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Title: Highland Targets and Other Shields
Author: Drummond, James, 1869-1940
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  R.S.A., F.S.A. SCOT.



_Read before the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, April 1871._

_The_ FIFTY COPIES _now printed for private circulation contain additional
matter, with different and more numerous illustrations._

There is a class of Scottish antiquities to which hitherto comparatively
little attention has been paid by the archæologist. I mean the warlike
weapons, offensive and defensive, of our Highland forefathers, many of
which were used down to a comparatively recent period. Of these weapons
much ignorance seems to prevail even among the Highlanders themselves, who
almost invariably answer inquiries as to their age, that they had no doubt
they had been used from time immemorial.

In England, and on the Continent, much interest has been taken in the
study of arms and armour. On the Continent, the books are endless; in
England there are the works of Meyrick, Grose, and Skelton, with Boutell’s
“Monumental Brasses and Slabs,” and others of a kindred nature, all
showing how much instruction may be gained by such inquiries when followed
out in a proper spirit. In Scotland, we certainly have M‘Ian’s
“Highlanders,” and the “Costume of the Clans” by John and Charles Sobieski
Stuart, both admirable works, but treating more of dress than of the
armour and weapons, which, though alluded to, can scarcely be said to be
illustrated, and without delineation they are almost valueless, as so
much, in these weapons, depends upon the ornamental detail for character.

At present I wish to call attention only to one of these Highland weapons,
the _Targaid_ or Target. No weapon of war has, at different periods and
among different nations, assumed so many forms as the shield. It was
square, oblong, and kite-shaped. The brass mounting of one of the last
form, which was found under 6 feet of moss on the hill of Benibreae, in
Lochaber, with other brass ornaments for a shield or armour, shown in the
accompanying woodcuts, has been deposited in our Museum by Cluny
Macpherson, Castle Cluny. The shield assumed a variety of other forms, it
was triangular, crescent, and fiddle-shaped, concave and convex; it was
hollow and fluted, also oval and circular, varying in size from being
large enough to protect the whole body to the small mediæval hand shield,
which was no larger than the iron or bronze boss of the Scandinavian or
Anglo-Saxon shield. During the 15th and 16th century, a sort of tilting
shield was introduced; it was made to fit the shoulder, sometimes covering
the chin also, and was screwed to the armour. I have one of these, which
is cross-barred lozenge-ways, and between the spaces is elaborately

[Illustration: Elongated Bent Plate of Thin Brass, 25 inches long, and
Circular Plate, 13 inches diameter, with Boss of Thin Brass, 8 inches
long, found at Benibreae.]

The circular and oval forms seem to have been the most common and the most
continuous in their use, and it is with these we have at present to do.
The round shield was an early Greek, Etruscan, and Roman form, it was also
used by the Assyrian, Mexican, and Indian nations, and is still used by
many of the savage tribes of Africa. On the Trajan column, both the Romans
and Dacians, again, have them nearly all of an oval form, while on the
Roman sculptured stone found near Carriden,[1] Linlithgowshire, the
ancient Britons have them of an oblong-square, with a boss in the centre,
while the Roman soldier’s is of an oval shape. With one of this form,
convex and radiating from the central umbo, a Roman soldier is armed on a
bas-relief found at Housesteads, Northumberland[2]. The Scandinavian and
British shield of bronze was circular, and was chased or struck up in the
metal itself, generally having a large boss in the centre, with a series
of concentric circles, between which the space was filled up with rows of
small nail-head-like studs. Those found at Yetholm,[3] and now in our
Museum, are beautiful specimens of this class. They have also been found
in Ireland, and one very similar to these last, but with fewer circles,
was this year got in Lough Gur, County Limerick. Occasionally there are
more large bosses than the central one, these again surrounded by smaller
studs in rows. Of this variety there are good specimens in the British and
Copenhagen Museums. Underneath the central boss is the handle.

[Illustration: Handle and Studs of Bronze Shields.]

