Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Celtic Martial Arts

This is an article I originally wrote for The CR FAQ – An Introduction to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, but it was too long, so we edited it down and then published the full article separately. Since it was written, there have been some changes to the links, and I've made a few minor edits. Since the werewolf groups of Europe were associated with violence and fighting, it is of value to those pursuing a practice of lycanthropic spirituality. I intend to follow it up with a discussion of the importance of physicality to the practice.

General Introduction

As far as can be ascertained, there was never a single, unitary Celtic martial art form (not least because there was no single, unitary Celtic culture). There were, instead, a number of physical, mental and spiritual techniques used in training for martial activity. Some areas may have had, in ancient times, an organized system of teaching them, while others may have been more informal. No coherent school has survived from those ancient times; however, a great deal can be learned from the martial sports that are still practiced, as well as the written record of these techniques.

A number of martial sports still exist in the Celtic lands which are fairly certainly derived from combative techniques developed in early Celtic societies. These include some forms of “fixed-hold” wrestling, ranging from the Irish “Collar-and-Elbow” wrestling and Scottish Backhold to Breton Gouren to Cornish Wrestling. The “Catch as Catch Can” style of wrestling (which eventually branched into the pure entertainment of “Professional Wrestling”, as well as the combative submission fighting of Catch Wrestling) derives from northern Welsh and Lancashire wrestling. Even the minor sport of Shin Kicking (also known as “Purring”) seems to develop from fixed-hold wrestling of the sort called “Out-Play” (as opposed to “In-Play”). It should be noted that there are a number of fixed-hold wrestling styles from around the world, so the simple presence of a fixed-hold wrestling style does not indicate Celtic antecedents. The history must be examined carefully.

Boxing owes much (though not, by any means, all) of its history to fistfighting techniques in Celtic lands, notably Ireland. Many of the earliest professional boxers were from Ireland, both in Europe and later in America.

In Early Modern Europe, there seem to be three main styles of swordplay: the Mediterranean, the Germanic, and the British. By the time that fencing manuals were written down in Scotland (during the 18th Century), the British style seems to have come to dominate among the Highland Scots. However, there is also a series of sketches by an anonymous artist, called the “Penicuick Sketches”, which depict Highland Jacobite soldiers during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. If those sketches are accurate (and many details of equipment, clothing, and so forth have been shown to be accurate), then it would seem that the Germanic style also had an influence there. Many of the sketches depict “guards”, or methods of holding the sword and shield, which may be related to guards in Germanic fencing manuals all the way back to the first known one, Manuscript I.33 (also known as the Tower Fechtbuch), composed in approximately 1295 C.E.

In Ireland, one of the legal texts, called Bretha déin chécht (“The Judgements of Dian Cécht”), offers a fascinating glimpse into the knowledge a warrior would have learned. It includes a listing of twelve parts of the body to which an injury was considered especially grievous. In Scottish stories written down centuries later, those specific areas are still remembered as targets for the warriors of legend. In the Bretha Déin Chécht, those areas were called the “Twelve Doors of the Soul” (Da Dorus X Anma). A portion of that text which is of interest is included in this article.

Large swords, such as the Claidheamh Dà Làimh (sometimes mistakenly called a Claidheamh Mòr, which actually refers to the basket-hilted broadsword), or “two-handed sword”, seem by their design to be used very differently than the large Germanic two-handed swords. They are lighter, for instance, and have a number of other design features which indicate a different method of use than the German Zweihander (“two-hander”) or even the Long Sword (a smaller two-handed sword depicted in many of the 15th-17th century Germanic fencing manuals). However, the design of the Claidheamh Dà Làimh seems to fit the British style of polearm use very nicely.

Sources for Scottish Sword and the British Style

The oldest source for understanding the use of the polearm in the British style (and, in fact, for many other weapons in the British style) is the fencing manual written by George Silver consisting of two parts. The first, Paradoxes of Defence, was published in 1599, and mainly consists of Silver advocating the use of the broadsword over the newly fashionable rapier, though there is some discussion of the theory behind the system. The second part, which contains actual instructions for use of the weapons, was called Brief Instructions Upon My Paradoxes of Defence. It was, however, not published until 1898, after a copy of the manuscript was discovered in the British Museum. Silver developed many of his techniques during the wars in England of the late 16th century, and had fought against Irish, Scottish, and Welsh troops. There are reasons to believe that the use of various pole weapons described in Silver is the same for Irish, Scottish, or Welsh troops, as well as English ones.

