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A Highland Scottish Targe Circa 1740

The following description is of a Scottish Highland Targe dating towards the end of the second quarter of the 18th century, of a type become known in modern times as a “5 Shilling Targe”. Recent studies have pointed to the Targe type being made in Perthshire for clansmen including those serving in the  Jacobite army during the 1745 Rebellion.

Targes started to be used in the Scottish Highlands in substantial numbers in the early 17th century and became synonymous with warrior Highland clansmen and the “Highland Charge” (the earliest known surviving example is the “Mackay” Targe in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow which is dated 1623 on the central brass boss at the front).  This battle tactic is thought to have been perfected at the time of the Scottish and English Civil War periods in the mid-17th century.

As well as weapons of war, Targes were also fashion items, and often elaborately decorated to the front to suit the status conscious Highlanders, particularly those occupying influential positions in clan hierarchies. The earliest decorative styles consisted mainly of elaborately tooled leather, with traditional Celtic patterns and symbols, often highlighted with brass or silver dome-headed studs. Towards the middle of the 18th century Targemakers spent less time on tooling leather and more time on applying bigger and bolder studs and bosses to achieve decorative effect. Sometimes in this later period of Targe production, older Targes were “updated” with the application of studs and bosses on top of the designs of tooled leather, and with varying degrees of aesthetic success.


Fig 1: Scottish “5 Shilling” Highland Targe – Front


This process has often been seen as part of the degeneration of Highland weaponry that started earlier in the century after the failure of the 1715 Rebellion. However, whilst the general trend is clear, this is probably not entirely true as far as this type of Targe is concerned with regard to the work involved in making it. Although of plainer leatherwork compared to earlier types, the Targe is covered with patterns formed from 238 brass domed studs and bosses (a couple missing) which are all hand made and not a quick task to produce in the pre-industrial age.

Although decorative styles changed over 150 years of use the methods of construction of Targes remained broadly similar.  Proscribed as weapons after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion Targes went out of fashion and were no longer used. Today, genuine examples dating to before the mid-18th century are very rare.


Fig 2:  Scottish “5 Shilling” Highland Targe – Front Detail


This Targe is formed in the traditional manner, with a circular base of cross-plied hand-cut pieces of wooden board, held together with iron nails which formed the grip attachments and wooden pegs. The front is covered with a single piece of leather attached to the boards by a ring of hand-made nails with brass domed tops around the rim, and decorated with further domed nails and bosses inside this perimeter in the form of concentric rings which are  interspersed with patterns of equally spaced bosses with circles and triangles of studs around them. The lines of studs which form these patterns are connected with tooled lines in the leather. The bosses which comprise the main patterns are made in three sizes getting larger towards the middle which is occupied by a single central dome of shaped and beaten brass secured by three iron nails through its broad brim.


Fig 3: Scottish “5 Shilling” Highland Targe – Front Detail


The wooden edge of the Targe is chamfered or bevelled in the usual manner, the shaved slope present at the back rather than the front of the Targe. In manufacture the edge of the leather front has been stretched over this edge and secured at the back with a ring of small iron hand-made nails. As is common with many surviving period Targes, the leather has shrunk over time and pulled away the edge at the back from the ring of nails intended to secure it. The front of the Targe is covered with its original coating of protective paint, or tar, and in the areas between the studs and bosses, this  protective exterior has also shrunk, and at a faster rate than the leather, leaving a cracked surface similar to the craquelure caused by the ageing of varnish or paint layers on old oil paintings.


Fig 4: Scottish “5 Shilling” Highland Targe – Back


At the back, the remains of a thin leather backing, probably roe doe skin,  is present in small patches attached to some of the perimeter nails. A ring of small wooden pegs which secure the planks of the Targe together are evident as well as iron fixing points for two arm bands and the grip (now absent).

Dr David Caldwell (Curator Scotland & Europe – National Museums of Scotland [Retired]) commented in a paper he published in the Park Lane Arms Fair that Targes like ours were probably made for the Jacobite army in the early stages of the 1745 Rebellion. As a reference, he uses a Targe gifted to the National Museum in Edinburgh in 1782, not forty years after the ’45 Rebellion (Museum Reference H.LN 37) which is identical to ours and most certainly made by the same Targemaker. The decorative patterns formed from a similar number and type of brass dome-headed studs and bosses is of the same design. The Targe retains its thin skin liner at the back, and, although lacking its arm straps, the arrangement of attachment nails demonstrates that  it once had three straps attached in a similar manner. Also similar is the tight arrangement of nails around the edge at the back holding the leather front cover in place.

Prince Charles’s army, being short of Targes, commissioned a number to be made, some for officers and 500 for clansmen specifically at a price of 5 shillings each, and from which the Targe type acquired its name.


Fig 5: Scottish “5 Shilling” Highland Targe – Back Detail


Clearly, this expertise reflects an ongoing Targe making craft in Perthshire at the time. Another Targe in a private collection and published in “The Scottish Pistol” by Martin Kelvin, is very similar in design, with large brass bosses and nail heads in patterns, apart from the centre of the front being made up of a pattern of smaller bosses rather than a single central dome. This one has the date 1736 applied.

This would indicate that the Targe type was not just a manifestation for the Prince’s army, but a more general form representing the last period of Targe use and production as a weapon of war by Highland clansmen, and, for which the penalty could well be death or deportation if found in possession of one after 1746.


Fig 6: Scottish “5 Shilling” Highland Targe – Back Detail

Blue: Remnants of doe skin liner

Red: Outline of absent arms straps and hand grip with fixing nails inside

Green: Wooden pegs


The primary decorative feature of these three Targes is the use of numerous dome-headed brass nails and bosses applied to relatively simply tooled leather frontages compared to Targe designs through the previous century and a half. It would seem that this type was the dominant Targe type in use by the common clansmen in the second quarter of the 18th century, both by those armed for their own protection and those recruited into the Black Watch.


Fig 7: A Scottish “Five Shilling Targe” Donated to the National Museums of Scotland in 1782 Collection Ref: H.LN 37 


This observation is supported by the famous illustration of the Battle of Culloden by David Morier “An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745”, painted shortly after the battle. Morier was an artist renowned for his accuracy and is believed to have used actual Highland prisoners equipped with contemporary Highland weapons as his subject matter. Seven Targes are depicted held by Highlanders in a charge on a Redcoat line and six are clearly decorated with bosses and dome headed nails of similar type and size to ours, arranged in a variety of slightly varying patterns. This painting is in the Queens Collection at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (https://www.rct.uk/collection/401243/an-incident-in-the-rebellion-of-1745) in Edinburgh and reproduced in part in Fig 7 below.


See the source image

Fig 8: “An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745” (part) by David Morier 


The Targe measures 19.75 inches across (just over 50 cm). The condition is very good with only one or two nails missing from the front. The leather face is a hardened blackened condition. The rim folded over the edge is firm but fragile in places. The deerskin back is missing other than a few remnants attached to nails. The arm straps and hand-grip are missing. The absence of the deerskin back makes visible the original attachment nails for the straps and grip plus the wooden pegs which hold the boards together. The wooden planks are in fine condition, flat together and not warped.

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