On many of the early sculptured stones in the north-eastern counties of
Scotland, such shields are represented, but whether of bronze or wood it
is impossible to say. On a stone at Benvie, a figure on horseback has a
shield having a central boss with a series of concentric circles, and
figures on the cross near Dupplin Castle have the same; these may be of
bronze, such as the Yetholm specimens, while, on a fragment from Dull,
Perthshire, now in the Museum, figures are represented having shields with
a large central and four smaller bosses. A figure is represented on the St
Andrew’s sarcophagus carrying a shield of an oval form, which has the
narrow ends hollowed out, and a large central boss. On the Irish crosses
such shields are also figured. On one of these in the street of Kells,
county Meath, a battle is represented, the combatants on one side having
simple round shields and swords, while the others are armed with spears
and shields having an enormous spike or pointed boss, of which there is
also one on a fragment at Jarrow, Durham. The shields of the chiefs,
sculptured on their tombstones in the West Highlands, seem invariably of a
triangular form, and on one slab alone, at Kilmory, Knapdale, does the
shield seem circular. I should suppose, however, that the wooden shield
was more common than the bronze one, from the immense number of bosses
which have been found all over the country, the wood having rotted away,
leaving the bosses which are of iron or bronze. The iron specimens had
often a bronze rim; occasionally they were plated with silver, and in some
rare cases overlaid with a thin plating of gold.

[Illustration: Fragment of Dull Cross.]

[Illustration: Sarcophagus at St Andrew’s.]

[Illustration: West Highland Chief.]

During the excavations in the peat mosses of Thorsbjerg and Nydam, in
South Jutland or Slesvig, under the sanction of the Danish government, and
conducted by Conrad Engelhardt, between the years 1858 and 1863, remains
of wooden shields were found in great abundance, these being thin boards
varying in breadth from 3 to 9 inches, the average thickness ½ to ¾ of an
inch. Although hundreds of these were found, only three complete shields
could be made up. The diameter seems to have been from 22 to 44 inches; in
the centre was the opening across which the handle was placed, over this
opening was fixed the metal boss or umbo; on one piece only was found the
remains of leather, the outer rim seems to have been protected by an
edging of bronze. Occasionally the shields were highly ornamental, from
having thin plates of bronze, cut into a sort of heraldic-looking pattern,
riveted to them.

Numerous iron and bronze bosses have been found in Anglo-Saxon graves,
and to judge from the length of the rivets to attach these, the shields
were ½-inch thick, in this respect resembling the Scandinavian specimens.
One was found in Yorkshire in a perfect state, having a bronze boss and a
metal rim. We are told of a king of the Goths in the year 553, the
supposed age of these Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon shields, who, standing
in the front of his band of warriors, received so many of the Roman
javelins in his shield, which thus became so heavy that he was unable to
hold it up, and was killed while his attendant was changing it for
another. From this it would seem that the shield must, sometimes at least,
have been of stronger material than those found in England or Slesvig.

[Illustration: Wooden Shield, found in Blair-Drummond Moss.]

The reading of this incident suggested to me that there was in our Museum
the pieces of some circular object, very much decayed, and called in the
old catalogue a wooden wheel, but, from the loose way in which the pieces
were put together, it was difficult to say what it had been. On examining
it, Mr Anderson and I were certain it could not have been a wheel, seeing
that when it was carefully put together it was oval. I was now confirmed
in my conjecture that it had been a shield, there being enough to show
that the centre had been hollowed out for the handle, which, being raised
on the outside, would form the boss. It, and part of another, were found
in Blair-Drummond Moss, and presented to the Museum by the late Henry Home
Drummond, Esq. The fragments of another were found in the same moss in
1831: and, somewhere near it, a mortar or hand-mill, fashioned from the
section of an oak; “there were also some flint arrow heads.” Fortunately
for comparison, a perfect specimen has been found since in Ireland, in the
parish of Kiltubride, county Leitrim; it is 26½ inches long by 21 inches
broad, and half an inch thick. Besides the boss, which is perfect and 3
inches high, there are seven slightly raised concentric circles, the whole
carved out of one piece of wood, in this respect differing from the
Blair-Drummond one, which is composed of three pieces most ingeniously put
together by two mortises through the whole breadth, into which are put two
pieces of wood about 2 inches broad and half an inch thick, these not only
holding it together but preventing warping, while the centre is a solid
piece of wood hollowed out for the hand, and is 7½ inches in diameter, the
two edges gradually bevelled up to make them join firmly. The shield is 2
feet long, 1 foot 7 inches broad, and at the thickest part 1¾ inch, and
gradually thinning towards the outer edge, where it is about 1 inch. From
this it will be seen that such a weapon in the hands of a powerful man who
could use it would be an admirable defence, as in the case of the king of
the Goths. Certainly shields of wood, half an inch thick, such as those
found in Jutland and England (and the same may be said of the Irish one),
would have been quite useless against the Roman javelins; and even Mr
Engelhardt was puzzled how they could have been kept together to be
effective, seeing he only found in one piece out of the hundreds any trace
of dowelling.

