ISLESMEN OR GALLÓGLAICH, 12th-14th CENTURIES

An extract from Armies of Feudal Europe 1066-1300
by Ian Heath

[Based on Chessmen from Uig, Lewis, western isles of Scotland] [Based on the tomb of Felim O'Connor at Roscommon Abbey] [Based on
an effigy at Oronsay Priory]
54, 55, 56 & 57.      ISLESMEN OR GALLÓGLAICH, 12th-14th CENTURIES

Figures 54 and 55 are Hebrideans based on the chessmen of c.1175 found at Uig on the isle of Lewis. We are fortunate enough to have been left with a record of the equipment of 12th century Islesmen by Giraldus Cambrensis. He describes the Orcadian and Hebridean mercenaries of Haskulf Thorgilsson at Dublin in 1171 as being armoured in 'Danish fashion completely clad in iron', either in long mail hauberks or 'iron laminae skilfully fastened together' (probably indicating lamellar armour, or possibly coats-of-plates as described under figure 13). Despite the fact that all of the Lewis chessmen have kite-shields Giraldus describes Haskulf's men as carrying circular shields, painted red with iron rims and bosses; doubtless round shields were still favoured for maritime operations, for which their shape was more suitable than the kite shield. They were predominantly armed with axes, in the use of which they excelled like their Viking forbears; the mercenaries' commander, an Orcadian named Eoan Mear ('John the Mad', thought by some to have been Svein Asleifsson, a central character in the 'Orkneyinga Saga') personally killed as many as 9 or 10 men with his axe in the ensuing battle, the 'Song of Dermot and the Earl' describing how he chopped right through one horseman's mailed thigh with a single stroke. The axe in fact remained the characteristic weapon of the Islesmen's gallóglaich descendants right up until the 16th century, its alternative 14th century name of 'sparth' even being applied to the sub-unit (spar) of a gallóglaich company.

56 is from the tomb of Felim O'Connor (d.1265) at Roscommon Abbey, which depicts 8 such figures that may, however, date to a later period (along with the tomb itself). A very similar warrior is to be found at Glinsk in Co. Galway (see figure 31 in Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1), which has been dated to the early-13th century but is more probably of 14th century origin. He wears a short-sleeved haubergeon over an aketon. The Roscommon and Glinsk effigies are probably the earliest representations of gallóglaich in existence.

Though figure 57 is taken from a later source - the tomb of Ranald, son of the Lord of the Isles, who died in 1386 - evidence indicates that identical equipment was in use amongst the Islesmen by the 13th century at the latest. He wears a nasal helmet, mail hood and aketon. Like 56 he carries an axe and a long sword. Other figures are often shown with spear and sword or sword only while later sources mention gallóglaich carrying up to 3 darts in addition. No shields are ever shown in pictures of gallóglaich, though all the evidence indicates that they continued to be carried by Islemen even in the 13th century, being alluded to in many contemporary chronicles and poems. Note the bare legs of this figure and the last, many Islesmen having adopted Gaelic forms of dress by as early as the 11th century; indeed, the Gaelic costume of 'bare legs and short tunics and over-cloaks' worn by the Norwegian king Magnus Barelegs and his men was, like the king's nickname just as likely to have been adopted in the Hebrides or Man, where they had resided, as in Ireland. The term 'golden-legs' applied to the Orcadians who supported Sigurd Magnusson's bid for the Norwegian throne in 1193 is likewise a reference to their tanned, bare legs. Scots mercenaries recruited from the Western Isles as late as the 16th century were similarly called redshanks'. (Sigurd Magnusson's Orcadian supporters were also nicknamed 'Island-beardies', an illusion to their continued wearing of beards, whereas in Scandinavia proper the Western European custom of shaving the chin had by then been generally adopted.)




58, 59 & 60. SCANDINAVIAN KNIGHTS, 12th-13th CENTURIES