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The Continental and Domestic influences on Scottish Arms and Armour from c.1100-1550.

Incorporating an investigation into the craftsmen and the influence of the Crown in arms manufacturing and importation.

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay describes the various influences on domestically produced arms and armour in Scotland and in particular the role that foreign craftsmen recruited by the crown played.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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The late fifteenth century saw a growth throughout Europe in the production of huge two handed swords. The reason for this was the changing format of warfare in Europe. The art of war was changing to facilitate combat between dismounted knights fighting it out at close quarters and consequently larger heavier swords were needed to do the damage required. 

In Scotland these swords were being encouraged as early as 1513. The Scottish two handed swords were of two types, the “Lowland” and the “Highland”. The Lowland type had simple bar quillons with side rings on each side of the hilt. The quillons turn abruptly up at the ends and end in knobs. The Highland variety is the true claidheamh mr or claymore. These seem to appear at the beginning of the sixteenth century but may have been around slightly earlier. Again the quillons point up towards the tip of the blade and terminate in quatrefoils of hollow ringed metal. They have long tapering langets with varying shapes of pommels. The Lowland sword was generally the larger of the two swords but both remained in use into the seventeenth century and beyond. 

The other weapons all have European ‘cousins’. The Lochaber axe, Jedwart staff and Leith axe can all be compared to continental long shafted weapons, usually they are forms of the glaive or halberd. Interestingly the Lochaber axe may take its name from the area the staff came from rather than its earliest usage. 

The arms and armour of the Highlands during the four and a half centuries detailed here varied in many ways little from that of the lowlands. What is interesting, although not altogether surprising,  is that the complete harness of plate does not come in. In the Highlands we have a huge mixture of armour of various periods and types. We have aketons being worn with protective mail sleeves and plate greaves. Mail is documented as being worn over the aketons which were of linen daubed with pitch. (Plate  no.7 shows an early example of this. Note also the form of the sword and in particular the shape of the pommel.) The reason for this variety in armour and weaponry is to do with the conservatism of the Highlands and also the fact that they did not need to update their armoury. Everyone else was armed the same, so the expense was unjustifiable. The weapons that they had would do the job against the armour they were faced with. This was indeed the case in the rest of Scotland at the time. In Scotland  swords were used for cutting while in Europe it was the norm by the late fifteenth century to have swords of a stiffer section and designed to thrust and find gaps in plate armour. 

The fifteenth century brought about a change in Scotland’s readiness and her quantity of weapons and armour, so much so, that at Flodden the English remarked on how well the Scots were equipped. Development in Scottish arms and armour was facilitated by Royal patronage not just of Scottish armourers but also in the settling of foreign -particularly French- armourers. For example5   we have in the records for the years 1502-5, details about the setting up of a harness mill in Edinburgh by a Frenchman named Pasing and his colleagues. What is clear however, is that in all of the burghs and towns there were large numbers of indigenous armourers who supplied a large part of Scotland’s needs. 

Scotland imported huge numbers of halberds, glaives, spears, pikes and sword blades from the continent. The dwindling areas of suitable forest over the sixteenth century perhaps made it a necessity to stockpile suitable quantities of seasoned timber of the correct type and size for arms manufacture.  Merchants were being told to bring back quantities of weapons, especially firearms or the metal to manufacture them6

It is illuminating to comb through all of the many hundreds of Scottish arms makers to be found in Whitelaw’s book and to see just how many arms makers are of, or would appear to be of, indigenous Scottish descent. Between the dates of c. 1270 and 1555, I could find only a small handful who could be classed as being of foreign descent. How then does this relate to a European influence on Scottish arms makers under Royal patronage? 

I think that the simplest answer to this is that large numbers of foreign craftsmen were employed in the kings service, but under a Scottish master craftsman and therefore they did not receive an individual note in the records. Moreover the influence of foreign craftsmen did not always mean the craftsmen staying in Scotland. As we have seen, Acts of Parliament from 1318 onwards made constant references to Scottish merchants being required to bring home items of military hardware or the materials to make them. 

Royal patronage to the arms craftsmen is famously reflected in firearms and bombards. Scottish kings long had a fascination with artillery, from its first appearance in about 1380 or possibly earlier. The early James’ had a huge fascination with these pieces, inefficient and dangerous as they were. Both James I and James II, acquired ever more larger and powerful bombards. They were used to suppress factions in Scotland-notably the Black Douglases in the 1450’s. Development in artillery was progressing at a tremendous rate with bronze artillery pieces began to come in about the 1470’s. These pieces were much better than their wrought iron counterparts, being both lighter and safer. At a very early date, these pieces were founded mostly in Stirling, By 1511 however, the foundry had been moved to Edinburgh Castle. The foundry was under the command of Robert Borthwick, a Scotsman, although it is known that he had foreigners working under him.7  The guns which Borthwick and his comrades made were exclusively for the use of Royal household. However many nobles also made use of gun-founders, at home and abroad, to avail themselves of light pieces for the protection of their homes. 

The contact which Scotland had with the continent through trade and the mercenary troops which Scotland supplied to the many wars on the continent, led I would suggest to a large degree of influence on arms and armour manufacturing processes. Scotland’s place on the outer fringes of the European stage also meant however, that she lagged behind in  many ways while Europe was striding forward in the art of war. However one or two Scots were at the forefront of that military evolution, how far this got back to Scotland remains unclear. 

In conclusion then, the continental and domestic influences on Scottish arms and armour are instigated by the crown for the purposes of providing a strong defence to the realm and the crown itself. This is something that is not really surprising given the high cost of providing for the large quantities of munitions. We can see this in the legislation for wappinschawingis from the 1350’s onwards. The similarity of arms and the land value put on them is a striking fact. 

What is also true is that Scotland with her distinctive form of warfare- fast surprise attacks- would tend to evolve a distinctive and different style of armament. If she looks backward compared to the fantastic armour produced on the continent it is simply because in the Scottish context this extravagance was unnecessary and indeed financially impracticable. 

The craftsmen involved in the production of arms and armour, the cutlers, bowers, lorimers, armourers, founders, jackmakers, etc. and the different guilds to which they belonged, were a skilled and essential group in Scotland. The help and encouragement which the crown gave to them and the close eye which the crown kept on them ensured that a high quality product was produced. 

The massive importation of arms from the continent shows not only the weaknesses of the domestic Scottish arms supply but also how seriously the Scots took the English threat and the extent to which they were prepared to go to ensure the best protection available.

Ewan Innes, January 10 1993

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