Despite common perception, armour was in fact not uncommon in the Highlands up until the 17th century, at least for the elite of the clan warriors. There are a number of written references describing Highland armour:
1) In 1322, at the seige of Roxburgh, Donald of the Isles came with a great body of men “armed in the Highland fashion, with habergions, bows and axes”, indicating mail was the common form of Highland armour.
2) The description of John, 10th Lord of the Isles, from 1498 in the Red book of Clanranald lists a mail coat “well meshed, light, of substantial steel, beautifully wrought, worn over a “fine tunic, beautifully embroidered” and a “silk jerkin”.
3) In 1521 John Major wrote “In times of war they cover their whole body with a shirt of mail of iron rings, and fight in that”, but added that “the common people of the Highland Scots rush into battle, having their body clothed with a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch, with a covering of deerskin”
4) The booty of a Scottish pirate captured in 1564 included a substantial amount of armour, specifically “xij mailye coittis; xi lesert skynnis; fyve paintit claythis of the forborne some”, which would be mail, leather garments and tarred leines.
5) Donald Dubh’s men in Ireland in 1545 were described as “very tall men, clothed, for the most part, in habergeons of mail, armed with long swords and long bows, but with few guns”.
6) John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, in 1578, wrote “For defence, they used a coat of mail, woven of iron rings, which they wore over a leather jerkin, stout and of handsome appearance, which we call aeton. Their whole armour was light, that they might the more easily slip from their enemies’ hands if they chanced to fall into such a strait.”
7) A roll taken by the Earl of Atholl in 1638 recorded 11 breastplates and 1 coat of mail.
8) At Killiekrankie in 1689 many of the clansmen were recorded as wearing helmets, mail, breastplates or leather armour and a few, such as MacNaughton of Dunderave’s son, were in full plate. Sir Ewan Cameron was described as wearing a “cuirass of leather”, MacIain of Glencoe was “covered as to his breast with raw hide” and Dundee himself wore a steel breastplate and helmet.
9) For what it’s worth, Logan talks of “leather coats” being worn over mail, and MacIan’s illustrations of medieval Highlanders show Ferguson and MacArthur in a leine , MacIvor in a long pleated tunic, the Lord of the Isles and MacPhee in mail worn over a tunic, and MacInnes and MacLaurin in mail and tunic, with a leather waistcoat on top.
The armour listed in these sources is thus:
a) full plate
b) steel breastplates
d) a leather-faced, pleated and tarred type of leine
e) various leather garments; “cuirass of leather”, “rawhide”, “lesser skins”, “stout leather jerkin/aeton”
If the graveslabs of the west Highlands can be used as a guide, the most common form of Highland armour was the cotun or aketon , a leather garment that was quilted into tubes and stuffed with cotton, wool, or other material to form a rigid yet subtle and well padded form of light armour. Some of the armour described in (e), such as the “cuirass of leather”, were probably cotuns.
It is usually assumed that the cotun was primarily worn under mail, as seems to be implied by John Leslie in 1578, but from my experiments so far I think this was unlikely to be the usual habit. The cotun is light but fairly rigid, while mail is heavy but has the great advantage of flexibility. When you wear both, you get the worst of both worlds, the weight of mail and the rigidity of leather. *Perhaps* my cotun will soften and loosen up as it gets worn in, but I think it’s more likely Leslie’s “aeton” was a leather-faced leine, as probably was one of the Lord of the Isles “fine tunic” or ” silk jerkin” worn under the mail.
I have pictures of 21 Highland grave effigies, dating from 1325 up until around 1650. Of these, 13 are wearing cotuns alone, one is in a long pleated tunic only, 6 are in full plate, and 3 are in mail. Of these, there is no indication as to what is being worn underneath the mail except on MacLeod of Harris (1528), where two long pleated undergarments are protruding from the bottom. While one of these could be interpreted as a cotun, the same carving style is used to depict the heavily pleated robes on clerics in neighbouring carvings, and I think he’s far more likely to be wearing something akin to the “fine tunic” and “silk jerkin” if the Lord of the Isles.
There is a distinct difference between the West Highland and Irish galloglass material. All the Irish effigies I have are wearing mail – there are no cotuns alone, and no plate. Only one is definitely wearing his mail over a cotun, which proves it was done sometimes – although it would be very heavy, akin to full plate. The most telling illustration, however, is Durer’s galloglasses. Here there is one in a full-length cotun alone, and one in mail over a tunic, which is not a cotun.
