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Army Notes

The Lewis Chessmen

Scots Isles and Highlands
1050-1493 AD (III/77)

By Roy Beers

I'll begin this article by apologizing for its length, and by advising anybody seeking a quick army breakdown to fast-forward to the last sections and the various links.

Scottish medieval military history has tended to focus on Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn to the exclusion of almost everything else; and Gaelic West Highland history - all but written out of the mainstream Scottish script by post-Reformation historians - remains shadowy and little understood. To Scottish or British history the Gaels are little-known barbarians, surfacing only when they threaten a Scottish or (in the 18th century) British monarch. A major TV series, The History of Britain, contained precisely five references to Scotland in total, and no discussion at all of Gaelic influence, culture or history - even although Scotland was a primarily Gaelic "Celtic" culture before the reign of David I, and feudalism.

Yet the domain of the Isles, in particular, was effectively an independent "country" for more than three centuries, a fact which may largely explain why Scottish Gaelic culture has managed to survive to the present day, despite the ravages of the post-Culloden period and the Scottish national shame of the Highland Clearances. Somerled's warriors proved mightier than the Vikings, and their descendants later helped in no small measure to win Bannockburn, Scotland's most decisive battle. In fact quite apart from this specific military contribution it is no exaggeration to say that King Robert I could not have won the First War of Independence without the aid of Clan Donald, in particular, as in times of defeat the Lordship (and its Irish kin and allies) provided an impenetrable refuge where he could not be pursued. Hebridean warriors spearheaded a major Gaelic resurgence in 13th century Ireland, defeating the hitherto invincible Anglo-Normans in a series of shattering victories - and these Galloglaich (also spelled Galloglaigh, and frequently anglicised as "Galloglasses") remained a major factor in Irish warfare until the turn of the 17th century.

But Hebrides-based political independence was effectively extinguished following the abolition of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493, and in later Scottish history cultural and political power would be rooted ever more firmly in the (non Gaelic) Lowlands. The Gaelic historical tradition was oral, in a world where it was to become forbidden to speak Gaelic in schools; and was marginalised or deliberately proscribed to the point where even the mighty Somerled was either forgotten or, at best, remembered as a barbaric pirate chief.

However Somhairle Mhor casts a very long shadow, and in recent years new interest in Scottish history has produced some marvelous original work, although very much more remains to be done. I have tried to avoid too much duplication with the original DBA 1.1 article, while bringing in some new material - the web link to the illustrated essay on West Highland Heraldry is particularly recommended.

In this essay the word "Lowland" in commas signifies Lowland cultural influence rather than geography: for example medieval Aberdeen (on the north-east coast), while retaining some Gaelic aspects, was by the time of the Battle of Harlaw a thoroughly feudalised society run along southern Scottish lines. In the 12th century, when feudalism really took hold in Scotland, many of today's standard Scottish surnames were created by incoming feudal seigneurs with names such as St Clair (Sinclair); Guiscard (Wishart) and -my own family name on the distaff side - Somerville. "Lowland" military forces also naturally reflected southern norms, with armoured nobles, schiltron spearmen, etc., albeit sometimes with regional variations or additions.

The list aims primarily to reflect the sort of seaborne raiding force assembled under the Hebridean Lords of the Isles and their predecessors (from the mid 12th century AD to around the 1480's), and for that purpose is perfect for DBA 2.0 - especially as the Littoral aspect to terrain allows you to bring in reinforcements by sea (and there's now a point to doing a beached ship, or "birlinn" model, as it can act as your camp.) But there's a problem. While the old DBA 1.1 list seemed to me to be just about perfect, allowing you to field plenty of Bd (Galloglaich) elements or, alternatively, Ax and Wb elements, this one places the emphasis very heavily on Galloglaich (or their equivalent), almost to the exclusion of everything else. And this begs the question: what about the "and Highland" part of the equation?

The biggest historical battle involving this type of army was Harlaw, 1411 AD, where a Gaelic host of perhaps 6,000-10,000 men mustered initially from the Isles and West Highlands of Scotland marched to sack the Highland capital of Inverness, before striking towards Aberdeen on the North-East coast. They were fought to a bloody draw by the greatly outnumbered "Lowland" forces (who would in effect be a Scots Common army). The proto-Highland clansmen who made up the bulk of the army at Harlaw were unarmoured warriors fighting solely with target and sword, spear, axe and javelin: their leaders and perhaps their bodyguards may have worn the classic equipment of the Galloglaich but in every other regard this was a classic "Celtic" warband army. King Robert I ("The Bruce") during a campaign in England, used Islesmen to scale steep slopes in order to fall upon his English opponents from the rear; while at the Battle of the Pass of Brander in the Highlands we find a Highland army under Bruce and Douglas outflanking a rival army (which had been lying in ambush) to attack from above - again, hardly the behaviour of heavily-equipped troops.

