Where Romance and History Meet - www.heartsthroughhistory.com/

Friday, October 2, 2009

Swords of the Highlands

I confess, I love writing action scenes. Quite often these are 17th century battle or skirmish scenes or somehow involve weapons. I'm not a fan of gory violence, but I do enjoy exciting action, suspense and imagining a Highland hero showing off his battle skills. This first picture is one I took in the great hall of Edinburgh Castle and shows two types of swords I want to focus on here.

The most famous and well known Highland weapon is the claymore. There is some dispute and misconception about what a claymore is. Most people see it as a two-handed Highland sword. But now the experts say otherwise. Claymore comes from the Gaelic word claidheamh mor which means the great sword. AVB Norman in Culloden - The Swords and the Sorrows published by The National Trust of Scotland in 1996 says claidheamh mor, or the great sword, is “a term which should be used only for the basket-hilted broadsword. The correct term is now known to be claidheamh dà làimh” in reference to the two-handed Highland sword. The Glasgow Museums website confirms this information.

Pictures of extant swords of this type show them to be between 51 inches and 73 ¼ inches. Two-handed swords weren’t just Highland weapons. They were used all over Europe and are considered a Renaissance weapon. Though they were not excessively heavy, they were heavier than smaller swords and were usually wielded by the largest soldiers. They were often used to hack through pikes on the front lines to allow the rest of the soldiers through. Many of the blades of these Scottish weapons were German made. But it is the design of the two-handed Highland swords that distinguishes them from the others. The hilts were generally made in Scotland. In my story Devil in a Kilt, I describe one of these swords, specifically the Highland design of the hilt:

Something flashed in the dimness of the tent behind Ranald and her gaze darted to it. A huge two-handed Highland sword sat on a stand. A light must have glinted off the blade.
“Ah, I see the sword has caught your eye.”
“It’s beautiful.” And very large. Taller than her own five-feet-four.
Ranald moved away from the table and stood beside the sword. “You should see the detail.”
She sidled around the table and joined him in the middle of the open-sided tent. A few nicks and pits scarred the long dull steel blade. Spiral-carved, leather-wrapped wood formed the grip. The brass cross-hilt guard featured down-sloping arms with four tiny circles on the ends.
“Only a very strong warrior could successfully wield the claidheamh dà làimh in battle, and Gavin MacTavish was such a man,” Ranald said.
“It’s amazing. Is it authentic?”
Ranald’s mischievous blue eyes twinkled. “Of course. It’s nigh onto five-hundred years old. Would you like to hold it?”
Though she didn’t like weapons and the violence they stood for, she did love antiques. Her hands itched to touch the hilt of this sword. She set down her backpack, rubbed her palms together and stepped forward. Then back. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. I’m sure it’s very valuable, and I might drop it.”
“It’s a sword, Shauna. It’s seen many a rough day.” He winked, lifted the sword out of the stand and offered it, hilt first, to her. “I imagine you’ll regret it if you don’t hold this important piece of history for at least a few seconds.”
Shauna wiped her palms on her skirt. “All right. If you insist.”
A wily smile spread across Ranald’s face. “I daresay you will enjoy it.”

Nicole North - Devil in a Kilt, Secrets Volume 27 Untamed Pleasures

And of course this is the object that causes Shauna to time-travel.

How is this weapon used? Though the weapons in the video below are probably not Highland in design, this demonstration can give you some idea of how a two-handed sword is used. Obviously the whole body must be thrown into the action.

By around the 1620s, the time period I write about, the basket-hilted broadsword was considered characteristic of the Highlands. So, I write about this type of sword more often than the two-handed variety. Basket-hilted broadswords were shorter, around 37 – 39 inches in length. Both edges of the blade were generally sharpened.

Photos of swords from Glasgow Museums.

You can learn more about each sword there.

The narrow bars forming a cage protected the hand of the person using it. These were based on a design of the mid 1500s. The specific design of the cage varied and evolved over the course of the next century or so. Many of these improvements were for the purpose of further protecting the wrist. Not only were the basket-hilts functional, but also decorative. The Scottish regiments today still carry this type of sword. Another photo I took of basket-hilted broadswords in the great hall of Edinburgh Castle.

