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THE MEDIEVAL GAELIC SOLDIER


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THE MEDIEVAL GAELIC SOLDIER
by Fergus G. Cannan and Ethan B. Hayes Kalemjian


The warriors of the Gaelic-speaking world — Highland Scots and native Irish — have always fascinated both scholars and general public alike. Even to medieval observers, indeed to the Romans before them, there was something perceptively different, something wilder and more exotic about the Gaelic warrior than mainstream European soldiers. But the delight, sometimes contempt, in exoticism has to this day prevented serious detailed study of how Scottish and Irish soldiers actually looked when they went into combat. What weapons did they use? What kinds of armour did they use? What clothes did they wear on the battlefield? Where did they get their equipment from? Was it locally made, or was it imported?

Today, the image of the Gaelic warrior, robed in a belted plaid and armed with a broadsword and round shield, seems a familiar one through fiction, cinema and popular culture. Unfortunately, very few attempts have been made by scholars to explore medieval Gaelic military equipment, tactics or organisation in any serious detail. Those that have, all too often rely on casual stereotypes and myths, and, it has to be said, pro-English assumptions about the primitive and unsophisticated state of Gaelic strategy, equipment, weaponry, and, indeed, society. Analysis of less biased contemporary sources, on the other hand, such as first-hand accounts, art, and surviving examples of arms and armour, reveals a very different picture, and by piecing together these fractured evidential shards we begin to be able to answer some of these neglected but important questions (fig. 1).

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The Gaelic Warrior and His World

The Gaelic-speaking peoples of Scotland and Ireland were a fragile entity whose relations with more powerful and territorially ambitious neighbours were akin to many aboriginal cultures across the world. And yet, its demise was anything but an historical inevitability. Celts, Vikings, Saxons and Normans fused together in the emptiness of the Scottish mountains and Irish bog-lands — this, Britain's own savage wilderness. Celtic culture remained dominant and attractive to the newcomers, its art, imagery, its beliefs, assimilating incoming waves of settlers into their lonely Caledonian and Hibernian glens. These newcomers, even feudal Norman magnates, felt the powerful draw of the mysterious, swirling abstraction of the ancient Celtic crosses and stone sculpture they saw standing amidst the beautifully bleak landscape. Norsemen and Saxons brought with them further refinements to the already extremely rich Celtic heritage of metalwork and weapon-smithing, while the Normans imported new ideas of strategy and tactics. But crucially, these settlers were adopted into Celtic society and brought with them only amendments, rather than dramatic overhauls of the society they had now joined (fig. 2).

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The net effect of this fusing of four powerful military cultures into one was the emergence of a highly militarised social system: the clan. In the Gaelic world, the clan, from the Gaelic word clann, meaning children, was the centre of gravity for all military, as well as social, affairs. Clans were not usually all related by blood, but by bonds of mutual dependence and a shared sense of loyalty and honour which were elevated to the status of a blood cult, the founding name-father becoming the cult's deity. The chief was general; his chieftains, battalion or company commanders. In Ireland, the employment of mercenaries was commonplace, but even then, these soldiers of fortune became included into extended families, ruled over by a more powerful chief.

Living in low, thatched bothies (Scots Gaelic and Old Irish for hut), gentlefolk included, their diet consisted largely of fish, seafood, kelp, oats, a few root vegetables, supplemented with game. Alcohol was a rare luxury. Unlike the English, the Gael was no baker, meaning stodgy cakes and bread were virtually unknown. This very high-protein, low-fat diet must surely have made for a lean and rangy people; illustrations and written descriptions from the time certainly reinforce this impression and show Gaelic men as shaggy fellows with massive feet. Their skin must have been usually ruddy, hence their nickname amongst the English of "Redshanks", made all the ruddier as a result of widespread practice of going about bare-legged, and generally not wearing a huge amount of clothing.

