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A Very Rare Scottish Highland Jacobite Targe – Early 18th Century

This short paper describes an important Scottish Highland Jacobite Targe. The Targe dates to the early 18th century and probably to the time of, or shortly before, the 1715 Jacobite 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”. 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. 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 longer used. Today, genuine examples dating to before 1750 are very rare.

The 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 and wooden pegs. The front is covered with a single piece of leather attached to the boards by hand-made nails with brass domed tops which form a rim around the edge. Inside this perimeter, further nails of the same and smaller sizes form the shape of a Scottish thistle, flanked by thistle leaves with a crown on top. Tooled lines in the leather accentuate the outlines of these shapes. A prominent decorative central boss of cast brass is complemented by nine smaller bosses which highlight and complete the design.


Fig 1: Scottish Highland Jacobite Targe – Front


The thistle design, with crown above and leaves either side, is a historic royal emblem for Scotland dating to the early Stuart kings. It is first recorded as a Scottish royal symbol on silver coins issued by James III in 1470, which was almost certainly a continuation of earlier royal uses for the thistle of which no records survive. By the late 16th century, at the time of James VI of Scotland (I of England from 1603), the royal emblem had evolved into a signature design on one side of some Scottish coin types, consisting of a thistle head on top of its stem, with a leaf either side, and a crown on top. When James assumed the English throne in 1603 the design was continued alongside the English Rose emblem.


Fig 2: James I / VI Half Merk with Scottish Royal Thistle Arms dated 1602


After the Civil War periods in Scotland and England, and the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, James II (VI) revived and re-created the Scottish Order of the Thistle, issuing letters patent “reviving and restoring the Order of the Thistle to its full glory, lustre and magnificency” on 29 May 1687.

The earliest claim now taken seriously by historians is that James III, founded the Order during the fifteenth century, and allegedly conferred membership of the Order of the “Burr” or “Thissil” on King Francis I of France. In 1558 a French Ambassador described the use of the crowned thistle and the cross of St Andrew on Scottish coins and war banners.


Fig 3: Order of the Thistle crest and motto – Early 18th Century


The accomplishment of King James VII & II in restoring this Scottish Royal Order, can be attributed to John, 1st Earl and 1st Jacobite Duke of Melfort, then Secretary of State for Scotland, who together with his elder brother James, 4th Earl and 1st Jacobite Duke of Perth, then Lord Chancellor of Scotland, were among the eight Founding Knights. Eight knights, out of a maximum of twelve, were appointed before the King was deposed in 1688 and the long line of Stuart rulers and Stuart age ended.

James’s successors, the joint monarchs William III and Mary II, unsurprisingly, did not make any further appointments to the Order, which consequently fell into decline, but was revived again by Anne in 1703, in an effort to further tie the two nations together prior to “Union” in 1707. The Order survived from then on as a Scottish outwardly non-Jacobite institution, and today, is still the most senior chivalric order in Scotland.

Supporters of James, “Jacobites”, unsuccessfully attempted to reinstate the Stuart line through rebellion and uprising for the next 58 years until 1746, when his grandson, Charles, “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, and the Jacobite cause, was finally and thoroughly crushed at the Battle of Culloden and in its aftermath. The Jacobites used the crowned thistle crest, as well as others, as an identity banner, and the emblem appears on 18th century Jacobite wine glasses and other paraphernalia.



Fig 4: Jacobite Wine Glasses Circa 1745 with thistle motifs and centre / centre right with crown above


The appearance of the crest on a weapon, and particularly a Highland Scottish weapon, is pertinent given that the seeds of rebellion were frequently sewn in this remote region among the Jacobite clans. Other weapons with more subtle Jacobite motifs have survived but not many are known with such obvious symbolism (for a Scottish pistol with the thistle and crown crest, plus other Jacobite emblems dating to circa 1695, after the deposition, see the John Kirk Collection “The Royal Stuart Pistol” johnkirkcollection.com).

This Targe shows the Jacobite emblem of the thistle with a crown above and leaves either side stretching upwards from the stem and is most likely a sign of loyalty to the Stuart cause. It most likely dates to the period of the 1715 and  Jacobite Rising.

The Targe is constructed in the traditional manner described above. The outside of the leather surface is folded over the bevelled wooden edge all around the circumference and attached with a rim of hand-made iron nails near the edge on the back. A thin steel circular plate is attached with iron nails to the back, formed from separate hand wrought sections hammer forged together yielding rough forge lines imbetween. The mounting straps are now missing but the steel plate shows the holes where these were once attached.