On the other hand, some time after the failed Scottish invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce, King Robert arrived at Carrickfergus in Antrim, northern Ireland, in a fleet bearing 800 Hebridean galloglaich - clearly a solid force of professionals assembled for the impression they would be able to create (and, of course, formidable enough to act as a now powerful monarch's bodyguard): the hero of Bannockburn had close Celtic/Gaelic ties in the Isles and Highlands, as in Ireland and the south-west of the country.

Without going into still more detail it is enough, perhaps, to note that in the medieval Scottish Isles and Highlands there were broadly two main types of army - the purely Hebridean seaborne strike force, consisting very largely of "professionals" equipped with ahketon, nasal helmet and two-handed axe; and the largely mainland-derived prototype "clan" forces. Besides being more lightly equipped, these latter warriors, were "seasonal" combatants, although inevitably experienced through endless internecine feuds, raids, etc.. The galloglaich "heavies" were - more or less - permanently embodied retainers. Not to put too fine a point about it you should really be able to field an "and Highland" army which contains no seaborne warriors at all and only a relatively few heavy-equipped men.

The Area of Operations

The "Isles" designation has also confused some authors. While the descendants of Somerled (in Gaelic, Somhairle, or Somhairle Mhor - "the great" and/or "the progenitor") were styled the Lords of the Isles, with great leaders often known by names such as Donald of the Isles, the area covered by the Lords and their adherents also covered, besides most of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the whole seaboard of the Scottish West Highlands, and at its high point also included the large and relatively prosperous Earldom of Ross in the Highlands proper. Ross was the feudalised version of the old Mormaer-ship of Highland, Gaelic Scotland - so inevitably became a bone of contention between the rival Gaelic and (royal)"Lowland" centres of power.

The fulcrum of the control and government of the Isles was the island of Islay ("Isle - ah"), also the seat of the Council of the Isles (at Loch Finlaggan), at which parliament-style decisions were made by delegates from the most powerful chieftains' factions and from each of the main strata of society, from freeholder upwards.

In addition to the larger islands of the Inner Hebrides (Innse Gall or "the foreign isles" as was) and the Firth of Clyde, the whole West Highland coastal region is in fact an archipelago of hundreds of lesser islands and islets, in which important sounds or straits were guarded by strong stone keeps and where natural harbours (as at Dunyvaig on Islay) were of great strategic importance. Power rested on fleets of swift galleys (birlinns) which were Norse in inspiration but which were designed with Hebridean sailing conditions in mind. However to give an idea of a galley's "range" crews from Barra in the Outer Hebrides would sail a full 300 miles to stage raids on the northern (Scandinavian) Shetland and Orkney Isles.

Although the inhabitants would otherwise have struggled to get by on fishing and subsistence farming, the region was a nautical crossroads between Norway, mainland Scotland and Ireland (linking also to the Isle of Man and points south). Extensive trade and diplomatic links with Scandinavia and the Continent meant that the Lords of Isles (and the aristocracy) frequently consumed better wine (from France) than even the English court; while the chief surgeon to the Lords of the Isles had at one time studied cutting-edge medicine at Montpelier.

In this wild Gaelic "kingdom" - whose upper echelons appear to have lived with a certain style - cattle was the currency, and the inspiration for many a land or sea raid; and galleys were the embodiment of power. Some chieftains, notably the Macruaris, reckoned their strength in galleys rather than men, and following on from earlier tradition many chieftains honoured their military obligations in "ship service" rather than warriors.