Gaelic Arms and Armour

This rejection of clothing — surprising in a climate like Scotland or Ireland's — evidently struck the English as noteworthy and novel. Indeed, it was through contact with the English, most often of a hostile nature, that the Gael came to define itself, and arrive at an awareness of themselves as a distinct culture. The English regarded them as savages, and their appearance in war was undoubtedly outlandish, as is expressed by the phrase "wild Irish", by which the English identified the Gaelic Irish. A old poem expresses this bewilderment at Gaelic attire:

Their shirtes be verie straunge,
Not reaching paste the thigh,
With pleates on pleates they pleated are,
As thicke as pleates may lye


War costume was voluminous and animalistic. Curiously, clothing and armour were often one and the same. The shirts referred to in the poem above are a particular variety known as the lein-croich, or war-shirt. These were linen shirts formed of twenty-four, or even thirty yards, with enormous sleeves to exaggerate the size of the wearer in battle. A large quantity of linen, and a saffron dye, appears to have been a mark of nobility, what in Gaelic Scotland would have been known as a duine-uasal, or clan gentleman. For instance, Martin Martin recorded in 1698 a feud between Clan Chattan and the Earl of Huntly during the previous century, tells of a Chattan nobleman "cloathed in a yellow war-coate, which among them [Chattan men] is the badge of the chieftains or heads of clans".

The sheer quantity of fabric used in the war-shirt, bunched together around the waist and over one shoulder, offered protection not only from enemy weapons, but also from the elements. This was important as Scots and Irish troops when they took to the road on campaign had to carry everything they needed on their backs, or on a few ponies. Wealthier soldiers would have the luxury of servants to carry some of their war luggage, but the amount of equipment that could be carried was nevertheless not great. Again, geography was the deciding factor: wagons were next to useless along mountain passes. At any rate, Scots Highlanders preferred to keep a brisk pace; drawing on the later experience of the Jacobite rising of 1745-6, the Highlanders of Bonnie Prince Charlie's army were dubbed "hill-skippers" by their Lowland comrades, because of their furious pace. But the clothes they wore had to be suitably substantial to keep a soldier alive when he bedded down for the night as Scottish and Irish soldiers, regardless of status, seem nearly always to have slept outdoors while on campaign. As late as the '45, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his generals did just the same, perhaps as much out of Celtic machismo as necessity.

But to return to the Gaelic war tunic; this ubiquitous war-shirt was the basic military garment throughout the Middle Ages in Highland Scotland and Ireland (and Ireland until about 1600). Being the ancestor of the great belted plaid, the Gaelic word for "blanket", the war-shirt was not the only form of armour available to the Gaelic warrior. While armour tended to be lighter and more minimal than in England or most of Western Europe, it is not true, as is sometimes said, that Scots and Irish warriors went into combat virtually naked. Besides their heavy tunics and plaids, which in Ireland soldiers are said to have wrapped around one arm to act as a shield against sword blows, other types of armour were used (fig. 3). Among Scots Highlanders and Isle-men, long shirts of mail and quilted coats (dubbed "cotuns" by the men who wore them) were the most widely used forms of armour among the Highland aristocracy and Galloglass mercenaries, but mail hawberks (shirts), or even coifs (hoods), were probably too expensive for the lower classes of clansmen. Mail armour suited the fluid, skirmishing style of fighting of the Highlanders, but offered little protection against attack from English longbowmen if cornered, as indeed happened at many battles, when Highlanders, and galloglass in Ireland, were decimated by a concerted hails of arrows (fig. 4). At this point, as at Flodden (1513) or Pinkie (1547), to give two examples, the Highlanders would usually give up the fight and run.

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Interestingly, the ancient Celts had worn mail shirts which they called lurich, and the Romans in turn copied and called lorica; and yet the same basic design of shirt were still worn by Highlanders in the seventeenth century. The slow rate of development in Gaelic armour, particularly in Ireland, is striking; the Highlanders at Flodden, for instance, seem to have been equipped in a remarkably similar manner to their forebears of five centuries earlier (fig. 5). Old-fashioned Norman-style helmets likewise remained in use in Scotland and Ireland long after they had fallen out of use elsewhere in Europe (fig. 6). Most armour, and weapons too, had to be imported from abroad. That said, some armour was made by native craftsmen, who turned out unfussy, robust, and very heavy, iron barbute and spanglehelms. They also forged fine mail shirts, coifs, iron skull-caps, and weighty coats of iron plates on a cloth or leather backing. "Leith axes", "Lochaber axes", two-handed axes, spears, "darts" or javelins and "Jedwart staffs" too were all locally made, and from the beginning of the sixteenth century imported German blades were made into claymores. Some traditional favourites, such as dirks and small round shields called targes, covered in leather and decorated with brass nails arranged into swirling Celtic motifs, were made by the cutlers and workshops of towns like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and Inverness. Imported armours also made their way into Scotland, but most Scots lairds, whether Lowland or Highland, could not have afforded cutting edge suits from the great centres of production like Augsburg and Milan. At Flodden, Pinkie and Solway Moss (1542), the impression one gains is of fairly antiquated suits of armour being worn by Scots knights (fig. 7).