[Illustration: Section of Wooden Shield.]

There can be no doubt that the Highland target is the traditional
continuation of these early bronze and wooden shields, which evidently
were the successors of the Cetra, or small round shield made from the skin
of some animal, and mentioned by Tacitus as having been used by the
Britons and also by the Mauritanians, who, he says, made it of elephants’
skin. These must have resembled the shields used by some of the African
tribes and North American Indians at the present day. They are almost
invariably made of wood and covered with leather, the instances to the
contrary, when they have been made of iron or steel, being the mere whims
of individuals. One such is represented in the portrait of the Hon. James
Campbell, son of John Lord Glenorchy (1708); another, having a formidable
spike, is in my own possession,[4] and resembles one I have seen, said to
have been used by an Earl of Marr, but there is nothing whatever of
Highland character about them, being simply the iron or steel target
formerly used in other European countries, which were occasionally
embossed and engraved in a most elaborate manner. One of these, of Italian
workmanship, is preserved in our Museum, having on it a classical subject
in high relief, of the best style of this art during the 16th century. A
curious Dutch shield of iron, belonging to Mr Charles Lees, R.S.A.,[4] is
convex and covered with large bosses, some round and some of triangular
form. It looks like a pageant shield.

The leather of the Highland shield is very generally embossed with Celtic
ornamentation,--a sort of repoussé work, in the form of the twisted
interlacing ribbon pattern, with scroll leafage filling up odd corners of
the design, and now and then rude attempts at animals.[5] On one belonging
to Sir J. Noel Paton there is a galley, a fish, and a nondescript kind of
animal; and among those in the Museum is one with birds and grotesque
animals surrounding its outer margin, sometimes initials and a date, the
whole design divided by concentric circles of brass nails and bosses, the
latter often engraved; in this style of ornament they resemble the early
bronze shields, with their bosses and smaller studs; sometimes they are
bound by a brass or steel rim.

[Illustration: Boss.]

[Illustration: Boss.]

Occasionally the shield was converted into a formidable weapon of offence
by having a strong and long pike screwed into the centre. This can easily
be understood when the manner of fighting adopted by the Highlanders is
considered. On approaching the enemy, “after discharging their pieces,
they threw them away, as was their custom, drew their broadswords,” raised
their targets, and rushed forward before the smoke had cleared away,
generally scattering their opponents by the fury and impetuosity of their
attack, as was the case at Killiecrankie, Prestonpans, and other
engagements. In the coat of arms granted to M‘Pherson of Clunie in 1672,
and emblazoned upon the green banner of the clan, the supporters are two
Highlanders dressed as they fought at the Battle of the Shirts--each is
armed with a shield having this long spike. Rae also tells us, in his
history of the Rebellion in 1715, that the Laird of Luss joined the
Highland host followed by “forty or fifty stately fellows, in their hose
and belted plaids, armed each of them with a well-fixed gun on their
shoulders, a strong handsome target, with a sharp-pointed steel of about
half an ell in length screwed into the navel of it,” &c. These targets
generally have so much similarity in design, that we cannot help thinking
they must have been made at one place in great quantities. In the
specimens figured by Skelton, Logan, and Dr Stuart, this likeness is very

