The Sword of Donald Robertson of Woodsheal
A report by Paul Macdonald, Swordmaker
As this was on the return route to Edinburgh, stopping in to study the sword was a natural choice. Upon viewing the sword, I was struck by certain manufactured form and detail that I found of great interest and was inspired to subsequently make some fascinating historic connections.
My work involves hand-crafting historically accurate European edged weaponry of all forms from Bronze Age to present day. Over the years, Scottish basket hilted swords have been one area of personal interest that has become more prominent in my armoury studies. Every basket hilted sword has particular identifying form and characteristics as unique as a fingerprint and every one provides a fascinating insight into historical craftsmanship, functional form and martial swordsmanship.
The sword of Donald Robertson revealed remarkable similarities to another sword and one currently in my custodianship, that of Rob Roy MacGregor. The Macgregor sword was passed from him to his landlord (a MacLaren) on his deathbed and remained in this family line until a couple of generations ago, when it was bought by a family from my own homeland in Moidart.
My first visit to study the Robertson sword only sparked further burning questions and closer study was necessary. The museum was extremely helpful when upon my second visit I was granted access to examine the sword closely and also directly alongside that of MacGregor for direct comparison.
It may be simpler to first account for the differences in both swords. The grip material and form is different, with MacGregor’s having a wooden grip (Caledonian pine) filed deeply to originally secure wire over a leather or shark-skin grip covering (now lost to expose only wooden grip). Robertson’s sword unusually bears a grip made from stag antler (red deer).
This is an unusual grip material choice but the form feels remarkably comfortable in the hand. It is always possible that the antler has been a later addition to possibly replace a badly cracked or perished wooden grip, but the top of the pommel shows no signs of re-working in recent years.
Robertson’s sword also carries a pommel somewhat smaller and squatter than MacGregor’s. This is not too surprising as MacGregor’s blade is slightly broader. This results in a slightly heavier blade overall, which requires balancing out with a larger pommel.
Both swords bear distinctly broad double edged blades of excellent temper. The origin of blades without specific marks of makers or country of origin might always be debatable, but we might assess something as much from what markings they do not carry.
Jacobite swordsmen often privately purchased their side-arms, and they certainly knew the value of a good quality blade. Examples of Jacobite swords for example invariably carry blades of far higher quality than the standard “munition quality” swords issued to British Government troops of the day.
The best quality sword blades manufactured in great numbers were from Solingen and Passau in Germany, and these were often imported to Scotland throughout the late C17th – mid C18th to be mounted by local makers as basket hilted swords. The “running wolf” mark was common to German blade-smiths and can often be found on quality Jacobite swords.
Neither MacGregor’s or Robertson’s blades display a running wolf mark. Both blades are double edged and centrally fullered. The fullers or grooved channels running down the length of a blade serve a simple purpose and that is to reduce weight where possible without compromising blade strength or flexibility. They are not “blood grooves” as popular gory myth might imply.
Robertson’s blade appears to have some lettering inside the fullering, which could not be easily discerned in the low light conditions. Further dedicated study may here reveal greater detail. The blade of MacGregor’s is stamped with the legend ANDRIA FARARA.
Andrea Fararra was an Italian swordsmith working in Belluno between 1550 – 1583. It is believed he also lived and worked in Scotland for a number of years. He was renowned for the exceptional quality of his steel and blades, so much so that his name continued to be stamped in various spellings on blades far beyond his death throughout the C17th and C18th.
The hilt forms of both swords are similar in form and detail. Both have been constructed according to the same pattern, one which could date from as early as 1680 – 1690. One particular construction consistency between both swords is the section and dimensions of connecting bars.
These are noticeably square in section, which is unusual as most Highland basket hilt connecting bars are round in section. More-so, these connecting bars are incised their length on the outside faces with a shallow central channel. The side panels are near identical in form and detail, featuring exactly the same pattern of filed channels and positions of pierced holes and hearts. The same bears true for the forward-most panel or knucklebow, which reflects the pattern and detail of the side panels.
The main difference in the hilts lies in the square “Saltire panels”. Each sword has two of these square panels, which provide a significant part of the basket hilt protection for hand and knuckles. MacGregor’s sword features a repeating pattern of pierced circular holes and rectangular slots. Robertson’s features four hearts on each panel, filed in the same form as the forward and side panel detail.
Such similar form and details are indicative of being crafted by the same hand, or at very least the same armoury. So where could these swords of provenance have originated?
Earlier this year I was directed on a path of research after reading about a legendary Highland armoury. This was the armoury at Innerwick, Glen Lyon, which was operated by no less than 14 generations of the MacFarlane Clan.
The MacFarlanes were renowned for their skill in making quality arms and certainly were in production here through the C17th and C18th. This clan also had close ties with the MacGregors of Roro and provided them with arms for many years.
Tying the clan association together with geography (Rob Roy was usually living approximately 20 miles South West of Innerwick and Robertson approximately 20 miles to the East), the armourers of Glen Lyon would appears to be the likely candidates for the manufacture of these unique swords of provenance.
I recently visited the location of the Innerwick armoury. The building is now gone, but its original place is known and lies directly beside a small burn still known today as Muileann nam Biodag or the Mill of the Dirks.
It was a special visit to rediscover this ancient site where once sparks and hammers flew daily to craft some of the best quality blades and arms in the Highlands. Clansmen would have revered these, carried them with pride, swore by them and staked their very Honour and Lives upon them.
Further research is now currently being conducted in order to determine the characteristics of Glen Lyon patterns of basket hilted swords. Such studies have only been made possible by the original connections made between two swords of distinct legend, that of Donald Robertson of Woodsheal and that of Rob Roy MacGregor.
Every original sword is unique and bears its own character, much like those of the original makers and owners. These old seasoned veterans talk to us yet and we need only listen closely and ask the right questions to see more clearly into the mists of time.
And like any great historic adventure, the more questions that are answered, the more are raised. Let us see what further discoveries and paths of research might yet arise from these initial findings by the sword.
Paul Macdonald is originally from Moidart and has long held a fascination in Scottish martial archaeology. He is a professional custom sword and knife maker and historical fencing master and runs Macdonald Armouries (www.macdonaldarms.com/armoury) and the Macdonald Academy of Arms (www.macdonaldarms.com) based in Edinburgh.Tagged