Thursday, 5 January 2012

Gaelic Archery

Parts of this article originally appeared in “keeping tabs” the newsletter of the Society for the Promotion of Traditional Archery (SPTA). Sources are available on request. Please contact me for further information or to use any part of the article.

With England’s illustrious history of archery it is no wonder that the archery traditions of the other members of the United Kingdom have been rather overlooked. This article looks at the rich tradition of Gaelic archery both in Ireland and the Scottish highlands. It is in part a summation of the research I have done to date, an appeal to the collected expertise of the SPTA membership for help in deciphering some of the available evidence and hopefully a means of generating interest in some of the lesser known but equally strong martial archery traditions of the British Isles.

Archery is obviously of great antiquity and Scotland can boast the oldest bow yet found in the UK, The Rotten Bottom bow, a yew flatbow apparently abandoned by a Mesolithic hunter. Our Mesolithic and (to a lesser extent) Neolithic ancestors lived by their bows and finds of their arrow heads can be found all over the country including the highlands of Scotland. However, like many Iron Age Europeans, Iron Age in habitants of Scotland and Ireland seem not to have practiced archery to any great extent. In the Gallic wars Caesar tells us thatVercingetorix called up all the archers of Gaul toward the end of the war suggesting that this was a response to the brutal total war being ought between the two cultures. Archery paraphernalia is not usually present at Iron Age “Celtic” sites and is seldom if ever depicted in art.

The Romans left evidence of their own archery use by leaving a siyah from one of their composite bows at the Antoine wall. How the Romans used a Middle Eastern sinew and horn technology in Scotland’s dreech climate is an interesting question though may be worth considering in light of the later bow technologies used.

Beyond the wall the enigmatic Picts were certainly using the bow. During the earlier fighting with the Caledonians archery is not mentioned by Tacitus or Herodian and so far no archaeology has demonstrated use of the bow. Why the bow was taken up or whether indeed it had even been abandoned is a mystery. Arrow heads have been found from Dark Age sites including a fire arrow from Dumbarton. Archers are also shown on the spectacular standing stones leading troops into battle. Crossbows also make an appearance on the stones and remains of crossbow nuts and bolt heads have been found in Pictish contexts. The crossbow appears exclusively in hunting scenes on the stones and may have been used exclusively for that purpose while the bow may have been used in a martial role. The use of the crossbow appears to disappear with the stone makers.

It’s hard to discern anything from the stones with certainty (though this seems not to deter some authors) but the bows of the Picts appear to be simple short bows.

Archery appears not to have been practiced in Ireland it would be interesting to know to what impact the cultural annexation of the Picts by the Scots (from Ireland) had on their archery tradition. Certainly archery is not mentioned in the older Gaelic stories or texts from either country and it does seem that the Gaelic archery tradition stems more from the Viking tradition than the Pictish.

The use of archery by the Vikings has been well recorded and well covered. Archery had a more significant role in their society than in other early medieval cultures. Use of the bow features prominently in their sagas and had a clear tactical use both in sea battles and on land.

The Vikings are described as using bows in the Cogad Gaidel re Galaib (an Irish tale from the Viking period) having “sharp, swift barbed murderous poisoned arrows” and “polished yellow shining bows”. This account is confirmed by the finding of hundreds of arrow heads and some bows excavated from Norse sites in Ireland including one of Europe’s finest longbows, the 10th century Ballinderry Crannog bow. The yew bow would have measured about 190cm and had slightly recurved tips, it was found amongst other Viking weaponry and whether the archer was Norse or Gaelic the bow is certainly of Viking design.

The Vikings had a profound cultural impact on Gaelic culture, it would seem that they reintroduced at least the martial use of the bow in Ireland and perhaps reprioritised it in Scotland. The Gaelic word for bow, boghan, is a Norse loan word and certainly archery is far more frequently mentioned in Gaelic sources from this period.

How far the Irish actually adopted the bow can be questioned (arrow head studies do seem to indicate the development of an indigenous tradition) as Anglo Norman archers caused considerable consternation amongst the Irish in the 12th century invasion. Giraldus reveals that about 85 percent of the forces sent to Ireland were archers. So it may be the mass, disciplined use of archers that caused the Irish so much Grief. The roughly contemporary Battle of the Standard in Scotland displays what would happen when lightly armoured Gaelic warriors came up against the embryonic English arrow storm.