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Ordinary clansmen, often referred to as ceathairne, referring to the portion of the male population of a clan fit for warfare, would also have been supplied by clan armourers – and by making armour themselves (fig. 8). This strata of free peasantry and drovers formed the backbone of any clan retinue; clans were big, even by the time of the '45 clans were still often able to field several hundred men. Their armour was usually basic, but adequate and practical, consisting sometimes of jerkins made from animal hides and quilted fabric, or simple "jacks", or coats of small square plates, which were actually very good protective garments.

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The Irish equivalent of the Scots ceathairne was the kern, the native Irish soldier, apparently usually wore no armour at all save for their great tunic, though they occasionally made use of leather helmets, light jerkins. A very interesting English drawing of the sixteenth century in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, shows one kern, whom the English called "naked men", wearing a basic, substantial-looking gauntlet on his left hand, which he is presumably used like a shield in the manner of the bridal-arm gauntlets worn by English Civil War dragoons. Targes similar to those used by the Scots were used by kern, but there is one English reference to kern using wicker shields. The style of the Gaelic armourer and weapon-maker is anachronistic, perhaps consciously so, but this conservatism was also due to material poverty, but also because the basic conditions of warfare in the Gaelic world — harsh climate, mountainous terrain — remained the governing factors. This was a landscape that did not encourage the use heavy armour, and one where it was better to rely upon manoeuvrability and hit-and-run tactics, using the weather and terrain as their armour, from which they could attack, and into which they could vanish. More often than not, a suit of plate armour would have been suicide.

The Gaelic Revival 1500 - 1650

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, while Italy was intensifying its revival of classical culture, a similar dramatic re-awakening of older ideals was taking place in the Gaelic world. But in Scotland and Ireland the focus of cultural revival was not ancient Rome, but their own distant Celtic past. Gaelic-language poetry, literature, abstract and geometric forms of ornament such as stone crosses and relief carving, were all earnestly revived. Older, shaggy styles of hair-cut reappeared, and the heavy Celtic moustache, that had long fallen out of use, as a purposeful attempt at resuscitating the halcyon days of unchallenged Celtic power before the advent of England as a hostile, invincible neighbour. Such overt Celtic symbolism began to be deliberately employed to express a slowly solidifying, unifying, cultural identity. This intentional antiquarianism was also a show of cultural, and sometimes political, solidarity between Scots and Irish, two people who increasingly looked back to a glorious shared past, by which they defined themselves in the present.

Gaelic revivalism was not idle nostalgia, but a response to the waning of Gaelic power in the real world. The mightiest Gaelic princes, who previously had been subject to no one, now began to be stripped of their independence. It was around this time that the Lord of the Isles, almost a king in his own right, was crushed by the increasingly centralised power of the King of Scots. All across the Gaelic world, the story was the same. As a shoring up of cultural identity, old symbols suddenly adorned new technologies. The claymore is one of the clearest examples of this process of Celtic revivalism, which began about 1500. The claymore, or Scottish two-handed sword, appears to have emerged at the end of the fifteenth century, with a distinctive hilt decorated with, floriated ends, a form of ornament clearly inspired by early Christian Celtic stonework. To this day, the claymore, from the Gaelic claidheamh mòr or "great sword", remains a well-recognised symbol of Scottish patriotic strength. They were the classic weapon of heavy clan infantry and Scottish mercenaries. Such fearsome two-handed weapons, combined with manoeuvrability afforded by light armour, and the skill of the men using such equipment, made Gaelic warriors extremely popular as mercenaries in the wars of Renaissance Europe.

