The thread about pikes, battle rattles and Leith axes; Scottish weaponry of the 16th century and its role in policing the town

I have a very interesting little Osprey Publishing book by Jonathan Cooper called “Scottish Renaissance Armies, 1513-1550“. It is beautifully illustrated by Graham Turner.

Scottish Renaissance Armies, 1513-1550

I had a notion to get my hands on a copy ever since I saw this picture of some of the Scottish troops at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547 and the man captioned as a “Rattler”. I had no idea what a “Rattler” was, but clearly he had brought a piece of wood and a metal balloon on a stick to a gun fight.

“The Rattler”, illustration by Graham Turner.

Fortunately this book can reveal all, thanks to the meticulous observations made by an English Officer, William Patten, who was present at the battle and was taking careful notes. What I disparagingly referred to abone as “pieces of wood” were infact… pieces of wood!

They were new boards’ ends cut off being about a foot in breadth and half a yard in length; having on the inside handles made very cunningly of two cord lengths

Observations by William Patten after the Battle of Pinkie

Patten continues, “These in Gods name were their targets against the shot of our small artillery“. Targets refers to a small shield, as in the Highland Targe, from Old French targa. Patten suggests they were trying to defend themselves from gunfire with these. And as for the “rattle”?

And with these we found great rattles, welling bigger than a belly of a pottle pot covered with old parchment or double paper, small stones put in them to make a noise and set upon a staff more than two ells* long

Observations by William Patten after the Battle of Pinkie

( * = An ell was a unit of length c. 37 inches long.)

But why carry a child’s toy into battle in the first place? “This was their fine device to frighten our horses, when our horsemen should come at them.” So the rattle isn’t a toy, it’s a cunning 16th century psychological warfare device deployed by the Scots. Except, as Patten continues scathingly,

Howbeit because the riders were no babies nor their horses any colts they could neither duddle the one nor affray the other. So that this policy was as witless as their power forceless

Observations by William Patten after the Battle of Pinkie

It’s still intriguing; the Scottish army at Pinkie was not that militarily backwards. It was a large and reasonably well equipped force and was used to facing the enemy with proper weapons. And would the noise of a rattle even been audible in the midst of battlefield that included many cannons and handguns? I doubt it.

Patten notes that these devices were found in the Scottish camp after the battle, they weren’t recovered from the field. So perhaps it had another use? Maybe it was to create a noise to help encourage the men, or get raw levies used to the din of battle? Perhaps this was just a piece of post-war, anti-Scottish propaganda, as is very common in battle reports. As the saying goes “history is written by the victors“.

Patten also refers to the “[Pope’s”] rattelbladders” (thank you to Michael W. Pearce for this observation) and the “Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language” suggests that this is the root of an old term Rattlebag, for one who “bustles from place to place, exciting alarm on what account soever

The Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language
The Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language

The artist’s notes by Graham Turner for the image describe that the Rattler is “assessing his chances should be be asked to carry these items in combat” and it’s “little wonder” they were left behind in the camp. He’s basically doing a 16th Century “Aye, Right“.

The principal weapon of the Scots foot at Pinkie, and in the 16th century as a whole, was of course not the rattlebladder but the pike, as it had been for some 250 years.

The Scottish pike formations begin to break at Pinkie in 1547. Contemporary print. CC-BY-SA National Galleries Scotland.
The Scottish pike formations begin to break at Pinkie in 1547. Contemporary print. CC-BY-SA National Galleries Scotland.
Scottish pike formations loyal to the Confederate Lords at Carberry, 1576. Engraved from a contemporary painting by George Vertue, 1742
Scottish pike formations loyal to the Confederate Lords at Carberry, 1567. Engraved from a contemporary painting by George Vertue, 1742

While tactics had changed they still required at the most basic level a long, stout pole (mandated by the Scottish Parliament to be 5 to 6 ells – or 15.5-18.5 feet – long). These were made from ash wood and imported from the continent as Scottish trees could no longer supply them. A 10-12 inch steel head was stuck on one end (these were produced locally), and strips of steel were riveted down the head of the pole to make it harder to chop off. If you lost the tip, you were left with a long wooden stick or your small side sword to defend yourself with.

A modern re-enactment of 16th century Swiss pikemen, the pikemen to beat all pikemen. Note the steel strips down the head to protect it from snapping and chopping. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Rama
A modern re-enactment of 16th century Swiss pikemen, the pikemen to beat all pikemen. Note the steel strips down the head to protect it from snapping and chopping. CC-BY-SA 2.0 Rama

A development of the pike was the halberd. This had a spike – like the pike – but also a chopping axe head on one side and a piercing hammer spike on the other. It was a shorter, handier and more multi-purpose weapon. The English halberdiers inflicted a bloody defeat on the Scots pikes at Flodden.

