Having the right kit: galloglass fighting in Ireland

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2008), Medieval History (pre-1500), Volume 16

The term galloglass (gallóglach) is usually translated as ‘foreign warrior’ but is in fact a short-hand for ‘warrior from Innse Gall (the Hebrides)’. They first entered military service in Ireland in the middle of the thirteenth century. What sort of military technology did they have at their disposal and how effective was it?


The most important items were the ships—galleys and birlings (birlinn)—that provided transport. Representations on seals  (opposite page) and West Highland crosses and grave-slabs indicate that they were clinker-built, open-hulled craft, with high prows and sterns. They were propelled by the muscle-power of rowers, or else by a rectangular sail hung from a central mast. Images of similar ships appear on West Highland sculpture of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, prompting the assumption that the basic form of the vessels changed little over a long period of time. These are direct descendants of Viking longships, and there was a continuous tradition of construction and use from the settlement of Scandinavians in Britain and Ireland from the ninth century. A 1615 report to the Scottish privy council indicates that by then these vessels were being identified as a West Highland phenomenon. Since these ships remained in use with relatively little modification for several hundred years, it is not unreasonable to assume that they were good at their job.
The ships could be made from local timber. Although our knowledge of the tree cover in Argyll and the Western Isles in this period is not as complete as we would like, there is good reason to think that there were suitable forest resources in Argyll and some of the islands. It might reasonably be guessed that the keels and frames were of oak and the masts of pine, but the planking might have been of either oak or pine. While making them was a skilled job, there was no need for elaborate equipment—certainly not launch slips or dry docks.
The fact that they could be rowed as well as sailed gave them considerable versatility, and it is probable that an experienced crew could often row themselves away from any threat posed by larger, more cumbersome craft. This was the view, based on experience, of the English naval commander, Captain George Thornton, charged with countering the threat to English interests in Ireland posed by West Highland galleys in the late sixteenth century. With their shallow draft they were ideal for beaching, being manoeuvred in amongst rocks, and being taken up rivers. Their size and lightness relative to crew numbers meant that they could easily be lifted out of the water, and, indeed, transported overland from one stretch of water to another. For example, in 1263 the Hebridean contingent of Norwegian King Hákon’s invasion fleet carried their ships across the 11⁄2-mile Tairbeart from Loch Long to Loch Lomond.
These vessels could carry relatively large numbers of men, and also booty on the return voyages. The 1615 privy council report lists the number and size of galleys and birlings in the Western Isles: galleys had between eighteen and 24 oars, birlings between twelve and eighteen, with three men per oar. ‘Boats’ of eight oars are also mentioned. This suggests crews ranging from 24 to 72 men. A few accounts of expeditions provide both the number of ships and men (including crew). Domhnall Ballach Mac Domhnaill of Dunyvaig carried a force of 5,000–6,000 men in 180 galleys in a mid-fifteenth-century raid on the islands in the Firth of Clyde and the coast of Renfrewshire, an average of 200 or more men per ship. In 1569 a Bristol merchant spotted 32 galleys and other boats marshalled in the Sound of Islay with 4,000 men for an invasion of Ireland by Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill, an average of 125 per boat. There are the reports of a landing in 1589 at Erris, Co. Mayo, of 600 men in seven galleys—an average of 86 per boat. While it would be foolish to place too much reliance on the accuracy of these figures, they at least convey the impression that these ships were effective troop-carriers.

There is also the matter of how much cargo they could carry, specifically the booty, which often came in the form of cattle on the hoof. A mid-thirteenth-century praise poem to Aonghus Mór Mac Domhnaill of Islay recounts how the graceful longships (longbhárca) of Islay raided Ireland and lifted many cattle. Are we to take from this and other accounts of cattle-lifting that the beasts were transported back to Scotland alive? That there was a business in medieval times in shipping live beasts from some of the Western Isles to the Scottish mainland cannot be doubted. On the other hand, it was reported that a Scottish force took only the hides and tallow of over 1,000 cattle gathered as booty when they sailed off from Erris in Mayo in 1589. Whatever the case, mercenaries from the West Highlands did not expect to return home empty-handed.