Ideas of strategy and the arts of war were being re-thought throughout Europe, and the sheer unorthodox Gaelic approach to war, like that of the Swiss, another mountain people, suddenly chimed neatly with Renaissance Continental military philosophy. Since the late thirteenth century Scottish galloglass (in Gaelic gallóglaich, "foreign warrior"), organised into "battles" of sixty to eighty men, in the retinues of native Irish warlords, now flocked to the Continent in their thousands. Albrecht Dürer himself sketched these exotic fighters as they wandered about Antwerp in 1521, capturing vividly their impressiveness; men that one contemporary English commentator described as "grim of countenance, tall of stature, big of limb, burly of body, well and strongly timbered." It is highly probable that these unlikely Renaissance men were playing up to the by now widely circulated stereotype of the Gael as an intimidating wild-man.

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Military strategy in Europe had come a full circle, when the self-reliant, individualistic mode of fighting favoured by Gaelic soldiers found itself once again in vogue (fig. 9). Gaelic strategy had not turned any circle, but through its singular disinterest in outside military ideas, eventually came back into fashion, as other parts of Europe reassessed older systems of tactics and strategy. The period c. 1500-c. 1650 can in many ways be seen as the Gaelic world's finest hour. Cultural awareness reached a zenith and clarity, where all aspects of Gaelic culture and life seemed to be unified into a single stylistic mythology. Boundless confidence and self-awareness characterise the arts, costume, arms and armour and literature. Pipe music is codified as the right and orthodox entertainment for a chief, and as the appropriate stirring music for times which demanded Celtic courage, expression and emotion, in battle, funerals, weddings, laments, and so on. In the same way, this is precisely the time when Scottish "national" clothing is engineered into recognisably unique set of dress to stand apart and stand alone. For the first time, by about the 1620s, there is a sense of dressing up to become a perfect, self-styled Celtic ideal to adhere to the now expected construct of Gaelic national identity: that a set of clothes makes the identity. More than anything else, the kilt and its accoutrements express this fundamental change. The old, scruffier medieval tunic with its yards of mantling, cloak and sleeves was ditched in favour of a more ordered, neater new style of garment: the plaid (but not yet the small kilt, which is a nineteenth-century invention), and with it, check stockings, crowned by a peculiar bonnet, which is perhaps based upon the gentleman's cap of the Reformation era.

The costume becomes more intentionally Gaelic, more devised, more elaborate, more standardised, as the Gaelic world drifted towards its final age, during which it achieve total self-definition, but also meet with eventual collapse. Everything was now in place, the wheels were set in motion, for the final flowering of the Gaelic world.

The Final Flowering 1650 - 1750

At this point, Scotland and Ireland followed radically paths. The inhabitants of the Scottish Highlands, Britain's slowly disintegrating wilderness frontier, relentlessly pursued its own path of cultural definition, but as an idea it had peaked and now began to pass into history. Ireland, meanwhile, was haemorrhaging into an anarchic fog, where culture and costume were not clearly equated, where native forms of arms and armour had stagnated and then vanished, but were overtaken by ever more damaging conflict, one that continues to this day. Outside pressure on Scottish Gaelic civilisation had reached crisis point. In Ireland, the Earl of Tyrone's "Great Rebellion" of 1595-1603 was the land stand of traditional Gaelic society against a modern world of relentless Elizabethan firepower, money and expansionism. The swollen ranks of kern, galloglass and Redshank Scots fighters who flocked to join the Earl of Tyrone's standard must have looked magnificent in their antique arms and proud garb; but the bravado, animal ferocity, keen survival skills, and partisan and tribal manner of fighting, could not withstand the machine-like strength of ordered, settled, capitalist society—an enemy who cared far less for notions of honour, chivalry and basic standards of humanity than their "savage" Gaelic prey.

The nemesis for Scottish Gaelic civilisation came with the Jacobite War of 1745-6. Scots took to the field in kilts and bonnets, and armed with their broadswords and targes, and now firearms too. But in 1746 at Culloden this cultural perfection made physical reached an abrupt terminus in the face of the solid discipline and co-ordination of massed ranks of Red Coats. Gaelic Scots were now left only with the paraphernalia of their age-old manner of living, rather than its substance, as their native military passed into a winter from which it could not recover.

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