Fine Antique Arms & Armour

Rare Highland Scottish Targe Of The Early 18th Century Ref: 18.15


Price: £6,250

Item Description:


A Highland Scottish targe formed from a circular base of cross plied thinly cut pieces of wooden board tightly held together with wooden pegs and nails. The front is covered with a single large piece of leather attached to the boards by hand-made brass nails with domed tops which form a rim around the edge of the targe front, inside which further nails form the shape of a crown on top of a thistle, with subsets of smaller nails complementing the design. The outside of the leather surface is folded over the bevelled wooden edge all around and attached with a rim of hand-made iron nails at the edge. The shapes of the crown and thistle are further accentuated by patterns of tooled lines flanking the lines of brass nail heads.


At the back the targe is mounted with a thin steel plate formed from separate pieces forged together which is nattached to the wooden board with nails. The mounting straps are now missing but the steel plate shows the holes where these were once attached. In an article entitled "A Type of Highland Target" published in "Scottish Weapons and Fortifications" edited by David H Caldwell pages 391 to 398 a postscript is added to the paper which is a letter from a Henry Fletcher to his brother, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, then staying in Paris, dated Saturday 21st January 1716. In the letter Henry informs his brother on the technique of manufacture of Highland targes. The letter is reproduced here in full and gives a clear parallel with the construction of our targe (Taken from "Letters of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and his family, 1715-1716", ed I J Murray, Scottish Historical Society Miscellany, 1965, pages 153-4).


"In your last you desired a description of the Highland Targe, which I shal give you according to the best Impersonation I have yet got, but it is not perfect. The outward form of ane Highland Targe is a convex circle about 2 foot in diameter, but some have them oval; the innermost part of it nixt the man's breast is a skin with the hair upon it, which is only cover to a Steel plate, which is not very thick, for the whole is no great weight; on the inner side of this Steel plate the Handle is fixed, which hath two parts, one that the left arm passes through till near the elbow, the other that the Hand lays hold on: with-out the Steel plate there is a Cork which covers the Steel plate exactly, but betwixt the Cork and the Steel plate there is Wooll stuffed in very hard; the Cork is covered with plain well-wrought leather, which is nailed to the Cork with nails that have brass heads, in order round, drawing thicker towards the center. From the center sticks out a Stiletto (I know not the right name of it, but I call it so, because it is a sort of short poignard) which fixes into the steel plate and wounds the enemy when they are close: about this Stiletto closs to the Targe ther is a peece of Brass in the forme of a Cupelo about 3 inches over and coming half way out on the Stiletto and is fixed upon it. Within this brass there is a piece of Horn of the same forme like a cup, out of which they drink their usquebaugh, but it being pierced in the under part by the Stilletto, when they take it off to use it as a cup, they are obliged to apply the forepart of the end of their finger to the hole to stop it, so that they might drink out of their cup. The leather which has several lines impressed on it, the brass heads of the nails disposed in a regular way, the brass cupelo, and the Stiletto, which make up the outside of the Targe, give it a beautiful aspect. The Cork they make use of is ane excrescence of their Birk trees, which when green cuts like an Apple, but afterwards comes to that firmness that a nail can fasten in it. The nails sometimes throw off a ball, especially when it hits the Targe a squint; but tho' a ball came directly upon it and miss the nail heads, piercing betwixt them, yet they reckon that the leather, the cork, the wooll so deaden the ball, that the Steel plate, tho' thin, repells it and lodges it in the wooll. I want yet to know the exact dimensions of the most approved Targe (for they are very various) both as to the largeness and thickness of the Steel plate, and how it is tempered, the thickness of the Cork, and of the wool stuffing, and the weight of the whole Targe, which I shal endeavour to get an account of".


Whether or not Henry Fletcher was able to achieve any further information on the construction of targes is unknown. In this letter he does admit that his knowledge is not perfect, but he is certainly well informed. He does say that targes are "very various" in their appearance and methods of construction and that is perhaps worthy of comment here.


Firstly he comments that targes are "convex" in shape. Most known today are circular and flat in construction although a number of early 18th century portraits of Highland chiefs, notably by Richard Waitt, show subjects with convex shaped targes lying nearby with other weapons. For example see portrait of Alasdair Ruadh MacDonnell 13th Chief of Glengarry by a follower of John Alexander, Alasdair was active in the '45 and the periods before. Also see the portrait of John Campbell, son of Lord Glenorchy, painted in 1708 by C Jervis. Both are illustrated in J Telfer Dunbar, "History of Highland Dress", Oliver & Boyd 1962 plates 22 and 11 respectively. Also illustrated in Dunbar is a famous painting of the Battle of Culloden by David Morier, an artist renowned for his accuracy, and believed to have used Highland prisoners with their weapons as subject matter, shows two targes depicted being held side on by Highlanders in a charge which are clearly convex in shape.


