Fighting Scots

The Scottish have something of a reputation for fighting.  Back in the 18th Century this was also the case.  I think it’s no coincidence that the Romans built a wall to keep the Scots (okay, the Picts actually) out of their territory.  Sadly, there isn’t much in the way of recorded Scottish swordplay and what does exist has been diluted by English sword masters pretending to teach a Scottish system.  Hey, this was good business on their part as they were simply marketing to what was in demand.

Probably the best source we do have of Scottish swordplay comes form a man named Thomas Page.  Mr. Page was an English artillery officer who wrote a very brief summary of Scottish highland broadsword play as he observed it. Now, I am loathe to describe any system of martial arts as being superior to any other, but Page would probably not have agreed.  He saw the Highlander fight first hand and saw them as true masters of the sword.

So what made the Highlanders “better” than their English contemporaries?  Well I have a couple of theories.   I think the biggest thing was training.  For an Englishman to become a soldier was a career choice.  For a Scottish Highlander, being a warrior was cultural.  Sword training began at a very young age.  So when matching a lifelong swordsman against someone with only a few months or even weeks of training, there is really no contest.

English Broadsword of this era also had some pretty strong deficiencies as well.  As much as I love the swordplay as practiced by masters Henry Angelo and John Taylor, their system is highly derivative of the point oriented smallsword way of fighting.  This translated in to a very linear fight.  When you think and fight exclusively in straight lines you are opening yourself up to complete decimation by a swordsman used to using oblique angles and circular movement.  Guess how the Scots liked to fight?

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

Outside Guards: Smallsword, English Broadsword, Highland Broadsword

We also have some body mechanic issues as well.  Being so close to the smallsword system, English broadsword was focused of keeping the sword hilt between you and your opponent at all times and almost exclusively relied on wrist powered cuts.  While these cuts are perfectly effective when delivered properly, they were far less devastating than the elbow and shoulder cuts that were favoured by the Highlanders.  It was a trade, really, between the stronger defence of the English Style and the more powerful attack of the Scottish.  Of course the Highlanders compensated quite well by using a device that was out of style the rest of the world over: the shield.DSCF1267

So despite not having access to any true first hand sources of uniquely Scottish swordplay, we still have a good idea of exactly how the Highlanders would have fought.  It’s a fascinating study that I am just getting to the meat of and an area I plan on training in for a long time to come.

Guarded Statements

There’s something that’s been bothering me about historical fencing for a while.  I’ve been having a lot of problems with the term “guard.”  In theory a guard is any position your body and sword take to defend yourself.  There are complexities within that definition and some people have their own different definitions.  For example, one interpreter of the medieval I.33 system stated that there were no guards present in the style, because you were never supposed to stand stationary to protect yourself in any particular position.  One of my own instructors once made the ridiculous claim that any position you can hold your sword in is a guard, but it is only a “good guard” if it serves to protect you.  Ignoring the fact that if every position is a guard then the entire concept of guard becomes useless, some refining to the term is clearly needed. Continue reading