After Silver, there are a number of fencing manuals written in the 18th century which expressly purport to describe the fighting styles of the Scottish Highlanders. Sir William Hope published several fencing manuals over his lifetime, starting with The Scots Fencing Master. Next came Donald McBane’s Expert Sword-Man’s Companion (excerpted here), in 1728, which consists largely of a memoir of the rather exciting and interesting life of the author, but also includes a discussion of weapon usage. Though McBane was born in the Highlands, he grew up in a town and learned his swordplay, it seems, from English and Continental sources, though there is a certain continuity apparent with the pedagogy of training among the Highlanders.

Mentioned above are the Scottish “Penicuick Sketches”, a series of drawings by an unknown artist in the Penicuick area during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, showing a number of armed figures, several apparently practicing swordplay. There is also a battle scene which shows some of the above-mentioned “guard” forms being used. In addition, there are a number of other paintings and drawings from various points in history which show battle scenes which seem to be based on actual observation rather than imagination, and which show the same sophisticated techniques as are described in the various fencing manuals.

In 1746, the year the Jacobite Rebellion was broken on the field of Culloden, Thomas Page published The Use of the Broad Sword, which purported to show “The True Method of Fighting with that Weapon as it is now in Use among the Highlanders....” Whereas the previous two authors had either ignored or only sketchily covered the use of the targe, or Highland target shield (and Silver preferred the buckler type of shield), Page describes the use of the targe in some detail. There are also some aspects of his manual which are unusual in European sword manuals of the time, such as the circular footwork and the concentration on equilibrio.

The end of the 18th, and beginning of the 19th, century saw the publication of detailed fencing manuals by Henry Angelo (pdf) and an anonymous “Highland Officer” (who we know to have been one Captain Sinclair) which continued the tradition of explaining the Highland style of fencing, which was a sub-style of the British style.

Of particular note is the remarkably coherent pedagogy (method of instruction) between all of these Highland manuals. Christopher Thompson, president of The Cateran Society, has written an excellent article on the subject, describing the system and condensing it. Unfortunately, he has chosen to remove it from access online, though many other useful resources are available through the Society. The Cateran Society is the leading organization in the world today researching, learning, and teaching swordplay from the Highland tradition, and is the source of most of the information about Highland swordplay in this article (though any mistakes are purely the responsibility of this author, and not the Society).

Of special note is the 1881 Book of the Club of True Highlanders, which purports to show techniques of using the two-handed sword. However, it has been shown that the diagrams there were taken directly from a Germanic fechtbuch (with added kilts), and were not from any directly-transmitted Scottish tradition, so it can’t be seen as a useful source for learning about a Highland or other Celtic tradition of swordplay. This is not to say that those techniques weren’t practiced in the Highlands of Scotland (after all, as we’ve noted, the Germanic sword style apparently had some influence there), only that this particular source is not useful in providing evidence either way.

Scots-Irish Instructional Institutions

In ancient Ireland, instruction in the martial arts seems to have occurred during the period of fosterage. This generally happened starting at the age of 7 or even younger, and would last a variable amount of time. High-ranking children, in fact, would be fostered to a number of fosterparents over the course of their childhood.
By the 18th century in Scotland, the formal system of fosterage had collapsed, though still informally practiced, so a different system arose to instruct youths in the use of weapons. A Taigh Sunntais was a school dedicated to this instruction. Young men (or, rarely, women) would learn how to fight, and would also be taught special exercises which were thought to improve the natural ability to fight. In Highland stories (and possibly in the Taigh Sunntais), these exercises were called Lùth Chleas, about which more below, but for now let it suffice to say that several have survived as the Highland Heavy Athletics familiar from Highland Games worldwide.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, after the native aristocracy was removed, the people had reorganized into a social system which approximated the older tuatha, while avoiding antagonizing the English overlords too much. This was the system of Factions which flowered most completely in the 19th century in Ireland and in America. Groups with names like “The Four-Year-Olds” or “The Dead Rabbits” would meet each other at fairs and engage in “battles”. While some deaths did occur, they were relatively rare, indicating (among other reasons) that the fighting was mainly recreational rather than murderous. There is quite a bit of indication that a young person could find instruction in the use of weapons in these groups, such as the existence of apparently organized methods of fighting with sticks (sometimes called “shillelaghs”). One of these styles of stickfighting survives today in the Doyle family, and Glen Doyle has been teaching students in the style in recent years.

