Sciath and Starga: 16th Century Gaelic Irish Shields
Gaelic Irish shields in the 16th century seem to have been of two distinct varieties. The general word for shield, sciath, was originally applied to the most ancient form, an oval, concave wicker shield. Round, flat targets of wood, covered with leather and studded with brass nails, were known as starga, or targaid. As with so many cultural traits, this distinction between two types of shield is mirrored in Highland Scotland.
(The following notes are provisional, and will focus mainly on the wicker shield. The target proper (starga) will be dealt with in greater depth in a separate blog on the 16th Irish use of sword and target.)
The sciath (skeé-ă) is described in Joyce’s Social History of Ancient Ireland(1) as “the most ancient shields of wicker-work, covered with hides: they were oval-shaped, often large enough to cover the whole body [i.e., torso], and convex on the outside. It was to this primitive shield that the Irish first applied the word sciath, which afterward came to be the most general name for a shield, of whatever size or material. It is curious that this word sciath is still common in Munster [in 1901], even among speakers of English, and is applied to a shallow oblong osier basket—similar in shape and material to the ancient wicker shield.” Patrick Kennedy (1801-73) wrote several books on the traditions of his native Wexford, such as On the Banks of the Boro, and he mentions “the skeeogue, or flattish wicker basket” which he says is derived from Gaelic sciath (shield) which he spells “skiagh.”
Caption: Above: a sequence of three photos showing Peter Byrne of County Longford making what he called a “boat skib.” This is from the article, “Baskets and Their Uses in the Midlands”, published in Gold under the furze: Studies in folk tradition presented to Caoimhin O Danachair, edited by Alan Gailey and Dáithí Ó hÓgáin.
W. K. O’Sullivan’s notes to Eugene O’Curry’s lectures(2) also discuss “the generic name of the shield in Irish was Sciath. It was made of wicker work, like the shields of the Homeric heroes and of the old Germanic and Scandinavian warriors, covered with several layers of skin or tanned hide...” He says “The Irish, like the Scandinavians, used two forms of shields—oblong or oval and round. One form of the oblong shield was ellipsoidal, somewhat truncated at one end and pointed at the other and lower end, and sometimes slightly truncated at both ends of the longer axis.” He held that the round shield was generally of wood, that the oblong variety was of wicker work. This type of wicker shield figures in the Book of Invasions and other early literature, where warriors before battle are depicted straightening the wicker rods of their shields and coating the hide coverings with white lime.
An academic historian might look askance at applying these observations to possible 16th century Irish wicker shields. Like Joyce, O’Sullivan and O’Curry were prone to mixing periods in their descriptions, and O’Sullivan here is describing what he thinks was the ancient Irish shield—but as the Irish folklorist E. Estyn Evans cautioned, it is (or was, in the early 20th century) rash to assume any Irish tradition has died out. These descriptions, drawn in mostly from Old Irish texts, may nonetheless serve to elucidate the form of the old Irish shield in the 16th century. Indeed, it survived in vestigial form as a workaday basket nearly into our own time. It is indeed possible for old forms to survive for a very long time, and a shoe dated to 7,000 B.C. recently discovery in an Armenian cave in no way differs from the rawhide pampootie still made in the Aran Islands up to the 1980’s.
Late Tudor Irish Examples
The three textual notices of the wicker Irish shield are all from the 1590’s. This is all we seem to have from the Tudor era, and there is no confirmed pictorial evidence. Edmund Spencer (writing in 1596) was clearly referring to this wicker shield in his View of the Present State of Ireland. Pursuing his theory that the Irish are descended from ancient Scythians, he says, “Moreover, their long, broad shields, made but of wicker rods, which are commonly used amongst the said northern Irish, but specially of the Scots, are brought from the Scythians, as ye may read in Olaus Magnus, Solinus, and others.”(3)
A few pages later, he ties Irish cultural traits to the ancient Gauls, saying “… also that they used long wicker shields in battle that should cover their whole bodies, and so do the northern Irish. But because I have not seen such fashioned targets used in the southern parts, but only amongst those northern people and Irish Scots, I do think that they were brought in rather by the Scythians than by the Gauls.”
Then, noting cultural parallels between the Gaelic Irish and contemporary Spain, he says, “Likewise, round leather targets is the Spanish fashion, who used it for the most part painted, which in Ireland they use also in many places colored after their rude fashion.” Here again, we have the distinction of two types of shield, a long one of wicker, and a round one of leather, probably over wood.
In 1596, a Spanish delegation visited the rebellious northern Irish lords to deliver aid, assess their strength and needs, and plan an invasion. Lieutenant Cisneros and Ensign Alonso de Cobos filed reports afterwards, which are in the Spanish State Papers. Cisneros notes that the chiefs had 6,000 foot and 1,200 horse who carry provision sufficient for the time they are gone. The ground is too boggy for artillery. There are no trees in west Donegal. The Ensign’s report says “they have darts, bows and arrows, shields like ours, and a few harquebuses. No muskets. Others of their shields are like Hungarian bucklers. Their food is butter and milk, and it is not bought but received about as sustenance.” This echoes Spencer’s note that there are two types of Irish shield, one of round leather form like those of Spain, and another that de Cobos says resembles a Hungarian buckler. The latter is apparently our wicker shield.