Halberd heads
Halberd heads

But while the pike remained the favoured weapon of Scots armies on the field – even after firearms came along – for personal defence weapons like the halberd were more useful. Pikes were too long and too unwieldy for personal combat and really only effective when used en masse. “A halberd was often the weapon of choice kept in a man’s home“. In Edinburgh, burgesses and townsmen were permitted to keep a halberd in their shop or premises “for self defence and to quell the general lawlessness“.

In 1633, when King Charles I eventually made his way to Edinburgh for his Scottish coronation, the burgh’s “trained band” (a sort of local military reserve, at a time when there were no standing armies) turned out in “white satin doublets, black velvet breeches and feathered hats” and were armed with halberds and muskets.

Sketch of the Edinburgh trained band in 1633, armed with muskets (known as Hagbuts) and a halberd
Sketch of the Edinburgh trained band in 1633, armed with muskets (known as Hagbuts) and a halberd

The Edinburgh Town Guard (the 16th – 19th century equivalent of a police force) had sergeants armed with halberds, but when not carrying muskets the guardsmen carried a similar weapon called a Lochaber Axe, with which they would have been familiar as many were elderly soldiers drawn from the Gàidhealtachd.

Shon Dow (John Black), caricature of a Highland member of the City Guard carrying a Lochaber Axe, by John Kay, 1790s
Shon Dow (John Black), caricature of a Highland member of the City Guard carrying a Lochaber Axe, by John Kay, 1790s
"A Soldier of the City Guard", David Allan watercolour c. 1785
“A Soldier of the City Guard”, David Allan watercolour c. 1785

Halberds and Lochaber axes, like pikes, required a stave and again these were often imported from the Low Countries, with the heads made locally. Leith reputedly had a roaring “halberd industry“, which makes sense as the wood was probably entering the country through her port. Leith’s importance as an industrial centre for putting sharp, pointy bits on the end of wooden sticks was such that a form of weapon called the Leith Axe became common in the early 16th century. It’s described as looking like a “bardische” or “glaive”

Victorian illustrations of Scottish glaives, bills and other bladed pole weapons of the 15th - 17th century. From "Ancient Scottish Weapons" by James Drummond and Joseph Anderson
Victorian illustrations of Scottish glaives, bills and other bladed pole weapons of the 15th – 17th century. From “Ancient Scottish Weapons” by James Drummond and Joseph Anderson
"Mary Led through the Streets of Edinburgh after the Battle of Carberry Hill" by David Allan, mid-late18th centurty. Note the soldier at the front chasing away the crowds with a poleaxe. CC-BY-SA National Galleries Scotland.
“Mary Led through the Streets of Edinburgh after the Battle of Carberry Hill” by David Allan, mid-late18th centurty. Note the soldier at the front chasing away the crowds with a poleaxe. A short, handy weapon, could this be a Leith Axe? CC-BY-SA National Galleries Scotland.

I’m not sure where the Leith Axe stops and the Lochaber Axe begins, the two are very similar. A difference seems to be that the latter was often equipped with a hook – often it’s suggested this was to assist in dismounting horsemen, but equally plausible was this was merely to hang the weapon up in the guardhouse.

Victorian illustration of Scottish Lochaber axes and similar of 17th and 18th century. Number 7 is from the Edinburgh City Guard.  From "Ancient Scottish Weapons" by James Drummond and Joseph Anderson
Victorian illustration of Scottish Lochaber axes and similar of 17th and 18th century. Number 7 is from the Edinburgh City Guard. From “Ancient Scottish Weapons” by James Drummond and Joseph Anderson

Anyway, Shon Dow (In Scottish Gaelic it would be Iain Dhu, in English, John Black) became the stereotype of the elderly, curmudgeonly, Gaelic-speaking, fond-of-a-dram Edinburgh town guardsman in Georgian caricature. He is always shown holding his Lochaber Axe close, legend had it that he could fell a rioter with a single strike from it. The Guard were usually issued with muskets and bayonets, but the Axes were issued for night patrol work and for what we would call “public order policing”, where it was handy in the confines of the City closes and wasn’t slow to reload like a musket.

John Dow, June 1784, a satirical print. © The Trustees of the British Museum
John Dow, June 1784, a satirical print. © The Trustees of the British Museum
A Member of the Edinburgh old Town Guard, William Lizars,1800. © Edinburgh City Libraries
A Member of the Edinburgh old Town Guard, William Lizars,1800. © Edinburgh City Libraries

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