Gallowglass Mercenaries – The Notorious Norse-Gael Soldiers of Fortune
The turbulent history of medieval Europe always called for abled and skilled warriors. Wars and battles depended on the ability of the soldiers, and a man who was skilled with a sword was a sought-after commodity. This gave rise to mercenaries - warrior elites that excelled in the craft of bloodshed. Some of these mercenaries arose in Scotland, Ireland, and England and were called the Gallowglass.
Descendants of Viking settlers and native Gaels, they arose to become dependable and mighty warriors, relying on the military prowess of their Norse ancestors to become a dominant fighting force in the British and Irish Isles. Today we are travelling to the gritty and overcast early Middle Ages in Ireland and the Hebrides of Scotland, where in the mist and grey weather we will discover - the Gallowglass.
The Norse-Gael Gallowglass Mercenaries
But before we talk more about the Gallowglass mercenaries, we need to acquaint ourselves with the history of Ireland and Scotland, from the early 9th century and onwards. The lives of its Gaelic natives were faced with sudden change - as Norse immigrants became increasingly present on their shores. For the large part, these Norsemen didn’t come peacefully. But nonetheless, the Vikings became influential in all of the British Isles and Ireland from the 8th century.
With the establishment of the Danelaw, their influence and superiority became evident, and their threat was undeniable. In Scotland, the Norsemen had a strong foothold. In the 9th century they established the Kingdom of the Isles. To them, it was known as the Suðreyjar, or “Southern Islands”, a term that helped them distinguish them from the “Northern Islands” - Shetland and Orkney Islands, which they also ruled.
This Kingdom of the Isles consisted of the Hebrides, the islands of the Firth of Clyde, and the Isle of Man. The Norsemen dominated the Irish Sea and the coastlines of both Ireland and Scotland. Throughout the history of this kingdom, which lasted up until the 13th century, the Norsemen were in conflict with the Kingdom of Dublin - that was also established by Norsemen. This always warranted intervention from the Norse Earls of Orkney.
But in these power struggles between the Norsemen, the Gaelic natives of both Ireland and Scotland were the ones who suffered. They were the poor and oppressed, and the Norsemen often raided the interior capturing slaves. Gaelic slaves were considered as thralls, and had little to no rights. But as the time progressed, and to the logical minority of the Norsemen, inter-marrying soon occurred, and the Norsemen were quick to assimilate into their host nation.
After a few generations, a new distinct group of people emerged - the so-called Norse-Gaels. These were the people of mixed Norse and Gaelic ancestry, the descendants of the Vikings that mixed with the Gaels and adopted their language and culture. In the centuries that followed, they became even further assimilated and disappeared as a distinct group, instead becoming fully Gaelic.
But before that happened, they emerged with a unique warrior identity, and became known in Irish as Gall-Goídil, and in Scottish as Gall-Ghàidheil, both terms meaning “foreigner Gaels.” This tells us that even then it was easy to distinguish native Gaelic speakers from those with a foreign ancestry - aka Norse origins. But over time they rose to power, and established several powerful purely Norse-Gaelic clans in the Scottish Highlands - many of which exist to this day.
The Foreigner Gaels – A Fierce Norse Heritage
It is here that the story of the Gallowglass mercenaries begins. The term Gallowglass is a corrupted Anglicization of the Gaelic term gallóglaigh ( pl.) and gallóglach (sing.), meaning literally - “ foreign young warrior.” It is clear that the Gallowglass warriors were markedly different from the natives, and their name was immediately connected with their foreign status.
But it was their prowess in the military arts that made them stand out, and carve their place in the history of the world. As the Norse-Gael identity became common, so did the Gallowglass. Around the early 13th century, several Norse-Gaelic clans arose in Scotland, and it is from these clans that the Gallowglass warriors came. For centuries, these Norse-Gaels enjoyed semi-independence, and were historically known as Lords of the Isles.
For the most part, their power rested on their fleets of galleys and their notorious Gallowglass warriors. That is why they mostly hailed from the Hebrides. These numerous islands were home to several prominent Scottish clans with Norse ancestry - the chief of them being the Clan Donald, whose chiefs held the lordship of the isles from their seat of Finlaggan Castle on Islay.
A carving of a Norse-Gael (Gallowglass) warrior. ( Public domain )
Gallowglass mercenaries stood out as heavily armed and armored, superiorly trained aristocratic infantry. They were the perfect choice for holding the line and standing against all odds. Numerous sources report that the Gallowglasses were notoriously brave, and would rather die in battle than yield to the enemy. In a time when Irish Gaelic foot soldiers were comprised of poor and untrained peasants, the Gallowglass were a welcome force that were able to tip the scales in the favor of those who employed them.
One source from 1600s describes these mercenaries as: “ ...picked and selected men of great and mighty bodies, cruel without compassion. The greatest force of the battle consists in them, choosing rather to die than to yield, so that when it comes to handy blows they are quickly slain or win the field.”
In time, Irish chieftains came to depend on these mercenaries, as they gave them an upper hand in inter-tribal conflicts. They also employed them as bodyguards and household guards - as they were somewhat foreign and were not susceptible to local feuds or choosing sides.
Likewise, the Gallowglasses depended on the chieftains as well - as a period of service was their crucial source of income.
Weapons and Attire of the Gallowglass
What did these mercenaries wear, and how were they armed? Several detailed descriptions survive, as well as a handful of contemporary illustrations, and we are today quite familiar with a standard Gallowglass outfit. Somewhat along the traditional lines of the Irish and Scottish dress, these warriors preferred to wear kilt-like clothes. The typical outfit was a knee-length chainmail over a padded jacket, and a helmet. There was not much in terms of pants - the legs were bare, similar to a kilt. Some warriors preferred to fight barefoot as well, most likely depending on their wealth or prowess.