How is this weapon used? Please click to watch the video.



Jeannie Lin said...

Loved seeing the videos! And it makes sense that such a commonly used weapon like the claymore wouldn't be as unwieldy as people make it out to be. Fabulous info. Thanks!

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

"Okay, you win." LOL Great video, Nicole. My dh carries a long sword in a halberk when we do the Ren Faire. Always thought of it as a claymore, but rethinking now. Great post.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Bloody awesome, Nicole! I loved the video. We saw these long swords while on the Isle of Skye and wondered how on earth they could wield the things. The demonstration is amazing and my imaginations took me to the Highlands and how the clashes must have sounded echoing throughout the mountains.

Nicole North said...

Thanks for checking out my post, ladies! I love researching weapons and putting them to use in my scenes!

Pat McDermott said...

Utterly fascinating, Nicole. The pix and the videos are amazing! It's easy to imagine the sword you describe in your excerpt having magical qualities. Thanks for sharing your extensive research!

Nicole North said...

Thanks so much, Pat! I do find swords fascinating for some strange reason. LOL

Pamela said...

Love swords, especially the basket-hilted varieties. My current favorite is the schiavona (Venetian) which appeals to me because of the cat-head pommel. :-)

Great post!

Nicole North said...

Thanks Pamela! I'm with you on that. I love basket-hilted swords too! A cathead pommel sounds interesting!

Le Loup said...

Good post, good pics. No video showing though. I look forward to more of this sort of post.
regards, Le loup.

Nicole North said...

Thanks, Le Loup! Glad you liked it. I'm sorry the videos aren't showing for you. I checked them again and they work for me.

Le Loup said...

Thanks Nichole, the video loaded this time. Good one.
Le loup.

Nicole North said...

I'm glad you got to see the videos, Le Loup! I always find I learn more if I watch a demonstration.

Alexis Walker said...

Great Post, Nicole. So if I'm writing in 1306 Scotland, what should I call the two-handed sword if not Claymore? You gave the Gaelic, but is there an English word for it?

Thanks, Alexis

Nicole North said...

Hi Alexis,
Here is a link to a medieval sword made around 1400. Found in Ireland but thought to be Scottish or similar to Scottish because of the "drooping guard."
Glasgow Museums site says: "Medieval swords of this type were probably the stylistic ancestors of the later two-handed Highland swords."

The one in the picture in my post was made around 1550 - 1600.

Here is medieval Northern European Sword. 950 - 1100.

You might also research the sword images that were carved on gravestones in the Highlands and check the dates on those, just to be sure a two-handed sword was used in the Highlands then. I haven't researched that time period (1306).

I haven't checked the validity of this website nor read it but it might be useful?? I always double check online research or make sure it's reliable.

As for the word, since it is a bit confusing (and debated), I generally try not to use the term claymore, though it is in my backcover blurb. But in the text I usually call it a two-handed Highland sword or use the Gaelic term. I don't know how early the term "claymore" was used. This is a situation where even the experts disagree, so the only thing to do is sort through all the research evidence and draw the conclusion that works for you.

Eliza Knight said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

Nicole North said...

Thanks, Eliza!! Glad you liked it!

Anonymous said...

wow! thanks for another great blog post!
Customized application development

Mary McCall said...

I discover a new page and I find you again, Nicole! This was wonderful and I really appreciate the information. I'm researching a lot of Eurpean weapons from around the 11th and 12th century right now since my heroine goes to Scotland from the Roman Province. I really can't wait to put a Roman pike in his hands. lol. I just love the claymores but they don't come till later, so I'm stuck with the Scottish Great Sword which is pretty impressive in it's own right. If I could just get a demo with Adrian Paul, I'd be a happy camper and he'd be worn out.

Le loup said...

Mary, perhaps the Franziska may be of some use to you. At this site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisca

Regards, Le Loup.

Nicole North said...

Mary, so nice to see you here!! Oh yes, a demo by Adrian Paul would be fantastic to watch!

Jennifer Martin said...

The claymore sword is the most famous swords in terms of military and medieval swords.