Protective clothing and armour

kit 5kit 6kit 7Another key item of equipment for West Highland mercenaries was a padded coat (as distinct from armour) for protection in warfare. There are many representations of these padded coats in West Highland sculpture (see next page). They appear to be quilted vertically in long narrow rolls, extending to the knees, and drawn in at the waist. They have long sleeves, often shown with thin straps around the arm just above and below the elbow. These are interpreted as armbands designed to allow greater flexibility by reducing the drag on the arms. One effigy at Saddell Abbey in Kintyre has decorated reinforcing elbow pieces, possibly of cuir-bouilli. These garments were presumably fastened up the front, though only on one effigy, at Oronsay Priory, can little buttons be seen down the front of the garment. Some representations show an opening at the thighs, probably to facilitate sitting astride a horse. Some West Highland effigies of warriors show straps for spurs around the ankles. The coats were worn with a collar of mail (or perhaps a coif or mail-hood) over the top and a bascinet (a type of metal helmet). Gauntlets are represented on some effigies, but it is difficult to detect the presence of any leg defences.
In their survey of West Highland sculpture, Steer and Bannerman identified these garments as aketons, quilted defensive coats normally worn under armour. It is clear, however, that the garments on the West Highland sculpture are not undergarments, and Scottish sources indicate that aketons (Scots actoun) were often the main defensive covering for the body. Thus an act of King Robert I of 1318 ordered every man worth £10 in goods to have armour consisting of an actoun or a habergeon (coat of mail) and a bascinet (helmet). It is probable that the ‘doublets of fence’ that were required equipment for zemen (yeomen) according to an act of the Scots parliament of 1429/30 were essentially the same as actouns. An act of 1574 for the holding of wappenshaws (musters) recognises that habergeons or actouns were the armour used by Highlanders. A report on the Hebrides, dating from the period 1577–95, says that 6,000 fighting men could be raised there, 2,000 of whom should be clad with actouns and habergeons.
So either actouns or habergeons, or habergeons over actouns, were worn by Highlanders as late as the sixteenth century. The evidence for the armour worn in Ireland demonstrates that aketons (Irish cotún) were worn by native Irish warriors from the fourteenth century through to the sixteenth century. Many of these were evidently garments worn under other armour, particularly habergeons (Irish lúireach), and might therefore be substantially different from the actouns worn by West Highlanders. One of the key pieces of evidence here is a drawing of Irish soldiers (possibly galloglass) and poor people, dated 1521, by the German artist Albrecht Dürer (see opposite page). One of the warriors is clad in a long coat with vertical quilting, evidently an aketon of the type worn by West Highlanders. His companion, however, is wearing a mail habergeon over an unquilted coat, slit at the front. The predominance of actouns on West Highland sculpture of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century suggests that they were the normal garment for warriors in this part of the world throughout that period. They were worn by themselves rather than as undergarments. They were clearly developed as a light and relatively cheap form of protection for warriors in battle, but their continued use by West Highlanders may relate more to other key properties such as warmth and waterproofing that would have made them ideal for voyages by sea.