Historical Framework

The Gaelic inhabitants of the Isles were originally Gaels from Ulster in northern Ireland, a region where close family ties and alliances were to continue and to be strengthened right through the period. The whole region, including the West Highland seaboard and most of the North of Scotland, as well as much of northern Ireland, came under Norse rule from about the 8th to 9th centuries AD, and it seems that in the Isles Norse and Gaelic cultures effectively merged, with the Viking element being subsumed by the more numerous host culture: Norse culture was not antipathetic to Gaelic and through time the "Vikings", and their language, would "disappear" into Gaelic society - much as the Picts are assumed to have "disappeared" into the Scots. This hybrid people would become known as the Gall-Gaedhil (or foreign Gaels) and in military terms were to exhibit many strong Norse characteristics.

The most famous fighting men, the Galloglaich, translating from the Gaelic as "foreign young warrior" also reflect this Norse influence. They may have been so called even at home, reflecting their perennial trade as mercenaries in Ireland. Gaelic Isles lords fought on the Norse side as early as the battle of Clontarf in Ireland in 1014, and by that time must have started to acquire Norse fighting methods.

In the mid 12th century the half Norse, half Gaelic warlord Somerled led a major Gaelic resurgence in the Isles, fighting a bloody naval battle (probably in the Sound of Islay) against the Norse forces of Godfred of Man. It was a technical draw but Godfred was forced to cede half of his Isles domain to Somerled - who later overran the Viking stronghold of Man (now the Isle of Man).Thereafter the Norse hegemony of the Isles was on a downward spiral, and the Isles and west coast seaboard, known to the Vikings as the Sudrejars, were to become emphatically Gaelic.

The descendants of Somerled maintained the convention that they held the Isles "in trust" for the King of Norway (while in fact acting as independent monarchs), while from time to time (particularly after the 1266 Treaty of Perth, when Norway formally ceded the Isles to Scotland) acknowledging that real suzerainty belonged to the King of Scots - in theory. This neat distinction became increasingly problematic because no king of Scotland could view with equanimity a sovereign power occupying, as in Viking times, the whole north-west of the country.

The struggle for possession of various Isles continued into the 13th century, but when the Norse made their final bid to enforce control of their Isles possessions in the 1260's they had few Gaelic allies to call upon. After the messy beach scrimmage with the Scots in 1263 known as the Battle of Largs it was clear Scandinavian political influence on mainstream Scotland - and the Gaelic Hebrides - was at an end. The northernmost areas of Scotland, and the Orkney Isles, would remain at least technically Scandinavian for far longer.

The 14th century was the apogee of the Isles. Clan Donald (descendants of a grandson of Somerled) was in the ascendant, helped greatly by the aid it had given King Robert I during the Wars of Independence. However the senior line of Somerled, the MacDougalls, allied themselves to the English crown, receiving cash to finance their war galleys and warriors: but they were comprehensively defeated by Clan Donald and King Robert I by sea and by land. Sween (or Suibne) the Red (whose family had strong Irish connections) of Castle Sween in Knapdale, Argyll, also became a sort of English admiral, and his faction was later driven from its home turf to become a purely Irish power - MacSweens, Sweeneys, etc, were particularly strong in Donegal. The Scottish crown's "Lowland" (feudal) appointees in the North came increasingly into conflict with the Gaelic rulers during the 15th century, in a sporadic running dispute whose main event was the sanguinary Battle of Harlaw in 1411.

In 1428 James I, (first of the Stuart dynasty) summoned 40 chiefs, including Alexander, Lord of the Isles, to his parliament in Inverness. Each was brought forward and hurled into a bottleneck dungeon, with James making witty quips in Latin about their "hempen departure" to follow. In fact just three were hanged and the rest pardoned of any offences supposedly committed. Alexander waited until James and his entourage had left, then razed Inverness to the ground. Summoned to the king's presence in Edinburgh he made a grovelling apology and was again pardoned - almost certainly because James feared a fearsome Gaelic backlash if he were to execute the Lord of the Isles.

Powerful leaders such as Donald Balloch and Angus Og could still play fast and loose with the Scottish Crown as late as the 1480's - winning battles against feudal appointees; staging major raids; then using their galley fleets to evade pursuit when pressed. Since at various times the Lords could openly intrigue with the English (as in 1468 with Edward IV) their power would clearly have to be broken eventually if Scottish independence were to survive: the first forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles was in 1475, by which time the writing was clearly on the wall. The wealthy Earldom of Ross, so long a bone of contention between Isles and Crown, was stripped from the Lordship, and valuable estates in Knapdale and Kintyre were also appropriated for the Crown's nominees.

