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An Early 18th Century Highland Scottish Targe

Targes are shields which were an important item of Scottish clan weaponry. They were used in substantial numbers from the late 16th century until the middle of the 18th when weapons were proscribed in the Highlands by the Disarming Acts enforced by the British Government after the failure of the last Jacobite Rebellion in 1745.  After this clans ceased to function as independent military organisations. Targes were effectively used at close quarters in conjunction with basket hilted swords and dirks by Highlanders in single combat, skirmishes and particularly in the battle tactic that became known as the “Highland Charge”. Constructed from wood and leather, targes in general have not survived the rigours of time in the Scottish climate as well as other traditional Scottish weapons made of iron and steel. Genuine “period” targes dating to before the mid-18th century are now very rare.

Fig 1: Front View of the Early 18th Century Targe

The targe discussed here dates to the early 18th century and is a typical example of Highland craftsmanship. It 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 which is folded over the bevelled edge and secured at the back with a large quantity of small hand-made iron nails around the rim.

Fig 2: The Central Boss of the Targe

The leather is tooled with traditional Gaelic designs of roundels containing interlaced scrolls enhanced with circles of brass dome-headed nails and bosses. These features mark out the targe not only as a weapon but also as an example of Highland Gaelic art of which very little has come down to us.

Fig 3: Top right view of the Targe
Fig 4: Top left view of the Targe

The back is covered with a sheet of deerskin. The edge is fixed underneath the rim of the leather sheet folded over from the front and is secured to the wooden base by the same nails. The iron hinged hand grip remains together with the iron mounts for fixing the forearm strap which is now absent. It appears that a portion of the leather backing at some time was torn away to expose the wooden boards.

Fig 5: Bottom right view of the Targe
Fig 6: Bottom left view of the Targe

This missing portion was replaced with a small piece which was nailed onto the targe to fill the gap. This leather is of a different more delicate type and had become detached when the targe was made available for sale. Due to its fragile state it is stored separately.

Fig 7: The back of the Targe

The amount of work and artistic skill required to make a targe of this type is easy to underestimate. The tooling of the leather is an art form in itself. In its original state the targe front was mounted with 378 separate pieces of brass work of which 73% remain. Clearly this amount of work meant that elaborate targes like this were an expensive possession for the owner, valued not only as a weapon, but also as an expression of standing in clan society. Some targes also had a long working life indicated by repairs and updates to the decoration as fashions changed. The decoration on targes differed on a regional basis and changed over time although the core construction method was generally the same.

Fig 8: Close up of the Hand Grip of the Targe
Fig 9: Close up of arm strap fixings and leather back cover

Some targes depicted in early 18th century portraits are shown with a spike screwed into the middle of the central boss. Only one targe known today is still with its original steel spike (1). When the targe was not in use the mounted spike would be a cumbersome feature. As a result, on a day to day basis, it was stored in a leather sheath nailed to the back. Other existing targes, including ours, show evidence that they were manufactured for mounting with a spike. The central boss of this targe is fractured in the middle with a part of the brass missing revealing a wooden domed core beneath. This is drilled with a narrow hole through its middle into which a round-section spike would tightly fit and screw into a threaded metal plate which lies underneath the boss. Some targes which have lost their spikes retain a brass stud or other feature screwed into the boss. This was intended to protect the aperture from debris and damage, and for aesthetic reasons, when the targe was not mounted with its spike.

Fig 10: View of the side of the Targe
Fig 11: View of the side of the Targe

Overall the Targe is in fair condition and similar in this respect to the better preserved 50% of its surviving contemporaries. The leather to the front is complete though cracked in parts. Over time leather shrinks more markedly than wood and typically the leather on the front of this targe has shrunk around the rim pulling the edge away in places from the nails at the back which secure it. Around the edge the leather has split in a few small places revealing the bevelled cross-plied boards beneath. The thinner leather which forms the backing has shrunk more than the thicker cover at the front and has pulled away from the nails for one half of its circumference. The leather backing on many surviving targes is often absent presumably because it has become completely detached due to shrinkage and been disposed of at some time. The iron mounts of this targe are rusted, the hand grip is fused into its hinges and immobile. The leather to the front and the brass mounts are uniformly blackened with age. The diameter of the targe is 18.5 inches (47 cm).

Fig 12: The illustration of the Targe in James Drummond’s “Ancient Scottish Weapons” of 1881

The targe is illustrated in James Drummond’s “Ancient Scottish Weapons” published by George Waterston & Sons, Edinburgh in 1881, plate 2, fig 3. This series of watercolours did much to bring the uniqueness and aesthetic appeal of traditional Scottish weapons to the public eye at a time when collectors were interested in them but when little objective research had been undertaken. Some of the illustrations are of weapons with provenance from various private collections of the time and the National Museum of Scotland, then called the National Museum of Antiquities, in Edinburgh. The design to the front of every surviving targe is unique in one way or another. The damaged central boss, the conjoined roundels, style of tooled interlace and the circular designs cut into the triangular plates show that this is the same targe.

(1) See Jackie Moran, the “Ardvorlich” Targe in the Swords and the Sorrows, National Trust for Scotland, 1996, page 59, Fig:4.9.

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