The Bow was considered by the English colonists to be of enormous value and many compulsory practice laws and import taxes of bows were enacted in English-Ireland. Landowners were required to provide archers or archery material. In the 14th Century two thirds of the governor’s retinue were archers while in the 15th it was almost totally comprised of bow armed troops.

The Irish did use bows to some extent to defend themselves, the nature of military archery in Ireland may be revealed by the finding of several bows in Waterford which were made of yew and would have measured about 125cm. Clearly the Anglo Norman bow had taken over from the Viking bow as the favoured archery tradition in Ireland. To what extent English missile superiority influenced the development of Irish armies guerrilla style (described as being like “dancing” by English commanders) and ambushing tactics is an interesting question.

There is an image of Highland caterans (soldiers) from the 14th century Carlisle charter showing them carrying shortish bows similar to those found in Ireland though the image is not entirely clear (see my post on the Leine for other thoughts on this image). For the most part however the medieval Highlanders and Irish exist in the frustrating quiet of an oral culture on the rare occasions they make contact with lettered peoples their archery tradition is not generally discussed. Invariably they are described as bow armed whenever they are discussed in arms.

However from the late medieval period things start to change as the South’s influence grew in Northern Scotland and as chieftains in both Ireland and Scotland began use parchment and southern law in their petty conflicts. Slowly an image of the Gaelic people starts to form.

Men such as Buchanan, Leslie and Major discuss these “wild Scots” as an hardy yet indolent barbarian people inured to war and to the chase whose principal weapons were “bow and arrows barbed with iron” Always is the reference to the bow in both outsiders’ descriptions of them and when they talk of events befalling them to the southern government.

“They are armed with bows and arrows, a broadsword and small halbert”

“bowis, durkis, swerdis, lochaber axes, mailye coats….”

“Bow, quiver and other weapons invasive”

“Some had broad two handed swords and head pieces and others bows and arrows. When all their arrows were spent they attacked one another sword in hand”

Such accounts accord well with images of Scots highlanders or “savauge ecosse” made in the 16th and 17th centuries which show men armed in this fashion

Archery seems to have been at best fitful in Ireland but in the Scottish highlands it was a key skill for the highland warrior and significant factor in their martial culture. Stories feature many feats of archery such as Big (but dim) Archibald Macphail ending any hopes for a Menzies bridegroom consummating his marriage by hitting him square in the, er….Trossachs or James the grizzled shooting an arrow across Loch Tay. Leslie describes highlanders being able to “hit a deere in his speede”.

How the bow fitted into the context of highland military culture is unclear. Some historians keen to avoid the popular image of a warrior race depict ordinary highlanders being largely unarmed and supporting the clan gentry with archery in times of war. While this interpretation may fit in some cases it does not accord with the Gaelic stories which though surely “improved” are still largely based on real people and events. In the Gaelic tradition bows are used by all members of the warrior elite (both gentry and caterans).

This interpretation also does not fit in with some key pieces of evidence. A military census of five Athol parishes in 1638 describes of 451 men, 124 carrying both sword and targe, of this 124 54 also had musket and bow (and unlikely combination which is also shown in contemporary print) 38 were armed with muskets and 11 with bow. 21 of these men (presumably comprising the military elite) weren’t armed with a missile weapon. Of the remaining 327 who were largely armed with swords and other hand to hand weapons 5 had muskets while 73 had bows. Most eyewitnesses describe highlanders of this period to be armed, even entering church with their swords. I would conclude that the bow was a weapon of the warrior rather than a make-do weapon an improvised levy force. It may well be that because the elite of Ireland (the heavy infantry Galloglass and cavalry) were uninterested or incapable of using the bow in their battlefield role that archery was underused in Ireland.

The bow was used more as a sniping targeted weapon which fitted the looser more skirmishing warfare of the clans., Highland warriors sometimes engaged in archery duels during clan battles, exchanging impromptu Gaelic poetry before shooting at each other:
“When the Grahams came close to Tobar na Rèil, one of them shouted:
You dark Stewart of Appin!
You pale, cabbage-eating tinker!
One of the Stewarts prepared his bow and he responded with the couplet:
Just as Appin is our homeland
So it is in our nature to launch a missile.
And with that, the Stewart let his arrow fly, which went straight into the heart of the Graham man.” It’s probably better in Gaelic. However mass volleys could be used as at the battle of Auldearn in the civil war where the covenanters may have had their approach covered by arrow shot from Seaforth’s Islemen archers. Highland archers were used extensively as mercenaries in Ireland and some were even used in the thirty years war on mainland Europe.