But ultimately it was internal dissent which spelled the end of the Lordship, and its massive influence on Scottish history, allowing James IV (ironically the last king of Scotland to speak Gaelic) to ordain the abolition of the title and its assumed rights in 1493. There would be plenty of future claimants, and occasional revolts - even an attempt to divide Scotland three ways between the Isles, the English, and a rebel Earl of Douglas - but with the unifying leadership of Clan Donald removed, the power base, and thus the capacity to raise dangerous numbers for a concerted effort, was gone forever. No single leader would ever again be able to generate unswerving loyalty from the myriad of now mutually hostile chieftains. The very last attempt to regain the title was staged by Donald Dubh in 1545. Henry VIII of England, engrossed in Irish wars - and understandably concerned at the presence in Irish waters of a 4,000-strong force of galley-borne Hebridean warriors - swiftly paid the silver Donald demanded for the attempt.

Land grants from the Crown to chieftains it could use to rule by proxy, in particular to Clan Campbell, limited Clan Donald power still further - and of course laid the seeds of a whole new seam of bitter inter-clan warfare. The formal end of the Lordship and the increasing influence and control of the Scottish monarchy did not, however, spell the end of the Isles-based Galloglaich, who as family or clan factions continued much as they had done for centuries by acting as mercenaries and allies in the various Irish wars. Examples of Galloglaich who began as Scottish chieftains and migrated to more or less full time employment as mercenaries in Ireland include the MacSweens and the MacAlistairs. The MacAlistairs, based in the Kintyre peninsula - the closest point to Northern Ireland - would take to their galleys when alerted and summoned by signal fires on the Antrim coast.

Nor did the end of the Lordship makes the Isles and Highlands a noticeably more peaceable region - in fact almost the reverse is true. The factions involved in raids or inter-clan wars were, perhaps, numerically smaller, and the potential threat to the Lowlands was much reduced - but visceral warfare raged between various clans and factions into the 16th century and beyond. When the Macdonalds and Campbells fought on opposing sides at Culloden in 1746 they were in effect playing out the last drama of an ancient feud.

The Legacy of Somerled

Somerled, named from the Norse "Sumerladi" (or "summer voyager"), wrested control of the Inner Hebrides from (his relatives through marriage) the Manx Vikings, and also drove the Norse from mainland Morvern and Argyll. He participated in the pan-Scottish army which met defeat at Northallerton in 1138 and thereafter seems to have been in almost permanent conflict with the Scottish crown. When in a series of military expeditions, Malcolm IV of Scotland ended the virtual independence of the wild Norse-Celtic Galwegian enclave in the south-west (a separate "Celtic" realm whose people were related to, but separate from the Hebridean Gaels), the Hebridean warlord may have concluded that, if he failed to act, Scottish hegemony would surely replace Norse rule in the Isles just as conclusively.

The showdown came when Somerled and his warriors, with the Dublin Norse as allies, sailed up the Firth of Clyde to Renfrew with an armada of 160 galleys. The aim was almost certainly to stage a major punitive raid to overawe the King of Scots. Instead he died, with one of his sons, at the onset of what appears to have been a pre-emptive strike by the forces of Feudal Scotland - quite possibly (as John Marsden surmises in his biography of Somerled) in a charge by mailed knights.

However rather than ending Hebridean independence this episode marked just the end of the first chapter of the Gaelic resurgence; and for more than three centuries the Sons of Somerled and their descendants would rule the West.

Fighting Style and the Norse Influence

As noted above the Isles and West coast were a Gaelic region heavily influenced by the Norse, even although even indirect Norse control of the Inner Hebrides did not outlast the 13th century. While the whole of the North of Scotland is peppered with Scandinavian place names (the result of the much longer-established and more entrenched Norse influence) there are almost none in Argyll or the Isles (there are exceptions, for example Knapdale in Kintyre; and nearby Loch Melfort from Mael Fjord - beautiful fjord).

However in the highly recommended book The West Highland Galley by Denis Rixson we learn that many Hebridean nautical terms are Norse derived, while certain common Gaelic names are of course Norse or Norse inspired - Ranald (and hence Clanranald) from Ragnvald or Rognvald; Dougall or Dugal (hence MacDougall) from Dhugall (dark foreigner - i.e. Viking). The author of The West Highland Galley goes on to speculate that there may have been a distinct Norse pedigree to famous warriors, or sailors, or both, and that these may have amounted to a distinct social caste. Given the hereditary "family business" nature of Galloglaich warfare this seems quite feasible.

