Recently, I was wearing the plaid in a two-part episode of “Once Upon a Time,” (which is all the information I’m able to divulge since I don’t have any particular desire to be sued by Disney) and thought, this being a site devoted to historical bladed weapons, that a piece on the Claymore might be appropriate. Actually, I have no idea why this didn’t occur to me before, seeing as I actually am a clan Chieftain. So…
The Claymore. The name itself has been under contention for quite a while. The most common explanation of its origin is the term “claidheamh-mor,” roughly translated from the Gaelic as “great sword.” This term, crudely Anglicized into “Cly-more,” is found in a document dated 1772, and refers to a “great two-handed sword.” The term is also applied to the single-handed basket-hilted broadsword and is described as such in a text dating 1773. There are Gaelic scholars who further contend that the term “claidheamh-mor” actually refers to a broadsword whereas the term for a two-handed sword is actually “claidheamh-da-laimh.”
And here’s where the controversy begins. There are those who contend that the name should be used exclusively to describe the two handed weapon and that the single-handed sword be more properly referred to as the “claidheamh-beag,” ostensibly translated as “little sword.” However, texts appear to relegate this description to a particular type of sword known as a ‘bilbo,” which is a colloquial name for a small rapier which, in my mind, definitely does not fall into the description of a broadsword. It is also thought that the term “claybeg” was the invention of Sir Guy Laking in the 1800s, a gentleman who apparently spoke not a word of Gaelic. If true, this is roughly the equivalent of referring to a wakizashi as a “Katty-beg,” seeing as it’s simply a smaller version of the katana.
There is also the ‘claidheamh-cuil,” which purports to be the name of the single-edged Back-sword. It has also been identified as a “claidheamh-caol,” or “narrow sword,” which, again, appears to be describing a rapier.
Whatever the “proper” term – and personally, I’m going with Claymore as being legitimate in describing both the double and single-handed sword, it is visually a very distinctive Scottish weapon.
Its origins can be traced by viewing tomb effigies where it is often depicted as being worn on the belt, its proportions suggesting a single-handed weapon. Even then, it had the distinctive V-shaped angled quillons, often flattened at their ends, but not perforated, and with a pommel that was either round or more in keeping with the pommels common on Viking weapons which has led some to suggest the possible origin of that design.
Eventually, the blade lengthened, the grip evolved to accommodate two hands, considerably separated, (but not to the extent of the European Great Sword or Bidenhander) and the termination of the quillons became pierced into the distinctive quatrefoil and also with two short langets that run from the quillon several inches on the flat of the blade’s extreme forte.
As for the single-handed broadsword, the earliest example I know to exist is at Cluny Castle and is dated at 1414.
With regard to the single-handed Claymore, it has been suggested that the basket-hilt design was a copy of the Italian Shiavona, which name derived from the Schiavoni, the Istrian and Dalmatian guards of the Doge of Venice. But since the first basket hilt Claymores appeared before this design by at least a century, I tend to disregard it.
The basket hilt handguard of the Claymore is decorated with piercings and designs that, at least early on, and inscriptions on the blade were given mystical significance.
There are many single-handed Claymores whose blades are attributed to the Solingen workshops. Indeed, the “running wolf” guild mark was said to make a man bullet-proof. I would imagine, if this was indeed true, that it would have been a relatively short-live affectation since it wouldn’t take too many men seeing their brother warriors catch a musket ball to, no pun intended, scotch this superstition. Other blades are attributed by their marks to the Klingenthal workshops in Alsace, while others came from Sterling, and around 1740, Birmingham became a centre for manufacture when smiths such as Drury, Jeffries and Harvey were given contracts by the British government to produce swords in the Highland style to equip Scottish regiments in English service. These latter were considered to be inferior in both blade and hilting. Strangely enough, apart from a few hammermen in Glasgow, it seems as though after a certain point, Scottish smiths were primarily engaged in creating and mounting the hilts on blades made outside the country.