How they were used in Europe I do not know it’s tempting to think that unsure what to do with men they must have seen as embarrassing anachronisms mainland generals had no idea how to use the highlanders. The Irish and even the lowland Scots used them mostly as skirmishers and in this role the swan song of European martial archery was an impressive one.

In 1594 a force of 2400 highlanders landed in Ireland half of them archers they did great harm to the English musketeers they skirmished with which caused a drastic rethink about abandoning the bow amongst the Anglo Irish. Scottish archers featured heavily in the 1590 Ulster wars. As at the battle of Pinkie where shot and archery were used together it was found that the archers caused more harm.

The bow was used up until the battle of Mulroy in 1688 though was still being used by the men of Glencoe at least into the 1690’s, The Governor of Inverlochy, john Hill, tried to get flintlocks (or trigger guns as the highlanders called them) for his highland troops claiming that highlanders disliked matchlocks. Certainly in the context of a fast moving warfare of raid and ambush a heavy weapon with a smouldering match might be something of a hindrance. Armour was never really a problem for missile weapons in the mountains and those fighting had high levels of individual weapon skill, being trained from the age of 10. My rather makeshift experiments have shown that a sharp broadhead shot from a hunting weight bow (55lbs) will pass through stuffed and quilted armours at close ranges. Maille is impervious to such arrows but you would certainly feel it. The wet and wild environment must also have been problematic for muskets. The bow rather than an anachronistic weapon of an impoverished people may well have been the sensible practical military option.

Having established that there was a strong tradition of military archery and before I move onto questions of bow designs we have to ask why the bow did not feature more in battles with English armies.

I think the answer may be that in a fractured, disunited nation Scottish kings (who were very keen to establish a force of archers) could never rely on having enough highlanders to make any plans about them. The Highland bows may also simply not have been powerful enough to be an effective answer to the English warbow only becoming significant in later centuries when armour and the warbow were being dropped. They may also not have been disciplined enough to make effective use of arrow storm like tactics. Where they were used effectively they were used as skirmishers as part of tactical plans which allowed or their abilities as light infantry. It may have been that Lowland Scots kings simply didn’t really now what to do with them. It does feel sometimes looking at Scotland’s battles with England that apart from one or two exceptions Scottish kings seem to have spent lots of time fitting their square peg “subjects” into the round holes of mainstream military science.

"Also their short Bows, and little Quivers, with short bearded Arrows, are very Scythian, as you may read in the same Olaus. And the same sort both of Bows, Quivers, and Arrows, are at this day to be seen commonly amongst the Northern Irish-Scots, whose Scottish Bows are ' not past three quarters of a Yard long, with a String of wreathed Hemp slackly bent, and whose Arrows are not much above half an Ell long, tipped with steel Heads, made like common broad Arrow Heads, but much more sharp and slender ; that they enter into a Man or Horse most cruelly notwithstanding that they are shot forth weakly".

A View of the State of Ireland as it was in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth: by Edmund Spenser

Every image of Scots or Irish from the 16th-17th century shows a bow that would fit this description. To me this is the interesting thing about Gaelic archery; they really do seem to have been using a very different type of bow and not one we would associate with this part of the world.

lubadh iubhar nam meall, 's neo-mhiughar e.
who would stretch the YEW BOW-not stingy is he.

From a 17th century poem ascribed to
Ailean MacGhilleasbuig of Glencoe.

Examining prints one can clearly make out lines on the bows though whether this marks laminations, backing or the differentia between heart and sapwood I cannot say. I have been unable to find any info from Scottish museums which is a great shame and I would welcome any and all input from bowyers about these bow’s construction. I recently met a bowyer who makes yew bows (from British yew) which match the bows depicted in contemporary sources. He said it was a fairly easy matter to steam bend the stave to achieve the recurve.

Often one hears that the Highlanders were using “longbows” to the layman there is little difference between bows and the word longbow and bow are used interchangeably. The other problem is that anyone who owns a bow is immediately an “expert” in the field. Most archery events have a decent amount of beardy-wierdies spouting mostly made up drivel about archery forms or practice. It’s almost about bad as re-enacting! What I’m getting at is look at the evidence don’t trust any “experts” opinion on the subject. Contrary to the widely held conviction owning or even shooting a bow, owning/using a sword or dressing up as a Knight does not automatically confer any knowledge of the subject to the individual. By way of illustration a well known expert on Highland culture wrote that arrow heads were fixed onto shafts horizontally for men and vertically for animals do account for the passing through the ribs. Beyond the obvious fact that arrows can be shot from nearly any angle I did point out that arrows spin in flight and indeed this can not only be seen by the archer but in making the arrows this spin must be accounted for. In other words they may have done this but would have known it made no difference. An expert passed this nonsense off on me as fact!