Apart from the whole area of galleys and galley warfare the Norse influence was to be seen at its strongest in the fighting style of the galloglaich. The nasal helm and chain mail coif over a padded ahketon appears to be standard equipment for Isles warriors (and their mainland kin) throughout the period. The axe was already an important Scottish weapon but the emphasis on the two-handed axe was also a characteristically Norse feature; as was the importance placed on archery at all ranks of society.

The one feature which appears to be missing is the shield (which would be carried on the back during action by a warrior wielding a two handed weapon), although they were certainly used by the Picts and Scots of the early Norse period and presumably right into medieval times in the mainland Highlands proper. I have seen a funerary stone (at Kilmory Chapel in Argyll) which combines targes with Hebridean equipment of the sort to be seen in effigial warrior stones, so it is possible shields were in fact used, or were an optional extra.

John Marsden (Somerled and the Emergence of Gaelic Scotland) surmises that Isles warriors of the 12th-13th centuries might have resembled the famous walrus ivory Lewis chess set, which shows Norse warriors wielding straight-topped kite shaped shields. These would not be compatible with two-handed weapons, but it is possible some warriors may have used them with other weapons - in every other respect the Norse chess men might just as easily be Islesmen.

Funerary effigies of Galloglaich-style warriors always carry spears (or sometimes just a sword) as opposed to axes, but this may have some special rank or other significance. Apart from long (but not two handed) swords, 12th to 14th century warriors also used heavy short-range javelins, or throwing spears - probably intended mainly for ship to ship fighting. Two-handed swords are generally accepted as a phenomenon dating from the late 15th or early 16th century - although some were used by particular Scottish warriors much earlier; and they were certainly used by "Lowland" knights at Harlaw in 1411 AD.

Another feature missing from West Highland warrior effigies is a chain mail hauberk (although they always wear a mail coif) while effigies in Ireland of exactly the same warrior class from the same period do have chain mail. The explanation seems simple: warriors wore heavy kit when fighting dangerous adversaries like armoured foot or cavalry (as in Ireland) but found it a pointless encumbrance when fighting lightly-armed opponents in seaborne raids. However from the 14th century at least some warriors began to add items of mainstream European equipment, such as chain mail and plate leg protection; and could also carry "heater" style shields.

Since we know most warriors remained lightly equipped, at least when fighting in Scotland, it is reasonable to suppose those which took on the trappings of conventional southern equipment were both high born and heavily influenced by (or closely affiliated to) the Scottish Crown. Rather later than our period an eyewitness account describes Islesmen as being tall men, apparently uniformly dressed in mail shirts and carrying two-handed swords - to an outsider would still look "antique" as compared with feudal English or Scottish men-at-arms.

It is clear from otherwise sparse battle accounts that it was quite usual practice to deploy discrete bodies of "archers", usually in a position to use flank fire - and it's possible certain areas, or families, had a special proclivity towards archery (just as others were famous for boat building) - even if they were also proficient with other weapons. In Scots Common armies of the period, archers from the larger islands of the Firth of Clyde (eg Arran, Bute, Cumbrae) were reputedly highly valued, and these had all been Viking-ruled at one time. One account of the 15th century Scottish siege of Roxburgh Castle talks about an Isles contingent fighting "in the old Highland manner with axe, bow and haubergeon", which though ambiguous appears to show warriors could mix and match weapons to suit the occasion. The Galloglaich each had two servants to carry kit and so forth, and one can imagine a warrior calling for his bow or axe, much as a golfer might ask his caddie to produce a favourite club.

Highland Dress

Without going into detail (though see the links from the DBA 1.1 article if you need to know more) it's maybe worth pointing out that the one item you would not find on any Gaelic Isles-and-Highlands warrior would be trousers - except, just possibly, of the close-fitting trews type worn by cousin clans in Ireland. Norse who presumably arrived wearing trousers in the 9th century obviously lost them by degrees and "went native" and I am tempted to think that the fearsome Orcadian Viking Magnus Barelegs may be an example of a Norseman who has adopted the dress style of Celtic kin or adherents in the Hebrides - a trouserless Viking in a betrousered Viking society!