There are also not a few blades attributed to the great Italian hammersmith, Andrea Ferara. While a few might have been, Ferera is believed to have been born in 1530 and died around 1583, making it impossible for the bulk of blades bearing the Ferera mark to have been made by him. It’s thought that most were of Solingen origin and inscribed with the A.F. mark. It would also be rather unusual that there would be, relatively speaking, so many more Ferera swords in Scotland than currently found in Italian collections.
Now for weight and dimensions: I have handled a few two-handed Claymores and found considerable variations. The Coll sword weighs four and a half pounds and is superbly balanced. However, there is another sword, said to have been used by Lundin of that Ilk at Bannockburn, with a blade length of 49 inches and an overall weight of six and a half pounds, whose balance is, let us just say, less than perfect. In general, the two-handed Claymore appears to have had a blade varying from 42 to 49 inches with a 13 to 14 inch-long grip and an average weight of five to five and a half pounds, although there will always be exceptions. Blade width on weapons I have examined is usually between two to a rarer two and a half inches.
Weight, as I have alluded in previous articles, is a relative term. Putting a sword on a scale and measuring its weight gives no evidence as to how that weight is distributed. Balance is an entirely different thing and is crucial to recovering the inertia and momentum of a sword in motion. Two-handed swords with long grips also facilitate this process as well as adding the ability to generate torque on cuts.
The single-handed Claymores I have examined have blades between 32 to 38 inches in length with a width of between two and a quarter to two and a half inches and an average weight of three and a quarter to three and a half pounds. Again, I would stress that I speak only of swords I have personally handled in my museum studies. Naturally, there will be exceptions. And unlike the two-handed version, the basket-hilt Claymores have fullers in their blades, generally of two types: a wide, central fuller or two smaller side-by-side narrow fullers, both which extend six to eight inches above the hilt.
One of the things that go with the old saw of Scottish thriftiness is that there is positive evidence of re-using damaged blades. Some two-handed blades were cut down to be re-hilted in one-handed swords, and broken blades from one-handed swords appear to have been occasionally re-cut and re-hilted in dirks.
You have probably noticed that I have mentioned nothing about the actual use of the Claymore. This is because I have found no documentation on the subject, at least in respect to the two-handed sword. However, consider that the design, weight and balance of a weapon, combined with universal physical dynamics and anatomy dictate how a weapon is used. The two-handed Claymore is in between the dimensions of a longsword and a greatsword, with more in common to the former. Handling these weapons, I have found that the techniques of the German and Italian schools of longsword work perfectly well, with the Claymores’ longer grip compensating for the occasional sword whose weight and balance is comparatively slightly excessive. As for the basket-hilt, similarly, there is only documentation once Scottish regiments entered British service and the drills are pretty much identical to comparable swords used by the British army of the time. I have, for instance, the complete manual of Scottish Broadsword produced by colonel Harris of the Light Horse Volunteers of London and Westminster, as approved by Field Marshal the Duke of York (the instruction being that of the use of the sword on foot) and there is no substantial difference between it and any similar foot regimental drills I have previously studied.
Nor do any historical records give much of a clue. The Gillie MacBane, fighting against the Campbells is said to have brought down fourteen of them before he fell, but no indication as to the specifics of how this was accomplished. Similarly, the Chevalier Johnstone gives a description of the Scots engaging the enemy in the 18th century, where, after discharging their muskets and casting them aside (since reloading didn’t appear to be a Scottish tradition) “…draw their swords, and holding a dirk in their left hand with their targe, they dart with fury on the enemy through the smoke of their fire. When within reach of the enemy’s bayonets, bending their left knee, they, by their attitude cover their bodies with their targes which receive their thrusts of the bayonet, which they contrive to parry, while at the same time they raise their sword arm and strike their adversary. … bringing down two men at a time, one with their dirk in the left hand and another with the sword.” Pretty deft coordination, if you ask me. But sorry – there are no SECRETS OF THE SCOTTISH CLAYMORE tomes out there.
And just as a side-bar, I haven’t a clue why the US M-18 anti-personnel mine is termed a Claymore apart from the fact that the Calord corporation that initially produced it and its owner and the man who developed it was named MacLeod.