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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.

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The history, and the evolution of arms and weapons in Scotland is not generally known and little, in comparison to other nations, has been written about in detail. This is quite surprising, as Scotland was in many ways at the forefront of European arms development, in particular with firearms. The simple lack of interest in Scottish arms and armour would appear to be the main reason for this. The interest of most early arms historiographers was in the clear trends in the evolution of arms and armour in Europe and their influences on England. The first appearance of particular types of armour or new weapons and techniques of warfare for example, was the particular interest of large numbers of historians. In this climate, Scottish arms and armour did not have such a high profile or interest value. Therefore, in this essay, I will be trying  to draw together the strands of modern thinking on arms and armour, with reference to Scotland, and to take a fairly fresh look at the developments over the period as a whole. 

At the beginning of the twelfth century, Scotland was just beginning to feel the fresh winds of feudalism. The granting of land under feudal tenure by David I meant that for the first time, Scotland had to supply quality arms and armour in quantity. The introduction of foreign knights to a great extent facilitated this as they brought with them some of the continental craftsmen who could supply the arms and armour for themselves. However, a wide ranging system would have to be instituted to fill the gap in Scotland of trained and skilled armourers. It was here that the crown stepped in and through its patronage and assistance, Scotland began to catch Europe up in terms of manufacturing her weapons. 

As elsewhere in Europe at this time, the armour in Scotland consisted of a short, wide sleeved hauberk reaching to the knees. This had a coif to cover the head and was slit up the front and back to enable the wearer to ride easily. On the head was worn a conical iron helm with a protective nasal piece. The arms carried by the twelfth century knight, were the large triangular shield, a spear held firmly between the arm and body and a double edged sword used to cut rather than thrust. The use of stirrups quite possibly  came into widespread use in Scotland at this time as well. 

The armour of the twelfth century continued in style with mainly small “fashionable” modifications until well into the thirteenth century. During the later thirteenth century the simple mail hauberk was being added to and reinforced with the addition of chausses to protect the legs and feet. This meant that movement was restricted about the knee and the mail was later to be stopped short of the knee and begin again just below it connected by a reinforced plate of leather, thereby facilitating movement. 

Later in the thirteenth century ailettes were added to the shoulders to protect them from downward strokes of the sword or axe. These were quite simplistic forms of the passe-gardes of the fifteenth century or epaulets of the Napoleonic era. These were not in widespread use during this period in Britain or the continent and their use in Scotland up to the fourteenth century can only be guessed at from the evidence of surviving seals etc. The early form of these was of leather covered with cloth or silk. They first appear in English records in 1278 when they are described in the roll of purchases for the Windsor tournament1

The one significant change in armour was in the helm. Early in the thirteenth century, conical helms began to be phased out and were replaced by pot shaped helms entirely enclosing the head. At first, these had flat tops and left the neck unprotected. Later development saw the helm become rounded on top and incorporate flared sides. They were also being made to rest on the shoulders rather than on the crown of the head. These helmets were in use until the mid fourteenth century, although curiously they are depicted on the great seals of Scotland until the end of James V’s reign.  

The shield, is an interesting item of equipment to look at in a Scottish context here. For much of the middle ages the shield was of the “heater” shape, i.e. having a straight or slightly concave top edge and curving to a point. The medieval shield rarely had a boss on the front as it tended to be used to display the heraldic symbols of the knight. In Scotland this type of shield was used alongside the targe. This was not a purely Highland phenomenon, although it was later to become associated exclusively with this area. 

All shields were constructed more or less the same. Two pieces of wood were glued together with the grain running in opposite directions to give strength. Inside this was then covered in  deer skin or wool and two or three straps were fitted to enable the wearer to grasp the shield during battle. A baldric strap was also fitted to enable the wearer to sling the shield on the back when not in use. 

The armour being worn in Europe from the early, to about the middle of the fourteenth century was of mail reinforced with metal plates especially about the arms and legs. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century the enclosed helm was replaced by a visored version hinged above the eyebrows and was of the “snouted” variety.  In 13182  Robert I decreed what arms and armour were to be carried by all men of various financial standings. This Act stated that persons worth 10 in goods were to have an acton and basinet or a habergeon and hat of iron, with gloves of iron, a spear and a sword. Those having goods to the value of a cow were to have a good spear or a good bow with a sheaf of twenty four arrows. This shows the beginnings of a divergence of Scotland from Europe in terms of the armour worn by the warrior. This difference was to become more acute in later periods. 

The armour of the fifteenth and sixteenth is easier to document due to the quality and quantity of funeral monuments and documentary sources. Mail coat armour was reinforced by a breastplate. A pisane protected the neck and shoulders while the arms and legs were protected by metal plates over the mail habergeon. By the mid fifteenth century the entire leg and arm was encased in plate defences. The hands and feet as in the past being protected by mail or plate gloves. It is probable that mail was still being worn at this time under the plate- an arming jacket would at least be worn to protect those areas not fully encased in plate armour (the upper arms, neck, legs and armpits). 