The Factions disappeared with the rise of the Fenians and Irish Nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but some feel that the phenomenon of Football Hooliganism is a resurgence of the same impulse. However, hooligans don’t generally have separate, organized methods of instructing each other in methods of using weaponry or fists (they might go to a martial arts school or gym to learn karate or boxing), so they are not generally relevant to our discussion here. However, something of the mindset can perhaps be understood by comparison.

The Method of Instruction

The widely accepted method of teaching the martial arts in Europe up into the 19th century was to make use of “Set Play” or “Lessons”. These consisted of a defined series of movements for one or two participants. We have examples of such Lessons in most of the fencing manuals mentioned above, and in similar texts, such as Daniel Mendoza’s boxing manual from the 18th century. During the 19th century, the traditions of Set Play fell away, but it seems likely, given how widespread the practice seems to have been, that it was the way in which Celtic warriors had once learned the basics of fighting.

The term there, “the basics of fighting”, was chosen carefully, because Celtic warriors did not, apparently, stop at simply learning how to hit someone with a weapon. They also engaged in practices which today we might call “cross-training”, and in methods which were more clearly “magical” in nature. These techniques were known by the Irish and Scots as cleasa (“tricks” or “feats”). As noted above, more recent Scottish stories preserve the term Lùth Chleas, translated as “feats”, such as in this story on page 205. However, the most famous practitioner of cleasa was Cú Chulainn, who learned a number of them from the warrior woman and renowned teacher of martial arts, Scáthach, though he was also said to have learned a couple previous to his arrival at her school. Notably, he knew the “Salmon Leap” (Ích n-Erred) prior to arriving on Skye, where Scáthach was said to live. He makes use of it in his “application”, as it were, to her for instruction. Classical commentators, in discussing their battles against the Gauls, noted that the Celtic warriors would leap over the shields of their opponents. The “Salmon Leap”, it seems, may have simply been learning high jumping techniques and practicing them until the warrior could jump up in the air higher than most. A 19th century author, discussing Irish stickfighting techniques, noted that the Irish “are pretty active on their pins when fighting”, indicating a method of footwork that might have involved jumping.

The “Sword Feat” ( Faobhar Chleas) is described in some detail in the story Mesca Ulad (“The Intoxication of the Ulstermen”). It consisted of a dance engaged in prior to combat, involving juggling the sword and other impressive moves. Remarkably, a traditional step-dance from Scotland has survived, which involves a similar weapon. Called the “Dirk Dance” or Dannsadh Bhiodaig, it was given to Joan and Tom Flett, a couple who worked to preserve the Scottish step-dances, by Mary Isdale MacNab of Vancouver, who had been given the dance by D.C. Mather, a dancing teacher from Scotland who had emigrated to Canada in 1899. Mr. Flett passed the dance along to John Wesencraft, who taught it to Louie Pastore of the above-mentioned Cateran Society, among others. There are a number of reasons to believe that this dance is related to the Faobhar Chleas of the stories, including (not insignificantly) its resemblance to the description in Mesca Ulad. It’s likely that a number of other “feats” listed as known by Cú Chulainn were similar in nature (such as the “Body Feat”, which may have been a dance which demonstrated unarmed combat techniques). Another intriguing aspect of the Dirk Dance is a section where the dancer leaps up into the air, passing the dirk under his feet. This definitely begs comparison to the “Feat” of Cú Chulainn called the “Leap Over a Poisoned Stroke”.

There are a few other “feats” which have survived to the modern day, as well. Cú Chulainn knew the “Feat of the Pole-Throw” (Cor nDeled), which is almost certainly the same as the Highland Heavy Athletics sport of “Tossing the Caber”. The “Wheel Feat” ( Roth Chleas) is claimed (on page 7 of the linked document) to be the same as the Highland Heavy Athletics “Hammer Toss”. There are others, as well.