In a paper entitled “A Type of Highland Target” published in “Scottish Weapons and Fortifications” edited by David H Caldwell pages 391 to 398, a magnificent Targe, now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is described by Claude Blair. 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 although period targes varied in construction and design, both contemporaneously on a regional and stylistic basis, as well as over time, it gives a clear parallel with the manufacture of our Targe (Taken from “Letters of Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun and his family, 1715-1716”, edited by 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 not known. In this letter he does admit that his knowledge is not perfect, but he is certainly well informed, and must have observed first hand a targemaker at work. He does say that targes are “very various” in their appearance and methods of construction. It seems also that the quality of the targe making he witnessed was of the best, by the best craftsmen. The stunning targe referred to above, arguably the best to survive, and dating to the early 18th century, was bought by the National Museums of Scotland from the RT Gwynn collection (Christies London 2001). It has a decorative brass central boss which unscrews to reveal an inner boss and a horn drinking cup formed in the manner described above. The inner boss is also engraved “Invernes 1716 WF” (probably a reference to the owner),  coincidentally the same date as Andrew Fletcher’s letter.

Firstly, he comments that targes are “convex” in shape. Most surviving Targes 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 illustration of the Battle of Culloden by David Morier, painted shortly after the battle, by an artist renowned for his accuracy. He is believed to have used Highland prisoners with Highland weapons as his subject matter, and two of the six targes depicted, are held side on by Highlanders in a charge and are clearly convex in shape. Whilst Henry comments that a central spike was a common feature on targes most were not made to carry a spike.




Fig 5: Scottish Highland Jacobite Targe Back with iron plate                                                    Green: Rear view fixing of central boss                                                                                                      Red: Nail holes for fixing of arm strap (left) and hand grip (right)                                                 Blue: Nail holes for fixing of sheath for spike


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.

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 arm 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 as a cushion around the fore arm of the user to give a more stable and comfortable grip,

We cannot tell whether a padded deerskin back once covered the steel plate of our Targe. However, the evidence of hand grips is clear with punched holes indicating where straps were once 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, the placement of the straps also ensuring that the crown depicted on the outside stands correctly upright when the Targe is mounted on the left arm.

Only one Targe known today is still with its original steel spike (see the “Ardvorlich” Targe in the Swords and the Sorrows, National Trust for Scotland, 1996, page 59, Fig:4.9). The spike screws into the central boss on the outside. When the Targe is not in use the mounted spike would be a cumbersome feature. As a result, when not in use, the spike of this targe is stored in a leather sheath nailed to the back. This is interesting because from this feature several 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 to the rear, punctured into the steel plate, are two almost parallel lines of nail holes, which in original form attached the leather sheath to the steel plate and indicates that the Targe once carried a reasonably long spike. For aesthetic and practical reasons, to stop the empty threaded aperture in the boss becoming damaged or filled with material when the Targe was not in use, and which may prevent the spike being mounted properly when needed, some targes threaded for a spike have the aperture filled with a threaded stud, presumably to protect it and finish the visual effect when the Targe was not in use.

Our Targe has a short, stubby, eight-sided iron spike which appears to be quite blunt and ineffectual, now fused into its socket, and not removable without potentially damaging the boss. Similarly, 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 from the scabbard length that the spike mounted on our Targe is too short to be the spike made for the sheath and for when the Targe was used in anger, the rows of nails to the rear indicate a much longer spike was once present. However, it does seem to be the original embellishment, in that the octagonal shape is like the octagonal blunt points on the nine secondary bosses. The main and secondary bosses are of brass, probably made by traditional sand casting methods similarly to those used to manufacture the solid brass grips for some late 17th and early 18th century dirks. The brass dome-topped iron nails to the front, and those without dome tops which secure the back-plate are hand-made and as a result, whilst similar in type, exhibit as expected small differences.

The Targe measures 19.5 inches across (49.5 cm). Henry Fletcher commented that targes are around 2 feet in diameter whilst most in our experience measure 19 inches to 21 inches across (48 to 54 cm). Overall the Targe is in fine condition compared to its surviving contemporaries. The leather to the front is almost complete, flaking, and fragile in some parts and pieces of the folded over leather rim are now absent.

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