In Scotland the complete harness of plate or even mail armour would probably have been a rareish sight. This is because of the cost, and the simple fact that it was not needed to any great extent. The terrain in Scotland and the tactics followed by Scottish armies meant that lighter and easily manageable forms of protection were used by all on occasion. This protection was the jack. The jack was a quilted leather or canvas coat reinforced with iron plates riveted together. The jack could be of various lengths and Acts of Parliament3   on various occasions, laid down the standards required for jacks and the lengths to be worn by men of various financial standings. At Pinkie in 1547 most of the Scots there were clad in jacks- some with brass chains about their legs to prevent sword cuts. 

The helmets being worn throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth century varied according to wealth and choice. In Scotland the visored helm was worn but most preferred the lighter basinets, kettle-hats or even the ‘Spanish’4   morion.

The weapons carried by Scottish soldiers from the twelfth to the mid-sixteenth centuries depended on wealth. Knights carried the long-sword, axe, lance and mace. The other weapons carried in Scottish armies varied abundantly with Lochaber axes, Jedwart staffs, spears, pikes, halberds, glaives, gisarmes, bows and arrows and Leith axes featuring at this and most other periods. Acts of Parliament laid down the arms which each man should carry according to wealth but whether and to what extent these were effective is unclear, especially earlier than the late fourteenth century. 

Many of the weapons listed above are of a peculiarly Scottish form, even in those items most likely to be influenced from the continent Scotland was divergent and in many ways more advanced than most of Europe and at an earlier date. The sword is one example here of note. The sword of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was of a similar form and construction across most of Europe, except in Scotland. While the Scottish hilt was of the conventional cross guard style, the pommel was lobated similar to those used by the Vikings. 

During the fourteenth century the Scottish sword underwent tremendous evolution in the hilt area. The quillons on all Scottish medieval swords always slope upwards towards the tip of the sword. The pommels on these swords are either of the ‘wheel’ variety or even occasionally the lobated form. Some have the tang projecting upwards through the top of the pommel. 

Examples of these swords can be seen on the funerary monuments in Scotland and some swords themselves have survived. Many of these examples have been found in Ireland and were presumably taken there by mercenaries from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. 

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


  1. Ashdown C.H. British and Foreign Arms & Armour  pp103.
  2. Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland.Vol. I, c.27, 473
  3. For example A.P.S. Vol. II, c.3 p45;
  4. Many morions were actually of Italian manufacture. The Spanish epithet comes from their conspicuous use amongst the Spanish military.
  5. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland Vol. II (STA)
  6. A.P.S  Vol. II c.6, pp100; Vol. II c.20, pp345; Vol. II c.21, pp346; Vol. II c.11, pp371; Vol. II c.12, pp372;
  7. STA IV Entries from 1511 to 1526. Described as umquhile 30 April 1532. Register of the Privy Seal  Vol. II 1213.


Aketon: Quilted coat, worn either by itself or under armour.

Arming jacket: Padded jacket sometimes reinforced with mail. Worn as protection under armour.

Basinet: Conical shaped helmet, often fitted with visor and bevor.

Bevor: Chin defence

Brigandine: Jacket reinforced with riveted metal plates.

Chausses: Leggings of mail

Coif: Mail hood worn under helmet

Gisarme: Long shafted weapon with a broad axe blade.

Glaive: Long shafted weapon with a long narrow blade.

Greave: Plate shin defence.

Habergeon: Mail coat although lighter than a hauberk.

Halberd: Long shafted weapon with a spear and axe blade.

Harness: The correct term for the complete "suit of armour".

Hauberk: Mail coat.

Jack: Jacket reinforced with metal plates.

Jedwart Staff: Long shafted weapon similar to a glaive with a long narrow cutting edge tapering to a point.

Kettle-hat: Basin shaped iron hat usually with a narrow brim and similar to British WWI & II "tin hats".

Langet: Metal tongue extended from the hilt up the blade to strengthen it.

Leith Axe: A type of long shafted weapon.

Lochaber Axe: Long shafted weapon usually with a broad cutting blade and a bill hook.

Morion: Metal cap of semi-oval outline with a flat rim.

Pisane: Mail defence for either the neck and shoulders or head and shoulders.

Quillions: The cross guard seperating hilt from blade.

Tang: The piece of metal which passes through the hilt from the blade into the pommel.


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Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland 1473-1566 Vols I-IX
Ashdown, Charles Henry British and Foreign Arms and Armour (London 1909) (Reprinted as European Arms & Armour)
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Drummond J & Anderson J Ancient Scottish Weapons (Edinburgh & London 1881)
Exchequer Rolls of Scotland 1264-1600 Vols I-XX
Ffoulkes C. Arms and Armament (London 1945)
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Laing H Descriptive catalogue of impressions from ancient Scottish seals (Maitland Club #68 Edinburgh 1850)
Oakeshott R.E. The Archaeology of Weapons, Arms and Armour from prehistory to the age of Chivalry (London 1960)
Register of the Privy Seal of Scotland 1488-1580 Vols I-VII
Scottish Art Review Scottish Weapons (Special Number Vol 9 1963)
Steer K & Bannerman J Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands (Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, 1977)
Wallace J Scottish Swords and dirks. A reference guide to Scottish edged weapons. (Arms and Armour Press 1970)
Whitelaw C.E. Scottish Arms Makers (Arms and Armour Press 1977)