Caption: Above left, Sixteenth century Hungarian Hussar shield, the most likely candidate for de Cobos' description. Above right, and a Hungarian shield from Gladiatoria Fechtbuch showing combat with so-called Hungarian bucklers.
Barnaby Rich’s (1540-1617) long military career involved much time in Ireland, and his many books make frequent reference to conditions in that country. In his Martiall Conference, between Captaine Skill and Captaine Pill (1598), Captaine Skill compares the trajectory of an arrow unfavorably with that of a musket ball. (Skill clearly did not favor Sir John Smythe’s arguments in defense of continued use of the longbow!) On the last page of the book, Skill says, “Now touching the effects of these weapons for their execution, the greatest perfection of the bow, is to gall a horse or naked men that are vnarmed, & the arrow easily defended with matters of light cariage, as our barbarous Irishmen, that inuented targets made of small wickers, like basket liddes, which weighing not aboue two pownd weight, would couer them from the toppe to the toe, and sometimes with their mantles hanging loose about their armes, which was the cause that our captains of that countrey, long sithence haue conuerted all their bows to caliuers, and from that time haue so continued. The musket shot is of a greater effect, both against horse and man, and who is he that can carry such an armour as will holde them out?”
Joyce (p. 131) mentioned that a champion would issue a challenge with a few resounding blows to his shield. This old custom, he said, was remembered in his own time (1901), and in the South West of Ireland a quarrelsome man was called Buailim-sciath (boolim-skee)—a swash buckler. The phrase means literally, “I strike the shield.” This confirms Joseph Walker’s footnote (in 1787), “There is to this day a proverbial expression amongst the vulgar Irish, that implies Striking the Wicker, by which a challenge is understood.”(4)
Immediately below his comment on striking the wicker, Joseph Walker adds a second footnote: “According to Guillim [Display of Heraldry, written 1611, printed 1724] the Highlander’s Shields were made of wicker, covered with skins.” The 1724 edition of this book is online in google books, but I have not been able to trace this quote. A hundred years later, James Logan repeats this, saying “The most ancient and most common shields of the Caledonians were, probably, made of interwoven twigs covered with hide.”(5)
The Scottish Wodrow MSS of 1678 say the Highlanders had “targets and shields of the most odd and antique form.”(6) This also appears to affirm two types of shield.
And there is supposedly a reference to “smaller round wicker targes” in Sir Walter Scott’s introduction to his novel Rob Roy (page xxxi), but I have not been able to trace it in any copy.
In 1699, Rev. James Kirkwood produced A Collection of Highland Rites and Customs.(7) Dealing with the old Highlander’s “Warrs and Armour” he says, “Shield of Oak and Willow Wands, narrow below and broad above. Targets made of Oak covered with bull-hyde of an orbicular Form . . .” So we have two types of shield, one of oak covered in hide and round in form, and the other of wicker, narrow below and broad above. Now, this description of the wicker shield is interesting and bears comparison with Eugene O’Curry’s description of the old Irish sciath:(8) “The common potato-sciath is a simple construction of stout wicker-work, of an oblong form, about three feet long and nearly two feet wide; having a depth of about six inches; the oblong not squared or of equal width at both ends, but tapering gradually to its termination, to a rounded and somewhat broad end at the top, and more gradually to a much sharper angle at the lower end.” He is describing the lowly farmyard basket of his own day, but echoing the quote we saw above from O’Sullivan’s Introduction to O’Curry, O’Curry himself believed this sciath preserved the memory of its more martial ancestor. He noted that of the names for shield, “Sciath was the most common; and it is a fact not without some interest, that this very name, probably because the particular kind of shield represented by it had become the most general form of the ancient Gaedhelic shield, is still preserved universally in almost every farmer’s or peasant’s house in Ireland, in connexion with a common household implement, which is framed like the kind of shield no doubt formerly used by the common soldiers at least. I alluded to no less peaceful an article than the sciath, or “scuttle,” as it is sometimes Anglicised in Munster, in which I dare say many of us have often seen potatoes carried to the stream to be washed; an article probably little different to the ancient sciath used for defensive purposes.”
And this is the sum of evidence we have for the wicker shield of Tudor Ireland. It is represented as being restricted to the north, large enough to cover the body (torso?), and very light. The light weight may argue against it having the leather covering expected by Joyce, O’Curry and O’Sullivan. And the prevalence in Munster of the sciath basket which they held to be the likely survivor of the old wicker shield is a bit at odds with the contemporary assertion that it was chiefly used in the north. Scottish evidence indicates this distinction between a wicker shield and a round leather target was a cultural trait shared by the Highland Scots.
1.) P. W. Joyce, Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vol. I (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1903) 124.
2.) Eugene O’Curry, On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, Vol. I (Dublin: John F. Fowler, 1873) cccclxiii
3.) Edmund Spencer, View of the Present State of Ireland, (1596) 87.
4.) Joseph Walker, Essay on the Dress of the Ancient and Modern Irish, (Dublin: George Grierson, 1788) 113.
5.) James Logan, The Scottish Gael, or Celtic Manners as preserved among the Highlanders, (Hartford: S. Andrew & Son, 1843) 172.
6.) Telfer Dunbar, History of Highland Dress, (London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1979) 205.
7.) Rev. James Kirkwood, A Collection of Highland Rites and Customs, (Trowbridge: Redwood Burn Ltd., 1975) 41
(8) O’Curry, op. cit., 330-331.