Highland warriors wore a shirt, called in Irish the leine, and usually some form of cloak: only the relatively wealthy appear to have died the shirt saffron. Men of any social stature would increasingly wear the plaid (as a cloak) either self-coloured or in a simple "tartan" pattern - more as in the modern American term "plaid" than anything to be found on modern kilts. Again, warriors of rank would fasten the plaid or cloak with a brooch, which also served as a badge of rank.

It cannot be stressed too strongly that the plaid was not worn as anything remotely resembling a "kilt" at this period: the belted plaid is reckoned to have come into fashion around the turn of the 16th century, but even this remains fiercely debated. However loose folds may have been gathered around the body, bandolier style (as later): a full-size plaid ideally had many yards of cloth. Having said that in later centuries it was common practice to leave this valuable item with the servants and do battle in shirt alone (often with the tails tied between the legs).

A legend of Somerled talks about his warriors wearing cowhide jackets of some sort, and certainly these were common much later - and for the wealthier sort may also have supported brigandine or equivalent protection.

The Military Context

A cursory examination of the Battle of Harlaw suggests a fighting style based on a screaming charge and an almost complete absence of tactics - but of course Harlaw is a very atypical battle. Even so one of the foremost Gaelic heroes, Red Hector Maclean died in single combat with an opponent of equivalent rank, and before the battle had made a sizeable land grant to another chief who might have argued he was entitled to the position of honour on the right of the battle line, lacking which generosity there might have been the genesis of a deadly feud.

Far more usual (whether considering an Isles host, a Highland warband or a mixture of the two) was an encounter involving a few hundred or a couple of thousand warriors, often close kin used to fighting and raiding together. In a battle fought by Angus Og in the 1480's the Islesmen lured heavily equipped cavalry across a stream before charging downhill to fell riders with two-handed axe strokes. The authoress I F Grant speculates that a body of archers would have supplied flanking fire - a favourite and possibly even "standard" tactic.

Battles in passes and to defend fords were common for obvious strategic reasons, and several obscure and lonely Highland glens bear Gaelic names pointing to ancient and forgotten clan battles. In an all-Gaelic "set piece" encounter a battle would invariably commence with exhortations from the war host's seannachie ("shawn-ach-ee") - a vastly important man who combined the roles of clan historian, poet and herald. He would proclaim the lineage of the chieftains and the clans, urge the warriors to honour the proud pedigree of their forefathers, and - a finely-honed speciality - deliver particularly cunning verbal insults towards the foe. In this 'heroic" form of warfare there might follow individual duels amongst champions, a general exchange of missiles, and then an all out fight to the finish.

However these almost formal clashes were greatly outnumbered by raids and ambushes, often revolving around (often very large scale) cattle raids.

Clan feuds were endemic and could run, vendetta style, for generations. One notorious feud did erupt between erstwhile allies over that ticklish business as to which clan should hold the position of honour on the right of the battleline - hence the face-saving deal with Red Hector before Harlaw. Apart from long-running feuds between individual clan factions - which occasionally became gruesome wars of outright extermination - there were also wars between confederacies and between rival (more or less permanent) clan alliances.

The most famous clan confederacy was Clan Chattan (or "of the cat"), which is thought to have ancient roots in the Pictish tribe or confederacy of the same name. In Christian times the confederacy took its inspiration from St Catan, whose name conveniently "punned" with the former "cat" title while adding a note of religiosity. Many clans have as their badge the Scottish wild cat (sometimes shown wielding a target and sword!): if you are unfamiliar with this now rare beast (felix caledonicus) it closely resembles a very big version of a domestic mackerel-stripe cat, but with thicker tail - and plays for keeps.

At this point it's perhaps worth mentioning that notionally "Lowland" adversaries were not as conveniently "different" from the Gaels as later historians liked to imagine. Though the Germanic Lowland Scottish language (Lalans) began to make major inroads on traditional Gaelic-speaking areas from the late 13th century many or all of the combatants at Harlaw would have been Gaelic speakers, or bilingual: the father of the "Lowland" commander at Harlaw was the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, who led his wild Highland horde on a campaign of extortion and murder - on one occasion burning down Elgin Cathedral.

Another point possibly worth making is that the Highland Line was much farther south then than now, and in, say, the 14th century, anywhere north of Stirling in the Central Belt of the Scottish Lowlands could be regarded as Gaelic. So too was the separate enclave of the south-west of Scotland (modern Dumfries and Galloway) - home of the fearsome Galwegians. At the risk of going off at a tangent it should be stressed the Galwegians, also a Gaelic-speaking Norse-Celtic "kingdom", separate from mainstream Scottish control for many centuries, were related to but separate from the Islesmen. They wouldn't be found in numbers in the Isles or Highlands.