Some of the “feats” seem to be clearly described in the source material. One of the “feats” of Cú Chulainn that he learned prior to going to Scáthach was the “Feat of the Hole-Stone”, which was described as building a fire in the open hole at the middle of a large hole-stone, then having the student “perform” on it (that is, dance a weapon-dance or go through a series of movements like the Set Play discussed above) until the soles of his feet were blackened and discolored. If anyone thinks that might be a bit extreme, consider the “Iron Hand” training of some Asian martial artists, or the similar practice of some 18th and 19th century bareknuckle boxers of “pickling” their fists in brine. The “Apple Feat” was said to consist of juggling apples, and there are indications that juggling was also taught to German youths learning to fight with the sword. The “Breath Feat” was described as blowing apples up in the air. This may have been a form of breath training, teaching the student the sort of plosive breathing that can be very helpful in making a strike.

There are additional examples of more esoteric “feats”, such as the Gabhail Iolla chant of Conall Gulban, which may correspond to the Sian Churad (“Hero's Chant”) known to Cú Chulainn. The word sian refers to a hum of voices or a high-pitched whistling. Another word used for the chanting of warriors was dord, which seems to have originated in the idea of a wolf-howl, but came to be associated with a droning hum, just as sian.

Finally, there are the frankly fantastic “feats”, such as the “Thunder Feat” or the “Gae Bolga”, which seem to exist entirely for the purposes of story, but probably never existed in fact. The “Thunder Feat” was said to kill hundreds at a time, for example, something which doesn’t seem very likely to have a real antecedent. Another thing which separates these fantasy “feats” from the others is that they seem to represent actual, direct methods of attacking, while none of the real “feats” do. The real “feats” are means of improving conditioning or focus, or of intimidating the opponent. They are not methods of cutting someone with a sword or spear.

A few of the recorded “feats” are difficult to analyze for certain. Whether they represented real “feats” like the earlier examples above, or were poetic terms for fantastic flights of fancy is unclear. “Feats” such as “Stepping on a Lance and Straightening on Its Point” could be descriptions of methods of developing agility or could be over-the-top descriptions of magical flight (though it should be noted that instances of magical flight should be treated seriously, in the sense that many seem to be describing techniques of magical or spiritual, otherworld travel). For that matter, the “Hero's Salmon Leap” might even have been a method of magical flight in this vein, though I tend to the interpretation that it was physical jumping.

These two categories, gaiscí and cleasa (the first means “feats of arms”, the latter “tricks” - see the story of Conall Gulban, where Lùth Ghaisge and Lùth Chleas are used) seem to follow a common pattern in Celtic societies. We see this specific division, between fighting arts and “tricks”, in other Celtic lands. In Wales, for instance, Arthurian knights are sometimes said to have a “peculiarity”, which often resembles the “feats” in description, if not always in literary function. The underlying cosmological justification seems to adhere to the idea of “Summery” (samos) and “Wintery” (giamos) energies. This observation was first made by Christopher Thompson, head of the Cateran Society, now presented in a book of his published by Paladin Press, which also includes much else of interest to those pursuing Celtic martial systems. In this model, the gaiscí represent the “Summery” concept, being direct, open, active, and so forth. The cleasa, then, represent the “Wintery” concept, being indirect, secret, passive, assisting techniques.


This should give an overview of some of the sources to look to in learning about Celtic martial arts, both unarmed (such as boxing or wrestling) and armed. It also, hopefully, illuminates the general framework of ideas which the masters of martial arts among the Celts in general, and the Gaels specifically, made use in teaching the methods of defending oneself against violence. It can be seen that the ideological and cosmological assumptions found in Celtic mythology and religion in general also underlay the system of organizing training methods for martial activity.

(This article is a slight revision of my original version, which can be found online at Paganachd, as well as a number of other places around the 'net, though any but Paganachd, this post, and the cr_r community on Livejournal are probably infringing my copyright, being posted without permission, unless they are correctly attributed which was the condition of republication under the Creative Commons license of one earlier version. This version © 2011 C. Lee Vermeers, so please don't repost without prior authorization from me.)


  1. faoladh, I'm intrigued! I wish I'd found your article sooner.

    1. I'm glad that you like it. I have developed my understanding and ideas on the subject in the last five years, and have found a few small errors here, and I intend to write a new article on the subject at some point. Still, I am proud of this and am glad that you found it useful.