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Targe & Dirk

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Catalog of The Third Park Lane Arms Fair, London, 1986.

The Dirk and Targe – their use together


“The Scottish Highlander, if his target was not furnished with a spike, held his dirk in his left hand point down to prevent his adversary from closing in on him.”(1) So said C. E. Whitelaw in an unpublished and undated paper which has formed the basis of the limited research carried out since on the Highland targe. It is probable that he formed this opinion from the painting entitled “An Incident in the Scotch Rebellion – 1745” by P. D. Morier which is considered to represent the Battle of Culloden. The picture clearly shows two soldiers of the front rank of the Scots army holding dirks in this fashion, but I know of no other contemporary illustration where the dirk and targe are portrayed together in that manner.

Whitelaw reaffirmed this theory in his paper “The Origin and Development of the Highland Dirk”(2) where he said: “The latter form *[baluster form of dirk handle] prevailed… although… quite unsuited to the hand when holding the dirk in the required manner (point down)….” A. V. B.

Norman disputed the “point down” theory in his paper “Early Military Dirks in the Scottish United Services Museum, Edinburgh”(3) where he said: “The statement that the dirk was ever carried point down has been frequently questioned. Nearly all knife fighting is done with the blade upwards.” Exactly what Whitelaw must have meant is therefore open to new interpretation as it is self-evident that the most practical way to use a stabbing weapon is point forwards in order to come up and under an opponent’s guard and edge upwards to maximise the damage once the thrust has been driven home.

It is impossible however to ignore the evidence of Morier, an artist who paid great attention to detail, and if we are to accept his evidence we must address ourselves to the dual question: How was the dirk held, and why?

There is a dearth of information on the Highland target, the only work of value in recent years being “The Highland Targe” by Stuart Maxwell.(4) This demonstrates a typology based on the decorative designs on the face of the targe, while paying little attention to the reverse.

* The words in the square bracket are mine. They do not appear in the original article.

Scottish targes are circular, the mean diameter being 19-1/2 in., and are very strongly constructed of oak or pine. I do not discount the possibility of other woods being used as available – simply that those I have examined were of the aforementioned timbers. Examples made of oak tend to be a little thinner, those made of pine somewhat thicker. For weights of targes in my collection see below. The thickness of the wood itself is around half an inch. Targes all seem thinner and heavier at first than one would expect. I have examined one in the National Museum of Antiquities backed by a steel plate(5), which is so heavy that one doubts if it were usable.

In every example where damage – or X-ray – permitted examination of the method of manufacture, this is of two-ply construction, each ply being laid crosswise to the other and made up of irregular number of planks of various widths. Some individual boards may be over half the width of the targe, others being as narrow as a couple of inches. The planks of each ply simply butt together and are not otherwise joined; however the two plys are pegged together with one or more concentric rows of dowels, together with random pegs where necessary.

The backing is most commonly cow or calf skin, which normally retains still quite recognisable brown fur, or deerskin, usually nearly bald, with the remaining hair often bleached white with age. I have heard of seal skin being used, and I have seen black fur which could be mountain goat. The backing is frequently simply of plain leather.

In order to absorb shock, stuffing was often packed under the backing leather. Any convenient material seems to have been used – scraps of calf or deer skin, loose deer hair (presumably scraped off when the hide was being tanned for leather), and straw are all encountered. The stuffing sometimes fills the entire back of the targe, but more commonly is just round where the left arm makes contact. In the latter case two parallel strips of leather, about 6 in. to 9 in. apart and running between the hand grip and the arm loop, hold the stuffing in place.

There are frequently two strips of leather on each side of this forearm pad, sometimes at right angles to the pad between it and the circumference of the targe, but usually forming triangles in the areas above and below the pad. Their purpose seems obscure, perhaps simply to keep the backing hide in position. They are frequently omitted. Occasionally spike scabbards are found, some quite short, suggesting spikes of various lengths. Certain targets which one would have expected to have borne spikes are found without scabbards. Loops for holding a strap to carry the target on one’s back I have never seen.