While no West Highland ships or actouns survive, several weapons do, particularly swords and axes. Most of these have an Irish provenance and are only identified as being possibly West Highland on the basis of their similarity to representations on West Highland sculpture.
The shield on the effigy, (see first effigy, opposite page), of Giolla Bhrighde MacFhionghein (MacKinnon) is a convenient device for a heraldic design of a galley and animals, but, as in the case of other effigies with ‘heater-shaped’ shields (shaped like the base of an iron), there is probably no need to imagine that these are actual items of kit for fighting. Two types of shields used by the Scots in battle are referred to in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century documents—bucklers and targes. The two are often confused, or assumed to be the same, by modern writers. The former are small and circular and have a handle for the left hand. They were used along with swords, and were called for in legislation of 1425/6, 1429/30, 1456 and 1491 specifying appropriate military equipment for the Scots king’s lieges. Bucklers are represented on two grave-slabs (see first drawing, next page), probably of the fifteenth century, at Keills Chapel in Knapdale.
kit 8Targes are also circular but larger than bucklers, about 500mm in diameter. They were designed to be held on the left arm. Although there are no representations of targes in West Highland art or specific mentions of them in medieval documents about West Highlanders, it seems reasonable to assume that they were used in the fifteenth century, normally wielded along with axes, as required by acts of 1456 and 1481. The second of these acts specifically required every axeman without either a spear or bow to have a targe of wood or leather, modelled on an example to be sent to every sheriff. It is known that they were also used in Ireland, being slung on the back when not actually in use.
The skill and tenacity of the Scots under William Wallace and Robert Bruce, fighting on foot with spears, is well known, and is underlined by the fact that spears, along with swords, are the only weapons required for fighting men (defined as those with £10 worth of goods) in a Scottish act of parliament of 1318. Some pieces of West Highland sculpture show warriors armed with a spear and a sword (see third effigy, opposite page), and in some cases a small shield as well.
At Bannockburn the Scots gripped their spears firmly, although the sixteenth-century Scottish historian John Major describes how spiculis (darts—spears designed for throwing) were hurled before the two sides closed. Major is unlikely to have been drawing on early sources for this information. Perhaps he was writing more to give an impression of an epic conflict rather than with absolute accuracy as a priority. Nevertheless, he may have been influenced by weapons and tactics still known or remembered in his day. Darts are mentioned in other sixteenth-century literary and historical sources, including Boece’s History, for instance, in recounting the activities of King Custantín (Constantine I) in the ninth century. They are described as missiles in the original Latin, and darts in the translation by Bellenden. A Scottish act of parliament of 1481 envisages that axemen should also be armed with a spear or a bow, and perhaps these spears should be interpreted as missiles. None of this adds up to impressive evidence for the use of darts by any Scots in warfare in the medieval period. It is only considered here because of the more substantial documentation for the use of darts by the Irish, including the galloglass, said in a report of 1543 to have three each, carried for them by their boys.
kit 9The evidence for darts may be tenuous, but not so another missile weapon, bows and arrows. The Scots were encouraged to train as archers by acts of parliament of 1424 and 1456/7, but there is little evidence that the bulk of the king’s lieges adopted these weapons in military campaigns. In any case, by the 1470s the Scots foot had adopted pikes (very long spears) and they were to remain committed to them until the late seventeenth century.
West Highlanders apparently did not adopt pikes but took to bows and arrows. Only two bows are depicted in West Highland sculpture. One, in the act of being fired by a huntsman (see second drawing above), is on a slab of fifteenth- or sixteenth-century date at St Maelrubha’s Church, Arisaig, in Lochaber; the other is carried over the shoulder of a huntsman, with a quiver at his belt (see third drawing above), on the 1528 tomb of Alexander Mac Leòid at Rodel. An admittedly late source, one of the manuscripts of Pitscottie’s History of c. 1575, has Mac Gill’Eathain (MacLean) of Duart on Mull on the Flodden campaign in 1513 with a force of 600 men armed with bows and halflangs (swords with hilts long enough for two hands) and clad in habergeons. The West Highland contingent that turned out for the battle of Pinkie in 1547 is described as 4,000 archers under the leadership of the earl of Argyll. At least some of these would have been Clann Domhnaill (Clan Donald South) and MacLeans, and it is not without significance that King James V made gifts of bows, including English and Flemish ones as well as Scottish examples, to Alexander Mac Domhnaill of Dunyvaig in 1532 and 1535, to Alexander’s son James in 1539, and to Alan, brother of Mac Gill’Eathain of Duart, in 1539. Scottish bows were considerably cheaper than English ones, reflecting not just local availability but also that they were shorter.
