Claymore Origins & a History of Giant Swords (Military History)

An exploration of the historical reality of this lethal weapon and its mysterious origins

The great Scottish two handed sword which we associate in our imagination with the Scottish Highlander, has attracted avid interest for centuries. A huge, brutal looking, yet somehow elegant weapon, it’s imposing size implies fantastic power. It looks heavy and intimidating, and its origins are mysterious, but we are going to take a close look at how this iconic weapon came to be.

In the following article I will address some common misconceptions about the Scottish Claymore. Check out the attached PDF for a deep dive into the ‘lineage’ of the Scottish Greatsword and its more commonly sized ancestors.

How big and heavy was a Scottish Claymore?

Scottish Claymores typically ranged from between 4.5 to 5 feet in length (44 – 60 inches, or 140 to 150 cm) and a weight of about 4 to 5.5 pounds (1.8-2.5 kg). These weapons are about a foot longer and a pound heavier than the two handed (or hand and a half) longsword sidearm which was also very popular in Italy or Germany, and are similar to the typical Iberian montante, and a similar class of swords found throughout Italy and Central Europe in the 15th-16th Centuries. Most Claymore’s had a fairly stiff, broad blade designed for cutting, though most could also be used for thrusting, the blades typically have at least a partial fuller. Oakeshott typology for earlier Claymores is usually type XVIIA or XVIIIa, while later weapons fall into the larger type XVIa or XXa.

Did Claymores require unusual strength?

Using a sword of this size does require some strength, but a normal fit adult capable of doing a few pushups should be able handle it without a problem. Historical swords were not extremely heavy. The goal of weapon design was to provide the maximum capability for the minimum weight, which is why historical swords do not generally have bat wings, dragon fangs, or the other accoutrements so popular in the Fantasy genre. Like most historical swords, the Claymore was well balanced for fighting, and used with the right techniques it was not difficult to wield and did not require constant heavy exertion. If it did, it would make a very poor weapon because an exhausted soldier is soon dead.

Were Claymores sharp? On Both Sides? The whole length of the blade?

Yes indeed. Aside from the ricasso of some weapons, any Claymore intended for battle (as opposed to just ceremony) was a sharp sword. There is a persistent Victorian myth about that medieval swords were crudely made like ‘sharpened crowbars’ and barely kept an edge. This is far from the reality. The renowned contemporary Swedish sword researcher and cutler Peter Johnsson noted that a more accurate analogy is of an airplane wing. The sword must cut through the air efficiently, just as much as it must cut through flesh and bone. They may not have been as sharp as a razor, since edge geometry is a tradeoff between durability and cutting efficiency, and each sword could be sharpened to a different edge. But these are cutting swords made of good, hard steel, made to chop about the same as a large meat cleaver, except both edges are sharp so as to allow ‘false edge’ cutting.

Were Claymores Slow?

A lot of RPG’s and computer games, not to mention TV shows and movies, portray any kind of two handed sword as painfully slow and clumsy. Real weapons of this type were not as heavy as many once thought (older RPGs suggested there was such a thing as a ten-pound sword!) and trained swordsmen know how to cut with amazing speed by alternating true and false edge cuts and performing rapid moulinets. The Claymore is not a slow weapon!

Were Claymores carried on the Back?

No. Two handed swords the size of a Claymore rarely even had sheaths. They were generally carried in the hands the same way as a spear or a small polearm like a halberd.

Who used the Claymore?

The specific Scottish variant of the two handed sword was used throughout the British Isles, mainly in Scottish Highlands, (meaning mainly in the Grampian mountains), Ireland, and the Western Isles, (specifically the Hebrides). Many Scottish Lowland fighters also used these weapons, as did some warlike English border families south of the border in Cumberland, notably the Grahams, the Musgraves, and the Carletons.

The Highlander

Warriors from the Scottish Highlands clans such as Clan Campbell, Clan Mackenzie, Clan MacLeod, Clan MacFarlane, and Clan Farquharson were closely associated with the use of the Claymore, although they also used many other types of weapons. They went into battle with fairly light equipment, most being too poor to afford expensive armor. They wore either a padded coat called an ‘aketon’, or a jack of plates (a quilted tunic with small pieces of iron sewn inside), as well as an iron helmet if they could afford one. They carried the large two handed Claymore sword, as well as the short highland bow, spears or javelins, or brutal polearms such as the sparth axe and the lochaber axe.