It is clear on some surviving targes that additional packed wool lining was added for extra strength and performance. This would more usually be packed between the leather and the wood (Cork) as Henry describes it rather than between the steel plate and the wooden base. The plate on our targe sits very tight to the wooden base, as would be necessary for a solid construction and it seems Henry got his wires crossed in describing this so in his letter. It is rare that a targe with a steel base like ours has survived - we are aware of no other even though Henry's letter would suggest it is a common feature.


More usually a deer skin backing is attached to a targe through which the arms grips are attached to the wooden base. In some instances straw, wool or heather is stuffed between this backing and the base, perhaps for some protection, but mainly to mould around the fore arm of the user to give a more stable and comfortable grip, forming a cushion for the forearm rather than have it rest on the harder back be it wood or with a steel attachment added as is the case with our targe. We cannot tell whether a deerskin back once covered the steel plate of our targe. However, the evidence of hand grips is clear with punched holes indicating where once straps were attached. The two sets of holes for the upper forearm strap being wider apart than those for the hand grip. This indicates left hand usage, as would probably be expected, ensuring the crown decoration on the outside stands upright when the targe is mounted on the left arm.


Fletcher is correct in another sense in observing that the manufacture of targes is varied. This was probably influenced by custom and practice in different Highland regions. Decoration to the front of targes in the more remote regions such as Lochaber and Isles was probably much more influenced by Celtic traditions rather than the more establishment driven crown decoration on our targe.


Whilst Henry comments that a central spike was a common feature on targes most were not made to carry a spike. Only one example known today is still attached with its original spike (see the "Ardvorlich" targe in the Swords and the Sorrows, National Trust for Scotland, 1996, page59, Fig:4.9). The spike screws into the central boss on the outside and whilst this would be a cumbersome feature when not in use, the spike is stored in a leather sheath nailed to the back. This is interesting because from this feature a number of targes with a threaded central boss assumed to have once carried a spike can now be verified by examining the back for evidence of a spike sheath.


The centre of our targe is threaded and at the back, punctured into the steel plate, are two almost parallel lines of holes which would once have carried the nails to attach the leather sheath, which are now lost, but indicate that the targe once carried a reasonably long spike. When not in use the spike would have been a hazard or at best inconvenient if permanently mounted on a targe. Hence there is great utility to storing the spike in a sheath on the back. However, for aesthetic and practical reasons, to stop the threaded aperture becoming damaged or filled with material which may prevent the spike being mounted when needed, some targes threaded for a spike have the aperture filled with a threaded stud to protect it when not in use.


Our targe has a small, stubby, multi-facetted spike which appears to be quite blunt and ineffectual. Similar ineffectual spikes are present on the targes seen in the MacDonnell portrait and the painting of Culloden mentioned above. These may be small decorative spikes made for when the targe was not in use instead of a stud and the meaningful spike as a weapon is in store on the back. It is clear that the spike mounted on our targe is not the original spike made for when the targe was used in anger - the rows of nails to the rear indicate a much longer spike was once present.


It is highly probable that our targe was made for a clansman loyal to the Hanoverian crown who may have been a member of a local highland militia. Henry's letter was written just after the failure of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion and our steel backed targe could date to this period. Clearly, Henry may only have encountered "friendly" clansmen in civilised towns and boroughs bordering the Highlands. It was extremely dangerous for anyone unfamiliar with the Highlands to stray even short distances from these "safe" areas unless in a heavily armed group. Hence the crown on our targe may have been there to signify Crown loyalty. Other targes are also known with crown designs to the front - one notable example is on display in Glasgow Kelvingrove Museum.


It is perhaps also feasible that the steel plate on our targe was a development in targe design made in these safer areas compared to deep in the Highlands. The plate is made from hand wrought sections hammer forged together yielding barely noticeable rough forge lines.


The targe measures 19.2 inches (49 am) across. Its condition is fair. The leather to the front of the targe is flaking and fragile in parts and much of the folded over part of the leather rim is now absent. In some parts of the front the leather has fallen away exposing wooden board beneath and some sections of the wooden rim are damaged. Further detailed photographs will be supplied to interested parties upon request.


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