In the Harlaw campaign, again, the host of Donald of the Isles encountered and defeated the brave but outnumbered clansmen of Clan Mackay before marching on Aberdeen - neatly illustrating the fact that traditional Gaelic factions could be allied to the notionally "Lowland" Scots. The Gordons, a thoroughly Gaelic and Highland clan, inhabited arable lands and were practically the only clan able to raise a significant cavalry arm - but from which date it is difficult to say. They owed their name to a feudal incomer, and the upper strata of this great clan probably adopted such "Lowland" trappings as suited them. The Frasers (from fraiseur, "grower of strawberries") are another important example of a regional Highland people with a name linked to baronial immigrants - and there are several other examples.

Allies and Enemies

With an DBA Aggression rating of 3, the Islesmen are clearly going to be staging seaborne raids a lot of the time - although if you are playing amongst friends you might consider that a purely mainland Highland army (which in any case needs a new list) ought to be perhaps Ag 2

Enemies listed are - III/40b Norse Viking (which would be 11th through to 13th centuries); III/45 Pre-Feudal Scots (Both Scottish Crown forces and armies of the "Celtic" Mormaers; III/46 Norse Irish (based in Dublin); III/77 Scots Isles and Highlands (inter clan and faction feuds, raids etc); IV/16 Scots Common Army (feudal times to early 16th centrury - for example the Battle of Harlaw, 1411); and IV/58 Medieval Irish (eg Galloglaich expeditions in Ireland).

To these you could add Anglo-Irish, if you delete any Kn options when "playing away." This would represent either defence against a Galloglaich seaborne raid or the 1296 expedition (there may have been others) by Anglo-Irish levies acting for Edward I.

There is only one ally listed, III/40b, Vikings, presumably centered on the early 11th century to early 12th century before Somerled's Gaelic resurgence. To this you could add III/46 Norse Irish, as the Dublin Norse accompanied Somerled on his fatal expedition to Renfrew. In Big Battle (etc) games you might also add Scots Common (an Isles host made up a considerable part of the pan-Scottish army defeated at Northallerton, 1138).

The DBA Army List

As opposed to the more versatile DBA 1.1 options you now get.

1 x 4Bd (Gen) The head of faction or clan - perhaps Somerled in person - or captain of Galloglaich, with his kin and close bodyguards.
8 x 4Bd The rank and file of the main body, equipped broadly as above, led by lesser chieftains.
3 x 4Bd or (2 x 3Bw & 1 x 3/4Wb) Still more of the Galloglaich equivalents or "brigaded" bowmen from the ranks of Bd (many of whom will carry bows anyway) acting as a tactical grouping of archers. The one Wb element is presumably either allied clansmen or a second class of warrior ("brigaded" servants, or youths?) acting as combat support for the archers.

Variant Ideas

Having explained why I don't think the list does the full job here is a conjectural list which can act either as allies or enemies: this allows for some versatility and offers the chance of seeing some of that "Hilly" Scottish scenery.

Generic Highland Army

This could represent a single faction (e.g. Clan Mackay in the campaign of 1411) or a confederacy. It's presumed to be primarily land-based and has Ag2 with compulsory terrain of (no surprises here) Hilly.

1 x 4Bd Donald of the Battle Axe; Red Hector Maclean or some other worthy with his close kin and bodyguards - essentially similar to the command element in the regular list.
6 x 4Wb Clan warriors - very lightly equipped, fighting with (usually) leather targe; and mixture of (in order of likelihood) axe/spear and other polearms, sword, bow, javelins.
2 x 3B or 4Wb "Brigaded" archers, or more clan warriors with melee weapons
2 x 8Hd or 2Ps or 4Ax (8Hd) are camp servants and home defence peasants. (Ps) are youths or smaller numbers of noted marksmen acting as bow skirmishers. (Ax) are Irish auxiliaries supplied through cousin clans and inter-family alliances.
1 x 2LH or 2Ps Pony-mounted scouts and raiders (especially in relatively arable country towards the east of Scotland; or more bow skirmishers.


This could be a beached galley (birlinn); strong stone keep (Duart Castle, Dunyvaig, Castle Sween to name just three); or a marching camp with reived cattle.