The question naturally suggests itself, Where were these made? As a rule,
not in the Highlands; my own opinion being that, for the West Highlands,
at all events, they were made in Glasgow. In confirmation of this opinion,
my friend the late Joseph Robertson told me that, in the MS. account of
one of Queen Mary’s masques, Highlanders are mentioned as appearing in
their native dress of skins, and having Glasgow targets. Mr Dickson was
kind enough to make search for this, but did not succeed in finding it,
although he also thinks he saw it somewhere taken notice of.

Nothing is more difficult than to assign dates to Highland weapons of
almost any sort, from the retention of forms and styles of ornamentation
of a very early, down to a comparatively recent period, unless the weapon
bears undoubted evidence of antiquity. Now and then a date is found upon
Highland Targets, and by comparison of design and workmanship a date may
be given to others of similar manufacture. Sometimes again, when the
history of a particular target is known, it may be of no value whatever in
determining the date of others which may have been used at the same time;
such a one is at Cluny Castle, said to have been the property of Prince
Charles Edward, but unfortunately it is of French manufacture, and has
nothing whatever of Celtic character about it; instead of the usual
decorations, it has patches of silver chasing in the form of warlike
weapons and emblems, while at the centre, in the place of a boss, is a
chasing in relief of the Medusa’s head. In the armoury at Warwick Castle
was a rival shield of similar design, also said to have been used by the
Prince. This was unfortunately destroyed during the fire at the castle in

The same difficulty as to date is experienced with Scandinavian weapons of
various sorts, and is well illustrated in a quaint kind of powder-horns,
very antique in design, on which are carved a series of the heroes of
antiquity, each armed with a circular shield, which at first sight looks
very like the Highland target; but on examination it has a large central
boss, with a series of studs between it and the rim, not unlike bronze
specimens in the Museum at Copenhagen, like these also in having only one
handle. I have two powder-horns of this kind, on one of which the date is
only 1739; while on the other, which is evidently of an earlier period,
there seems a fringe of some kind round the outer rim of all the shields.

In the quaint account of the Duke of Somerset’s “Expedicion into
Scotlande” in 1547, “Set out by way of Diarie, by W. Patten,” there is
notice taken of the “Targetts” used by some of the Scots at the disastrous
battle of Pinkie. “Nye this place of onset, whear the Scottes, at their
runynge awey, had let fall their weapons (as I sayd) thear found we,
bysyde their common maner of armour, certyn nice instrumentes for war (as
we thought). And they wear, nue boordes endes cut of, being about a foot
in breadth, and half a yarde in leangth; hauyng on the insyde, handels
made very cunnynly of ii cordes endes: These a Gods name wear their
targetts again the shot of our small artillerie, for they wear not able to
hold out a canon. And with these, found we great rattels, swellyng bygger
than the belly of a pottell pot, coouered with old parchement or dooble
papers, small stones put in them to make noys, and set vpon the end of a
staff of more then twoo els long, and this was their fyne deuyse to fray
our horses when our horsmen shoulde cum at them: Howbeeit bycaus the
ryders wear no babyes, nor their horses no colts, they coold neyther
duddle the tone nor fray the toother: so that this pollecye was as witles
as their pour forcedes.” The above must not be looked upon as the ordinary
military shield, but rather as an extemporised makeshift to answer the
same purpose, by the irregular troops got together so hurriedly and with
so much difficulty by the governor, the Earl of Arran, who had recourse
to the desperate measure of sending the Fiery Cross through the country to
raise the army. This old Celtic and Scandinavian custom was, even by these
nations, only used in cases of eminent peril; but when this Cross, the:--

