By Ross Cowan
Medieval Warfare, Vol. 1:2 (2011)
Introduction: A Gaelic panegyric of John, the last Lord of the Isles (1449-1493), describes his sword as follows:
And there was on the noble side of that powerful man a sword which was sharp, serviceable, long, very hard, sound, straight, of smooth surface, long bladed and of equal power throughout its full length. – Book of Clanranald 263.
Such was the excellence of John’s sword that the bard goes on to proclaim it was better even than the fabled blade of Cuchulain, or the ‘slaughtering sword’ of that other great Irish hero, Connal Cernach.
As a powerful magnate who held sway over the Hebridean Islands and large chunks of the Scottish mainland, the Lord of the Isles could doubtless afford the most up-to-date arms and armour from the best Continental workshops. However, the panegyric indicates that John was not armoured in contemporary plate, but with the traditional panoply of the West Highland and Hebridean warrior, that is a cotún (padded fabric aketon) and a luireach (mail shirt). Of course, John’s cotún was made of silk and richly embroidered, and his mail was adorned with gold and gems.
This form of armour is well represented on sculptured graveslabs in the Highlands and Islands, dating from the later fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. The chiefs, lairds and gentlemen (many of them vassals and kin to the Lords of the Isles) commemorated on these stones are usually portrayed with long swords with distinctive hilts. The pommels can be multi-lobate (a survival from swords of the Norse era), or wheel- or tear-drop-shaped. The cross guard often has a central tongue or langet, and the quillons usually slope towards the blade and end in spatulate terminals. Grips vary in length from single-handed to hand-and-a-half, and some might even be considered two-handed. The swords are usually in their scabbards and appear to be relatively broad bladed. The exceptional sword of John of the Isles was probably of the same type, but presumably richly decorated.
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