Donald McBane, and the Transition Between the Ancient and Regimental Highland Broadsword Systems


(An Excerpt From The Book "Lannaireachd:Gaelic Swordsmanship" by Christopher Scott Thompson, not yet published)

Donald McBane was a soldier, pimp, thief, gambler and duellist. He was also a natural genius with the smallsword, the lighter successor to the rapier. He was a Highlander, born in the region of Inverness and therefore probably Gaelic-speaking in his childhood, although he never confirms this in his writings. Inverness was an outpost of the central government, and very much under the influence of Lowland Scots culture. After he became a soldier, McBane moved in Lowland circles, and seems to have considered the Highlanders foreigners.

McBane fought in a clan battle between the McIntoshes and the MacDonalds of Keppoch in 1687, when he was twenty-three. He fought as a regular soldier, not a Gaelic warrior. When McBanes' unit broke under the Highland Charge, he was attacked by a Highland swordsman. The Highlander cut McBane's bayonet out of his gun, but McBane saved himself by using the gun as a club, then running for thirty miles.

McBane faced Highlanders again at the battle of Killiecrankie, and once again his unit fled. McBane escaped by stealing a horse from his own army's baggage train, with a Highlander's bullet literally whistling by his ear. McBane fought his first duel shortly afterwards, against a veteran soldier who was stealing his money. He used a borrowed smallsword, and his opponent used a broadsword- the basket-hilt had become popular even in the Lowlands. The veteran disarmed McBane and beat him with the flat of the sword.

After this, McBane's fortune improved. After some lessons, he challenged the veteran again, shifted his leg to avoid a broadsword blow, and thrust the man through the body and leg. The veteran survived, but McBane got his money back.

After injuring a superior officer in a duel, McBane fled to Ireland- but on the way, he fought three soldiers at one time on the road, and a pimp in a whorehouse brawl. Eventually, he made his way to Europe, where he served in the British Army for a number of years. At that time, prostitution and gambling were generally controlled by soldiers looking for extra income. McBane fought an amazing series of duels over the years to gain and keep control over this business. He was also injured repeatedly in battles, and several times he was left for dead and had to hide among the battlefield corpses.

Eventually, he returned to Scotland. He fought on the Government side in the Rising of 1715, where he faced Highlanders again at the battle of Preston. This time, he did not run. He served in the garrison at Fort William which was intended to pacify the Highlands. McBane became a "stage gladiator", and fought many challenges against other swordsmen in public bouts. At the age of sixty-two, he fought a young man in a public challenge match, and wounded him seven times. Finally, at the age of sixty-three, he settled down to write his masterpiece, the "Expert Swordsman's Companion." This work focused on the smallsword, McBane's weapon of choice. But it also included instruction in the spadroon (a light cutting sword used in the military), falchion, Scottish quarterstaff, broadsword and targe, and backsword, and illustrations of the use of Lochaber axe and pike. These were all weapons used in the Scottish Lowlands, but their use shows considerable Highland influence.

Lowland Scottish smallsword fencing included techniques borrowed from the broadsword, especially in the later work of McBane's contemporary Hope, who also virtually duplicates McBane's Lochaber axe illustration. The Lowlanders adopted such Highland weapons as the broadsword, backsword, targe and Lochaber axe.

At first glance, the relationship between the Regimental broadsword system (described by Angelo and Mathewson) and the pre-Culloden Gaelic system (depicted in the Penicuik sketches) is unclear. Some of the guard positions seem to be the same or similar, but the footwork and body positioning are quite different. Some people have even questioned whether the two systems are historically related at all.

McBane's work supplies the missing link. Unlike Angelo or Mathewson, McBane was a Highlander, and he saw Highland warriors in action at the height of the clan system. He met them in battle on at least three occasions, and we can assume that he was familiar with their method of swordsmanship. However, McBane does not present the original, unaltered Highland fighting methods in his work.

We can tell this because his work differs in some respects from the Penicuik Sketches. These sketches (drawn by an eyewitness to the '45) show the swordsmen standing in the ancient way- relatively square to the opponent, with the targe leg forward. This stance or some variation of it was standard in European swordplay until the Renaissance.

