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Scottish Arms
By Alexander McMillan Welch


For centuries the profession of arms has been with the Scotch almost a national calling. Highlanders especially were proud of their arms, and while saving in other respects, never hesitated to spend large sums for decorated pistols, richly carved dirk-hilts, and ornamented shields or targets whose designs are often of rare beauty; in fact, much of their early art was reflected in their personal equipment.

The history of Scottish ornament may be traced in Highland arms, which are responsible for the survival of many ancient Celtic patterns, whose interlaced strapwork, broadly treated spirals, and spirited foliation suggest old Scandinavian and even Romanesque motives. The Scottish armorers of Doune, Perth, or Edinburgh, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, sitting in their little workrooms, traced out and executed with painstaking accuracy their national ornaments on their precious arms—one need only glance through the plates of Drummond’s Ancient Scottish Weapons to realize the value of their work.

Unhappily the general lover of art knows little of Scottish arms, for they are rare, and few even of the largest museums exhibit many specimens. Collectors seldom have an opportunity to purchase them, and when such arms do appear, as in the recent sale at Christie’s of the arms of the Earl of Breadalbane, they bring high prices.

A special series of early Scottish arms has been placed in the northeast corner of the Main Armor Hall (H 9). Here one sees beautiful broadswords, a number of targets, two ancient claymores—which are double-handed swords and not to be confused with the well-known Scottish broadswords—a couple of dirks, and a collection of Scottish pistols which we believe has not been excelled in quality save in the Scottish National Exhibition held in Edinburgh in 1908. Of these arms, the claymore, with guard or quillons bent angularly toward the point and ending in pierced quatrefoils, is lent by Madame Rutherfurd Stuyvesant from the collection of her husband, who was for many years a trustee and vice-president of the Museum. This formerly belonged to the Earl of Breadalbane. Madame Stuyvesant contributes also a seventeenth-century broadsword, which we believe was made in Italy for some distinguished Scottish officer. The hilt is elaborately ornamented, its traceries and figures encrusted with silver.

Of the targets, two are beautifully ornamented with a design of Celtic strapwork and are from the donation of William H. Riggs; the third, a fist-shield of a very early type, made of concentric rings riveted to rawhide and ornamented with bronze nail-heads, is from the writer’s collection.

Of the Highland pistols, ten of the series shown are from the remarkable collection of Charles M. Schott, Jr., and represent a range of form, ornament, and workmanship unexcelled, so far as we know, in any private collection. In this series one finds a splendid example by James McKenzie, dating about 1700, another by Alexander Campbell about 1725, and several by the Murdochs, dating about 1775. A beautiful pair of pistols signed by John Campbell of Doune is lent by Madame Stuyvesant. In addition, the Museum contributes a brace of primitive Highland pistols from the donation of William H. Riggs, dated 1623, and a later pair, still in the fashion of the earlier days, dating about 1700. These last were used in the Revolution by Jonathan Porter, of Medford, Mass., and were donated to the Museum in memory of his descendant, John Osgood Blanchard, by Mrs. Elizabeth Cameron Blanchard. Such a pistol as one of these, it may be mentioned, in the hand of Major Pitcairn at Lexington fired the first shot in the Revolutionary War, April 19, 1775.

Highland pistols, as this collection clearly shows, have certain features which distinguish them from all others, such as steel stocks, heart-shaped or lobed, obtusely rounded, and ram’s-horn butts, globular triggers, and profuse ornamentation, which is incised and often inlaid with silver, or alloys of copper. One may readily see that their makers (see the list in Charles Winthrop Sawyer’s Firearms in American History) were artists in their day.

Of the Scottish dirks, which are usually accompanied by scabbard, knife, and fork, there are two in the present exhibition; the earlier one, from the writer’s collection, was given by Clemantina, Lady Perth, to James Miller "as the best performer of the Ancient Highland Sword Dance, at the meeting of St. Fillan’s Gaelic Society 1822.” This dirk bears the arms of the Earl of Perth and is probably of earlier date than its inscription suggests.

Alexander McMillan Welch.



 


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