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Claymore sword

Newsletter Blast from the Past: Early Scottish Swords

It has been said that the Scottish Highlander never traveled unarmed. John Hume, captured by the Jacobites during the Battle of Falkirk, later wrote that the Highlanders appeared as if their weapons were “limbs and members of their bodies. They are never seen without them, they travel, they attend fairs and markets, nay they went to church with their broadswords and dirks.

Until the 1400’s it is not possible to identify a distinctly “Scottish” sword, but it was in the Highlands, as with so many other things, that distinctive weapons eventually evolved. In general, the arms of the Lowlander differed little from those of the English. The evidence for the above date comes from the graves of chiefs in Argyll and islands such as Iona and Islay. Two sword types are featured on these tombs: a single-handed, cross-hilted sword and the “claidhemh-mor”, or two-handed, true “claymore.”

Lobed pommel sword
Lobed pommel sword


The single-handed swords commonly had quillions (cross guards) that slanted towards the blade and ended in flat lobes. The pommels were commonly “lobated,” showing the influence of late Viking swords, (See this article for information on Viking swords and examples of “lobated” pommels http://www.vikingsword.com/laking/lak001b.html ) although wheel-shaped pommels were present also.

The “true” claymore appeared on the scene during the late 1400’s or early
1500’s. It is immediately recognizable by its quillions (cross guards) angled toward the point with “quatrefoil”, or “clover leaf” decorations on the ends like the image above the blog title. Most claymores seem to have been shorter than the contemporary two-handed “great swords” of the continent. They were more properly described as “hand-and-a-half” in blade length, but with a full two-handed grip. Pommels came in wheel, or globular shapes, the wheel pommels seem to be the earlier style.

Another group of large Scottish swords seem more indicative of the lowlands. These surviving “Lowland” swords date from the late 1500’s to early 1600’s and are generally more massive weapons compared to the classic claymore. One example measures 75 -1/2 inches (That’s 6 feet, 3 1/2 inches!) and they tend to be cruder in workmanship than the claymore.

The early evolution of the basket-hilted sword, like that of many swords, is somewhat clouded. In part, this is due to the common practice of fitting together usable blades with newer hilts from broken weapons to form one whole sword. As a result, swords could sometimes be fitted together from parts of different ages. This may have been the fate of some old claymores -cut down and re-ground to fit newer single-handed hilts, and may help explain why the basket hilt is sometimes called a “claymore.” (We also have to remember the meanings of words evolve, and 18th and 19th century military writers used the term “claymore” when speaking of the basket-hilted swords used by Highland regiments. So it is not necessarily “wrong” to call a basket-hilted sword a “claymore,” it’s just less accurate.) Another annoying practice that affects the dating of weapons was engraving dates on a weapon to make them seem older, -perhaps to “prove” it was owned by some famous, heroic ancestor. Thus, assigning a specific year to the invention of a certain style of weapon is often only an approximation.

What does seem clear is that a simple form of basket hilt was known in England as early as the second quarter of the 1500’s, and was even more common later that century. The “Highland” hilt, or guard, was a term used for the basket hilt in Scotland. The Inverness Burgh Records mention “ane pair of Heland hiltis” in 1576. By the end of the 1500’s “basket-hilt” was such a well known
term in English that Shakespeare used it in 1591; “You basket-hilt stale juggler, you.” (Henry IV, part 2).

Schiavona hilt
Schiavona hilt

It is unknown whether the basket hilt design came directly from the continent, or what seems more likely, through England, or Scandinavia. Some authors in the past have claimed that the Highland basket hilt is directly taken from the Italian schiavona. But some modern writers disagree. The two styles are certainly based on the same idea – both answer the need to protect the sword hand as the use of metal gauntlets and armor declined, but the basket hilt and the schiavona are generally considered simlar designs for the same idea.

Mid 17th Century Scottish Ribbon Hilt Broadsword
Mid 17th Century Scottish “Ribbon Hilt” Broadsword
Most early basket hilts were welded together from bars, or “ribbons” of iron. These “ribbon hilts” are believed to be of definite Highland construction. The brass hilts that are so often see today were not common until the late 1600’s. Hilts were also not fully lined in leather and velvet as they often are today. A simple square of hide was used to protect the thumb and forefinger from the inside of the hilt. Also, the  decorative fringe that appears on the pommel of late basket hilts was something originally to protect the heel of the hand from chafing and probably originated as just a piece of cloth that became frayed with time. The later decorative fringe probably replaced it as the weapon became more of a showpiece and less a weapon. The metal of the iron hilt itself was often “japanned” to protect it from the damp climate of the Highlands with a black varnish, or it was “browned” in the manner of gun barrels. (A tip for reenactors: for use at renaissance fairs, or historical reenactments, a trick that can be used to disguise a brass hilt on a modern prop basket-hilted sword is to treat it with a product called Brass Black which is used by professional knife and gunsmiths to blacken or “antique” brass, copper and bronze.)

As for the blades, basket hilts were primarily straight, double-edged “broadswords.” However, certain English basket hilts and 18th century blades were often single-edged weapons, or “backswords.” There are some contemporary paintings that portray Scots with curved blades, but these may have been simply artistic license on the part of the painter, (or possibly again, “hybrid” weapons assembled from parts of varying ages).

A broad sword with a
A broad sword with a “Andrew Ferrara” inscription.

One of the myths surrounding Scottish swords is that of Andrea Ferrara -a name found inscribed on many blades. Legend has it that Ferrara was a Spanish sword maker who fled to Scotland after killing an apprentice who tried to spy on his secret techniques. Documentation has been found of a Ferrara working as a sword maker near Venice in the 1500’s, but the vast majority of blades with the Ferrara name on them are actually German made and seem to only date from the 1600’s and 1700’s. The addition of the Ferrara name was probably just good (but deceptive) advertising. A number of Scottish swords had blades imported from German smiths of Passau and Solingen. In fact, the trade in swords blades between Germany and Scotland was so good that blades have been found with a German inscription “Gott bewahr die oprechte Schotten” – “God protect the honest Scots.”

Sources

Reid, William. Weapons through the Ages. London: Peerage Books, 1984.
Stone, George Cameron.

Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor. NY: Jack
Brussel, 1984.

Wallace, John. Scottish Swords and Dirks. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Bks, 1970. (Primary source for article.)

Groomporter

Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games http://historicgames.com

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