These men had a high morale and were known to use shock tactics in warfare. They went into battle to the music of bagpipes, drums and flutes, and were sometimes goaded into a battle frenzy by the poetry and songs of Gaelic bards (well into the 16th Century). Though war changed a great deal since the Iron Age heyday of the Gaelic clans, the Highlanders found a niche which was used effectively in several battles in the Early Modern era. In theory armies in the British Isles fought much like those on the continent, with light and heavy cavalry, and carefully organized ranks of infantry armed with polearms such as pikes or bills. The English also relied on longbows which were a very important weapon for them.

Highlanders armed with Claymores formed small groups or ‘battles’ which were used to attack and disrupt enemy lines. They would charge the enemy, attack with great ferocity, and continue to fight even when taking high casualties. By this method they were sometimes able to disrupt the formations of the enemy and help create a rout. A couple score Highlanders could quickly decimate a large formation of archers or marksmen for example, and sometimes they did the same to formations of English billmen or even cavalry if they were able to come to grips. If the enemy was able to resist a few charges however, or if they were hit in the flanks by cavalry, the Highlanders could be defeated.

 

The Gallowglass

The Gallowglass (Irish gall óglaigh – foreign warriors) was another type of warrior to use the Claymore. These people originally came from the Western Isles of Scotland, and in particular the Hebrides such as the isles of Lewis and Harris. The people of these islands were of mixed Gaelic / Norse ancestry, many being descended from Vikings. But culturally by the Late Medieval period they were heavily Gaelic, and to this day the Western Isles remain enclaves of Celtic culture where many people still speak the ancient Gaelic language.

Warriors from the Western Isles found seasonal work as mercenaries in Ireland. Their fighting kit was similar to that of the Highlanders, including the use of the Claymore sword, but they also typically wore a coat of mail in the fashion of the Vikings, offering them superior protection. Many Gallowglass clans, including the McAllister, the MacDonald, the MacSweeny, and the McCabe to name a few, became heavily involved in Irish politics and settled in Ireland. Leaders of Irish clans like the O’Neill and O’Donnell would pay Gallowglass in cattle and land, encouraging them to immigrate. By the 14th Century there were many Irish-born Gallowglass. They also fought in Scotland and settled there too, mainly among the Highlanders. During the First War of Scottish Independence the Scots-Norman king Robert the Bruce hired Gallowglass warriors to help him defeat the English at Bannockburn and in other battles.

The Gallowglass fought as shock troops in a high-energy manner similar to the Highlanders, but they had a better reputation for discipline, perhaps because of their superior armor. To paraphrase a 16th Century observer, ‘These are men who do not quit the field lightly’. In the gunpowder age their niche was a bit narrower but they still played a role, and could be decisive when correctly deployed. Cunning Irish chieftains like Hugh O’Neill and Owen Roe O’Neill were able to use Gallowglass mercenaries to inflict stinging defeat on well-equipped English armies at the battles of Yellow Ford in 1598 and at Benburb in 1646 – well into the gunpowder era. Gallowglass also fought in elite units on the Continent including the Dutch Blue Guards, the Pope’s Swiss Guards, the French Scottish Guard and for Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

The Lowland Scot

Though not as closely linked to the Claymore as the Highlanders or men of the Isles, a few warriors of the more warlike Lowland Clans like the Irvings and the Johnstones also made use of two-handed swords well into the 16th Century. Firearms were slowly and sporadically introduced into Scottish warfare by that time, and many battles were decided by light cavalry armed with lance and sword, or by pikemen and billmen fighting it out hand to hand. Muskets reloaded slowly and a well-timed charge by a few highly-motivated warriors armed with great swords or giant axes could still sometimes swing a battle one way or the other.

Claymore type swords were also sometimes used in a civilian context by bodyguards ‘Where one must contend with many’. Two-handed lowland swords are found in many castles throughout Scotland, they resemble the Highland Claymore except that they typically have strait quillions.