Targes are described by most authorities as having an arm loop (or two arm loops or a sleeve), and a hand grip. Where the arm loops still exist, they are usually nailed – sometimes quite insecurely – to the back, otherwise they are attached via a pair of iron staples (Fig. 3) which provide a much better fixing. Most surviving handgrips are of leather, and as thick as a sword grip where they cross the palm of the hand because they are given a core of wood, rope, or similar material which will afford a substantial hold. The ends are nailed to the back of the targe, or are sometimes fixed via staples in the same way as the previously mentioned arm loop.

Considering the bulk of such a grip, in addition to the thickness of a dirk hilt, it is plain that it should be manifestly impossible to hold a dirk and targe together in the way described by Whitelaw and depicted by Morier. The thought that the hand might be pushed under the handgrip to grasp the dirk beyond may be quickly dismissed as wholly impractical. It is almost impossible to force one’s hand under a grip, and where possible extremely uncomfortable. The projecting hand would provide an easy target for a sword cut or bayonet thrust, and the targe would pivot about the axis of the forearm if struck off centre.

I would suggest therefore that where the dirk and target were used together, the target was provided with a quite different form of grip. This I can demonstrate to be true, though the alternative type of grip was mentioned (and illustrated) over a century ago in Anderson and Drummond’s ”Ancient Scottish Weapons”, where targes are described as having “…a handle, sometimes of leather, sometimes of iron”. The authors do not further elaborate. This “iron handle” is rather poorly drawn, therefore it is hardly surprising that it was overlooked by subsequent authors.

Its appearance and its method of attachment is somewhat like that of the loose brass D-shaped handles on late 17th/early 18th century English furniture. The grip portion which crosses the palm is made from a rectangular sheet of iron, about 3 in. long, curved about its long axis to give the appearance of a cylinder about 1 in. in diameter which has been split lengthways. The “legs” of the handle, which may be forged from the same piece of iron or welded on, are about 1-1/2 in. long and terminate in short, right angled “feet”. These project through the rings of two split pins which open out, it would seem, between the two plys of the wooden core of the target. From the illustrations it will be evident that this is the only type of handle which will allow the dirk and targe to be utilised together. Why then did some – obviously not all – Highlanders fight with the dirk in this manner? The commonly held impression that the dirk could be used from such a position as an offensive weapon is quite erroneous. It is highly unlikely that any advantage could be obtained by making clumsy backhanded slashes, with the left arm weighed down by nearly half a stone of targe!

1 stone = 14 pounds

There are, I suggest, two reasons which might explain the practice – the obvious one being that it provided the man easy access to his dirk, when in the heat of action the press might be too great for him to be able to wield his sword. By the same logic, should he have lost or have had to discard his sword, he would be at a momentary disadvantage while drawing his dirk, this normally requiring both hands. The other, perhaps wore speculative reason, is that the dirk in the point-down position might have been used as a parrying weapon.

Because of its dimensions the targe protects mainly the upper part of the torso, leaving the lower part and the legs exposed to a low sword cut or bayonet thrust. Such an attack could be parried by a lateral and downward movement of the targe, so as to lock the opponent’s weapon between the dirk blade and the edge of the target, thus unbalancing the adversary and exposing him to a swift counterattack.

We can conclude therefore that Morier’s depiction of the targe and dirk in use is essentially accurate, with the understanding that such targets would have been provided with suitable iron handles. Subsequent suggestions concerning the reasons for use in this manner have to be treated with circumspection, and the likelihood of the dirk being utilised as an offensive weapon from behind the targe is remote. That the dirk could be held point downwards behind the targe simply for ease of access and/or as a parrying weapon has to be much more realistic.

(1) My thanks to Dr. David Caldwell of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland for giving me access to this paper.

(2) Whitelaw, C.E., “The Origin and Development of the Highland Dirk”, Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, New Series, vol. V. 1908

(3) Nornian, A V. B., “Early Military Dirks in the Scottish United Services Museum, Edinburgh”. Journal of the Arms & Armour Society, Vol. IV, No. 1, March1962.

(4) Maxwell, S., “The Highland Targe”, Scottish Art Review, Special Number, No.9, No.1, 1963.

(5) This targe is in the Scafield Collection in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. My thanks to Dr. David Caldwell for letting me examine this targe and the others in his care.