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The Scottish Castles Association
Preserving the Past for the Future

History lessons revealed by west highland grave slabs

A visitor to the west highlands of Scotland will note that a different kind of warrior is depicted on grave stones from that found elsewhere in the British Isles (apart from Northern Ireland).

Finlaggan MacDonalds
Finlaggan - caput of the MacDonalds in Islay

In the west highlands you won’t find a knight in chain mail or plate armour carved into the stones, but, instead, a warrior clad in what appears to be an antique form of protection – the aketon. This was a linen garment folded into ‘tubes’ and stuffed with rags – or even grass – to provide some protection against blows. It could be brightly coloured and even covered in pitch to make it waterproof.

Finlaggan cover Iona quilted
LEFT: Finlaggan - now under protective cover
RIGHT: Iona - note sword and quilted aketon

Over this could be worn a mail coat and the protection completed by a coif and conical helmet. Featured weapons are the spear and the sword but the multi-lobated pommel sword is unique to the western highlands though the downward pointing quillons are a common Scottish feature.

Inchmaholm priory
Inchmaholm Priory - a lowlands effigy for comparison
Finlaggan aketon Iona
LEFT: Finlaggan – a reconstructed aketon
RIGHT: Iona – a first-class example
Iona grave galley sword
LEFT: Iona - note galley on the shield
RIGHT: Iona - sword type depicted alongside a floriated cross

This sword betrays its Viking origins in its hilt – though none of them have survived. It is believed that the shield’s small size (see above) does not reflect the scale of the original.

This style of armour was still being worn in the 16th century when the rest of Europe had moved on – was it retardé? The short answer is no. In fact, this style of armour was ideal for the kind of warfare which took place in the west highlands – not set battles with armoured forces but flexible, fast, fluid encounters fought over heather and muir where plate would have been a distinct hinderance.

Article by Scottish Castles Association member Brian McGarrigle.

Date posted: 20 Aug 2017Last updated: 20 Aug 2017

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