Highland Host of 1678. The satirist himself shortly after fell a victim to the Highlander's prowess in arms. Whatever may have been carried in the long march across hill and moor, in the last resort it would seem nearly everything was discarded except; sword and targe for ultimately the Highlander put his trust neither in powder nor shot but in the quality of his steel and in the strength and, skill of his own arm. Just as Highland weapons were left behind on many a foreign field, so the study of them is no longer confined to Scotland. Many must be rusting even in American soil. The shot that started the American War of Independence may well have been fired by one of them, and many of these lovely warlike relics now rest peacefully in the homes of-American collectors.

Targe of MacDonald of Keppoch (Royal Scottish Museum). Constructed of fir or oak boards covered with leather, the Highland targe, or shield, was often ornamented with finely tooled patterns, Celtic in feeling. MacDonald of keppoch fell at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. His heraldic arms are worked into the design of the targe.
Basket-Hilted Broadsword. A fine piece, the blade engraved with a Jacobite inscription. Royal Scottish Museum.
Highland Dirks. Seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. The wooden hilt develops an interlacing pattern, degenerating into basket-work. Royal Scottish Museum.
The Highland Pistol oor Dag in17th & 18th centuries.
Earliest form is the fishtail butt, with wooden stock and snaphaunce lock. Engraving with silver inlay and finials, rarely gold, mark all the best pieces. Royal Scottish Museum.
Pistols in the Clanranald Collection. With gilding and enamel enrichments. Early 19th century. National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.









E.S. Harrison



One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

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