Real Highlanders fought using the Lochaber Axe

Lochaber Axe

Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, Highland warriors did not fight with large two-handed swords, nor did they us the immense Lochaber Axe portrayed in museums and photographs today. Though making a wonderful cinematic experience, the facts bear little resemblance to their movie-based counterparts.

The Lochaber Axe was a weapon first used in the late 16th Century, and which gained notoriety through famous battles such as the Battle of Aldearn in 1645, Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1690, Battle of Dunbar in 1650, Battle of Inverlochy in 1645 and the Battle of Kilsyth in 1645. Its name is a composite of Lochaber, and axe. It was widely employed up until the advent of firearms.

Lochaber, from the Gaelic Loch Abar, is a region in the West Highlands of Scotland. The large and rather sparsely populated region surrounds Fort William, and has been home to various Highland Clans throughout the past millennium.

An axe, generally used for splitting wood, cutting it, and further shaping it, is composed of a head and a handle, or helve. Axes are often portrayed in and around tombs and religious facilities, having special significance in heraldry and religion. Axes were originally used in farming and modified in many ways to function as weapons, including some with two opposite cutting edges and others a single edge attached to long poles.

The Lochaber Axe was the primary weapon of Scottish Highlanders, particularly when facing cavalry. Knowing they were on foot, and would be in combat against armoured, mounted enemies, the Highlanders knew they needed a weapon which could effectively combat those three components. Clan warriors needed a way to dismount a rider and be able to penetrate armour to defeat the enemy.

How it was constructed

The four key components of the Lochaber Axe include the shaft, or helve, a fine pointed spear tip on one end, and a blade with hook its opposite side. The spear tip could penetrate chain armour, something a blade would otherwise be fairly useless against. Rarely seen in photographs and museum pieces, this spear tip was a critical component of many designs, oft overlooked by historians.

The blade edge, typically a crescent, 12 to 18 inches in length, was effective against unarmoured troops, weak areas in an armoured opponent, and for disabling horses, thus turning its rider into a foot soldier. In many incarnations of the Lochaber Axe, the blade tip was very pointy, thus obviating the need for a spear tip on the opposite end. When not used against the horse itself, the blade was effective at cutting and slashing the legs of the rider, rendering him incapacitated.

The hook backing to the blade had two purposes. In the event of a siege, it could be used to scale walls. However, its most common employment was to dismount cavalry. As a rider approached, the Highlander would step back, hook the rider, pull him off the mount, and once on the ground slice with the blade.

The shaft, incorrectly reported by many sources, was in fact not 7 or 8 feet in length. As some historians have pointed out, the weapon would have been to large and unwieldy to be effective in combat, particularly when used by a man of 5 feet in height. Highlanders were not 7 feet tall, resembling Conan, Goliath, or other gargantuan heroes. Instead, they were slight, quick, and hardy. The warriors needed a weapon that could make use of their dexterity, and to do so it needed to fit their size. The average Lochaber Axe had a shaft of 4 to 5.5 feet in length.

Any depiction of a Lochaber Axe having a 7 foot shaft is either grossly incorrect or represents a ceremonial weapon, never intended for combat. The shaft itself was typically made of ash or other durable wood and the girth of a pitchfork, for easy grip and handling.

The Highlander weapon of choice, the Lochaber Axe, was a truly formidable weapon, enjoying great popularity in the 17th Century, and though much smaller than modern representations, was an important part of Clan warfare in its day.