But much more iconic were their weapons. Gallowglass mercenaries were an easily recognizable sight, and especially by their long battle axes. These were unique designs that developed in the region, and were known as sparth axes . These were around 6 feet long on average (1.9 meters), with a peculiar axe head, which followed a unique pattern of parallel curves. The axe was similar to a halberd, albeit only from a distance. It is a likely fact that the dominant use of long axes stems from their Norse heritage - an aspect of their ancestry that remained through the generations.
Representation of medieval sword, sparth axe (middle), and battle axe. (One lucky guy / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
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A claidheamh-mór was also a favorite choice of these warriors. Today, we know this weapon as a claymore - a huge two-handed sword that averaged around 4.6 feet (1.40 meters) long and was a symbol of historic Highland life and great strength. These swords required great skill and physical strength to wield and master.
Depiction of a medieval Gallowglass claymore sword. (Søren Niedziella / CC BY 2.0 )
Soldiers of Fortune – Born to Fight
Between 13th and 16th centuries, the Gallowglass were the prominent warrior force of both Ireland and Scotland, and formed the backbone of the Irish military. Estimates say that around 500,000 Gallowglass warriors fought in various locations during this period. They were a feared force that excelled in close combat, with superior infantry tactics. They were also known for their ferocity and brutality, and they made for a fierce sight in battle: tight rows of chainmail-clad men that would hack their enemies apart with the long-hafted battle axes and claymores.
As their importance increased, some Gallowglass became established veterans and some even owned land. These warriors had a personal retinue - similarly to a Norman knight.
A Gallowglass warrior of prominence was always accompanied with two kern warriors and a young ‘horse boy’. A kern was a light Irish infantry man, lightly armed and mostly un-armored. These young men acted as squires of sort, and would carry weapons and attend to the warriors’ needs. In battle the kern supported the Gallowglass warrior, usually by way of pole weapons, from the rear. The horse boy would also have had a battle role - sometimes armed with a bow and arrows, or with war darts - a type of giant ‘arrow’, which was thrown. In battle, this unit was known as a Sparr.
Drawing of Irish Gallowglass and three kern (right). (Albrecht Dürer (1521) / Public domain )
In time, Gallowglass warriors spread throughout the Scottish Highlands and through Ireland. Several septs of Gallowglasses emerged and settled throughout the region. Ireland received a large influx of Gallowglass septs after the Wars of Scottish Independence, which were fought from late 13th to the early 14th century. As they fought on the Scottish side, they were dispossessed of their lands and effectively exiled to Ireland. Today, many surnames bear an aspect of this history, as they stem from Norse-Gael Gallowglass septs. These include names such as MacNeill, Sweeney, McRory, McQuillan, McSheehy, McCabe, McDonnell, McDowel, MacDonald etc…
The Gallowglasses were the true image of men resigned to war and war only. They were the true mercenaries - living only to fight. They would come to depend on bloodshed, and it became the only thing they know. We can partially understand this high dedication to warfare by examining their home - the Hebrides. In these rocky windswept islands, life is a toil. The islands are difficult to farm, they lack wood and resources. Fishing is dominant, and life is hard.
It is clear that these men - descendants of adventurous Norse warriors - could not settle for the hard lives of Hebridean peasants. Their Viking genes were restless, and thus they sought a life of war and adventure, travelling across the world in the employment of kings and chieftains, doing what they did best - killing and waging war.
In Service of Kings and Chieftains
True soldiers of fortune, these mercenaries never shied from warfare. They would lend their axes to any man who paid sufficiently. Often enough, Gallowglasses from the same clans would find themselves on opposite sides. And even then, they fought on - in true mercenary fashion.
One of the biggest uses of Gallowglass warriors was at the notorious Battle of Knockdoe, in 1504. Known as one of the bloodiest battles in Irish history, it pitted the forces of the Lord Deputy of Ireland - Gerald FitzGerald, Lord of Kildare, and Ulick Fionn Burke, Lord of Clanricarde. Both sides employed several battalions of Gallowglass mercenaries, many of which fell on the field of battle.
An allegiance of a Gallowglass sept to a certain lord was “passed down” from generation to generation, and often lasted for decades. This meant that cousins were often pitted against each other, fighting for different lords. This also led to the emergence of long-lasting clan feuds. The most prominent Gallowglass septs and families were the MacSweeneys, McCabes, MacLeods, MacDonalds and MacDonnells.
Depiction of a Norse–Gaelic ruler of Clan MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. (Robert Ronald MacIan / Public domain )
The Gallowglass warriors developed certain battle tactics that helped define their infamous battle prowess. Numerous contemporary sources describe their battle tactics as brutal and swift. They would form a wall of men that dealt with any enemy through a “blizzard of axe blows.” Their sparth axes were a key aspect of this - they both kept the enemy at a distance not allowing them to approach, and also inflicted vicious wounds. They also developed a set of tactics that helped them deal with the superior Norman cavalry.
The True Hebridean Spirit
The Gallowglass mercenaries are some of the defining figures of a turbulent Gaelic past. They were a direct result of the mix of two warrior cultures - the Norse and the Celtic. The hard lives in Ireland and Scotland were the perfect climate for the warrior culture to develop. And alas, with the numerous conflicts that ravaged these lands throughout their histories, there never was a lack of work for these soldiers of fortune. And so they became the very fiber of the Gaelic identity.
Top image: Representation of Norse-Gael (Gallowglass) warriors in battle. Source: PatSM / Adobe stock
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