AvaIlable Figures

There is a reasonable choice in most scales, although few suitable Galloglaich figures in the larger sizes.

Irregular Miniatures have a broad selection in 6mm and 10mm. Feudal Castings has the most comprehensive range in 15mm, with every possible type represented (also Scots Common, pre-feudals, Irish and Common). There are many other ranges with at least some suitable figures, and if you are collecting in 15mm it's probably worth hunting down every figure option for maximum variety. Old Glory offers a 28mm Somerled range of 9th C. Scots.

Plastic is another serious option with the variety now on the market. The Streletz William Wallace set has excellent warband types. Many Viking types from various makers can be readily converted, and the Orion Vikings v Franks set has several more or less acceptable Galloglaich-style men. The Airfix Robin Hood set also provides plenty of options for unarmoured types.

There are excellent ranges from the best-known 25mm metal people, but at time of writing no figures for 12th to 15th century Galloglaich.

Further Reading

Highly recommended: The West Highland Galley by Denis Rixson: This book modestly claims not to be definitive, but in my opinion probably is. Highly readable and packed with detail about ship design, what the sails looked like etc; and also the whole historical context.

In the same league: Somerled: And the Emergence of Gaelic Scotland by John Marsden (Tuckwell Press): Well-written and scholarly but never dull account of the life and times of the man who wrested control of the Hebrides and the West Highlands from the Norse.

The Lord of the Isles by Ronald Williams: very readable history of the whole period, but he has to be treated with caution on specific military details, particularly in the pre-feudal era.

These three together are a first class introduction to the subject, and can be easily tracked down by web search (I tried).

Of standard wargame books, WRG's Armies of Feudal Europe and Armies of Medieval Europe have useful information and some drawings.

The original DBA 1.1 Scots Isles and Highlands article and the 2.0 Scots Common list entries also provide some obvious book choices and several useful links.

I. F. Grant's fictional account of the 15th century Lord of the Isles Angus Og has plenty of local colour and is worth trying to find via inter-library loan, etc.

There are several books on the Lordship but few that I have seen contain much in the way of military detail.

The Orkneyingsaga (Penguin paperbacks) throws some Norse perspective on the Isles.

Some of the better books of the Wars of Independence era have some detail for the Isles and Highlands campaigns - e.g. Barrow's definitive and masterly Robert The Bruce and The Community of the Realm of Scotland (Edinburgh University)

Grampian Battlefields by Peter Marren (Mercat Press) has a good general account of Harlaw, the largest battle of the period.


I've made no reference of Heraldry until now because this fabulous illustrated essay says it all. Perfect for constructing viable standards (I suggest on the crossbar model) for various factions.

This link to the Kilmartin Valley in Argyll shows some of the best-known effigial stones of Galloglaich equivalents (click on Kilmartin church on the map).

This link shows a carved panel from Rodel, Harris, 16th century (near bottom of page) - depicting a hunt in which the main man is incongruously dressed in ancient Scando-Celtic fashion - he could as easily be a well-equipped 15th century Islesman. Farther up the page is a galloglaigh axehead from Donegal.

Here are two links to the Clan Macrae site featuring accounts of the Battle of Park and a raid on Lochcarron. Not the best-known clan, Macrae nevertheless has a rip-roaring history. These two episodes are (just) out of period but give a perfect flavour of the times - dealing with a naval action and a (spectacularly unsuccessful) castle storming. Clan sites generally usually have some good general information on where clans originated, who they fought or were allied to, etc.

The Electric Scotland site has a reprint of the Conflicts of the Clans, full of sparse but inspiring accounts of murky and little-known battles in the Medieval Highlands. It also has plenty of good historical detail on the period generally, and masses of information on clans.

Fanatici Feedback

Chris Brantley: Two recent titles that are good for historical interest, although less useful for wargaming purposes, are Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era by Edward Cowen and Andrew MacDonald, eds., (Tuckwell Press, 2001) and Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland and the Middle Ages by John L. Roberts (Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1997). Slightly before period, but covering the reign of Somerled is Alba: The Gaelic Kingdom of Scotland, AD 800-1124 by Stephen Driscoll (Birlinn/Historic Scotland, 2002).

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Thanks to Roy Beers for this comprehensive essay. Comments, questions or suggested additions can be sent to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Last Updated: March 10, 2003