  “Dread messenger of fate and fear,
  Stretched onward in its fleet career,
  The fisherman forsook the strand,
  The swarthy smith took dirk and brand;
  With changed cheer, the mower blithe
  Left in the half-cut swathe the scythe;
  The herds without a keeper stray’d,
  The plough was in mid-furrow staid,
  The falc’ner tossed his hawk away,
  The hunter left the stag at bay;
  Prompt at the signal of alarms,
  Each son of Alpine rushed to arms.”[6]

And so it was on this occasion; the summons was at once obeyed, and a
motley, undisciplined, and poorly-armed crowd were assembled, but
unfortunately, not like the Highlanders, who were accustomed to the almost
daily use of their weapons. I have given the whole paragraph from Patten’s
diary, as it clearly shows that both the “Targetts and Rattells,” from the
primitive nature of their construction, had been hastily made up, and were
not “their common maner of armour.” Something of the same sort may be
alluded to in a description of the armour of the Highlanders to be found
in the Wodrow MSS. under date 1678, where they are mentioned as carrying
“targets and shields of the most odde and antique forme.” The _shields_
here referred to may have been like the “nue boordes endes cut of,” &c.,
and used by the poorer clansmen.

[Illustration: Handles and Arm straps of Highland Targets.]

Of late years, from the great scarcity of genuine targets, imitation ones
have been much manufactured for the purpose of making up Highland
trophies, but these have entirely failed in the embossing of the leather
and engraving of the studs, where that has been attempted. This scarcity
has been caused by the severe manner in which the disarming acts of 1746
were enforced; and Boswell, describing in 1773 the armour at Dunvegan
Castle, says--“There is hardly a target now to be found in the Highlands.
After the disarming act they made them serve as covers to their
butter-milk barrels.” By this means, no doubt, a number would be
preserved. In other places, again, where the target was a fine one, and
cared for by the family, the embossed leather cover, the really valuable
part, seems to have been taken off and rolled up, in which state it would
easily be concealed. This appears to have been the case with the one to
which I would specially call attention.[7] It was brought from the island
of Skye many years ago, and is not only different from the ordinary
specimens in beauty and symmetry of design, which is worked out in a
different and more artistic manner, but is also peculiar from having
embossed at its centre the heraldic cognisance of the Lord of the Isles,
of which Nesbit says, “The Macdonalds of the Isles carried, as in our old
books, a double-headed eagle displayed.” Its diameter is one foot eight
inches, which is the average size of the Highland target. It must not be
thought that leather and leather-covered targets were peculiar to the
Highlands in mediæval times; they were common in most European countries;
Spain, in particular, was famous for them, and it may not be improbable
that this was made in that country for one of the Macdonald chiefs, there
having been a great traffic between the West Highlands and Spain, hides
being exchanged for armour of all sorts, swords in particular. Spencer
also speaks, in his “View of the State of Ireland,” 1586, of the Northern
Irish, especially of the Scots, as having round leather targets, often
coloured in rude fashion. In this respect they differ from those of our
Highlanders, as I am not aware of theirs ever having been painted,
although the open work of the brass ornamentation was frequently filled in
with leather or cloth of a bright colour. At the present day shields of
buffalo hide or other strong leather are in use among many of the oriental
nations; they are circular and almost invariably convex, the edges turned
up towards the front, and are often most gorgeously emblazoned in gold and
colour, having bosses of brass, silver, or even gold. In the Society’s
Museum are several fine specimens; one of these has an elaborate pattern
in relief upon it, painted in purple and gold, while another has an
ornamental design painted upon it in green and gold. Among the native
tribes of Africa they are also used, being generally made from the skin of
the rhinoceros, and by the Kaffirs of an oval shape, and so large that
they act as a protection for the whole body; while the Fans use them of
many forms manufactured from elephant skin. The Nubians sometimes make
them of crocodile’s skin, to which they attach much value. The shield of
the Abyssinian is convex, and made of buffalo hide with bosses of silver
or brass. Among some of the North American Indians they are also common.
The Highland target differs from those of the early Britons and
Scandinavians in having one or two arm-straps, and occasionally an
arm-piece of leather, as well as a handle; the very early shields of
bronze or wood, only having a handle below the central boss. The back of
these targets is almost invariably covered with deer skin, below which is
stuffing of some sort to deaden the effect of a blow upon the arm. On the
Trajan column all the shields seem to have the double arrangement, while
the Greeks used an arm-piece and a handle towards the rim.




