Swords MacLeods would actually have used

Despite the popularity (and ’80s awesomeness) of the Highlander franchise, katanas were not common in the West Highlands and Islands. There were some distinctly ethnographic swords for the region, however. berserker

Starting at the close of the Viking age in Scotland, around the time of the founder Leod’s lifetime through his grandsons, Arms would have been of the sort of the late Viking period that would have been obsolete everywhere else. The Lewis chessmen from the 1200s show round and flat-topped kite shields, and Viking-style swords that were common 200 years earlier in Normandy and England.

Kite axe sword.jpg

Kite-Shaped shields had replaced the earlier classic Viking round shields as they protected the legs better.  Swords of the late viking type called Gaddjahalts “spike-hilts” evolved on the continent into the classic knightly cruciform sword. In the West Highlands, swords often kept the tea-cosy and lobate pommel shapes of much earlier swords and gradually started to sweep the spike hilt forward into a unique “V” shape.

1498 Lewis Chief

MacLeod of Lewis 1498


Reproduction Halflang

This is an example of a Claidheamh da Fhaobair “Two-Edged Sword”, these examples have grips long enough to get a second hand onto the pommel when needed, and were also known as Halflangs, “Half-Long (Grip) Swords”

The single-hand and half-lang swords of this type would be the primary sort of sword used by MacLeods from about 1300 up until about the year 1500.

Continental Longswords (Swords capable of fitting two hands on the grip, but not requiring two hands to wield) also show up in the record, with distinct Highland characteristics in the hits such as quatrefoil terminals on the guard. The tomb of Alastair Crotach MacLeod in Rodel, Harris shows such a Longsword on his effigy. You can tell it is not a true two handed sword, as the guard only comes up to his waist, so it could be worn and drawn from the belt easily, and used in the same manner as Longswords and Bastard swords.


Alasdair Crotach MacLeod 1547

After 1500, the large swords used on the continent began to be adopted by Highlanders, although slightly shorter in length than their German and Swiss Zweihander Schlachterschwert “Two Handed Slaughter Sword”, Spanish/Portugese Montante, and Italian Spadone counterparts. They were called Claidheamh da laimh, “Two-handed sword”.

Two handed.jpg
Today, you may see these called Claymores, from Claidheamh mor, “Broad-Sword”, but the term Claidheamh mor was first used to refer to double-edged basket-hilted broadswords of the 1500s-1800s to distinguish them from the Claidheamh cuil “Backsword”, a single edged basket-hilted sword. Basket hand protection became obsolete in the rest of Britain after the English Civil War (1650s), but use continued in Scotland past the end of the clan period as military dress. A third baskethilt variant, albeit without an example in the author’s possession is the Turcael, A Turkish Kilij blade mounted with a basket hilt. These are evident in the Culloden-era Penicuick sketches

Most relevant to MacLeods is the “Great Sword of Dunvegan”


Find https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FDunveganCastle%2Fposts%2F1018326031577877%3A0&width=500“>Dunvegan Castle and Gardens on Facebook to see a recent photograph they posted of the sword


Non-Scots unique swords were common towards the end of the clan period, with thrust-oriented Smallswords (claidheamh-caol) and a type of Spadroon with a cutting blade and a thumb-ring for leverage called a “Sheering Sword” being preferred by the author, soldier, duelist, and Scots swordsman Donald McBane. The Small Sword derived from rapiers and courtswords, and the Sheering Sword was adapted from the German Haudegen, and Walloon (Dutch) Houwdegen. Mercenary service exposed Highlanders to the latest military technology, which they happily adopted when it was affordable. The economic reality of the area meant that most arms were several hundred years in arrears of the rest of Europe, for example Bowis a dorlochis “Bows and Arrows” were used in clan battles in the early 1600s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.