kit 11Apart from spears and pikes, the favourite weapon of the Scots was the axe. Barbour, in his account of the fight at Dalry between John of Lorne’s men and Robert Bruce in 1306, describes how the men of Lorne fought effectively on foot with axes, even killing the horses of Bruce’s party. Barbour obviously knew that axes were the weapons used by West Highlanders, if not in 1306 then at least when he was writing in the 1370s. There are, however, few representations of battleaxes on West Highland sculpture. The most significant is an image, presumably of Raghnall (ON Rögnvaldr) of Islay (see above), the eponym of Clann Raghnaill (Clanranald), on a cross set up to commemorate him in the late fourteenth century. It stood next to the chapel on the island of Texa but its shaft is now on display in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Apart from the axe, Raghnall is equipped with a bascinet, actoun and sword.
The shaft of Raghnall’s axe is long enough to be gripped with both hands, and an illustration of a battle between English and Irish from Derricke’s Image of Irelande of 1581 clearly shows a force on the Irish side armed with similar long-shafted axes, one of which is being wielded double-handed. It is probable that many axemen had shorter staffs for one-handed use, thus facilitating the use of a targe.
Swords are by far the commonest weapons depicted in West Highland sculpture, either as the sole weapon of a military effigy or as a main element of a scheme of decoration on a grave-slab. Many of these swords are for wielding in the right hand, with blades shaped for slashing and cutting as much as stabbing. Others appear to be halflangs, with hilts large enough for two hands. From the late fifteenth century larger ‘twa-handit’ swords or claymores, with long hilts and blades, make an appearance in West Highland sculpture, the earliest securely dated one being on a slab of 1495 at Kirkapoll on Tiree. We may reasonably doubt whether the prevalence of swords on the sculpture reflects an underlying reality in the equipment of those who fought. Swords were expensive, they required great skill in their manufacture, and many of their blades were imported. It is possible that relatively few warriors were armed with them prior to the sixteenth or even the seventeenth century. Their frequency in sculpture could be attributed to the high status of those who commissioned the slabs and crosses and the symbolic value of a sword as an attribute of nobility. In any case, halflang and twa-handit swords would have been wielded in a similar way to axes, and may have been viewed as an up-market or more sophisticated alternative.
The effectiveness of West Highland warriors could not have depended on their use of axes and large swords alone. A force so armed would have been vulnerable to attack by cavalry and bowmen, and, from the sixteenth century, firearms. Likely solutions to this problem were the use of bows to fend off such threats, and closing with the enemy as quickly as possible, where axes and swords could have most effect. There is no compelling evidence that there were West Highland bowmen as a distinct category separate from those warriors armed with axes and swords. Rather, it may be supposed that bows were increasingly carried by all, so that they might readily be identified as archers, as in an English eye-witness account of them at Pinkie in 1547.
The continued use of galleys and birlings, of actouns, targes, bows and other weapons might be dismissed as the result of conservatism in a culture unprepared to adapt to modern ways. Conservatism there undoubtedly was, and an often deliberate and conscious desire to learn from the past and to be different from other Scots. It would be wrong, however, to view West Highland society as static and totally lacking in innovation. The kit described in this paper gave the flexibility to move and fight fast, abilities prized by generations of warriors. Equipment may have been retained, adapted and finally discarded to allow such mobility. The desire to be quick and light in warfare is a thread to be traced through all the period, and offers a better explanation for events and tactics than conservatism alone.

An illustration of a battle between English and Irish from Derricke’s Image of Irelande of 1581 clearly shows a force on the Irish side armed with long-shafted axes, one of which is being wielded double-handed.

An illustration of a battle between English and Irish from Derricke’s Image of Irelande of 1581 clearly shows a force on the Irish side armed with long-shafted axes, one of which is being wielded double-handed.

David H. Caldwell is Keeper of Scotland and Europe at the National Museums of Scotland.

Further reading:
S. Duffy (ed.), The world of the galogllass: kings, warlords and warriors in Ireland and Scotland, 1200-1600 (Dublin, 2007).


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