What is a “Claymore”?

Is this a "claymore"? Short answer: no, it is not. It is a very nice sword, nonetheless. Photo by Søren Niedziella from Albion Europe ApS.

Is this a “claymore”?
Short answer: no, it is not.
Nonetheless, it is a very pretty sword.
Photo by Søren Niedziella from Albion Europe ApS.

 

A question that appears regularly is “what is a claymore?” There is a persistent misunderstanding about what the term means, where it comes from, and to which sword it refers.

This blog article will attempt to provide some answers and to be an easy point of reference whenever the subject is discussed.

Simple summary

The word “claymore” refers to the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword, not to the two-handed sword that many people erroneously assume is the subject of the term.[1] The earliest recorded usage of the term “claymore” was in relation to the broadsword,[2] and this tended to persist until the 19th century.

Sometimes the Victorians would refer to the Scottish two-handed sword as a “claymore”,[3] but the Scots themselves did not call it by this name during the time of its use.

Fencing treatises?

In the original fencing treatises (dating from the 17th to 19th centuries[4]) that we use in the study of historical fencing, the term “claymore” is not used in reference to any weapon.[5] The treatises tend to specify the broadsword, sabre, spadroon, or smallsword, and there are no British fencing treatises after George Silver’s[6] that deal with two-handed longswords.

Descriptions of the Highlanders

Around the year 1715, Sir Humphrey Colquhoun was summoned by the British government to deal with Rob Roy Macgregor and a band of raiders. His party of men was described as being well armed in the following fashion:

On the evening of that day the crews in the pinnaces came on shore at Luss, where they were joined by Sir Humphrey Colquhoun, and his son-in-law Grant of Pluscardine, “followed by forty or fifty stately fellows in their short hose and belted plaids, armed each of them with a well-fixed gun on his shoulder, a strong handsome target, with a sharp-pointed steel, of above half an ell in length, screwed into the navel of it, on his left arm, a sturdy claymore by his side, and a pistol or two, with a dirk and knife by his side.”[7]

The description includes the term “claymore”, and in this time period it would be the basket-hilted broadsword that would have been worn by the men of Colquhoun’s party.

A description of the soldiers of the Black Watch at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745 stated that:

The whole regiment carried claymores in addition to their muskets, and to these weapons every soldier added, if he chose, a dirk, skene, pair of pistols, and target, in the fashion of the Highlands; thus our front rank men were usually as fully equipped as any that stepped on the muir of Culloden.[8]

The soldiers of the Black Watch carried the basket-hilted broadsword, not the two-handed longsword.[9] The word “claymore” in this passage therefore refers to the broadsword.

The “Highland Charge” was a famous tactic of the Highlanders in the 17th and 18th centuries. An account of the charge is described in Peter Harrington’s book on the subject, although unfortunately the description is attributed to any particular person or source:

When descending to battle, [the Highlander] was to place his bonnet on his head with an emphatic “scrugg”; his second, to cast off or throw back his plaid; his third to incline his body horizontally forward, cover it with his targe, rush to within 50 paces of the enemy’s line, discharge and drop his fusee or musket; his fourth to dart within 12 paces, discharge and fling his claw-butted steel stocked pistols at the foeman’s head; his fifth to draw his claymore and dirk at him![10]

Again, at this period in time, the Highlanders would have carried the basket-hilted broadsword rather than a two-handed sword. Therefore, the usage of the word “claymore” in this passage refers to the broadsword.

Battlecries

The Highland Regiments sometimes used the phrase “dirk and claymore” as a battlecry, recorded at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745,[11] and at the siege of Fort du Quesne in 1758.[12] The soldiers in these regiments did not carry longswords,[13] so again the term “claymore” even in the battlecry must refer to the basket-hilted broadsword.

What about the two-handed sword?

The Scots did have two-handed swords, and these were often called “twa-handit swords” or the “halflang”, as some of them could be used either one-handed or two-handed as required.[14]

Although there is a romantic notion that the Highlander armed with a claymore would in fact have a two-handed sword, this is wrong. The two-handed swords were more popular in Scotland before the basket-hilted broadsword became ubiquitous; as the broadsword developed in popularity, the two-handed sword waned. By the time of the Jacobite uprisings, the two-handed sword would have been a rare sight on the battlefield.

In the 19th century, a couple of books described the two-handed sword as a “claymore”, and even suggested a manner of use based on the modified Liechtenauer method of Andre Paurn?feyndt, from 1516.[15] I present my thoughts on this matter in my book Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick, published by Fallen Rook Publishing in 2014. If you would like to know more about the details of these claims, and why they are problematic, please investigate my book. Proceeds from sales go towards funding projects like this blog, and also towards producing further research and publications!

book cover
(Available to purchase through the Corsair’s Wares online store.)

Conclusion

The word “claymore” normally refers to the basket-hilted broadsword. Sometimes in the 19th century and in more recent times, it has been used incorrectly to refer to the Scottish two-handed sword.

There are many different sources from the 16th century through to the 19th century that provide further examples. This article has highlighted only a few such examples – there are many more if you read historical books and accounts.

I hope this article has been helpful and that it provides enough evidence in a scholarly fashion to confront and defeat the misconceptions surrounding the word “claymore”. Please share it with any of your friends who might be confused!

Footnotes

[1] Fergus Cannan. Scottish Arms and Armour. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2009. Page 88.

[2] Christopher Scott Thompson. Highland Broadsword: Lessons, Drills, and Practices. Boulder: Paladin Press, 2010. Page 4.

[3] Charles Niven McIntyre North. The Book of the Club of True Highlanders. Vol. II, London: C.N. McIntyre North, 1881.

[4] Although there were of course fencing treatises written before the 17th century and into the 20th century, the textbooks of interest to a study of these Scottish weapons would come from within this time period.

[5] And if the term does appear in a fencing treatise, I would appreciate being corrected on this statement.

[6] George Silver. Paradoxes of Defence. 1599.

[7] John Parker Lawson. Historical Tales of the Wars of Scotland. Vol. 1, Edinburgh: A. Fullerton, 1839. Page 186.

[8] James Grant. Legends of the Black Watch. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1859. Page 48.

[9] David Stewart. Sketches of The Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland; with details of The Military Service of the Highland Regiments. Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co, 1825. Part 3, “Section I – Black Watch.”

[10] Peter Harrington. Culloden 1746: The Highland Clans’ Last Charge. London: Osprey, 1991. Page 40.

[11] James Grant. Legends of the Black Watch. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1859. Page 65.

[12] James Grant. Legends of the Black Watch. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1859. “The Lost Regiment – A Love Story.”

[13] W.A. Thorburn. Uniform of the Scottish Infantry: 1740 to 1900. Edinburgh: Scottish United Museum Service, 1970. Not a single illustration depicts a two-handed sword; every illustration of a sword shows a broadsword, sabre or spadroon.

[14] Fergus Cannan. Scottish Arms and Armour. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2009. Pages 30-31.

[15] Keith Farrell. Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2014. Pages 97-98.

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