In conclusion, the pre-Jacobite Highlanders wore 4 different sorts of body armour, in probable order from commonest to rarest:
1) The leine “a linen garment manifoldly sewed and painted or daubed with pitch, with a covering of deerskin” (I have the material to make one of these, but haven’t yet, as I am unsure about the “tarring” part of the process)
2) The cotun, a leather garment quilted into tubes and stuffed with cotton, wool, or other material.
3) Mail, worn over a leine or tunic
4) Plate armour, ranging from steel breastplates to full plate
I haven’t found any conclusive evidence for buff-coat style leather coats, though they are a distinct possibility too
No Highland cotuns have survived, but there is a French “arming coat” which provides an indication of how such garments were constructed
The cotun was made of leather or linen, quilted into tubes and stuffed with cotton, wool, or other material. Most graveslabs indicate long sleeves, sometimes with extra elbow protection in the form of leather couters and leather straps.
So how do you make one?
You will need
A: Leather – something tough but light and flexible
B: Linen for inner lining
C: Felt or similar, for inner lining
E: Waxed thread and needle
Cut out a torso shape from cardboard as below. Keep the arm-holes big and the shoulder-straps narrow, and check for arm-movement. The slit at the back of the neck is important for getting it on and off. Tape it together and check it for fit, and make sure you can bend down and get it off without tearing the cardboard.
Cut out these shapes in linen, felt and leather, but distort them wider than necessary, especially the leather, perhaps by 25-30%. All should have a 1cm margin around them as well.
Cover the felt in the linen. This is to make a tough inner lining that’s not scratchy against the skin. If you leave out the felt stuffing the tubes will be harder, and they may “puff up” too much, but if you use leather on the inside the garment gets very sweaty. This is the best solution I’ve found yet.
You will now have a linen-covered-felt shape for the inside, and a slightly larger leather bit for the outside. Draw vertical lines down them – about 3cm wide for the inner lining, 3.5cm on the leather.
Now sew the inside and outside together along the top only, such that the lines match up. I use blanket-stich for this.
Pick a line in the middle and sew the inside and outside together, making sure you follow the lines you drew. Now move one over and start to sew the second strip. You should use two needles, one on each end of the thread, so you can sew the strip complete down about 15cm at a time. When you have a bit of ” tube”, you can start stuffing it with cotton. Use something blunt, such as the handle of a wooden spoon, to pack the cotton in tightly. When you’ve stuffed that section, sew down another 15cm. Work your way down until the entire tube is done, but leave the bottom open for now.
Keep sewing and stuffing. This is the time consuming bit! Work you way outwards from the centre, and try to stick to the lines you’ve drawn. There will be some distortion at you move outwards…
When you reach the end, blanket-stitch the sides together. Then repeat the process for the other 2 pieces.
When you have the back and front pieces done, you can try them on. Because the tubing puffs-up when stuffed, it might be too small. I had to add darts of 2-tubes each for it to fit me properly, as can be seen in the picture. If you left excess leather and it’s too big, good for you, just trim it to size. Try and get a tube or two overlap at the front…
Now repeat the entire process for the thigh-pieces, except leave the top open, or leave a cm or so unstuffed. I curved the top of them, as in the picture below, but this was a *bad idea* and made it bend in a weird way. Keep it straight!
Triangular shapes can be dealt with as shown below.
Now you can sew the skirt to the torso. You may have to pull some stuffing out of the top. Use strong thread, and lots of it!
Now you can put the whole thing on, and do the ties. You could use buttons, which are shown on some monuments, or buckles and leather straps, but I simply sewed D-rings on so it can lace up – this provides a nice overlap. Don’t forget a belt will be holding the middle together.
The sleeves are probably the most technically difficult part of the exercise. The important part is not to restrict arm movement, which requires the following:
1) There must be no- or minimal padding on the shoulder. If you stick you hand straight up in the air, you can see that from the neck to the top of the arm must be able to scrunch up without any significant bulk. Maybe a few layers of blanket under the leather, but no more.
2) The underside of the upper arm must also have no- or minimal padding, otherwise you will not be able to put your arm down by your side. Again, a few layers of blanket at most.
3) Your arm must be allowed to rotate freely in all directions. This means you must either have a roomy and flexible sleeve, padded with no more than layers of blanket, and/or attach it only to the top of the shoulder, leaving the armpit and back of the shoulder open and free. I stuffed the top of the upper arm properly, and left the rest padded with only blanket.
This, of course, leaves the shoulder virtually unprotected. The best way to deal with this is to attach a shoulder-plate of steel or thick leather (I used horse-blinkers). They should be attached only on one edge, close to the neck, so they hinge up when you stick your hand straight up.
In conclusion, this is the lightest and most effective amour I’ve ever come across, good for sword, rapier, longsword and quarterstaff, and well worth the effort involved in making it.