McBane, however, was an exponent of the smallsword, which was employed with a system of linear footwork- the left foot at a right angle, the right foot straight forward, and the heels lined up with each other. McBane uses this same smallsword footwork for the broadsword and targe, the spadroon and the backsword. His illustration of the Lochaber axe, however, shows the ancient method.

We cannot be sure whether or not this was McBane's own innovation. But if not, it could not have happened very much before his own time, as the techniques of the smallsword were still quite new. These Lowland modifications of the Highland broadsword system became the new standard after the failure of the '45 Rising. The smallsword-based on-guard stance, the lunge, the shift or slip- these are all features of Angelo and Mathewsons' systems which are not found in the ancient system shown in the Penicuik Sketches. All of them, however, can be found in McBane.

Here is the pattern of lannaireachd development from the ancient system through Mathewsons' time-

1- Claidheamh Leathann Agus Targaid (Broadsword and Targe)- The targe foot is forward, the body is relatively square to the enemy, the targe is often held high to protect the head, with the edge of the targe facing the enemy. The hanging guard and a medium guard with the blade almost vertical are used often, but other guards are also used in the Penicuik Sketches. Attacks are often made on the Pass- in other words, the rear leg passes the forward leg during the attack, then returns to it's original position on the recovery. Attacks to the leg are parried rather than avoided. This system was used in the Highlands before 1746. (See Brown and Cheape: "Witness To Rebellion; John MacLean's Journal of the Forty-Five and the Penicuik Drawings" Tuckwell Press, 1996, for illustrations of this system.)

2- McBane's System Of Broadsword And Targe- The right foot is straight forward. The left foot is at a right angle. The heels are in-line with each other. The body is at an angle to the enemy. The targe is held high, with the edge facing the enemy. The hanging guard is often used. Attacks are made on the lunge. This system was used in the Lowlands by at least 1728. (See McBane, Donald: "The Expert Swordsman's Companion", 1728, Plate No. XIX, for an illustration of this system)

3- McBane's System Of Backsword- The backsword shown in McBane's manual is a basket-hilted weapon of the Highland type. The backsword and the broadsword are used almost identically. The right foot is straight forward. The left foot is at a right angle. The heels are in-line with each other. The body is at an angle to the enemy. The left hand is held up near the neck as an auxiliary defense. Attacks are made on the lunge. Leg attacks are avoided by "shifting" or "slipping" the leg, rather than by parrying. Thrusts can be avoided with a maneuver called "avolting", where the body is moved out of the line of attack. The inside, outside, medium, hanging and St. George's ("cross") guards are used. The medium guard is lowered to point at the enemy as in the modern foil fencing on-guard stance, and the half-hanging guards are included within the hanging guard. It is likely that all these guards were in use by this period

4- Angelo's System Of Highland Broadsword- This system uses the same footwork and body positioning as McBane, except that "avolting" is not used. The left hand is held at the waist. Attacks are made on the lunge. The inside, outside, medium, hanging, outside half-hanging, inside half-hanging, St. George's ("cross") and half-circle guards are used. The medium guard is vertical, as in the Penicuik Sketches. The half-circle guard appears to have been added as a new adaptation from smallsword work. The two half-hanging guards have been named separately, whereas they were included under the hanging guard by McBane. This system was used in Highland Regiments by at least 1799. (See Angelo, Henry: "The Guards and Lessons of the Highland Broadsword", 1799, and "Hungarian and Highland Broadsword", 1799, for a brief explanation and detailed illustrations of this system.)

5- Mathewson's System Of Highland Broadsword- This system uses much the same footwork and body positioning as Angelo. The left hand is held either on the waist, or high behind the back as in modern foil fencing, depending on the guard in use. Attacks are made on the lunge. Only the inside, outside, medium and hanging guards are used. The medium guard in Mathewson's system is really a thrust on a lunge. This system was used in some Regiments by at least 1805. (See Mathewson, Thomas: "Fencing Familiarized, Or A New Treatise on the Art of the Scotch Broadsword", 1805, for an illustrated explanation of this system.)

This should be sufficient to show that McBane's work represents a transition between the ancient Highland system and the later Regimental Highland broadsword system. Highland weapons were adopted in the Scottish Lowlands, where the footwork was modified based on smallsword fencing. The modified system became standard in the Highland Regiments after the '45, and from there it spread to other British Regiments as well. Over time, it was modified still further, as different fencing masters explored its use.

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