This Target is covered with strong black leather, the Celtic ornamentation
on it, which is highly artistic in character, being embossed in delicate
relief, with the spaces around the pattern carefully and closely etched
with a sharp point in a sort of endless cross-hatching, thus producing a
dim flattened surface, and giving value to the raised design, which almost
entirely covers the surface, leaving no space for any of the brass
decorations so common on Highland targets. In the centre is the double
headed eagle of the Macdonalds Lords of the Isles.




The two first are in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries. The one is
of an early type and is bound with brass. On the outer circle of the
design is stamped a series of rude attempts at birds. It originally has
had a spike. The same class of ornamentation having been in use with
little variation from an early period, it is no easy matter to affix dates
to Highland and Scandinavian weapons of any sort, in such a specimen as
this, however, age is unmistakeable. The second is of a pattern not
unusual, with mountings of large bosses and triangular decorations of
brass. The third is of chaste and symmetrical design, and the last is
curious, from having worked upon it initials and a date as part of the
pattern--D. M‘L. 1723.

[Illustration: HIGHLAND TARGETS.]



The first is elaborate and uncommon in the design upon the leather, and is
more than usually rich in the variety of its brass decoration, it has
originally had a large central boss. This fine specimen was the family
target of the Campbells of Jura, and now belongs to Mr Gourlay Steell,
R.S.A. The others are very good illustrations of the ordinary class of Old
Highland targets.

[Illustration: HIGHLAND TARGETS.]



The large shield is one of two found in 1837, during drain-making
operations near Yetholm, they are nearly similar in size and pattern.
Shortly after they were found, the gentleman to whom they belonged
exhibited them at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries; but after his
death, they seem to have been so little cared for, that they were thrown
into a garret with other lumber, of the antiquarian kind, and when the
establishment was broken up, were bought with the rest as a _speculative
lot_ of Chinese curiosities for a few shillings; but the purchaser
fortunately offered them for sale at the Museum. This is a good
illustration how many valuables of this kind go amissing or find their way
to the melting-pot. Since then another was turned up in Yetholm Bog by a
ploughman. Such shields have been found in England and Wales as well as in
Scotland. In Ireland they are more rare, and among these few the plate
represents one lately got in Lough Gur, County Limerick.




The first is a shield of crocodile’s skin from Nubia, when made of this
material they were very highly prized by the natives, and consequently not
often met with in collections. This specimen is in the Antiquarian Museum.
They were oftener made from hippopotamus skin. The next is oriental and of
buffalo hide, and below it is a Dutch or German shield of iron on a strong
framework of wood, the iron covering having a series of triangular studs
struck up on its surface, while a number of circular pointed ones are
rivetted on it, surrounding the large central boss. The other is a steel
or iron shield of a class sometimes shewn in Scotland as Highland, but in
reality the same as were used in other European countries.

[Illustration: _Circular Shields._]



This splendid slab was found in 1868 on a rocky promontory within ten
yards of the sea, close by the harbour of Bridgeness, Linlithgowshire, it
was face down, and covered by about two feet of soil. It is divided into
three panels, the centre one being an inscription dedicatory to their
emperor by the second legion on the completion of a portion of the wall of
Antoninus, about A.D. 150. The panel to the right of the inscription has
sculptured on it a Roman soldier, having a rounded shield with boss,
galloping over some of the natives, who have oblong square shields with
circular bosses. On the other is a group by an altar. This interesting
relic was presented to the Antiquarian Museum by Harry Cadell, of Grange,



[1] Plate VI.

[2] Museum of the Antiquaries.

[3] Plate IV.

[4] Plate V.

[5] Plates II., III.

[6] Lady of the Lake.

[7] Plate I.

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