Recurved bows were used world wide from Egypt to the Arctic recurves produces a faster (and therefore flatter and more accurate) shot more suited to the hunt or skirmish and is more prudent with wood (remember the English had to import bow timber in the medieval period. A longbow shoots an arrow at 150 fps (50 lb 28” draw 500 grain arrow) while a recurve (idem) shoots the arrow at 165 fps. 50 lbs is an arguable (like bloody everything in archery) average hunting weight but will send an arrow through any living target within 30 meters.

If recurves are so good why didn’t the English use them? Recurved tips are found in English warbows, but I would argue the main reason is that the warbow was designed for a different role. One can see from the tests that the SPTA did with Mark Stretton that the fps of the arrows he was shooting were about 140-150 which is roughly the same as any longbow. The difference is that he was sending arrows that weight 6oz! The English warbow was used as a mass employed hammer to pound (armoured) enemy armies to pieces before the knights and men at arms engaged. In talking to (actual) expert Hilary Greenland she told me that the longbow had considerable cast and was superb for long range engagements. The warbow had to have a draw weight of at least 100 lbs to send a heavy arrow a long distance. Something harder to achieve in a shorter recurve (not composite) without superb wood, it is at the end of the day the arrow which kills not the bow.

Momentum being the lethal factor in arrows I will give you the momentum for both a recurve shooting a 500 grain arrow and warbow launching a 6oz monster at you. I will also include energy as I am not sure how penetration would work against armour.

A 500 grain arrow shot at 150 fps has a momentum value of 3264 and carries 24.5 foot pounds of energy a 6oz arrow shot at the same speed has a momentum value of 17340 and carries 130.35 foot pounds. for comparison .22lr 38 grain 1050 fps 69 ftlb (100yd) 2. 46 grams 715.9 mph (stats off the ammo box) momentum 1761.114. At long range the energy seems to leave arrows and they almost flutter to the earth. A heavy arrow will still present a threat by virtue of its weight and would still be a hazard to the unarmoured or lightly armoured. Of course I have used the same speed measurement for both arrows here for ease of comparison; the advantage of the recurve comes from its speed and slightly greater accuracy. Characteristics which are of value to closer range use.

I have found one image of a Highlander carrying a bow that we could describe as a longbow, here is a quote from a man called Joh Taylor 1633 “Now, their weapons are long bowes and forked arrowes, swords and targets, harquebusses, muskets, durks, and Loquhabor-ases. With these arms I found many of them armed for the hunting” From the Rev. James Brome “their weapons against their enemies are bows and arrows, and they are generally reputed good marksmen upon all occasions. Their arrows for the most part are barbed and crooked, which once entered within the body, cannot well be drawn out again unless the wound be made wider.”

I think on balance it is best to arm our cateran with a shorter recurved bow in yew or a “white wood”, that nearly all members of a war party would be armed with bows save perhaps chiefs or other Gentlemen. While some men may have been armed with “longbows” contemporary evidence (admittedly later than the medieval period) suggests that recurved bows were the norm.

I hope it has demonstrated the diversity and depth of The British tradition of martial archery, which has got to be one of the most dynamic and diverse in the world. This article is just the tip of the iceberg there is lots to be done in the rather overlooked area of British archery and there are far more questions than answers.


  1. The bow used by Mark in the tests you speak on was quite inefficient. I'm not sure if there was something wrong with his chronograph but the numbers put up are superbly bad. English longbows typically shoot faster than 150 fps at 10 gpp because of the long draw. Tests done with Simon Stanley using a 150 lb bow reveal that a 1480 grain arrow (9.86 gpp) was shot at 174 fps. These bows suffer with lighter arrows but the bow also shot a 827 grain arrow (5.51 gpp) at ~210 fps. Great article, Thanks!

    1. Hi, I didn;t see this tweet, and yes I have to see them, blogger doesn't notify me. Thanks for your kind words, and for the interesting information. That is a good fast arrow at 174fps. Looks like there is lots of good stuff coming out of the warbow resurgence.