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A distinctive, early and rare form of Scottish basket hilted sword dating to the closing years of the 16th and the early years of the 17th centuries. The sword is a representative example of a type a now known as the “Wheel Pommel” type, due to the distinctive flat, horizontal, disc-shaped pommel with the tang-end secured with a square sided oblong nut on top.
The sword type exists in a time of change as James I of Scotland assumed the English throne upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. Scottish habits started to be adopted in England and a relative period of calm spread across Ireland as the various factions could no longer play off loyalties to England and Scotland to further their own interests. The Scottish Highland clans, particularly those in the West and Isles, not longer had an outlet for their young men to fight in Ireland in each summer raiding season. James was able to exert more control over the lawless Highlands and brought to heel the warlord chiefs with the Statutes of Iona in 1609. Part of the control measures referred to in the 1608 prelude to the finished statutes required that Highlanders cease their use of two-handed swords and instead use single handed swords and targes. These changes were probably taking shape anyhow as battle tactics evolved although usage of the two handed sword declined only slowly in the Highlands through the first part of the 17th century.
The wheel pommel type of basket hilted sword seems to appear in quantity (although now rare) at the beginning of this period. It has some features which were to evolve further in the 17th century as the basket hilted sword known as the “Irish” basket hilted sword – the forerunner of the later recognisably fully developed Scottish basket hilt, and into the “Ribbon” hilted sword seen as a distinctly Highland development.
The basket guard consists of a cross guard with a pronounced upturned forward quillon of rounded section and slightly swollen terminal. Underneath a shallow groove is present into which the shoulders of the blade sit. A knuckle bow consisting of an outwardly convex flattened iron extends upwards from midway along the front quillon up to the pommel. To the side two outwardly convex lateral bars also extend at right angles from the tang aperture up to the pommel. A flat horseshoe shaped iron band extends from the bottom of the knuckle bow to the front, and its arms terminate to the back of the hilt, where they butt up against the structural rear guard bar. At the base this creates four vacant segments between the bars centred on the tang aperture which are filled with outwardly convex plates pierced with small circular holes.
Above the horseshoe bar, another, in parallel, is formed near the pommel. Between these, at the front, a secondary guard bar is placed either side of the knuckle bow. The oblong shape of the resultant spaces between is filled with two sprung convex plates similar to those underneath. Further back along the hilt, each side, the space between the front panels and the rear guard bar is filled with five vertical bars, a middle bar, flanks by two pairs joined by a disc midway. A crescent-shaped additional rear guard bar is applied each side which curls into the rear quillon where the rear guard crosses. This feature is present on the later more simply designed English and Scottish basket hilts called “Irish”.
The upper lateral bar of the hilt is crossed vertically by the knuckle bow and the main side guard bars which are fixed onto a crescent of iron which slots into a groove cut around the base of the pommel for just over half of its circumference. The fixing of the lateral bar to the crescent is further reinforced by the addition of two further vertical bars which follow the line of the two panel applied to the left and right of the knuckle bow to create the rectangular panels for the pierced plates. This is the origin of the later design feature of “Ribbon Hilt” Highland swords which retain the crescent fixed into a groove around the base of the pommel with five small bar fixing it to the upper horizontal plate. Almost two and a half centuries later a similar five bar arrangement reappeared on “Pinch of Snuff” military basket hilts. Forward loop guards are not present on both the Wheel Pommel and Ribbon Hilt swords.
The side guards are formed from five vertical bars each side, one in the middle, flanked by pairs of bars with a disc in the middle. The hilt is also fitted with additional curved rear guard bars and an upwardly curved quillon to the front.
In the past there has been some debate about whether these swords may have of English manufacture as well as Scottish due to discovery locations. It is most likely that sword evolved in Scotland and found favor south of the border after King James VI of Scotland assumed the English throne as James I of England in 1603 and some Scottish fashions caught on.
The double edged tapering blade is of flattened lenticular section and dates to the late 16th / early 17th centuries. Two deeply incised fullers commence a short distance from the hilt on either side and run in parallel for 6.5 inches (16.5 cm). Three incised lines interspersed with dots, now feint, are also incised, one running between the fullers and one either side, which conjoin with crescents after the fuller terminals beneath a cruciform shape with diamond terminals to its arms. Each fuller is deeply incised with the name “I A C O B U S” (Latin for James) flanked by crosses. It is a matter of conjecture whether this name refers to King James.
elements of this sword type are the pommel and the basket guard.
Whist there are variations to this distinctive hilt type they do conform to a common pattern.
Our sword is almost identical to that in the National Museums of Scotland (Ref: LA 84) and illustrated and described in Volume 1 “The Scottish Basket Hilted Sword c. 1450 to 1600” by the Baron of Earlshall, Earlshall Publications, 2016, pages 305 and 306 (Figs: 213, 214 and 215). The minor differences being that the two frontal sprung plates are decorated on the NMAS sword with pierced crosses and the blade being a slender rapier blade compared to the broad double edged blade of our sword. Other similar examples are illustrated on pages 308 to 386 which cover this sword type in what is undoubtedly the most detailed and comprehensive survey of early Scottish basket hilted swords.